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2 May, 2024 19:09

Anti-Communist, Russian nationalist, enemy of Hitler: Who was ‘Putin’s favorite philosopher’?

How Ivan Ilyin, a thinker falsely accused by some in the West – seeking to promote a certain narrative – of being a ‘supporter of fascism’, became so influential
Anti-Communist, Russian nationalist, enemy of Hitler: Who was ‘Putin’s favorite philosopher’?

He was a staunch supporter of the anti-Bolshevik White Movement during the Russian Civil War and a monarchist who was close to far-right Russian émigré circles. He was also a thinker who was accused of supporting fascism, but was persecuted by Nazi Germany as soon as Hitler came to power. Despite his an ardent anti-communism, he strongly supported the Soviet state in its confrontation with the Third Reich. All these facts describe one person – the renowned Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin. 

RT explores whether Ilyin really was a fascist, why his socio-political views can give us a better understanding of 21st century Russia, and how he apparently became the Russian president’s favorite philosopher. 

The symbolism of the times

“I want to end my speech with the words of a true patriot – Ivan Aleksandrovich Ilyin: ‘If I consider Russia my homeland, this means that I love, reflect, and think in Russian, I sing and speak in Russian; I believe in the spiritual strength of the Russian people and accept their historical fate with the strength of my instinct and will. Their spirit is my spirit; their fate is my fate; their suffering is my grief; their prosperity is my joy.’” With these words, President Vladimir Putin concluded his speech in the St. George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace at the ceremony marking the accession of four new regions to Russia in September 2022.

Moscow’s military confrontation with Kiev and the return of its historical territories are obviously highly significant for the modern Russian state. Therefore, the fact that Putin cited Ilyin on such an important occasion underlines the role that the Russian leader assigns to this philosopher. And indeed, there is ample reason for it. 

While Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – another great thinker admired by Putin – came from a simple peasant family, Ilyin came from a renowned aristocratic clan which had served the state for centuries. His ancestors included outstanding engineers who built the Grand Kremlin Palace, specialists who helped construct the railways, and the founders of one of the best technical schools in St. Petersburg. His father was baptized by Emperor Alexander II himself.

The future philosopher received a brilliant education. He was born in Moscow in 1883, graduated from the law faculty of Moscow University, and at the age of 26 became a privatdozent (an academic title which roughly corresponds to associate professor in the US or senior lecturer in the UK).

It seemed that his life would continue to revolve around university lecturing, studying Hegel’s philosophy and the history of the philosophy of law. But the Russian Revolution of 1917 changed everything.

Emigrating from one country to another

Incidentally, Ilyin, who was an aristocrat and later came to be a strong supporter of the state, initially saw the 1917 February Revolution in a positive light – he thought of it as the liberation of the people. However, he was quickly disappointed, and after the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, he said the revolution “turned into the self-interested plundering of the state.”

Ilyin did not change his mind about communism as long as he lived. Shortly before his death, he wrote“by its very nature, socialism is envious, totalitarian, and involves terrorism; and communism differs from it only in that it manifests these features openly, shamelessly, and ferociously.”

Because of his strong anti-communist views, Ilyin was thrice arrested by the Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police, known for its repressive and terrorist activity) in the year 1918 alone. Miraculously, his life was spared. In May 1918, between arrests, he even managed to defend his dissertation titled ‘Hegel’s philosophy as a doctrine of the concreteness of God and man’. This work turned out to be so successful that he was unanimously awarded both a master’s degree and a doctorate degree.

However, the Soviet government which had just come to power had no use for scholars. In 1922, Ilyin was arrested once again. The charge sheet stated that “from the time of the October revolution to the present, [he] has not come to terms with the existing Workers’ and Peasants’ Government in Russia, and has not ceased his anti-Soviet activities.” Along with 160 other renowned intellectuals, Ilyin was exiled from the country on the so-called ‘philosophical steamer’.

