Distorting Putin’s Favorite Philosophers

Amid the endless demonization of Russian President Putin, David Brooks and other upscale U.S. pundits have taken to misrepresenting the views of several Russian philosophers whom Putin is known to admire, apparently following the theory that whatever Putin likes must be evil, as Paul R. Grenier explains.

By Paul R. Grenier

What started the new Cold War? According to the State Department, it was Russia’s illegal violation of Ukraine’s sovereign borders. The Kremlin, for its part, insists it was a U.S.-facilitated coup in Ukraine which destroyed the constitutional order there, causing chaos and dangers to Russian security to which Russia had no choice but to respond.

According to academic foreign policy “realists,” the cause was the imminent threat of Ukraine’s integration into an ever-expanding military pact dominated by the United States. According to George Friedman, president of Statfor, the private strategic intelligence firm, the Ukraine crisis itself is more effect than cause: the conflict started in 2013 when the United States decided Russia’s increasing power was becoming a threat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin taking the presidential oath at his third inauguration ceremony  on May 7, 2012. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin taking the presidential oath at his third inauguration ceremony on May 7, 2012. (Russian government photo)

And according to Kiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin created the whole crisis. He invented the threat of Ukrainian so-called “fascism” and was motivated throughout by a combination of imperial ambition coupled with a fear of democracy.

It is not my present goal to try to adjudicate among the above claims. Despite their obvious differences, they also all share a common trait: none provide any clear direction for how to get out of this mess. It’s time to approach it from a completely different angle.

When the first Cold War ended, Francis Fukuyama explained, more in sadness than in triumph, that the United States’ model of liberal democratic capitalism had won and that this was why “history” the struggle to find the correct answer to the political question regarding the optimal form of society had ended.

What had won, in fact, was a set of answers to such key questions of political life as the origin and purpose of the state; what it means to be human; what it is that all humans do, or should, strive for.  The classic sources of the specifically American answers to these questions are well known: they are the sources of liberal political thought as such..

Here is another thing well known to the point of being cliché: since 2001, the end of history thesis has been repeatedly challenged by events. In point of fact, Fukuyama’s thesis cannot be challenged by mere events, because he never said that unpleasantness would cease to be part of the human experience. He said that humans were unlikely to come up with a more effective and attractive compromise solution to the key political questions than the rather dull set of answers that make up the liberal, democratic capitalist world.

To those who point out that ISIS has disproven his “end of history” thesis, Fukuyama could with good reason reply: “Well, if you find that sort of thing attractive, you may accept my congratulations.”

But I am writing neither to defend nor to attack Fukuyama. I am simply suggesting that we are doing ourselves no favor by ignoring all answers to the political question that differ from liberal orthodoxy. There may be in liberalism and democracy and capitalism much that is correct, but there is every reason to suspect that we have not yet discovered the final truth about either human beings or political man.

Fukuyama himself offered his own critique: his skepticism about the human material is what made him set his sights so low. It is not necessarily a criticism of Fukuyama to point out that there are many in the world today who aspire to something besides our world of comfortable autonomy and the possession of rights in the purely Lockean sense.

Among those who so aspire are many in the Slavic world, with its roots in Eastern Orthodox Christianity; or the Chinese sphere, with its Confucian heritage which is just beginning to awaken; and of course the Middle East. And that is just to name the groups the United States has identified as in dire need of a makeover.

Diversity and Liberalism

The West, and specifically the United States, has before it a fateful choice: should it seek a “live and let live” co-existence of the liberal and non-liberal nations of the world, or should it try to make the rest of the world liberal at gunpoint, and in that way prove that history really has finally ended? Should we make the world safe for diversity, or should we make the world uniform for the safety of the United States?

In the Middle East the choice has already been made. It is to be made liberal and democratic at gunpoint. The enormous difficulties this has presented has convinced the American party of war, which appears to be in the majority, that it is time to double down and try harder, not only in the Middle East, but now in the Slavic world as well.

This raises a crucial question about diversity and difference. What is it that makes a nation itself and not something else? Is it the presence of borders? Is it running one’s own elections using one’s own manpower? Clearly, it is neither of these things, nor anything like them.

To be one’s own nation, to continue to exist in fact, means exactly to continue to realize over time one’s national idea, that is to say, as Ernst Renan put it (Qu’est qu’une nation?, 1882, as quoted by Hannah Arendt) “to preserve worthily the undivided inheritance which has been handed down.”

That nations frequently borrow cultural content from others is undeniable, and often laudable. But it is crucially important, as American historian William Appleman Williams once noted, who makes the choice of those borrowings. Are they adapted freely from the inside, or are they forcefully imposed? The failure to understand this latter distinction is what keeps bringing about The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (also the title of Williams’s book).

When nations fully share the American liberal world view, these separate nations become, in a certain sense, no longer fully “separate.” This is by no means necessarily a bad thing. The nations of northern Europe do not suffer for the most part from their close alliance with the United States, including in the cultural sense.

But here’s the six trillion dollar question: is the United States willing to countenance the existence, on a permanent basis, of other great powers that do not accept liberal civilizational values as America defines them? I say other “great powers” because in the long run only a great power, or a protectorate of a great power, can assure its own continued existence.

The non-liberal status of Russia has been presented recently as a dire threat to the security of both America and the world. In support of this storyline, the Russian president has been associated with thinkers from Russia’s past who are, supposedly, the source of a fanaticism that justifies speaking of Vladimir Putin and Russia (the two are melded together in the endlessly-repeated “Putin’s Russia”) in the same breath as ISIS.

But the ideas of this non- or not-entirely-liberal Russia are by no means all dangerous. To the contrary, they offer a fruitful avenue for rethinking some of our most cherished assumptions about the nature of politics and the nature of the international order.

Then and Now

When communism was abandoned in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became apparent to thoughtful Russians and outsiders alike that a new concept of the state, a new concept of man, and a new public philosophy would have to be created.

It was then, and remains today, an open question whether the new Russian identity would end up being an import from the West, something from the native vault of pre-Communist philosophical thinking, or perhaps a combination of the two.

