An Introduction to Ivan Ilyin, the Philosopher Behind the Authoritarianism of Putin’s Russia & Western Far Right Movements

Fas­cism had been creep­ing back into Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for many years before the word regained its cur­ren­cy in main­stream dis­course as an alarm­ing descrip­tion of present trends. In 2004, his­to­ri­an Enzo Tra­ver­so wrote of the “unset­tling phe­nom­e­non” of “the rise of fas­cist-inspired polit­i­cal move­ments in the Euro­pean are­na (from France to Italy, from Bel­gium to Aus­tria).” Many of those far-right move­ments have come very close to win­ning pow­er, as in Aus­tria and France’s recent elec­tions, or have done so, as in Italy’s.

And while the sud­den rise of the far right came as a shock to many in the US, polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors fre­quent­ly point out that the ero­sion of demo­c­ra­t­ic civ­il rights and lib­er­ties has been a decades-long project, coin­cid­ing with the finan­cial­iza­tion of the econ­o­my, the pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic goods and ser­vices, the rise of the mass sur­veil­lance state, and the extra­or­di­nary war pow­ers assumed, and nev­er relin­quished, by the exec­u­tive after 9/11, cre­at­ing a per­ma­nent state of excep­tion and weak­en­ing checks on pres­i­den­tial pow­er.

This is not even to men­tion the auto­crat­ic regimes of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which are tied to oth­er anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ments across the West not only geopo­lit­i­cal­ly but also philo­soph­i­cal­ly, a sub­ject that gets far less press than it deserves. When analy­sis of the philo­soph­i­cal under­pin­nings of neo-fas­cism comes up, it often focus­es on Russ­ian aca­d­e­m­ic Alexan­der Dug­in, “who has been called,” notes Salon’s Conor Lynch, “every­thing from ‘Putin’s brain’ to ‘Putin’s Rasputin.’” (Bloomberg calls Dug­in “the one Russ­ian link­ing Putin, Erdo­gon and Trump.”)

Dugin’s fusion of Hei­deg­ger­ian post­mod­ernism and apoc­a­lyp­tic mys­ti­cism plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in the ide­ol­o­gy of the glob­al­ized far right. But Yale his­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der—who has writ­ten exten­sive­ly on both Sovi­et Rus­sia and Nazi Germany—points to an ear­li­er Russ­ian thinker whom he says exer­cis­es con­sid­er­able influ­ence on the ide­ol­o­gy of Vladimir Putin, the fas­cist philoso­pher Ivan Ilyin.

Anton Bar­bashin and Han­nah Thoburn called Ilyin “Putin’s philoso­pher” in a For­eign Affairs pro­file. Ilyin was “a pub­li­cist, a con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist, and a Russ­ian nation­al­ist with a core of fascis­tic lean­ings.” David Brooks iden­ti­fied Ilyin as one of a trio of nation­al­ist philoso­phers Putin quotes and rec­om­mends. Sny­der defines Ilyin’s phi­los­o­phy as explic­it­ly “Russ­ian Chris­t­ian fas­cism,” describ­ing at the New York Review of Books the Russ­ian thinker’s pro­lif­ic writ­ing before and after the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, a hodge­podge of Ger­man ide­al­ism, psy­cho­analy­sis, Ital­ian fas­cism, and Chris­tian­i­ty.

In brief, Ilyin’s the­o­ret­i­cal works argued that “the world was cor­rupt; it need­ed redemp­tion from a nation capa­ble of total pol­i­tics; that nation was unsoiled Rus­sia.” Ilyin’s, and Putin’s, Russ­ian nation­al­ism has had a para­dox­i­cal­ly glob­al appeal among a wide swath of far right polit­i­cal par­ties and move­ments across the West, as Sny­der writes in his lat­est book The Road to Unfree­dom: Rus­sia, Europe, Amer­i­ca. “What these ways of think­ing have in com­mon,” write The Econ­o­mist in their review of Sny­der’s book, “is a qua­si-mys­ti­cal belief in the des­tiny of nations and rulers, which sets aside the need to observe laws or pro­ce­dures, or grap­ple with phys­i­cal real­i­ties.”

