Ivan Ilyin, a White (tsarist) monarchist and opponent of communism banished from the Soviet Union, is often characterized as a major influence on Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s politics. This view, though best qualified, is nonetheless persuasive given how prominently Putin has cited and commemorated this dead writer. At the very least, striking parallels exist between the tsarist philosopher’s positions and the ones currently advanced by Moscow. This context warrants analysis and evaluation of the prolific pundit’s oeuvre.

Though Ilyin’s influence is disputed, he undoubtedly embodies much of the discordant amalgam of ideologies that serves to legitimate the current Russian regime. Historian Marlène Laruelle has suggested that her colleague Timothy Snyder, largely responsible for introducing Western audiences to Ilyin, overstates the latter’s significance in the Russian political scene. Partially rebutting Laruelle, however, political commentator Anton Barabashin reasonably objects that while Vladimir Putin may not be driven by “any sort of ideological or philosophical concept,” nonetheless the Russian leader’s “inner circle is predisposed to certain ideological paradigms, [including] the works of Ivan Ilyin.” The resurrected writer’s influence in the White circles of his own time was also great, as Philip T. Grier documents, and after the USSR’s disintegration, “awareness in Russia of his legacy […] began to grow rapidly.”

Also true is that much of Ilyin’s oeuvre is boring and banal, consisting of unoriginal articles penned for local European newspapers. To get the juicy parts, one ought to read the anthology of his essays titled Our Tasks; in those collections that compile the man’s entire output, one is swamped by superficial analyses of Cold War geopolitics and commentaries on events of the day which have long since lost their relevance. (Accordingly, quotes from Ilyin’s work in this article are taken from Our Tasks where no other source is provided. The translations are mine.) For someone usually designated as a philosopher, this émigré eminence seems to have been, to a much greater degree, a simple pundit with some distinctively radical opinions, many more unoriginal ones, and the written eloquence of a Paul Krugman.

Our Tasks, and Ilyin’s work in general, is the ideal complement to James Burnham’s The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom. Burnham’s thesis was that political theorists with a hard-nosed, practical view of governance and a disillusioned idea of human nature are on the side of liberty because they approach statesmanship pragmatically, free from grand ideological projects that so often justify oppression. The realists are exemplified by Machiavelli, the utopians, and fantasists by Dante (despite his authorship of “the most wonderful poem ever written”). Thus, while the “formal meaning” of Dante’s treatise on the necessity of a single world-unifying ruler, De Monarchia, is a specious cluster of pseudo-theology and pseudo-history, its “real meaning” is to provide a theoretical justification for the Holy Roman Empire to conquer the free city-states of Italy.

Ilyin’s portrayal of Russia’s monarchist history is eerily reminiscent of the vision Burnham negatively attributes to Dante, reaching poetic and spiritually tinged romanticization. The comparison is easily drawn. Ilyin’s authoritarian apologetics sound like this: “Europe does not know Russia[.] She never understood [Russia’s] Sovereigns [that is, tsars] either, the immensity of their task, their politics, the nobility of their intentions and the human limit of their possibilities…” Later, he asserts that “between the Russian Sovereigns and the Russian people there existed a spiritual-organic connection” and praises “[t]he sensitive giftedness of the Russian Sovereigns, who understood their service religiously and were inspired by faith in the Russian people, and especially by love for it.” Dante’s obsequiousness, as quoted by Burnham, exhibits a stunning tonal similarity to Ilyin’s: “O Italy! henceforth rejoice[,] because thy bridegroom, the solace of the world and the glory of thy people, the most clement Henry, Divus and Augustus and Caesar, is hastening to the bridal” (p.18).

As Burnham suspected of Dante, one cannot but infer ulterior motives behind an analysis of a whole group of different personalities that is as comprehensively uncritical, as with the White writer. Ilyin was perhaps no genius, but stupidity does not suffice to explain how he could have completely overlooked the bloody history of tsarist despotism, too thoroughly covered elsewhere to need further exposition here.