RT

This forced emigration allowed him to avoid further persecution in the USSR. Ilyin settled in Berlin, where he started teaching at the Russian Scientific Institute. This scientific and educational institution was established by Russian émigrés to study Russia’s spiritual and material culture and to encourage higher education among young people of Russian descent in Germany.

At the same time, Ilyin was in close contact with the Russian All-Military Union – an association of Russian White Movement military organizations. He soon became the informal main ideologue of the ‘White émigrés’. The ‘Whites’ were the national conservative forces who opposed the Bolsheviks, or the ‘Reds’, during the Russian Civil War. Although as befits a true philosopher, Ilyin did not join any party or association, his publications and philosophical writings had a huge impact on the Russian émigrés during the interwar period.

Ilyin and fascism 

Since Ilyin exerted enormous influence on the Russian socio-political philosophy of the time, it is impossible to ignore the most challenging and contradictory aspect of his biography and political views – his alleged support of fascism.

Such accusations are often put forward by the Russian opposition and Western researchers. For example, in 2016, Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder called Ilyin a “prophet of Russian fascism” and claimed that his ideas contribute to the supposed spread of fascism in Russia. And even some students of the Russian State University for the Humanities opposed the opening of the Ilyin Research Center because he was allegedly an admirer of Hitler. But what did Ilyin really think about fascism and the Austrian-born dictator?

In an article titled ‘On Fascism’, Ilyin wrote: “The mistakes [of fascism] consisted of the following: the absence of religion, the creation of right-wing totalitarianism, the establishment of party monopoly, extreme nationalism and militant chauvinism.” In other words, Ilyin criticized all the main principles of fascism – and in fact, of all the ultra-right hateful ideologies of the 20th century.

And he adds: “If they [i.e. Russian fascists] settle in Russia (God forbid this happens), they will compromise the state and all healthy ideas and will disgracefully fail.”

At the same time, as a scholar, Ilyin pointed out an obvious fact which has become widely accepted in modern political science: “Fascism arose as a reaction to Bolshevism, as a concentration of state-protective forces to the right.” Indeed, the ultra-right wave of fascism in Europe was a response to the surge of communist ideology in the aftermath of WWI. However, Ilyin quite rightly and accurately wrote, “In assessing it [fascism], calmness and justice are needed. But its dangers must be thought through to the end.”

In other words, even though he was an ardent anti-communist who professed national-conservative views, Ilyin’s position in regard to fascism was quite unambiguous. 

However, critics of the philosopher like to point out that he praised Hitler. Indeed, in the article ‘National Socialism’ published in 1933, Ilyin wrote, “What did Hitler do? He stopped the process of Bolshevization in Germany and in this way rendered the greatest service to the whole of Europe.”

Although from a modern-day perspective, these words sound extremely ambiguous, in 1933, things were quite different. Hitler came to power via elections (albeit the Nazis had failed to win a majority). From Ilyin’s point of view, in 1933, Hitler and Mussolini fought against the communist revolution. This was before Hitler’s brutal totalitarian regime, the Holocaust, and the concentration camps. At that time, the Nazi regime had not yet initiated WWII or committed brutal war crimes.

This is why it is difficult to condemn Ilyin for his position in 1933. Moreover, it soon turned out that the so-called ‘fascist’ philosopher had no place in Hitler’s Germany.

Hitler came to power in January 1933, and by April, Ilyin received a visit from the Gestapo. This was followed by several arrests and searches. A year later, in the spring of 1934, Ilyin, whom critics like to accuse of fascism, refused to participate in the anti-Semitic campaigns of the Nazis, and as a result lost his job. 

Ilyin tried to earn a living working as a part-time lecturer, but with each year, the situation in the Third Reich became worse. He was once again called up by the Gestapo after his public speeches were declared unacceptable since they didn’t include anti-Semitic statements and promoted Christian values. The philosopher also refused to participate in Germany’s ideological preparations for the military campaign against Russia. Realizing that it was dangerous for him to remain in Hitler’s Germany, Ilyin emigrated to Switzerland in 1938.