As might be expected from the country that brought the world Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, when it comes to philosophy, Russia has got a deep bench.

In the months immediately following the February 2014 change of power in Kiev, and the resulting growing tension between Washington and Moscow, three Russian philosophers, only two of them widely known outside of Russia, came to be increasingly associated with the name of Vladimir Putin. The subsequent interpretation of these philosophers on the pages of several of America’s most influential newspapers deserves to be considered in detail.

Maria Snegovaya, a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University, initiated the discussion with a March 2, 2014 article in the Washington Post. Putin’s “pro-Soviet worldview,” Snegovaya wrote, is poorly understood:

“To get a grasp one needs to check what Putin’s preferred readings are. Putin’s favorites include a bunch of Russian nationalist philosophers of early 20th century Berdyaev, Solovyev, Ilyin, whom he often quotes in his public speeches. Moreover, recently the Kremlin has specifically assigned Russia’s regional governors to read the works by these philosophers during 2014 winter holidays. The main message of these authors is Russia’s messianic role in world history, preservation and restoration of Russia’s historical borders and Orthodoxy.”

Mark Galeotti, writing in Foreign Policy (“Putin’s Empire of the Mind,” April 21, 2014) also found fault with these same three philosophers. “These three, whom Putin often cites,” Galeotti writes, “exemplify and justify [Putin’s] belief in Russia’s singular place in history. They romanticize the necessity of obedience to the strong ruler, whether managing the boyars or defending the people from cultural corruption, and the role of the Orthodox Church in defending the Russian soul and ideal.”

Finally, David Brooks, writing for the New York Times (“Putin Can’t Stop,” March 3, 2014), likewise expressed alarm about the influence of Solovyov, Berdyaev and Il’in. “Putin doesn’t only quote these guys; he wants others to read them,” Brooks wrote. Three main ideas unify Solovyov, Il’in and Berdyaev’s work, Brooks wrote:

“The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.”

Under the influence of these “guys,” Brooks continues, “The tiger of quasi-religious nationalism, which Putin has been riding, may now take control. That would make it very hard for Putin to stop in this conflict where rational calculus would tell him to stop.” Brooks concludes that Russia can no longer be considered a “normal” regime and “a Huntingtonian conflict of civilizations with Russia” may be the result.

Analyzing the Analysts

What are we to make of these analyses, all of them published in authoritative U.S. periodicals?

One thing is certain. These assessments represent an enormous and surprising reversal in the viewpoint of educated opinion in the West, particularly as regards Solovyov and Berdyaev (with Il’in, as already noted, being much less well known).

Up until these articles in March-April of 2014, I do not recall reading a single negative assessment of either of these Russian thinkers, at least not among Western specialists, nor a single one accusing them of being hostile to the West, nor a single one suggesting that they are friendly to Russian chauvinism or nationalism.

In Russian Thought after Communism, James Scanlan, a leading Western expert on Russian thought, described Vladimir Solovyov (1853 1900) as “by common consent the greatest and most influential of all of Russia’s philosophical thinkers.”  In a recent Cambridge University Press history of Russian philosophy, Randal Poole writes that “Solov’ev is widely regarded as Russia’s greatest philosopher.”

There are, it is true, a handful of dissenters from this nearly unanimous assessment of Solovyov. The contemporary Russian philosopher Sergei Khoruzhy considers Solovyov a very great philosopher, but a bit too western in orientation to deserve the title of greatest Russian thinker in the narrow sense.

Moreover, even scholars known to be generally hostile to things Russian, such as former Harvard professor Richard Pipes, nonetheless speak respectfully about Solovyov: “The Orthodox Church never found a common language with the educated because its conservative outlook made it pronouncedly anti-intellectual One by one it pushed away from itself the country’s finest religious minds: the Slavophiles, Vladimir Soloviev, Leo Tolstoy and the laymen gathered in the early 1900s around the Religious Philosophical Society ” (Russia Under the Old Regime, 243.)

In short, Snegovaya’s misapprehension of Solovyov could hardly be more thorough. In what possible sense can Solovyov, who had no inkling of anything Soviet, be considered supportive of Putin’s alleged “pro-Soviet world view”? In point of fact, the writings of this supposedly “pro-Soviet” philosopher exactly like those of Berdyaev and Il’in were banished by Soviet censors.

How can Solovyov be described as a “nationalist,” when his magnum opus, The Justification of the Good (the book which Putin is said to have urged his governors to read), states precisely the opposite? It is hard to imagine a more absolute condemnation of national exceptionalism than that contained in Solovyov’s definitive work of ethics:

“It must be one or the other. Either we must renounce Christianity and monotheism in general, according to which ‘there is none good but one, that is, God,’ and recognize our nation as such to be the highest good that is, put it in the place of God — or we must admit that a people becomes good not in virtue of the simple fact of its particular nationality, but only in so far as it conforms to and participates in the absolute good.”

This same anti-nationalist theme runs through Solovyov’s entire corpus.  He argued bitterly against the Slavophile nationalists of his day. To learn of Solovyov’s views on this subject, Snegovaya, who reads Russian, might have consulted the book State, Society, Governance, a scholarly volume of liberal social science co-published in 2013 by Mikhail Khodorkovsky (not known for his fondness for Putin). In this Russian-language compendium of essays by leading Russian liberal theorists, Solovyov is marshaled as an authoritative critic of Russian nationalism, including the nationalism occasionally voiced by Dostoevsky. [S. Nikolsky and M. Khodorkovsky, ed., Gosudrastvo. Obshchestvo. Upravlenie: Sbornik statei (Moskva, Alpina Pablisher: 2013)].

In the article by Prof. Sergei Nikolsky, Solovyov is quoted at length precisely as an authoritative critic of Dostoevsky’s disrespect for other faiths and nations and specifically for Europe. For the sake of balance, Nikolsky might have noted that elsewhere, for example in his “Three Speeches in Honor of Dostoevsky,” Solovyov praises Dostoevsky in the highest possible terms and specifically denies that his political ideal is nationalist.

It is worth noting that Nikolsky, in this same article, attacks Il’in for his too rosy views of Russian Czarist imperialism. Nikolsky probably has a point here.

