Now in its fourth month, the war in Ukraine continues to rage with devastating destruction, untold horrors and countless casualties among civilian Ukrainians. Russia also suffered catastrophic losses of troops and military equipment on a scale few had anticipated. Analysts are wrestling with the question of how far Russian President Vladimir Putin will go, what his likely endgame will be and what ultimately motivates him. Obviously, no one can answer these questions with certainty.
Russians called it “the black box” when Putin – pale, anonymous and hitherto unnoticed – became Boris Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor in August 1999. He is still opaque and difficult to read. But speculation about who he is and what he stands for is reaching fever pitch now that Putin has brought our world to the brink of World War III.
“Who is Mr. Putin? journalist Trudy Rubin asked a panel of Russian politicians and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2000. The Russians looked at each other sheepishly, laughed shyly, and the answer stayed in the dark. ‘air. It’s still hanging there.
Putin remains a headache despite a book of interviews about his life and career. Released shortly before the 2000 presidential election, it was intended to make him recognizable and eligible. Yet even after all his press conferences, speeches and interviews over the past 22 years, it is still difficult for Russians and foreigners to understand Putin. A long list of books has been published, both in Russia and abroad, including one I wrote in 2014.
One person who obviously played a role in Putin’s evolution as a political leader was the nationalist and anti-communist philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, as Putin was apparently looking for his own version of the “Russian idea”. Ilyin’s importance became even more evident in understanding Putin, who apparently saw him as a teacher and spiritual role model. With regard to Ukraine, for example, Ilyin considered the country nothing more than a Russian province. From this point of view, Ukraine does not have a national, cultural or historical identity that is distinct from Russia. Putin himself proclaimed that Ukraine does not exist.
Putin and his entourage have reintroduced Ilyin as a true Russian thinker who upholds core Russian values, the rediscovered standard-bearer of Russian conservatism. Putin is seen by some supporters and his spin-doctors as the figurehead of conservatism in the mold of Ilyin – not just in Russia, but around the world.
Yet what we see is a whitewashed version of Ilyin. Newborn Ilyinists do not mention that Ilyin, the father of Russian fascism, was considered an extremist in the history of Russian ideas and political philosophy. Along with a group of like-minded philosophers, Ilyin was expelled by Soviet leaders around 1920 and spent the rest of his life in exile, mostly in Germany.
His nationalist views were expressed not just as his attraction to Nazism and Fascism, but in undisguised tributes to both ideologies. He described his position and worldview as a “fascist monarchy”. He saw Russia as something exceptional and Russians as a nation standing above other peoples. He glorified their ability to bear heavy burdens, to suffer, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their ideals and their leader. Ilyin supported the national selection based on three fundamental values: God, fatherland and national leader.
He worked with and for Nazi institutions directly under Joseph Goebbel. Ilyin never made a secret of whom he sympathized with, and even after the war did not distance himself from Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini or any of his other fascist idols. He continued to emphasize the potential of fascism and his ideas about the national dictator. He condemned liberal democracy as evil.
Putin supported the repatriation of Ilyin’s archives, and the remains of Ilyin and his wife were brought from Switzerland and reinterred in a monastery in Moscow. Putin was also involved in including Ilyin’s work in a collection of like-minded Russian philosophers in several volumes that were given as gifts to Russia’s power elite, so that everyone knew the winds that were blowing and how to align with them.
For years, Putin has diligently quoted Ilyin in articles and speeches; he recently did so indirectly in his May 9 Victory Day speech, referring to some of the tsars and warriors Ilyin often mentions in his works. Referring to a thinker from the past adds to Putin’s credibility, status and legitimacy, especially as he launches a war against Ukraine based on lies about Nazis ruling the country and threatening Russia with invasion. and war. The denazification of Ukraine has become the battle cry of Putin and his supporters.
As a Nazi himself, Ilyin might have a problem with that. Putin does not publish this information. So there is a problem in his philosophical logic. It turns out Putin might have some explaining to do. It’s not as urgent as the need for an explanation of the war on Ukraine – which already looks like the biggest geopolitical disaster of our time, unlike the breakup of the Soviet Union that Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. Putin’s use of Ilyin’s views is among the many political and historical inconsistencies that require explanation. But the black box does not provide an answer to this problem.
Samuel Rachlin is a Danish journalist and former Moscow correspondent for Danish Broadcasting (1980s) and TV2 Denmark (1998-2006). He is the author of “I, Putin: The Russian Spring and the Russian World”. Follow him on Twitter @samuelrachlin.