“Can we say,” Putin asked millions of radio listeners, “that our country has fully recovered and healed after the dramatic events that have occurred to us after the Soviet Union collapsed, and that we now have a strong, healthy state? No, of course she is still quite ill; but here we must recall Ivan Ilyin: ‘Yes, our country is still sick, but we did not flee from the bed of our sick mother.’ ” The remark suggested that Putin had been reading rather deeply in the Ilyin corpus, but his interpretation of the passage was odd. For Ilyin, it had been the foundation of the USSR, not its dissolution, that was the wound to Russia. Ilyin had wished to remain with his actual mother, but could not do so because he was expelled from the Soviet Union by the Cheka. Ilyin told his Cheka interrogator, “I consider Soviet power to be an inevitable historical outcome of the great social and spiritual disease which has been growing in Russia for several centuries.”
As a former KGB officer, Putin was a Chekist, as Russians still say, who wished to rule Russia through the Russian Orthodox Church. He wanted a reconciliation of what he called the traditions of Red and White, communist and Orthodox, terror and God. A sense of history would have required some confrontation with both aspects of Russian history. The politics of eternity allowed Putin the freedom to accept both Red and White as innocent Russian responses to external threats. If all conflicts were the fault of the outsider, there was no need to consider Russians, their choices, or their crimes. The extreme Right and Left should instead be drawn together as a bicephalous icon. Putin banished contradictions. He oversaw a revival of Ilyin’s work in which Ilyin’s criticism of the Soviet Union was ignored. It would have been gauche to mention that Ilyin had recommended that Chekists be purged from politics in a post-Soviet Russia.
In 2005, Putin had reburied Ilyin’s corpse at a monastery where the Soviet secret state police had incinerated the corpses of thousands of Russian citizens executed during the Great Terror. At the moment of Ilyin’s reburial, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church was a man who had been a KGB agent in Soviet times. At the ceremony, a military band struck up the Russian national anthem, which has the same melody as the Soviet national anthem. The man who seems to have exposed Putin to Ilyin’s writings, the film director Nikita Mikhalkov, was the son of the composer responsible for both versions. Mikhalkov was an avid student of Ilyin, as his political manifesto reveals: Russia was a “spiritual-material unity,” a “thousand-year-old union of multiple nationalities and tribes,” exhibiting a “particular, supranational, imperial consciousness.” Russia was the center of Eurasia, “an independent, cultural-historic continent, organic, national unity, geopolitical and sacred, center of the world.”
When Putin laid flowers on Ilyin’s grave in 2009, he was in the company of his favorite Orthodox monk, Tikhon Shevkunov, who was willing to see the Soviet executioners as Russian patriots. Putin himself, speaking a few years later, had no trouble seeing the values of communism as biblicaclass="underline" “A certain ideology dominated in the Soviet Union, and regardless of our feelings about it, it was based on some clear, in fact quasi-religious, values. The Moral Code of the Builder of Communism, if you read it, is just a pathetic copy of the Bible.” A number of Ilyin’s contemporaries had called Ilyin a “Chekist for God.” He was reburied as such, with honors conferred by the Chekists and the men of God, and by the men of God who were Chekists, and by the Chekists who were men of God.
Ilyin was returned, body and soul, to the Russia he had been forced to leave. And that very return, in its endorsement of contradiction and its disregard of fact, was the purest expression of respect for Ilyin’s tradition. To be sure, Ilyin opposed the Soviet system. But once it no longer existed it was history; and for Ilyin the facts of the past were nothing but raw material for the construction of a myth of innocence. Modifying Ilyin’s views ever so slightly, it was possible to see the Soviet Union not as an external imposition upon Russia, as he had seen it, but as Russia, and therefore immaculate. And so Russians could recall the Soviet system as an innocent Russian reaction to the hostility of the world. Their rulers honored their own Soviet past by reburying an enemy of the Soviet Union.
Vasily Grossman, the great Soviet novelist and chronicler of the crimes of National Socialism and Stalinism, wrote, “Everything flows, everything changes. You cannot enter the same transport twice.” He meant “transport to a concentration camp,” and was referring to the adage of Heraclitus: “Everything flows, everything changes. You cannot step into the same river twice.” In Ilyin’s sensibility, adapted by Putin, time was not a river flowing forward, but a cold round pool where ripples flowed ever inward towards a mysterious Russian perfection. Nothing new ever happened, and nothing new ever could happen; the West assaulted Russian innocence over and over again. History in the sense of the study of the past must be rejected, because it would raise questions.
In Mikhalkov’s 2014 film Sunstroke, he had ethnic Russians sentenced to death by a female Jewish secret police officer, thereby suggesting that any unjust killing was done by people who might be considered alien by nationality or gender. In 2017, when Russia had to somehow address the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian television aired a multipart drama about Leon Trotsky, thereby coding the revolution as Jewish. The hero at the end of the drama was none other than Ivan Ilyin. And so Russia celebrated a centennial of revolution by enshrining a counterrevolutionary philosopher who said that Russians should think of the past in terms of cycles of innocence. A lesson had been learned.
As Putin endorsed Ilyin’s politics of eternity, he accepted Ilyin’s definition of the Russian nation. On January 23, 2012, just after the parliamentary elections, and just before the presidential elections, Putin published an article in which he developed Ilyin’s understanding of the national question. By claiming that political opposition was sexual and foreign, Putin had already located all responsibility for Russian problems beyond the Russian redeemer or the Russian organism. By arguing that Russia was an inherently innocent “civilization,” Putin closed the logical circle. Russia was by its nature a producer and exporter of harmony, and must be allowed to bring its variety of peace to its neighbors.
In this article, Putin abolished the legal borders of the Russian Federation. Writing as its future president, he described Russia not as a state but as a spiritual condition. Citing Ilyin by name, Putin claimed that Russia had no conflicts among nationalities and indeed could not have had any. The “nationality question” in Russia was, according to Ilyin, an invention of enemies, a conceptual import from the West that had no applicability to Russia. Like Ilyin, Putin wrote of Russian civilization as eliciting fraternity. “The Great Russian mission,” wrote Putin, “is to unify and bind civilization. In such a state-civilization there are no national minorities, and the principle of recognition of ‘friend or foe’ is defined on the basis of a common culture.” That politics begins from “friend or foe” is the basic fascist idea, formulated by the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt and endorsed and propagated by Ilyin.
In writing of Russia as a civilization, Putin meant everyone whom he regarded as part of that civilization. Rather than speaking of the Ukrainian state, whose sovereignty, territorial integrity, and borders Russia officially recognized, Putin preferred to imagine the Ukrainians as a folk scattered across the broad expanse of what he defined as Russian territory, “from the Carpathians to Kamchatka,” and thus as an element of Russian civilization. If Ukrainians were simply one more Russian group (like “Tatars, Jews, and Belarusians”), then Ukrainian statehood was irrelevant and Putin as a Russian leader had the right to speak for the Ukrainian people. He concluded with a cry of defiance, telling the world that Russians and Ukrainians would never be divided, and threatening war to those who failed to understand: “We have lived together for centuries. Together we triumphed in the most horrible of wars. And we will continue to live together. And to those who want to divide us, I can only say one thing: the day will never come.”