Criticizing the Church

Finally, far from being a fanatical proponent of the Russian Orthodox Church, Solovyov harshly criticized the Russian Church, calling it “totally subservient to the secular power and destitute of all inner vitality.” As ringing endorsements go, this one sounds decidedly weak.

And again, all this is well known. Many, including even such prominent theologians as Urs von Balthasar, believe Solovyov renounced Orthodoxy and became a Catholic, so warmly did Solovyov praise the Catholic Church.

Solovyov, the supposed conservative Orthodox zealot, praised the Catholic Church, among other reasons, for what he saw as it independence from nationalist temptations, and for its readiness to act in the world.

“The East [meaning Eastern Orthodoxy] prays; the West [meaning Roman Catholicism] prays and acts: which is right?” asks Solovyov rhetorically in his famous Russia and the Universal Church.  Mixing with the world is good if it is the world that changes, Solovyov continues. Changes in what sense? In some respects, in the same sense as that advocated by Western progress.

What the French Revolution destroyed treating men as things, chattel or slaves, deserved to be destroyed. But the French Revolution nonetheless did not institute justice, because justice is impossible without the truth, and first of all the truth about man, but the French Revolution “perceived in Man nothing but abstract individuality, a rational being destitute of all positive content.”

As a result, the “free sovereign individual,” Solovyov continues, “found himself doomed to be the defenseless victim of the absolute State or ‘nation.’ ”

It is impossible to reconcile the Solovyov we find in his actual writings with Snegovaya’s and Brooks’s portrait of a religious chauvinist and Russian nationalist, one with pro-Soviet tendencies to boot.

The reference to messianism, coming from Brooks, also demonstrates a striking lack of self-awareness. But that particular example of the kettle calling the pot black has already been ably handled by Charles Pierce (“Our Mr. Brooks and the Messianic Mr. Putin,” Esquire, March 4, 2014).

Philosopher of Freedom

Berdyaev (1874 1948) wrote a great deal, and on a number of subjects changed his mind, but in as much as it was Berdyaev’s The Philosophy of Inequality which Putin urged his governors read, it makes sense for us to start with that.

Do we find here a repository of ‘pro-Soviet’ views?  Not even close. Instead, we find an emotionally-charged condemnation of everything the Soviet Union’s founders stood for (the book was written immediately after the 1917 Revolution and Berdyaev was full of outrage and grief).

Berdyaev spends much of the book berating the Bolshevik movement for its exaggerated exaltation of a particular political form. But in truth, Berdyaev insists, political forms are always secondary to the human spirit. Whether a person is kind or vicious, devoted to justice or its opposite, has little to do with whether someone is a monarchist or a democrat, a proponent of private property or a socialist.

Why specifically “the Philosophy of Inequality”? Not because the philosopher is indifferent to exploitation and injustice. And still less because he favored tyranny he was to the contrary a tireless critic of despotism, which is the word he used to describe the Czarist order.

Berdyaev never completely abandoned his early interest in Marx, even after his conversion to Christianity around the turn of the century. He was by temperament a person more of the left than of the right, despite a lingering influence of Nietzsche.

What concerns Berdyaev is the inequality between what is higher or lower in the realm of spirit and culture. Berdyaev mostly approves of liberalism and finds in it something aristocratic or at any rate not revolutionary. By contrast, democracy and socialism, precisely because they have pretensions to fill all life with their content, can easily become false religions.

At times Berdyaev’s philosophy even overlaps with libertarianism, which likewise rejects any abuse of the freedom of the individual person for utilitarian ends.

Berdyaev’s religious views are difficult to characterize. He was a Christian, an existentialist and someone who believed in the absolute primacy of freedom, but not necessarily all three of these at once (they are not entirely compatible, but then Berdyaev was not always consistent). The writings of Dostoevsky were of enormous religious importance to him.

It is easy to misread Berdyaev because of his lack of system, and because he looks at the same concept from sometimes contradictory perspectives. Take for example Berdyaev’s paradoxical understanding of national uniqueness.

Dostoevsky, Berdyaev writes, “is a Russian genius; the Russian national character is stamped on all his creative work, and he reveals to the world the depths of the Russian soul. But this most Russian of Russians at the same time belongs to all of humanity, he is the most universal of all Russians.”

And the same can be said for Goethe and other national geniuses, who likewise are universal not by being more generic, but precisely by being more who they are; in the case of Goethe, by being specifically German.

Berdyaev’s perspective here is particularly helpful if we want a world made safe for both unity and diversity. A global civilization that would level all differences is ugly, while a messianism that would exalt one nation over others is evil. [N. Berdyaev, Sud’ba Rossii [The Fate of Russia], (Moskva: Eksmo-Press, 2001), p. 353 and 361]

Christianity as such, however, is messianic, because it affirms what it considers a universal truth, the truth of Christ. But this truth has no coercive power.

Until early 2014, the view that Solovyov and Berdyaev represent particularly humane and attractive alternatives for Russia was not, as far as I am aware, doubted by anyone, at least, not by anyone who gave the matter any thought.

In the time of perestroika, when Russian philosophy was finally being rediscovered inside Russia, the likely positive influence of these philosophers was warmly affirmed. Bill Keller, writing for the New York Times, praised the Soviet magazine Novy Mir for focusing attention on “the more Western-inclined 19th-century Russian thinkers such as Nikolai Nekrasov, Aleksandr Herzen, and the Christian philosophers Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Berdyaev.” [Emphasis mine]

These were the sort of thinkers, Keller emphasized, who would help encourage “a humane alternative to zealous Leninism and the darker Russian nationalism.”  By publishing such writers, Keller continued, Novy Mir was demonstrating that it “occupies a key centrist position, attempting to reconcile the Westernizers and the Russian patriots on a common ground of tolerance and democratic ideals.”

The ‘Liberal Conservative’

The case of Ivan Il’in (1883-1954), whom Putin regularly quotes and whom Putin is known to particularly respect, is more complex. Some of Snegovaya’s suspicions in his case are indeed accurate. Il’in has a conservative temperament.

