Vladimir Putin emerged out of public anonymity branded as a democratic reformist that would finally model Russia according to Western forms of governance. As John Lloyd reminds us, even before stepping into office “Putin’s first, modest speeches were shaped for Western applause. He suggested Russia might join Nato” and “he embraced the freedoms of the media and speech”. This democratic reformist stance was fully fleshed out in his inaugural speech, in May 2000, where he celebrated that “we have proved that Russia is becoming a modern democratic state” as “for the first time in the history of our country … the supreme power … passed the most democratic, the most simple way, by the will of people, legally and peacefully” attesting the strength of “the constitutional system”. His own election was a testament to a new Russia animated by liberal democratic principles. He acknowledged that the “construction of a democratic state is far from complete, but much has already been done. We must cherish the achievements, preserve and develop democracy, to make sure that the power elected by the people working in its interests, defending Russian citizen everywhere in our country, and abroad, to serve the public.”
Twenty-two years later, we know this was all a façade. But a complex and nuanced façade. In December 2002, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson gave a speech where he championed “A New Russian Revolution: Partnership with NATO” arguing that “the partnership between NATO and Russia today marks the end of a dark century for Europe”. The speech’s cheerfully confident tone was one of the first examples of the West’s utter naiveté towards Putin’s Russia.
Just as the first scenes of a movie usually give us the key to understand the entire plot, Putin’s first moves were also premonitions of what was to come: a complex game – or war – of misinformation. By 2005, Putin was commenting that the collapse of the Soviet empire was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” And his recent boycotting of Memorial — an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of Soviet crimes and its millions of victims — is just one more example of his democratic façade.
Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine is the latest development of a strategy in play since he first stepped into the presidency. And this strategy is nested in a very specific view of history and politics that is simply ignored if we keep staring at the surface of Putin’s actions.
In his 2018 book The Road to Unfreedom, historian Timothy Snyder argues that Putin’s Russia exemplifies what he calls “the politics of eternity”. According to Snyder, “eternity places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past […] Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.”
For Snyder, the mastermind behind Putin’s “politics of eternity” is Ivan Ilyin, a rather unknown and certainly enigmatic Russian philosopher whose legacy was, until recently, buried by the Soviet state. Ilyin’s philosophy was deeply shaped by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. He quickly became a counter-revolutionary, “an advocate of violent methods against revolution, and with time the author of a Christian fascism meant to overcome Bolshevism”. As an exile in Berlin, “Ilyin formulated his writings as guidance for Russian leaders who would come to power after the end of the Soviet Union”. And so it happened.
Ilyin’s philosophy sees Russia as a living organism, and the “strength of its soul [comes] from God”. With a providentially driven view of history, Ilyin argued that the Russians maintained an innocence that was “not observable in the world”. In other words, Russia is the city of God among the cities of men. His organicist view of nationhood and history also shaped a harsh anti-individualism. As Alexander Dugin – Putin’s guru – puts it, “in Russian Orthodox Christianity a person is a part of the Church, part of the collective organism, just like a leg. So how can a person be responsible for himself? Can a leg be responsible for itself? Here is where the idea of the state, the total state originates from.” In this reading, the Russian body must therefore be undivided and uncorrupted, the Ukrainian limb reattached.
Post-Soviet Russia should be guided by spasitelnii, a religious-like redeemer with the strong will and capacity of “shedding the blood of others to take power”. And this goes some way to accounting for how Putin sees himself: he is Ilyin’s spasitelnii, the awaited leader of post-Soviet Russia.
The influence of Ilyin’s philosophy on Putin is undeniable. He demanded a reburial of Ilyin’s body in 2005; he is frequently cited by Alexander Dugin; in “early 2014, members of Russia’s ruling party and all of Russia’s civil servants received a collection of Ilyin’s political publications from the Kremlin”; and, as recently as 2017, “Russian television commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution with a film that presented Ilyin as a moral authority”.
Once we understand Ilyin’s influence in the current Kremlin administration, the importance of Ukraine for their political project becomes clearer: the Russian organism can’t contemplate lacking one of its vital constituents. When Lionel Barber, then editor of the Financial Times, met with Putin in 2019, he noted that “a towering bronze statue of the visionary tsar looms over his ceremonial desk in the cabinet room”. It was Peter the Great, the archetypical form of the Ilyinian spasitelnii. And Putin has lined the Kremlin with references to the Romanov tsar. The “politics of eternity” indeed.
While we obsess over our own modernity, Putin is revivifying an ancient view of history, deeply nested in a specific view of nationhood and its divine mission. This is perfectly exemplified by Putin’s own – or so it goes – 5,000-word essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” that was published a few months ago on the Kremlin’s website. Ivan Ilyin’s influence is unmistakable.
According to Putin, Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all one people, the “descendants of Ancient Rus”. Thus, the idea of the “Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians”, he says, has “no historical basis”. Ben Wallace, the British Secretary of State for Defence, has written a rebuttal essay where he argues that Putin’s claims have no real historical basis. In fact, “Ukraine has been separate from Russia for far longer in its history than it was ever united” and “all peoples in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine […] are at best ‘kin but not the same people’”. Academic arguments crumble in the face of power politics.
When it comes to Russia’s approach to Ukraine, we are far away from the realm of fact. Snyder’s analysis of Ilyin’s influence on Putin is very illuminating but it doesn’t tell the full story. Ilyin was a Soviet exile while Putin is, in some way, a Soviet nostalgic. As we have seen, he considers the falling of the Soviet Empire “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. After all, he was a KGB man. Soviet misinformation tactics and asymmetric warfare techniques still run through his blood.
Putin’s approach to Ukraine is a perfect example of this macabre synthesis of Ilyin’s philosophy and Soviet misinformation. While Ilyin provided him with the theory, it was in the KGB that he learned how to put it into practice. Relations between Russia and the newly independent Ukraine were tense from the outset. While the West wished Ukraine would accept democratic governance and eventually join the EU – a process that has been delayed since the addition of ten new members in 2004 – the Russians were working and generating intrigue to get their man Víktor Yanukóvytch elected to the Ukrainian presidency. The Russian position was always characterized by dissimulation and imminent threat: while they let Ukraine get closer to European standards when it came to political or economic norms, they never gave them the liberty when it came to involvement in the West’s defence arrangements. The plan to fully take over the country was always lurking in the background. As Putin makes clear in his recent essay, he sees Ukrainian independence as an unsustainable historical anomaly.
This culminated in the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea. As of this writing, Russia has invaded Ukraine. While the West was in utter paranoia over Russia’s 2013 law “banning gay propaganda towards minors”, Putin was planning and advancing the Crimea invasion. And ironically, that law allied with Pussy Riot’s prison decree gave rise to a bigger buzz in the West than the seizure of Crimea itself.
Scott B. Nelson is Research and Strategy Advisor at the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institut. He lectures on politics and philosophy and publishes books, scholarly articles, and commentary. His last book is Tragedy and History: The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought. His next book is on Cicero and prudence in politics.
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