Reading Ilyin is a bizarre experience. While Soviet political texts are definitively dated by their country’s linguistic fingerprint and communist worldview, the extremist expatriate’s articles might as well have been published yesterday, so seamlessly could they blend in among today’s Putinist propaganda. The typical maneuvers are all there. We find the acknowledgment of Western perceptions of Russian autocracy and imperialism without engaging with them, as though mere awareness of the criticisms, conveyed with sarcastic language and scare quotes, amounted to a rebuttal. We encounter the conspiratorial cynicism when judging the Western countries’ motivations paired with starry-eyed, trusting reverence towards Russia’s history and rulers – the exception being, for Ilyin, the communists, whom he conveniently regards as essentially un-Russian. We even see the disregard for consistency, as Ilyin gripes about Western accusations of despotism in one breath while glorifying absolute monarchy in the next. He insists that Russia’s expansion into an immense empire has miraculously been achieved through exclusively defensive wars, then extols Catherine the Great, whose military exploits cannot be called defensive except by brutalizing the facts.

One divergence from the Kremlin’s current tall tales is Ilyin’s fearmongering about Germany. Time and again in Our Tasks, which went to print after World War II, he insists that Germany plans to invade Russia once more. A German attempt to do so, he claims, is inevitable if Germany be allowed to rearm. In his account, an independent Ukraine would be conquered by Germany and would then serve as a platform for a further invasion of Russia. A similar fate would befall “Latvians and Estonians” among “many other peoples” – who are supposedly keenly aware of this fact. Therefore, these nations must remain Russian subjects. This is the tyrant’s old trick of claiming that at least his tyranny protects you from someone else’s. Back then, when fear of Germany was still potent, it was a suitable boogeyman; nowadays, the Kremlin casts the United States in that role.

This overview has depicted Ilyin as a heinous intellectual, but also not a very able one. He certainly fails to measure up to the long-dead Western journalists who are still influential today: Bagehot, Lippmann, and Mencken. Why, then, has he been so immoderately elevated in today’s Russia? Ideological convenience is not a full explanation, as it leaves open the question why someone more competent was not promoted instead. Presumably, a major reason is that he simply fills certain niches: that of a writer from the Soviet period who was not himself a communist, and that of a monarchist intellectual. Ilyin consistently maintains that the quality of ideas produced by White émigrés is miserably low, and he is probably right, so much of his prominence is likely due to the competition’s even greater ineptitude. White figures also receive much credit simply for having stood against the Bolsheviks. Even Ayn Rand, who ordinarily would have abhorred them, presents the White Army in a shockingly positive light in her novel We the Living.

Nationalism in Ilyin

A nationalism of sorts is a recurrent theme in Ilyin’s writings. He certainly shows himself to be adept at instrumentalizing it to justify his imperialism. Thus, he contends:

Little Russia [that is, Ukraine] and Great Russia are bound together by faith, tribe [meaning, apparently, Slavic descent], historical destiny, geographic position, economy, culture, and politics. Foreigners preparing dismemberment [of Russia] must remember that they thereby declare centuries-long war on all of Russia.

Here, Ilyin presents himself as a nationalist. Yet the premise that peoples should be politically unified due to their mutual affinities seems, elsewhere, completely absent from his writing. Thus, any division of Russian dominions – which, of course, include territories and populations far different from Ukraine – is categorically rejected, and the right to self-determination is explicitly denied. This alone is incompatible with any typical form of nationalist ideology. Ilyin accuses proponents of federalization and the right to secede of wishing for Russia’s fragmentation and “minoritarian anarchy.” But as the failed Scottish independence referendum has shown – as though such an obvious reality required demonstration – national self-determination only entails chaos for a multi-ethnic state when its minority areas cannot stand to live under its rule. Ilyin’s fears of the mass secession of Russian territories therefore raises the question how benevolently they have been governed.