It is fair to call him a nationalist, though one concerned with Russia alone, and with no messianic ambitions. As will be seen below, Il’in was not against authoritarianism. Il’in was, however, complex and worthy of much more careful consideration.

The suggestion that Il’in is a source of that famous “pro-Soviet” stance is easily disposed of. The Cheka interrogators who arrested and interrogated Il’in six times between 1918 and 1922 would have been very surprised at such a characterization.

According to Prof. Iu. T. Lisitsa, who has reviewed the records on Il’in from the KGB archives, Il’in “even in the hands of the Cheka, under threat of execution remained adamant, precise, and articulate in his opposition to the Bolshevik regime.” [From “The Complex Legacy of Ivan Il’in, Russian Thought after Communism, in James Scanlan, ed., Russian Thought After Communism: The Recovery of a Philosophical Tradition (Armonk, New York, M.E. Sharpe: 1994), 183.]

The “pro-Soviet” characterization also does not jive very well with the fact that Il’in, along with Berdyaev and a host of other leading Russian philosophers, was banished from the USSR in 1922 for their anti-Soviet “agitation.” Il’in’s literary corpus is said to include over 40 books and essays, some of them written in scholarly, technical language, so it is not an easy thing to characterize his worldview, but a good place to start is Il’in’s Our Tasks.

Not only is this a book which Putin likes to quote, it is also another of the books, along with Solovyov’s Justification of the Good and Berdyaev’s The Philosophy of Inequality, that Putin urged his governors to read.

The book Our Tasks is a compilation of journalistic essays written by Il’in between 1948 and 1954. Their overriding theme is the need to put an end to Soviet rule, defeat communism and plan for Russia’s restoration and recovery from the devastating physical, moral and political woes visited on Russia by the Soviet system.

It is difficult to imagine a more uncompromising condemnation of Soviet ideology and practice than this collection of Il’in’s essays. If anything, one might fault him for exaggerating the faults of the Soviet system. It must be remembered, though, that Il’in (who died in 1954) did not live to see the post-Stalin era, or even to hear of Khrushchev’s speech condemning Stalin (in 1956).

And yet Il’in was not only a critic of communism, he was also a critic of Russia’s past leaders when they were vicious (as in the case of Ivan IV) or incompetent, as in the case of Nicholas II. Like Berdyaev, Il’in was also, on occasion, bitingly critical of the Russian people, who he felt were politically immature and in need of a crash course in legal awareness.

After the fall of Soviet power, a fall he was sure would eventually take place, he was skeptical in the extreme that the character of the people living in Russia at that point would be capable of wise self-rule, which is why he urged, as a temporary expedient, a transition period of authoritarian government.

‘Soviet Man’

Here is how, in Our Tasks, Il’in described the character of the “Soviet man” that the future Russia would inherit: “The totalitarian system imposes a number of unhealthy tendencies and habits among which we may find the following: a willingness to inform on others (and knowingly falsely at that), pretense and lying, loss of the sense of personal dignity and the absence of a well-rooted patriotism, thinking in a slavish manner and by aping the thoughts of others, flattery combined with servility, constant fear.

“The fight to overcome these unhealthy habits will not be easy It will require time, an honest and courageous self-awareness, a purifying repentance, the acquisition of new habits of independence and self-reliance, and, most importantly of all, a new national system of spiritual and intellectual education. [I. A. Il’in, Nashi Zadachi (Our Tasks), sobr. soch. (collected works), vol. 2 (Moskva, Russkaya Kniga: 1993), 23-24.]

Il’in was indeed deeply concerned about the danger of Russia’s disintegration and indeed was concerned about the defense of its borders, although, of course, not their restoration. To avoid such disintegration, Il’in urged Russians to not repeat what he considered the fatal mistake of the February Revolution its premature push for full democracy.

In this, as in many other respects, Il’in’s policy recommendations overlap with those of Solzhenitsyn, who was profoundly influenced by Il’in. That Il’in is a major influence on Putin’s brand of “liberal conservatism” was noted already in 2012 by the Canadian scholar Paul Robinson.

Unlike Solovyov and Berdyaev, in the early years of perestroika Ivan Il’in was poorly known both inside and outside of Russia, although Il’in had been quite prominent during the years preceding and following the Russian Revolution, including while he was living in exile.

His fame early in the Twentieth Century stemmed largely from a celebrated academic study of Hegel’s writings, a work still lauded both in and outside of Russia as among the best ever produced.

Il’in burst onto the post-Soviet scene in 1991, when essays from Our Tasks were first published, including the prescient “What Does the Dismemberment of Russia Bode for the World?” In this essay, Il’in wrote that the rest of the world will, in its ignorance of the likely consequences, eagerly underwrite the breakup of Russia and will to this end provide lots of development assistance and ideological encouragement.

As a result, Il’in wrote, “The territory of Russia will boil with endless quarrels, clashes, and civil wars that will constantly escalate into worldwide clashes ”  To avoid this fate, as mentioned earlier, Il’in urged for Russia a transition period of authoritarian rule.

This point is made emphatically by Philip Grier in his Complex Legacy of Ivan Il’in. Grier, it should be added, who is the former president of the American Hegel Society, is also the translator of Il’in’s two-volume analysis of Hegel published by Northwestern University Press in 2011.

Although Il’in quite plainly admired the United States and Switzerland for what he saw as their mature democratic self-rule, it is not clear that Il’in was confident that democracy was tailor-made for a nation and culture of the Russian type.

What is absolutely clear, however, is Il’in’s fervent devotion to rule of law and legal awareness, something that sets him apart from the Slavophiles whom he in other respects resembles.

A Russia, Liberal and Christian?

There are very important differences between these three thinkers. Nevertheless, all three writers considered freedom essential to human culture and the human spirit, though they differed in emphasis. Undoubtedly, then, the worldview of all three is irreducible to a liberal formula even if their views include important liberal or modern elements.

All three agreed with the liberal world that all humans, regardless of nation, religion, or any other difference, are equally endowed with infinite dignity. But for them it was not a throwaway phrase when they added that this dignity is conferred on humans by God, which means, among other things, that a right to be absolutely secure cannot trump someone else’s right not to be tortured (Il’in’s absolute prohibition against torture, or anything even coming close to torture, in the above-mentioned book is excellent and quite timely).

