Putin was searching for ‘the Russian idea’ and found fascism
Now in its fourth month, the war in Ukraine continues to rage with devastating destruction, unspeakable horrors and countless victims among civilian Ukrainians. Russia, too, has suffered catastrophic losses of troops and military equipment on a scale few had anticipated. Analysts are struggling with the question of how far Russian President Vladimir Putin will go, what his endgame likely will be, and what ultimately drives him. Clearly, no one can answer those questions with any certainty.
Russians called him “the black box” when Putin — pale, anonymous and until then unnoticeable — became Boris Yeltsin’s handpicked successor in August 1999. He is still opaque and hard to read. But speculation about who he is and what he stands for is peaking now that Putin has brought our world to the edge of World War III.
“Who is Mr. Putin?” journalist Trudy Rubin asked a panel of Russian political figures and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2000. The Russians looked sheepishly at each other, laughed coyly, and the answer hung in the air. It’s still hanging there.
Putin remains a puzzle despite an interview book about his life and career. Published a short time before the presidential election in 2000, it was meant to make him recognizable and electable. Yet, even after all his news conferences, speeches and interviews over the past 22 years, it’s still hard for Russians and foreigners alike to figure Putin out. A long list of books has been published, both in Russia and abroad, including one I wrote in 2014.
One person who evidently played a role in Putin’s evolution as a political leader was the nationalist and anti-communist philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, as Putin apparently was searching for his own version of “the Russian idea.” Ilyin’s importance has become even more obvious for understanding Putin, who apparently regarded him as a teacher and spiritual role model. With regard to Ukraine, for example, Ilyin considered the country to be nothing more than a Russian province. In this view, Ukraine does not possess a national, cultural or historical identity that is distinguishable from Russia. Putin himself has proclaimed that Ukraine does not exist.
Putin and his inner circle have reintroduced Ilyin as a genuine Russian thinker who defends basic Russian values, the rediscovered standard-bearer of Russian conservatism. Putin is considered by some supporters and his spin doctors as the lead figure of conservatism in Ilyin’s mold — not just in Russia, but globally.
Yet what we see is a laundered version of Ilyin. The newborn Ilyinists don’t mention that Ilyin, the father of Russian fascism, was considered to be an extremist in the history of Russian ideas and political philosophy. With a group of similarly minded philosophers, Ilyin was expelled by Soviet rulers around 1920 and spent the rest of his life in exile, primarily in Germany.
His nationalist views were not just expressed as his attraction to Nazism and fascism, but in undisguised tributes to the two ideologies. He described his position and worldview as “fascist monarchy.” He saw Russia as something exceptional, and the Russians as a nation standing above other peoples. He glorified their ability to carry heavy burdens, to suffer, and their willingness to sacrifice for their ideals and their leader. Ilyin supported national selection based on three fundamental values: God, the fatherland and the national leader.
He worked with and for Nazi institutions directly under Joseph Goebbel’s leadership. Ilyin never concealed with whom he sympathized, and even after the war, did not distance himself from Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini or any of his other fascist idols. He kept emphasizing the potential of fascism and his ideas about the national dictator. He condemned liberal democracy as something evil.
Putin has supported the repatriation of Ilyin’s archives, and the remains of Ilyin and his wife were brought back from Switzerland and reburied at a monastery in Moscow. Putin also was involved with including Ilyin’s work in a collection of like-minded Russian philosophers in several volumes that were given as a gift to the Russian power elite, so that everyone would know the winds that were blowing and how to align with them.
For years, Putin has diligently quoted Ilyin in articles and speeches; he did it recently in an indirect manner in his May 9 Victory Day speech, by referring to some of the czars and warriors Ilyin often mentioned in his works. Referencing a thinker of the past adds to Putin’s credibility, status and legitimacy — not the least when he launches a war against Ukraine that is based on lies about Nazis ruling the country and threatening Russia with invasion and war. The de-Nazification of Ukraine has become the battle cry of Putin and his supporters.
As a Nazi himself, Ilyin might have a problem with this. Putin does not advertise this piece of information. So, there’s a glitch in his philosophical logic. As it turns out, Putin may have some explaining to do. It’s not as urgent as the need for an explanation of the war against Ukraine — which already looks like the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of our times, unlike the breakup of the Soviet Union that Putin referred to as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Putin’s use of Ilyin’s views are some of many political and historical inconsistencies needing an explanation. But the black box does not provide an answer to that problem.
Samuel Rachlin is a Danish journalist and former Moscow correspondent for Danish Broadcasting (1980s) and TV2 Denmark (1998-2006). He is the author of “I, Putin: The Russian Spring and The Russian World.” Follow him on Twitter @samuelrachlin.