Sny­der sum­ma­rizes Ilyin’s ideas in the Big Think video above in ways that make clear how his thought appeals to far right move­ments across nation­al bor­ders. Ilyin, he says, is “prob­a­bly the most impor­tant exam­ple of how old ideas”—the fas­cism of the 20s, 30s, and 40s—“can be brought back in the 21st cen­tu­ry for a post­mod­ern con­text.” Those ideas can be sum­ma­rized in three the­ses, says Sny­der, the first hav­ing to do with the con­ser­v­a­tive reifi­ca­tion of social hier­ar­chies. “Social advance­ment was impos­si­ble because the polit­i­cal sys­tem, the social sys­tem, is like a body… you have a place in this body. Free­dom means know­ing your place.”

“A sec­ond idea,” says Sny­der, relates to vot­ing as a rat­i­fi­ca­tion, rather than elec­tion, of the leader. “Democ­ra­cy is a rit­u­al…. We only vote in order to affirm our col­lec­tive sup­port for our leader. The leader’s not legit­i­mat­ed by our votes or cho­sen by our votes.” The leader, instead, emerges “from some oth­er place.… In fas­cism the leader is some kind of hero, who emerges from myth.” The third idea might imme­di­ate­ly remind US read­ers of Karl Rove’s dis­missal of the “real­i­ty-based com­mu­ni­ty,” a chill­ing augur of the fact-free real­i­ty of today’s pol­i­tics.

Ilyin thought that “the fac­tu­al world doesn’t count. It’s not real.” In a restate­ment of gnos­tic the­ol­o­gy, he believed that “God cre­at­ed the world but that was a mis­take. The world was a kind of abort­ed process,” because it lacks coher­ence and uni­ty. The world of observ­able facts was, to him, “hor­ri­fy­ing…. Those facts are dis­gust­ing and of no val­ue what­so­ev­er.” These three ideas, Sny­der argues, under­pin Putin’s rule. They also define Amer­i­can polit­i­cal life under Trump, he con­cludes in his New York Review of Books essay.

Ilyin “made of law­less­ness a virtue so pure as to be invis­i­ble,” Sny­der writes, “and so absolute as to demand the destruc­tion of the West. He shows us how frag­ile mas­culin­i­ty gen­er­ates ene­mies, how per­vert­ed Chris­tian­i­ty rejects Jesus, how eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty imi­tates inno­cence, and how fas­cist ideas flow into the post­mod­ern. This is no longer just Russ­ian phi­los­o­phy. It is now Amer­i­can life.” There are more than enough home­grown sources for Amer­i­can author­i­tar­i­an­ism and inequal­i­ty, one can argue. But Sny­der makes a com­pelling case for the obscure Russ­ian thinker as an indi­rect, and insid­i­ous, influ­ence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

20 Lessons from the 20th Cen­tu­ry About How to Defend Democ­ra­cy from Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, Accord­ing to Yale His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

George Orwell’s Final Warn­ing: Don’t Let This Night­mare Sit­u­a­tion Hap­pen. It Depends on You!

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Saut Situmorang says:

    On the “Yale his­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der” please read this essay > Tim­o­thy Snyder’s Lies

  • Gerald says:

    The great­est threat to indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty, as shown time and again through­out his­to­ry, is the expan­sion of gov­ern­ment pow­er. It is large­ly irrel­e­vant as to whether such growth orig­i­nates from the right or left of the polit­i­cal spec­trum. If Amer­i­cans are inter­est­ed in main­tain­ing their per­son­al lib­er­ty, they would do well to assure that gov­ern­ment remains small and lim­it­ed.

  • reason says:

    No, the great­est threat is CONCENTRATED pow­er. Does­n’t mat­ter if it is from gov­ern­ment, or reli­gion, or pri­vate com­mer­cial orga­ni­za­tions.

  • Phillip.reid says:

    The chaos and death these dic­ta­tors leave while try­ing to refresh a soci­etal belief is not acceptable…Putin like all dic­ta­tors will fade.away in a sheet of vapor­ized blood that he created.…it is sad that so many inno­cent peo­ple have died because of putin.…the world has to deal with putin.….and they will.…

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