There has been no space here to attempt more than a brief introduction to these thinkers. But it should already be clear that the tradition we have just described offers, if we would only engage with it, an opportunity: a chance to form a partnership with a Russia that, though different from our present state of mind, shares much of our own past, and perhaps suggests some ways forward as we negotiate an increasingly dangerous world.

As his reading list recommendations strongly suggest, “Putin’s Russia” represents an attempt to reconnect with this tradition, however flawed that attempt may be. Take Putin’s famous speech (to the Federal Assembly) in April 2005. Although Western commentators have ad nauseum berated him for showing his true colors and displaying nostalgia for the Soviet order, in reality, as the entire text and the following excerpt makes clear, he did no such thing:

Putin said: “‘State power,’ wrote the great Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, ‘has its own limits defined by the fact that it is authority that reaches people from outside  State power cannot oversee and dictate the creative states of the soul and mind, the inner states of love, freedom and goodwill. The state cannot demand from its citizens faith, prayer, love, goodness and conviction. It cannot regulate scientific, religious and artistic creation It should not intervene in moral, family and daily private life, and only when extremely necessary should it impinge on people’s economic initiative and creativity.’”

Is it naive to impute such idealism to Putin? Perhaps. But Putin is not in fact the issue, but Russia. We engage after all a country, not a single person in it, and the tradition we are describing has sufficient roots in the Russia that actually exists that, if we chose to engage with it, there would be the chance for an actual productive conversation, one capable of rebuilding trust and creating an order.

Critics say that Russia recently has become a nation filled with hate. But how are Russian citizens and President Putin himself to interpret the twisting (and what we have seen above is just the tip of the iceberg) of their own words and their most cherished traditions in such an apparently spiteful and even violent way?

Knowledgeable analysts have correctly noted that Russian nationalists such as Alexander Dugin consider the United States to be Russia’s implacable enemy. Representatives of this “Eurasianist” camp are waiting in the wings if Putin falls.

America’s efforts at “regime change” might even succeed at facilitating such a drastic change for the worse. And then, by means of that “curious logicality” of the American ideology, we will once again, with “stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors,” have brought about yet another catastrophe.

A Brief Footnote on Ideology

For all the United States’ vaunted freedom, it exhibits surprisingly little freedom of maneuver when it comes to its foreign policy. Far from taking into consideration Russia’s vital security needs, to say nothing of Russia’s identity, U.S. ideologues have behaved as if both are either non-existent or fundamentally illegitimate. Such compulsive political behavior is the sure sign of ideological infection.

Brooks, Snegovaya and Galeotti apparently have all made use of the same basic logic when they examined the philosophical sources of Putin’s thinking. That logic went something like this: a) Washington considers Russia a problem, therefore, b) Vladimir Putin is a thug; and therefore, c) the Nineteen Century philosopher Vladimir Solovyov dreamed of restoring the Soviet Union to its former Christian glory and might.

Such sloppy thinking would not have happened were these three otherwise intelligent people not (one hopes temporarily) previously incapacitated by ideological blinders. Unfortunately, the same ideological thinking dominates nearly all of U.S. discourse vis-à-vis Russia, making a political settlement impossible.

After all, if America’s political ideal is as nearly perfect as can ever be achieved in this “fallen world,” then the thing is to carry on and win, thereby bringing the perfect good (that’s us!) to everyone.

Why bother seriously familiarizing oneself with a competing system? Clearly Brooks and Co. made no such effort. It was enough for them to know that Russia’s political ideal significantly differs from America’s: therefore it is illegitimate, Q.E.D.

As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The curious logicality of all isms, their simple-minded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality.”

That America does not actually live up to its own ideals, as I have written here previously, changes nothing for the ideologue. After all, every further increase in America’s power brings closer the day when its actions (which are generally realist) and its speech (which is always democratic and idealist) can come into harmony. Then history can truly and finally come to an end.

And yet, in light of the above review of an important part of the Russian tradition, there is something we are now in a much better position to point out: Russia has also taken the trouble to have ideals.

Paul Grenier is a former Russian simultaneous interpreter and a regular writer on political-philosophical issues. After advanced study in Russian affairs, international relations and geography at Columbia University, Paul Grenier worked on contract for the Pentagon, State Department and World Bank as a Russian interpreter, and at the Council on Economic Priorities, where he was a research director. He has written for the Huffington Post, Solidarity Hall, the Baltimore Sun, Godspy, and Second Spring, among other places, and his translations of Russian philosophy have appeared in the Catholic journal Communio.

21 comments for “Distorting Putin’s Favorite Philosophers

  1. Robert Bruce
    April 2, 2015 at 23:56

    It seems Western pundits are still very guilty of psychological projection. They attack Russian exceptionalism, while they openly promote the American brand.

  2. Heinz Gruber
    March 30, 2015 at 08:46

    Dear Mr Grenier,
    thank you very much for this profound analysis.
    As much as I agree on most of it, I want to point out, that I profoundly beg to
    differ on your stance, that ” The nations of northern Europe do not suffer for the most part from their close alliance with the United States, including in the cultural sense.”
    For the first part, politically we are undergoing a deep crisis of trust between the people
    and their political leaders. No matter who is allowed to be elected (and not systematically
    denounced in a concerted smear-campaign, very often under the label anti-american or
    anti-semite): ALL of them are united in their quasi-religious belief, that this project of
    the European Union (with the Euro as its most important pillar) is TINA.
    No matter how big the dissent of the populace grows, no matter how much the electors flee into the arms of radical and open Anti-EU parties, the course is held. No matter how much the working people suffer in countries like Spain, Portugal or Greece (which are very unsubtly denounced as PIGS). What this has to do with the US? Well the whole idea of the EU in the way it is propagated is a child of trans-atlantic think-tanks and semi-clandestine organisations like the Bilderberger, the idea behind it being the United States of Europe
    as an easier to manage junior (or rather vassal) of the US empire.
    Our current 100% trans-atlantically devoted leadership all across Europe shows a stubborn blockheadedness for the implementation of that type of EU and Euro despite the facts, that absolutely fit your quote from Hannah Arendt: ““The curious logicality of all isms, their simple-minded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality.”
    They believe – just like in the US – to be smarter than the official constitutional sovereign
    ( “We, the people” ) and to have the right to disregard the will of the stupid masses,
    knowing better what is good for them. This kind of attitude makes it no wonder that more and more people, disgusted from the disparity between the official version and the real state of our so-called democracies and their policies, turn away from these great projects.

