Putin as a reader

David Remnick writes about the trials and tribulations of the Russian scholar and former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul and about the evolution of Putin’s, hmmm, philosophy. I would recommend this long article to anyone, whether a novice or a sophisticated Russianist. I’m going to discuss a minor detail, peripheral perhaps to the puzzle of the tyrant’s thought process. According to Remnick,

An avid reader about tsarist Russia, Putin was forming a more coherent view of history and his place within it. More and more, he identified personally with the destiny of Russia. Even if he was not a genuine ideologue, he became an opportunistic one, quoting Ivan Ilyin, Konstantin Leontiev, Nikolai Berdyayev, and other conservative philosophers to give his own pronouncements a sense of continuity.

Leaving aside Leontiev, a 19th century thinker, I feel uneasy at the mention of Ilyin and Berdyayev in one breath as “conservative philosophers”. As far as their politics, both were anti-Communist, unsurprisingly as both were exiled from Russia for their views in 1922 on the same “philosophers’ steamboat”.

That’s where the similarity ends. Ilyin was a proponent of Mussolinian fascism even after 1945 and showed appreciation for National Socialism in the early years of Hitler’s dictatorship. Berdyayev’s philosophy of freedom and creativity never expressed itself in a coherent political ideal. He was critical of liberal democracies, or more specifically the French Third Republic, for not being conducive to human development, but as he deeply appreciated both Marx and de Maistre as moral thinkers, he did not find much to admire about the actual political regimes and movements of interwar Europe. At any rate, he was no supporter of Action Française or a similar “conservative” or “patriotic” movement.

What was Ilyin’s philosophy? Honestly, I don’t really know because I don’t have the requisite training in philosophy. All I know is that Ilyin received a law degree from the St. Petersburg University in 1906 and focused in his postgraduate studies, in Russia as well as Germany and France, on the philosophy of law. In 1918, he defended a well-received dissertation on Hegel and was granted a chair in his alma mater, although not in philosophy but in legal theory. From the age of 40, when he was expelled from Red Russia in 1922, until his death in 1954, Ilyin’s public persona was more of an ideologue than a philosopher.

Ilyin is sometimes called the principal ideologue of the émigré White movement; of a major faction within it, I would say. After WWII, he wrote articles that read like tedious instructions, e.g. on how to hold the first election in Russia after the fall of communism. His advice was sensible except for one detail: it would only work if Russia were occupied by anti-Communists much like Germany was occupied by the Allies. I wonder if Putin paid any attention to what Ilyin had to say about former security agents. Also, has Putin compared the quality of his Leningrad University law degree to Ilyin’s? Has he wondered what Ilyin meant by “honor” and how the KGB code of conduct measured up to that old-fashioned notion?

Some of Ilyin’s “practical” plans read like General Weyrother’s reading the Austerlitz battle disposition in War and Peace: “Die erste Kolonne marschiert… die zweite Kolonne marschiert… die dritte Kolonne marschiert…” (Kutuzov slept through the reading, to Weyrother’s relief.) As a cheap shot, I’ll mention that Ilyin’s mother was German. Berdyayev had French ancestry and looked parodically French in some photos.

But the principal difference is that Berdyayev was above all a thinker, not a politician or an ideologue.


  1. Putin’s quite highbrow in his tastes compared to some of the leading lights of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

    For all their professed contempt for the West, Strelkov and Co. seem to get a lot of their ideas from Hollywood. Strelkov’s conspiracy theory about the MH17 being full of corpses was straight from the TV series Lost.

    Now Strelkov’s deputy, Fyodor Berezin, has been taking his Matrix DVDs a bit too seriously, judging by a bizarre interview in Novaya Gazeta. He claims we are all just computer programmes and Strelkov may never have even existed.

    Back in 2009, Arsen Avakov, now the Ukrainian interior minister, chaired the “Star Bridge” International Science Fiction Festival in Kharkiv. He noticed that a lot of the new Russian novels in the military fantasy genre were about future conflicts in Ukraine, including Berezin’s Ukrainian Front, which sees a confrontation between Russia and NATO in the Donetsk and Luhansk area. This led him to ask, was Russia planning a war?

    Strelkov published a children’s novel last December, which could easily be seen as an allegory of the coming showdown between true Russian patriots and national traitors and Ukrainians.

    • ” Berezin’s Ukrainian Front, which sees a confrontation between Russia and NATO in the Donetsk and Luhansk area.” Is it some kind of the collective unconscious?

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