Ilyin’s nationalism consequently looks deeply hypocritical. Probably the best explanation is to see it as an example of what Benedict Anderson calls “official nationalism” – an awkward appropriation of the newly popular nationalist ideology by nineteenth-century empires intent on preserving their power. In this process, “a certain inventive legerdemain was required to permit the empire to appear attractive in national drag.” Of the Russian case, Anderson remarks:

In the aftermath of Napoleon’s invasion, Count Sergei Uvarov, in an official report of 1832, proposed that the realm should be based on the three principles of Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality[.] If the first two were old, the third was quite novel[.] For another half-century Czarism resisted [Uvarov’s] enticements (p.87).

Uvarov’s recommendation was fulfilled under Alexander III (during whose reign Ilyin was born), when “Russification became official dynastic policy” as a reaction against the nationalisms of minorities. It is this imperialist ersatz nationalism with which we are confronted in Ilyin.

Nationalism as we usually understand it, fused with the ideal of some form of popular sovereignty and national self-determination, appears never to have struck root in the Russian intellectual landscape as thoroughly as it did in the West. Sociologist Edward Shils has noted that the revolutionaries in Europe’s colonies often drew their ideologies of national liberation from the mental imagery of their colonizers. In other words, “this […] dominion – imperial and internal – inculcated moral, political, and intellectual standards for its own criticism” (p.280). This seems never to have occurred with Russian imperialism. National liberation movements in Europe’s African and Asian colonies were often built by intellectuals drawing on the education in literary classics and political philosophy they had obtained in schools run by the colonial government or Christian missionaries. Typical national liberation movements in the Russian Empire had to educate themselves. A perfect example is Kharkiv National University, founded in 1805, which “played an important role in the Ukrainian […] national awakening in the 19th century.” As historian Orest Subtelny notes, that institution was “the first university in Russian-ruled Ukraine” and, unlike imperial Russia’s other universities, was not established by the state. Rather, it was created at the initiative of, and bankrolled with moneys collected by, “a group of local gentrymen” (pp.223-224). In Lithuania, one of the main episodes that fortified the locals’ national consciousness was a Russian crackdown on intellectual products – specifically, texts in the Latin alphabet, which were often smuggled in across the border.

At other times, to argue against allowing Russia’s minorities to be independent, Ilyin writes in a quintessentially paternalist vein. Continued Russian sovereignty over those territories, he argues, is needed to preserve stability. One major problem with this idea is that it neglects the huge differences between the Russian Empire’s and USSR’s majority-minority territories. It does not do to pretend that Ukraine or the Baltics are at equal risk of instability as certain territories further east. Furthermore, the desire for independence is present in different parts of Russia to vastly varying degrees. The aforementioned neighboring countries, Ukraine and the Baltics, have been independent for over thirty years now, yet independence movements among most of Russia’s ethnic minorities remain negligible. More to the point, the argument simply does not hold up. Imperialists and their sympathizers love to assert, regarding both Russia and China, that these countries’ hegemonic status has increased stability in their regions and will do so in the future. But there is a difference between mere hegemony and imperial power, and insofar as these states function as empires, it is they who will consistently be the purveyors of violence and volatility in their regions. That is history’s real lesson. As historian Oleksandr Alfyorov says of Russia, “[empires] stay alive as long as they wage wars and conquer.” Aaron Friedberg voices a similar opinion of China: its policymakers “are attempting to make [the world] safe for authoritarianism.”

The anti-nationalist imperialism shading over into gawkish pseudo-nationalist ideology persists in the Russian government’s current propaganda efforts. As columnist Aris Roussinos details, Vladimir Putin has echoed the ideas of “Modernist” researchers of nationalism who portray nations as artificial constructs created by self-interested élites and intellectuals (Putin employs this paradigm specifically with regard to the Ukrainian nation). “The Modernist thesis on nationalism, and on the fraudulent novelty of the nation-state, is thus put to effective use for Russian imperialist purposes.” Ilyin, for his part, also called “Ukrainian separatism […] an artificial phenomenon [which] arose from the ambition of leaders and an international intrigue of conquest.” Russia’s White general and later émigré Anton Denikin similarly espoused a variant of the Modernist theory in his comments on Ukraine.