    Our chanceloress Merkel decides an embargo against Russia as ordered by Washington, which is against the very basic interest of the German people, costing billions of cash and work first, and mutual hard built trust with Moscow second.
    But for me almost more importantly (but in a way part and parcel with the first) I Do
    feel a very strong sense of cultural imperialism coming from the US.
    Maybe, living in the heart of the empire makes it harder to discern that, than living in the
    We hear the same mass-tailored music, watch the same films (deeply infiltrated with more or less subtle propaganda) and dumbing formats of television series.
    All fabricated very skillfully following the state of the art of (mass) psychology either
    for the ends of “manufacturing consent”, or more often confuse and divert the people
    from the real issues or simply destroying their intellectual capacity to even grasp the real issues and start working for their own interests.

    In a way, history shows, that Russia DOES have a special function in the concert of nations.
    It is a bulwark against western notions to subjugate the rest of the world in their prevailing messianic megalomaniac mission to build paradise on earth if the people
    want it or not.

    Heinz Gruber

  3. Tom Laney
    March 30, 2015 at 08:38

    Thanks for this article. I will forward it to every Common Gooder I know.

  4. March 29, 2015 at 14:07

    An excellent article, and entirely right. Thank you. I did a similar piece about the misrepresentation of Solovyov/Ilyin/Berdyaev almost exactly a year ago: http://cips.uottawa.ca/the-putin-book-club/ and Gordon Hahn also did a piece on the subject in January: http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2015/01/putin-myths-and-putin-ideology.html I have also written some more about Ilyin here: https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/putins-philosopher/

    • Paul Grenier
      April 4, 2015 at 22:09

      Thanks for the kind words and the links. I actually did quote in my essay (with a link) your excellent 2012 article/survey in TAC on Putin’s sources. It would be good to be in touch, we seem to have similar interests. In any case I am already an admirer of your work and look for it.

  5. Theo
    March 29, 2015 at 10:15

    Have you lost sight of what I took to be your basic premises in the pieces you publish on your site?

    For one, that the American system is neither liberal nor democratic and that the political and ruling class use the language of liberalism to obscure the true nature and the aims of the American system.

    Liberalism was never perfect, to be sure, it was only a philosophy of the political center that allowed for piecemeal and fitful and highly imperfect reform from below through the agitation of workers, racial minorities, women, others to edge us nearer to a humane society. However, it was always willing to overturn and put the lie to its assertions of humane values in all of its foreign policy and in much of its domestic policy and it was tragically susceptible to the siren song of the right and of its most repressive and self-aggrandizing economic elites to abandon the so-called values, which throughout our history were held by relatively few people.

    The writer needs to get a better grip on the historical record.

  6. March 29, 2015 at 04:48

    «“These three, whom Putin often cites,” [Mark] Galeotti writes, “exemplify and justify [Putin’s] belief in Russia’s singular place in history. … Three main ideas unify Solovyov, Il’in and Berdyaev’s work, Brooks wrote:

    “The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. »

    The irony of these apostles of «US exceptionalism» (Mr Galeotti was born in the UK, but has the fervour of a convert) – in which that country’s president claims to believe «with every fibre of [his] being» – accusing 19th and early 20th century Russian philosophers and Gospodin Putin of a belief in «Russian exceptionalism» is delicious. As the latter rightly pointed out in that famous New York Time’s OpEd of 11 September 2013 :

    «And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.»

    No wonder the attempts to demonise Gospodin Putin continue without the least sign of a break ! Add to the above the desire on the part of US strategists to behead the Russian chicken in order to frighten the Chinese monkey, and we have the makings of a perfect storm, which may well put an end to the short happy life of H sapiens sapiens on this blue planet….


  7. Paul Grenier
    March 28, 2015 at 23:15

    Lest what I wrote seem Pollyannish, I want to add that Michael Gillespie illustrates himself exactly the point I wanted to make. The enemy of good thought and good policy is always simplification of what is genuinely complex. The politicization of thinking happens on both the left and the right (and everywhere in between). But as you nicely illustrate, Mr. Fukuyama is also complex: he says some things one can agree with, and others one cannot. It is harder but more rewarding to look at that complexity. ‘Putin’s Russia’ is also complex. OlegB’s comment illustrates the opposite approach, as unfortunately have a great many others.

  8. Paul Grenier
    March 28, 2015 at 22:56

    TUNA: Thank you for the comments. As for ‘democracy at the point of a gun,’ I tried to suggest elsewhere, e.g. in my reference to William Appleman Williams, that one cannot really make democracy at the point of the gun anymore than one can create love in the same way. Of course, one can have a shot-gun marriage version of both. I think the results in places like Iraq speak for themselves as to the quality of the result. In a future article, I hope to flesh out some helpful ideas from Ilyin as to how law needs to be made with the present mentality of a people in mind.

    Michael Gillespie and F. G. Sanford: Both of you are eloquent in stating your own positions, and I have nothing to say against any of it, but would only add that I think it is important to try to keep open the doors of dialogue both domestically and internationally.

    As I hope is evident, I spared no efforts in demonstrating the inaccuracy of their positions. Most likely they are guilty of engaging in group think. But this hardly makes them unique. I mean that sincerely. I think they all screwed up here big time. But this doesn’t make them permanently beyond the pale. After all, Putin has done some awful things as well (again, hardly uniquely). The point is to talk, and to realize that the opponent is still human.

    • Natylie Baldwin
      March 30, 2015 at 13:44

      I have been meaning to thank you, Mr. Grenier, for this very insightful article since I first read it last week on Johnson’s Russia List.

