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No doubt the Russian state can be maintained, for a time, by elective emergency and selective war. The very anxiety created by the lack of a succession principle can be projected abroad, creating real hostility and thus starting the whole process anew. In 2013, Russia began to seduce or bully its European neighbors into abandoning their own institutions and histories. If Russia could not become the West, let the West become Russia. If the flaws of American democracy could be exploited to elect a Russian client, then Putin could prove that the world outside is no better than Russia. Were the European Union or the United States to disintegrate during Putin’s lifetime, he could cultivate an illusion of eternity.

*   For his part, Putin would describe the fictional Stierlitz character as a teacher, and as president would decorate the actor who portrayed Stierlitz in the television adaptation of 1973. That actor, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, appeared in 2004 and 2010 in films directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, who apparently introduced Putin to the writings of Ilyin.


Europe, however serious its numerous shortcomings and misdemeanors, has nevertheless acquired an awesomely precious, indeed priceless, dowry of skills and know-how which it can still share with the rest of a planet that needs them now more than ever for its survival.


A state with a principle of succession exists in time. A state that arranges its foreign relations exists in space. For Europeans of the twentieth century, the central question was thus: After empire, what? When it was no longer possible for European powers to dominate large territories, how could the remnants and fragments maintain themselves as states? For a few decades, from the 1950s through the 2000s, the answer seemed self-evident: the creation, deepening, and enlargement of the European Union, a relationship among states known as integration. European empires had brought the first globalization, as well as its disastrous finales: the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Holocaust. European integration provided a fundament for a second globalization, one that, in Europe at least, promised to be different.

European integration lasted long enough that Europeans could take it for granted, and forget the resonance and power of other political models. Yet history never ends, and alternatives always emerge. In 2013, the Russian Federation proposed an alternative to integration under the name “Eurasia”: empire for Russia, nation-states for everyone else. One problem with this proposal was that the nation-state had proven itself to be untenable in Europe. In the history of Europe’s great powers, imperialism blended into integration, with the nation-state hardly appearing. The major European powers had never been nation-states: before the Second World War they had been empires, where citizens and subjects were unequal; afterwards, as they lost their empires, they had joined a process of European integration in which sovereignty was shared. The east European nation-states that had been founded as such had collapsed in the 1930s or 1940s. In 2013, there was every reason to suspect that, absent a larger European system, European states would also dissolve. One form of disintegration, that of the European Union, would very likely lead to another, the disintegration of the states of Europe.

Russian leaders seemed to understand this. Unlike their European counterparts, they were openly discussing the 1930s. Russia’s Eurasia project had its roots in the 1930s, precisely the decade when European nation-states collapsed into war. Eurasia became plausible in Russia as its leaders made integration impossible for their people. At the same time, the Kremlin rehabilitated fascist thinkers of the era, and promoted contemporary Russian thinkers who recalled fascist ideas. The major Eurasianists of the 2010s—Alexander Dugin, Alexander Prokhanov, and Sergei Glazyev—revived or remade Nazi ideas for Russian purposes.

In his time, Ivan Ilyin was in the mainstream when he believed that the future, like the past, belonged to empires. In the 1930s, the major question seemed to be whether the new empires would be of the extreme Right or the extreme Left.

The First World War brought the collapse of the old European land empires: not only Ilyin’s Russia, but the Habsburg monarchy, the German Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. Thereafter, an experiment in the creation of nation-states was undertaken on their territories. France tried to support these new entities, but during the Great Depression ceded influence in central and eastern Europe to fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. When a Polish regional governor or a Romanian fascist pronounced that the era of liberal democracy was over, they were voicing a general European conviction, indeed one that was widely shared on the other side of the Atlantic. In the 1930s the United States was an empire, in the sense that a large number of its Native American and African American subjects were not full citizens. Whether or not it would become a democracy was an open question; many of its influential men thought not. George Kennan, an American diplomat who would become his country’s outstanding strategic thinker, proposed in 1938 that the United States should “go along the road which leads through constitutional change to the authoritarian state.” Using the slogan “America First,” the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh called for sympathy with Nazis.

The Second World War also taught Europeans that the choice was between fascism and communism, empires of the far Right or far Left. It began with an unstoppable alliance of the two extremes, a German-Soviet offensive military pact of August 1939 that quickly destroyed the European system by eliminating whole states. Germany had already demolished Austria and Czechoslovakia; the Wehrmacht and the Red Army together invaded and destroyed Poland; and then the Soviet Union occupied and annexed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. With Soviet economic backing, Germany invaded and defeated France in 1940. The second stage of the war began in June 1941, when Hitler betrayed Stalin and Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Now the extremes were on opposite sides. Berlin’s war aim was imperiaclass="underline" the control of the fertile soil of Soviet Ukraine which, Hitler thought, would make of Germany a self-sufficient economy and a world power. As allies or as enemies, the far Right and the far Left seemed the only viable options. Even resistance to Nazi rule was usually led by communists.

In general, the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 discredited fascism: either because Europeans came to see fascism as a moral disaster, or because fascism claimed to be about winning and lost. After the Red Army drove the Wehrmacht from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, Soviet power was established again in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and communist regimes took over in Romania, Poland, and Hungary—all countries where right-wing authoritarianism had seemed the work of destiny just a few years before. By 1950, communism extended across almost the entirety of the zone of nation-states that had been formed after the First World War. In the aftermath of the Second World War, as in the aftermath of the First, the European nation-state proved unsustainable.

American economic power had been decisive to the course of the war. Although the United States was late to enter the military conflict in Europe, it supplied its British and Soviet allies. In postwar Europe, the United States subsidized economic cooperation in order to support the political center and undermine the extremes and thus, in the long run, create a stable market for its exports. This recognition that markets required a social basis was of a piece with American domestic policy: in the three postwar decades, the gap between rich and poor in the United States was narrowed. In the 1960s, the vote was extended to African Americans, reducing the imperial character of American politics. Although the Soviet Union and its east European satellites refused American aid after the war, west European states undertook a renewed experiment with the rule of law and democratic elections, with American financial support. Although the policies differed considerably from state to state, in general Europe in these decades built a system of health care and social insurance that later generations would take for granted. In western and central Europe, the state would no longer be dependent upon empire, but could be rescued by integration.