War changes everything 

Ilyin was able to settle in Switzerland thanks to the efforts and financial support of the great Russian composer Sergey Rachmaninoff. The philosopher settled near Zurich and lived in the mountains for the rest of his life. His authority among the Russian diaspora remained unshakeable, and for good reason. 

Ilyin’s love for Russia and the Russian people turned out to be greater than his hatred of communism. In July 1941, a few weeks after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, he wrote about the awakened “instinct of national self-preservation” in Russian people, noting that the people “are actively involved in the new war,” and Russian soldiers “not only fight bravely, but in many cases, even when the situation is hopeless, fight to the last bullet.” From the first days of the war, his support for the USSR and his confidence that Germany would be defeated were unshakeable.

In an article titled ‘Germany is Russia’s main national enemy’, he noted that at the heart of Nazi Germany’s pathological desire to march East was the idea to exterminate the Russian people and dismember the country. The philosopher directly called Hitler’s Germany “Russia’s main national enemy.”

RT

In another article, ‘September 1941’, Ilyin once again stated that there is nothing more important for him than the fate of Russia. “All the talk about this war being a ‘crusade’ against communism, as the invaders say, is false and stupid – those who propagandize it utter falsehoods, and those who believe them are stupid. This war is not waged against the communists, for the sake of their ‘ideological defeat’, but against Russia.”

Ilyin unconditionally hated Nazi Germany which dared to attack the USSR and, in a sense, came to regard communism in a new light. He still despised the Soviet government and the Stalinist regime, and considered Stalin an enemy of Russia and the Russian people, but at the same time, he recognized that during WWII, this regime was an organizing force of resistance against the aggressor.

Although he remained a strong opponent of communism to the end of his days and regarded the Soviet government as an absolute evil for Russia, during WWII, Ilyin strongly supported his homeland in the confrontation with Nazi Germany. 

Transforming Russia 

Ilyin did not lose hope of returning home sooner or later, but as an émigré, all he could do was construct projects for the future transformation of Russia. However, these projects were not mere fantasies.

The philosopher wanted to transform the country and the Russian people primarily on the internal, moral level. Believing that the Bolsheviks had destroyed historical Russia, he wrote that “Russia can be restored only by serving it faithfully and substantively, which must be felt and understood as serving the Cause of God on earth. We must be guided by religiously meaningful patriotism and religiously inspired nationalism.”

Ilyin’s nationalism was not about extending his right hand in a Roman salute. On the contrary, for him, “true nationalism opens a person’s eyes to the national identity of other peoples: it teaches one not to despise other peoples, but to honor their spiritual achievements and their national feeling, because they too have received the gifts of God, and they put them to use in their own way, according to their ability.”

For Ilyin, the great Russian nation was an imperial project – the alliance of the Russian people with the other peoples of Russia.

“Imperial project” was not merely a figure of speech for Ilyin. His ideal was the Russian Empire of the past – a great and strong Russia which stood alongside other European powers but had its own special mission. He saw Russia as a country that maintains balance in the world and does not allow it to fall into extremes or aggression. 

Despite being accused of ‘fascism’, Ilyin wasn’t radical-minded. He was a moderate monarchist who did not fall into extremes. He was a nationalist, but felt no aggression or hatred towards other nations. Christianity was very important for him, yet Ilyin did not harshly criticize the secular state. While he was a strong supporter of Russian nationalism, Ilyin was also open to dialogue, he valued freedom and criticized the Bolsheviks for establishing a dictatorship. 

Ilyin’s only mistake was the sincere hope that Western democracies could save Russia from communism, that they would not identify Russia with communism and would not want Russia to be humiliated and dismembered. But history turned out to be different. 