      I look forward to your next article on Ilyin. Sounds intriguing.

  9. TUNA
    March 28, 2015 at 12:54

    Great stuff.


    In the Middle East the choice has already been made. It is to be made liberal and democratic at gunpoint.

    We are talking about the thin veneer of propaganda for the rubes rolled out by NYT, WaPo et al. right?

    Friedman (The president of Stratfor, an outfit I consider right next door to evil) assessment is pretty good but he pushes the idea that states or nations have a mind, which of course they don’t – which is in particular why international politics has become frankly psychotic lately as western “democratically (s)elected” politicians and their supporting army of bureaucrats both of the senile and the cluelessly naive sort are being pulled this way and that by special interests and their own inner demons.

    Be that as it may, Friedman’s assertion that Yanukovich was/is “slighty pro-russian” is just wrong.

    In “Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands” Richard Sakwa explains:

    “He is typically portrayed as ‘pro-Russian’ in the Western media, but … Yanukovych was neither pro-Russian nor pro-Western, but a rather degenerate representative of the bureaucratic-oligarchic order, largely concerned with his personal aggrandisement. He did receive support from Moscow, but personal relations with Putin were very poor. Putin found it more congenial to do business with Tymoshenko (the “gas princess”), but he was forced to deal with Yanukovych as the democratically elected leader of Ukraine. The argument that Putin and Yanukovych united in defence of kleptocratic regimes is a thin one, although greatly peddled by Russian liberals and the Western media.”

  10. alexander horatio
    March 28, 2015 at 12:39

    Dear Mr Grenier,
    Thank you for a very interesting article….
    Much of the “demonization” of Russia…and even the post-coup conflict in the Ukraine seems to function as a “grand deflection” from the awakening of the american people to the catastrophic consequences of our national policy failures over the past twelve years , the erosion of our solvency and our constitution, the shattering of our name and reputation around the world, the destruction of democracy at home, the ” recognition” of the false narratives imposed upon us by an increasingly propagandistic, insular and deceitful media ,the state of seemingly endless war foisted on the american people ,the impunity and greed of the” one percent” that profits from it , the increasing totalitarianism of the state and its militarization, the rapid erosion of the middle class, its rights, its hopes and its dreams …. ..As the curtain is being pulled back on this “evil from within.”….mounting criticism at home in the US against the fraudulence of the “Neo- Con” agenda and the enormous damage it has done to our society, is concretizing into a drive to accountability . This groundswell is being felt feared and urgently redirected by the Neo-cons into a new” Its all Putin’s fault ” narrative……..a “don’t hate us “hate HIM bait and switch culminating in the Ukrainian coup……”Putin is Hitler”…….and a “surge” to more catastrophic war……..The american people, with alarming rapidity are coming to an awareness of the ” heinous crimes committed at the top to us and in our name”and are viewing the media as a big phony…..there is very little trust left in what the “uber -upper crust” say and do ! They , in response are “circling the wagons” around the power centers in congress and Washington, determined more than ever to divide and conquer the people from its representation , and usurp its power to their own malicious ends !
    …..We will see how this drama plays out in the coming weeks and months and whether or not the american peoples rising and powerful indignation will be able to overcome the “fraudsters” at the top and their relentless drive to “abscond” with their money , their integrity, their humanity and their hope for a future for their children !

    • Victoria Christine
      March 28, 2015 at 23:40

      “We will see… whether or not the american peoples rising and powerful indignation will be able to overcome the “fraudsters” at the top.”

      Have you seen any American people rising except from their collective couches to go into the kitchen and grab another coke before the game resumes?

      The question is not how to overcome the ‘fraudsters’. First up, we need to figure out how to compete with ‘America’s Got Talent’.

      • alexander horatio
        March 30, 2015 at 11:01

        Hi Victoria,
        I am sorry I did not respond to your comment yesterday…
        I was too busy lying on the couch watching reruns of the “walking dead” to get up and check the website !

  11. Anthony Shaker
    March 28, 2015 at 10:35

    Thank you for this fascinating article. There is one possible source for the hare-brained musings of David Brooks. Hannah Arendt, mentioned in your piece, provides the clue. Zionist and Jewish scholars have long been interested in Russian Studies, understandably so, since that was where the Pale was located in Tzarist times. Not to mention the long procession of Slav ultra-nationalists and other bizarre creatures that had caught the virus of Zionist-inspired race ideology in eastern and central Europe.

    Brooks’s views reflect well the standard interpretations of those scholars. All are tendentious, self-serving and mean-spirited toward everyone but the fiction of their own race. Race is indeed a fiction.

    But let’s get back to our senses. Brooks is also the author of a New York Times op ed article about four years ago on the “Jewish gene,” which is supposed to explain the “genius” of the Jews as a distinct race. So, Jews according to him, are now not only the Chosen People, the flip side of the more technical doctrine of a priestly race; they are also biologically superior to all non-Jews.

    While denouncing Russian “nationalist” thinkers, Brooks is in effect propagating a vicious racial worldview that predates Nazism. A minority view among Jews before the war, it has culminated in the catastrophe that is the Zionist race colony in Palestine. It continues to inspire unrelenting Israeli arrogance, Israel’s veiled nuclear threats against “anti-semitic” Europe, and the present chaos in the Middle East, now morphing into a world war.

    Brooks, of course, remains a laughable dilletante (like Theodore Herzel), but with a bent for “social science” and the “humanities.” He won’t stop babbling about issues already digested and disgorged countless times since the 1960s but which he keeps rediscovering with every new day. For heaven’s sakes, Tom Hanks was at least entertaining in “Ground Hog Day.”

    Please do not call him upscale! He is as upscale as the King of Kitsch and Komedy (KKK), the one and only Benjamin Netanyahu (alias Bibi the Bomber)!

    • Sufferin'Succotash
      March 28, 2015 at 11:17

      Bill Murray.
      Now, what was the tune played on the alarm clock radio at wake-up time every morning?