The Christian Angle

For Ilyin, Orthodox Christianity is a major part of Russian identity. Of course, he has a deeply idiosyncratic understanding of the faith. Clarity is not his forte, but Timothy Snyder has valiantly attempted a synthesis of some of his religious views, which he sums up thusly:

In the beginning, there was the Word, purity and perfection, and the Word was God. But then God made a youthful mistake. He created the world to complete Himself, but instead soiled Himself, and  hid in shame. Gods, not Adams, was the original sin, the release of the imperfect.

Such a vision exhibits strong parallels to gnosticism and other forms of esoteric religion, whose themes and attitudes have tended to be allied to history’s more hideous political movements.

Moreover, Orthodoxy has a clear sociopolitical role for Ilyin, which consists of furthering his agendas. Notably, the Orthodox church is to be allied to the monarchy, the object of much cheerleading in his work. In the essay On the Sovereign, for instance, Ilyin lets us know that “mutual counsel and mutual support create […] mutual freedom” for church and monarch. “Such was the ancient Orthodox tradition in the Rus’.” (Anticipating today’s Putinist ideologues, he does not write “Kievan Rus’,” for obvious reasons.) Obedience and the willingness to serve may be the two main virtues Ilyin credits the Orthodox faith with inculcating. All this dovetails with the Russian tradition of the church’s role as handmaiden to the state, an inextricable component of the tsarist system to which Ilyin desires to return. One is reminded of Samuel Huntington’s remark that, “in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar’s junior partner” (p.70). It should be noted that the pattern of this Gleichschaltung [fusing] of church and state reaches back to the genesis of Orthodoxy in Byzantium, where it was drawn at least in part from sources which were not Christian but pagan. As one scholar writes concerning Caesaropapism,

Byzantine political theory as such may be said to begin in the early fourth century with Eusebius of Caesarea, the ecclesiastical adviser of Constantine the Great. Eusebius based his theories on scripture and Christian tradition, as well as on a strong influence of Hellenistic ideas of kingship (Basileia) and the Roman “Caesaropapistic” idea of the emperor as Pontifex Maximus, highest priest (p.384).

Likewise, the tsarism Ilyin defends can only have an ambivalent relationship to the Christian religion. Those with eyes to see can find in Christianity solid foundations for the separation of powers and checks on rulers’ authority. This is manifest in the history of the Jansenist movement, which emphasized “original sin.” Because of this understanding of human nature as inherently limited, leading Jansenist thinker Pierre Nicole laid out an account of how people’s selfish drives could ensure a community’s wellbeing without “charity,” an account which not only anticipated Adam Smith’s economic teachings but may have informed them by way of early French economists. Equipped with that same sobriety about the essence of man, one would be hard-pressed not to regard Ilyin’s idolization of the tsars as the piffle it is.

We have noted Ilyin’s imperialist anti-nationalism, which is a fairly un-Christian position as well. In his pioneering history of nationalism, Hans Kohn traced a genealogy for the modern view of peoples as political actors. As Kohn noted, the Bible was a major inspiration for the rebirth of nationalism in Europe during the modern period, which was linked to the spread of popular sovereignty:

The attitude towards kingship and kingly power is one of the most characteristic traits of the Bible. Here the roots of later democracy can be found in the feeling of equality and common destiny of the whole people (p.27).

Discussing Ivan Ilyin nowadays means giving him far more attention than he deserves. On the other hand, if the implications of his rise to renewed popularity in post-communist Russia had been understood earlier, the danger posed by the Russian regime might have been recognized sooner.