God Is a Russian

An expanded version of this essay, “Ivan Ilyin, Putin’s Philosopher of Russian Fascism,” appears on the NYR Daily.
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail Nesterov: The Thinker (Portrait of Ivan Ilyin), 1921

“Politics is the art of identifying and neutralizing the enemy.”
—Ivan Ilyin, 1948

The Russian looked Satan in the eye, put God on the psychoanalyst’s couch, and understood that his nation could redeem the world. An agonized God told the Russian a story of failure. 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. God’s, not Adam’s, was the original sin, the release of the imperfect. Once people were in the world, they apprehended facts and experienced feelings that could not be reassembled to what had been God’s mind. Every individual thought or passion deepened the hold of Satan on the world.

And so the Russian, a philosopher, understood history as a disgrace. The world since creation was a meaningless farrago of fragments. The more humans sought to understand it, the more sinful it became. Modern life, with its pluralism and its civil society, deepened the flaws of the world and kept God in exile. God’s one hope was that a righteous nation would follow a leader to create a new political totality, and thereby begin a repair of the world that might in turn redeem the divine. Because the unifying principle of the Word was the only good in the universe, any means that might bring about its return were justified.

Thus this Russian philosopher, whose name was Ivan Ilyin, came to imagine a Russian Christian fascism. Born in 1883, he finished his thesis, on God’s worldly failure, just before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Expelled from his homeland in 1922 by the Soviet power he despised, he embraced the cause of Benito Mussolini and completed another book in 1925, a justification for violent counterrevolution. In German and Swiss exile, he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s for White Russians who had fled their homeland after defeat in the Russian Civil War, and in the 1940s and 1950s for future Russians who would see the end of the Soviet power.

A tireless graphomaniac, Ilyin produced about twenty books in Russian and another twenty in German. Some of his work has a rambling and commonsensical character, but one current of his thought is coherent over the decades: the metaphysical and moral justification for political totalitarianism, which he expressed in practical outlines for a fascist state. Though he died forgotten in 1954, Ilyin’s work was revived and republished by a few enthusiasts after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has been read and cited widely by Russian politicians, especially Vladimir Putin, since the 2000s. His most influential book is a collection of political essays, Our Tasks.

The Russian Federation of the early twenty-first…

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