  12. March 28, 2015 at 10:05

    Fukuyama’s thesis is absurd because the liberal democracy he apotheosized ceased to exist, replaced with the corporate-fascist plutocratic crony capitalist pseudo-democratic kleptocracy that is arguably the fastest-spreading form of governance on the planet.

    Republican “thinkers” became a joke starting with Arthur Laffer’s made-up laughable curve that sought to justify the first round of greed-grabs under Reagan. Read Reagan’s budget director David Stockman today to see how he feels about Republican neo-conservative ideology. He thinks the Republicans are literally insane and pathologically endangering humankind.

    The world is being gored on the horns of monopolistic capitalism. While the global poor and middle classes are bettering, the tendency of monopolistic capitalism toward extremes of inequality (abetted by unimaginably bad banking enabled by votes-for-money democracy) pretty much guarantees a future global crisis of capitalism in which the commoners tell those who control the means of production (who aren’t even true capitalists in that they aren’t really the owners of the businesses they loot) that these looters have had their day and that corporations are going to start paying those who do the work more and those at the top less.

    But it will take a lot of pain to bring this about. Universal notions of truth and justice are written in people’s hearts, and most people will tell you we are moving in the wrong direction.

  13. sufferin' succotash
    March 28, 2015 at 09:52

    It seems that a good many of us–present company included–need to play intellectual catchup since all three of the philosophers discussed, with the partial exception of Berdyaev, are virtually unknown outside the ranks of Russian specialists. But gathering from this article the views of Berdyaev, Solovyov and Il’in were not only extremely anti-Soviet but in fact classically conservative: Il’in’s take on the French Revolution could have come right out of Edmund Burke.
    What will future historians make of the “neo-conservatives” currently trying to talk the West into a confrontation with Russia? The “Fascist” label doesn’t really work because Fascism entailed mobilizing the masses and if anything our current Fearless Leaders prefer demobilized masses. Maybe the term “Utopian Capitalists” would fit. Or, how about “Banana Republicans”?

  14. F. G. Sanford
    March 27, 2015 at 19:47

    I think you’re far too kind to Brooks, et al. The well documented analysis you provide clearly indicates only three plausible excuses. Either (a) they didn’t read the material, (b) they lack reading comprehension skills, or, (c) they are inveterate liars. Lying confirms their role as factota in the totalitarian milieu: thinking in a slavish manner, aping the thoughts of others, flattery combined with servility, etc. As to Fukuyama and his eulogy to history, one wonders on what authority he might presume to pronounce that postmortem. As political and cultural constructs regulating the varieties of human interaction are clearly arbitrary and mutable, his eulogy seems a decidedly pompous act of self adulation. Caligula, who reigned at the height of Roman hegemony, could have made such a declaration with no more pretense to imperial infallibility. Historians are divided on whether or not he really made his horse, Incitatus, a member of the Roman Senate. As to America’s actions being generally realist or its speech idealist, Senator Tom Cotton recently proposed implementation of ‘Bills of Attainder’, and Lindsey Graham advocated employing the military to hold Congress hostage until it passed a defense budget. That Putin’s “aggression” is to blame for the tragedy now unfolding in Ukraine will eventually be examined against a backdrop of the well-documented coup engineered by Victoria Nuland and the irrefutably Neo-nazi factions that provided her with logistical support. To view this ‘philosophically’ until history passes judgement seems an unnecessary gesture to academic impartiality. But then again, I don’t expect to be working for the Department of State anytime soon. Thankfully, Caligula had no nuclear arsenal at his disposal. Otherwise, Nietzsche’s nihilism might never have had an existential pot in which to piss. If this is the “optimal form of society” with which democracy comes to harmony, then Fukuyama’s “end of history” seems to lack ambition. So far, America has yet to allow both ends of an entire horse to serve in Congress. But considering our vast nuclear arsenal, and the ends of the horses we do elect, Fukuyama could be on to something.

    • Michael Gillespie
      March 28, 2015 at 16:04

      Your analysis brought not only a smile, F.G. Sanford, but guffaws at your characterization of members of Congress who more and more behave as if they were elected by Israeli voters. I agree completely that Paul Grenier is far too kind to Brooks, who proves again and again that he is nothing more than a propagandist who will write or say anything without regard for truth or accuracy as long as it suits his employers’ agenda.

      Regarding Fukuyama, when he spoke at Iowa State University in Ames on April, 2, 2007, he did not hesitate to make clear his great disappointment in neoconservative praxis as exhibited by the Bush/Cheney administration. Fukuyama described himself as “a recovering neoconservative,” and went on to say, ““I had thought that the Bush team would be more effective and more experienced than the Clinton team that they replaced. “As time went on, I was really both astonished and dismayed as it seemed to me that the kind of foreign policy that they had engaged in was more and more, first, removed from some basic principles that I thought they believed in, and, as time went on further and the war continued, removed from reality.””

      “I donÂ’t think anyoneÂ’s going to believe in our benevolent intentions, but even if they did, they’Â’ve got to believe that you are minimally competent in carrying out this imperial role, and if you act like a bull in a china shop and actually break more things than you patch together again, then nobodyÂ’ is going to follow your lead and I think it fatally undercuts that leadership strategy if you cannot execute better,”” Fukuyama told an audience of about 150 in ISU Memorial Union’s Sun Room.

      I was pleasantly surprised to hear a high-profile conservative political philosopher who had signed both PNAC’s statement of principles and the September 20, 2001 PNAC letter to President Bush endorsing his “call for ‘a broad and sustained campaignÂ’ against the ‘terrorist organizations and those who harbor and support them acknowledge six years later in Ames, “a stunning “disparity in power that is not just military–—it is economic, it is cultural, it is political. . . . It is that basic lack of reciprocity that leads to a structural anti-Americanism in the contemporary global system. It is simply a fact of life that this anti-Americanism is going to be there as long as we exercise this unreciprocated power. . . . We can’Â’t help being powerful, but we can certainly avoid rubbing everyoneÂ’s face in it,”” said Fukuyama.”

    • OlegB
      March 28, 2015 at 22:36

      Putin is exactly what Hitler was in 1933. It is a shame to glorify such a president who’s never even had a debate with his opponent during elections (always was too busy for such a waste of time).

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