Ilyin dreamed of a strong, national-minded, free, capitalist Russia. “Whoever loves Russia must wish it freedom; first of all, freedom for Russia itself, its international independence and freedom; [then] freedom for Russia as the unity of Russian and all other national cultures; and, finally, freedom for Russian people, freedom for all of us; freedom of faith, [freedom in] the search for truth, creativity, labor, and the possession of property,” he wrote

The Ukraine issue 

One of the key issues for Ilyin – and one which remains relevant to this day – was the Ukraine issue. “Ukraine is recognized as the most endangered part of Russia in terms of secession and conquest. Ukrainian separatism is an artificial phenomenon, it has no real grounds. It arose because of the ambition of leaders and international conquest intrigues,” Ilyin wrote

RT

He added that by separating from Russia, the Ukrainian state would break off its ties with the Russian people and give itself over to foreigners who will conquer and plunder it. 

The philosopher wrote about the fate of ‘independent Ukraine’ with amazing foresight. “This ‘state’ will first of all have to create a new defense line from Ovruch to Kursk and then through Kharkov to Bakhmut and Mariupol.” He added that due to its lack of geopolitical power and strategic depth, Ukraine would either become an organic part of Russia or a battering ram used against Russia.

At the same time, Ilyin understood that the problem did not arise in Ukraine itself, but was created by those who stood behind Ukraine. Like Solzhenitsyn, Ilyin wrote that the main sponsor of Ukrainian separatism was Germany, which would take revenge for losing the First and Second World Wars. He added that “foreigners who plan to dismember [Ukraine] should remember that they declare eternal war on the whole of Russia. The country that is responsible for this dismemberment will become Russia’s most hated enemy.”

It is naive to think that both Ilyin and Solzhenitsyn were mystical prophets. Rather, the accuracy of their forecasts regarding both Ukraine and those who encouraged Ukrainian separatism was based on a profound understanding of the world and the actions of a nationally-oriented Russia.

Ilyin in 21st-century Russia

Ivan Ilyin died in Switzerland in 1954, and never had a chance to return to his homeland. “There is something unacceptable about the fact that a Russian philosopher and patriot rests in a cemetery in Zollikon [Switzerland],” Ilyin’s widow wrote to her friends in the 1950s. While in the Soviet years there was no question of reburying the philosopher in his homeland, in modern Russia, this became possible.

In 2005, the remains of Ilyin and his wife, along with those of White Movement General Anton Denikin, were returned to Russia. He was reburied at the Donskoy Monastery cemetery. Russian leaders and government and church officials, including Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and then Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov attended the reburial, and President Putin installed a tombstone at his own expense. However, Ilyin’s role in modern Russia is not limited to the symbolic transfer of the philosopher’s remains back home. 

In 2006, Kommersant wrote that officials in the presidential administration particularly revere Ilyin. “Ivan Ilyin is not only one of the most brilliant Russian thinkers whose works have been extensively reprinted, but also, in fact, the only Russian philosopher who wrote about the post-Soviet system. That is why he is so relevant for the current government,” the newspaper quoted an unnamed source in the Putin administration as saying. 

Throughout his presidency, Putin himself has often quoted the philosopher, and said he regularly reads his works. Former President Dmitry Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow have also quoted or mentioned Ilyin. Despite his party affiliation, even the head of the Russian Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, noted that Ilyin made “a considerable contribution to the development of the ideology of state patriotism.”

Ilyin’s writings have long been part of Russia’s political mainstream. 

Ilyin’s mother was an ethnic German and German was his second native language – so the philosopher could have easily assimilated into the Western European environment after being expelled from the USSR. Due to his hatred of the communist regime in Russia, he could have also become a supporter of Hitler and justified Nazi Germany’s attack on the USSR. But none of that happened.

Ilyin is the embodiment of a patriot with an indomitable spirit. A man who never sought compromise with the enemies of Russia and the Russian people, he avoided all temptations in this respect and even sacrificed his own comfort for the sake of his values. 

He fervently clung to his Russian identity and to the idea of reviving Russia. And many decades after Ilyin’s passing, we may confidently say that his life’s work lives on. National revival is taking place in Russia and everything that Ilyin stood for, including his vision of a strong and national-minded Russia, is gradually becoming a reality. 

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