Read Ivan Ilyin to Understand Modern Russia

During the actual Cold War with international socialism, the academic establishment and leftist celebrities alike mocked the ordinary man’s fear of Communism, and urged us all to try to find common ground with the USSR. Now matters are quite different. Disingenuously or no, post-Communist Russia purports to be a champion of Christianity and traditional values, and its acceptance of this mantle has led liberals to regard it with what might rightly be called a phobia—a pathological fear and hatred for something that has been deemed the Other. At times it seems as if the Russians must have all along been behind everything that upsets liberals, from the election of President Trump to the Brexit vote to the cancellation of Friends.

Anyone serious about understanding modern Russia will pay less attention to NPR and more attention to the legacy of Russian conservatism, which in turn means considering the writer Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954). A philosopher who has influenced Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and a host of lesser-known players in Eurasian politics, Ilyin started out steeped in Western philosophy, but is now more associated with his work as an advocate of his native political traditions during the waning of the tsarist regime and the rise of the USSR. From his experiences came an Orthodox vision of national identity that seems today tailor-made to suit Russia’s emerging status as the world’s foremost counter-globalist power. Unsurprisingly, the Putin regime has arranged for the return of Ilyin’s body to his native land, and Ilyin’s work has been placed on a de facto reading list for leading members of the United Russia party.

It should also come as no surprise that Western democrats often find Ilyin a sinister figure. Ilyin was critical of Western-style democracy, emphasizing instead the importance of a strong government in accord with Russia’s autocratic heritage. Nor did he believe in religious freedom as most Westerners understand the term, instead arguing that its unique role in the forming of Russian society entitled the Orthodox Church to a permanent, special position in Russian life. And to tell the truth, Ilyin was nearly as hostile toward the Western bourgeois as he was toward Bolsheviks, for in his judgment Bolshevism was the natural consequence of a bourgeois order.

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Safety and comfort had always been the true ideals of liberal democratic states, he insisted, and as a result “noble motives (religious, moral, patriotic, and spiritual) weakened and withered in human souls,” making room for “ridiculous, evil, perverse and avaricious plans advanced by totalitarian demagogues of the Left and Right.” The rise of a class of professional liars—unscrupulous journalists and lawyers—went hand-in-hand with a massive program of de-Christianization, he claimed, and quite aside from the eternal spiritual damage wrought, the sociopolitical consequence would be that the law of the land would lose its sanctity. Sooner or later the materialist perspective of the bourgeois class leads to violence and anarchy, concluded Ilyin, just as the Enlightenment’s “denial of a personal devil is gradually replaced by the justification of the diabolic principle.”

When considering Ilyin’s perspective, it is worth remembering that his traumatic experiences in early twentieth-century Russia inform his outlook. Prior to his voyage on the so-called “Philosopher’s ship”—a vessel upon which hundreds of dissident thinkers were loaded for exile to the West—Ilyin was subject to rigorous questioning by the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. Naturally his preoccupations were not ours, and if he sometimes erred on the side of conservatism, such skepticism about innovation was only human.

He had, after all, seen firsthand how

the [Bolshevik] Revolution flooded into the entire country [of Russia] and sank, both in quality and intensity, to the very bottom. All of Russian culture, all Russian people, and all the land were made to stand face to face with revolutionary possession: with the blasphemy of the godless, the assault of bandits, the shamelessness of the madman, the attempts at murder. All of us had to look into the eyes of Satan, tempting us with his latest seductions and frightening us with his newest terrors.

When he was exiled from Russia by the Communists in 1922, Ilyin took refuge for a time in an increasingly Nazi-dominated Germany, and thanks to his impeccable anti-Communist credentials was even granted a post by the German government. Yet we should keep in mind a fact that those hostile to Ilyin generally gloss over, or try to explain away: He was eventually deemed uncooperative by Propaganda Minister Goebbels, dismissed from his post, and in 1938 compelled to leave Germany altogether and live out the remainder of his life in Switzerland. Later he would describe Nazis as those who had “walked the path of Anti-Christ.” Whether or not we agree with Ilyin in blaming Nietzsche for the tragedy of modern Germany, the Russian’s writings make clear that he came to earnestly and heartily detest the impious German atheist’s theories.

Indeed, to Ilyin, Nazism was merely another variant of Bolshevist barbarism. As an alternative to both the deracinated internationalism of Marxists and the jingoistic imperialism of the Nazis, Ilyin tried to develop a third kind of politics rooted in the traditional virtue of patriotism:

A love for one’s own nation does not inevitably imply hatred for other peoples, as self-assertion is not synonymous with a sure attack, and defense of what is one’s own does not mean expropriation of what is not. This makes nationalism and patriotism manifestations of an elevated spirit, rather than waves of self-conceit, egotism and bloody barbarism, as some of today’s journalists, who do not remember their forefathers and have squandered their national spirit, attempt to explain it.

Like another fervent patriot, Dostoevsky, Ilyin believed that the dementedness of modern Russia was foreign in origin:

The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia… Having lost our bond with God and the Christian Tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism… In order to overcome the global moral crisis, we have to return to eternal moral values, that is faith, love, freedom, conscience, family, motherland and nation, but above all faith and love.

To say that Ilyin wholly rejected the ideals of Western modernity would not be quite accurate, however. Given his suspicion of the Enlightenment and the extent to which autocracy undergirds the political tradition from which he worked, it is rather striking to see how much weight Ilyin accords to the dignity of the individual and “legal consciousness”—i.e. respect for law as the basis for the rights of citizens. In his analysis of Russian conservatism and its influence on the Russian government today, Paul Robinson of the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs notes that Ilyin’s theory of government hinges upon “a limited, law-based, and accountable dictatorship,” one whereby a sovereign state is “powerful, unified, and free from the influence of foreign powers,” yet “does not seek to control every aspect of life.”

According to Ilyin, a strong authority is in part justifiable as the necessary precondition for the meaningful possession and use of individual freedoms. So in the end it would be as simpleminded to condemn him as a totalitarian as it would be to believe his theories are without their shortcomings and inconsistencies. Too, the extent to which Ilyin’s thought serves as an Eastern Orthodox locus in a new multipolar world—as opposed to being mere ideological window-dressing—remains to be seen. Yet one thing is certain: Unless and until Western elites extend to Ilyin some of the sympathy and open-mindedness they have heretofore reserved for the Prophet Muhammad and the Castro family, they will be unable to offer intelligent and worthwhile criticism about the doings of Moscow.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Portrait of Ivan Ilyin” painted by Mikhail Nesterov in 1922.


  • Jerry D. Salyer

    Jerry D. Salyer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Miami University and a Master of Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College, Annapolis. A veteran of the US Navy, Mr. Salyer now works as an educator and as a freelance writer.

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