The Russian nation, summoned to instant war against spiritual threats, was a creature rendered divine by its submission to an arbitrary leader who emerged from fiction. The redeemer would take upon himself the burden of dissolving all facts and passions, thereby rendering senseless any aspiration of any individual Russian to see or feel or change the world. Each Russian’s place in the corporate structure would be fixed like a cell in a body, and each Russian would experience this immobility as freedom. Unified by their redeemer, their sins washed away in the blood of others, Russians would welcome God back to his creation. Christian fascist totalitarianism is an invitation to God to return to the world and help Russia bring an end to history everywhere.
Ilyin placed a human being in the role of the true Christ, required to break the laws of love in the name of God. In doing so, he blurred the line between what is human and what is not, and between what is possible and what is not. The fantasy of an eternally innocent Russia includes the fantasy of an eternally innocent redeemer, who does no wrong and therefore will not die. Ilyin could not answer the question of who might succeed the redeemer, since doing so would make of the redeemer a human subject to aging and death, no less part of the flawed universe than the rest of us. Ilyin had no earthly idea, in other words, of how a Russian state could endure.
The very dread of what comes next generates a sense of threat that can be projected upon others as foreign policy. Totalitarianism is its own true enemy, and that is the secret it keeps from itself by attacking others.
In the 2010s, Ilyin’s ideas served post-Soviet billionaires, and post-Soviet billionaires served them. Putin and his friends and allies accumulated vast wealth beyond the law, and then remade the state to preserve their own gains. Having achieved this, Russian leaders had to define politics as being rather than doing. An ideology such as Ilyin’s purports to explain why certain men have wealth and power in terms other than greed and ambition. What robber would not prefer to be called a redeemer?
To men raised in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Ilyin’s ideas were comfortable for a second reason. To the Russian kleptocrats of that generation, the men in power in the 2010s, his entire style of thinking was familiar. Although Ilyin opposed Soviet power, the shape of his argument was eerily similar to that of the Marxism, Leninism, and Stalinism in which all Soviet citizens were educated. Although Russian kleptocrats are by no means philosophers, the instruction of their youth led them surprisingly close to the justifications they would need in their maturity. Ilyin and the Marxism he opposed shared a philosophical origin and language: that of Hegelianism.
G. W. F. Hegel’s ambition was to resolve the difference between what is and what should be. His claim was that something called Spirit, a unity of all thoughts and minds, was emerging over time, through the conflicts that defined epochs. Hegel’s was an appealing way of seeing our fractious world, since it suggested that catastrophe was an indication of progress. History was a “slaughter bench,” but the bloodshed had a purpose. This idea allowed philosophers to pose as prophets, seers of hidden patterns that would resolve themselves into a better world, judges of who had to suffer now so that all would benefit later. If Spirit was the only good, than any means that History chose for its realization was also good.
Karl Marx was critical of Hegel’s idea of Spirit. He and other Left Hegelians claimed that Hegel had smuggled God into his system under the heading of Spirit. The absolute good, suggested Marx, was not God but humanity’s lost essence. History was a struggle, but its sense was man’s overcoming of circumstance to regain his own nature. The emergence of technology, argued Marx, allowed some men to dominate others, forming social classes. Under capitalism, the bourgeoisie controlled the means of production, oppressing the mass of workers. This very oppression instructed workers about the character of history and made them revolutionaries. The proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie, seize the means of production, and thereby restore man to himself. Once there was no property, thought Marx, human beings would live in happy cooperation.
Ilyin was a Right Hegelian. In a typically sharp phrase, he wrote that Marx never got out of the “waiting room” of Hegelian philosophy. Ilyin nevertheless agreed that by “Spirit” Hegel meant God. Like Marx, Ilyin thought that history had begun with an original sin that doomed humanity to suffering. It was perpetrated not by man upon man through property, as the Marxists thought, but by God upon man through the creation of the world. Rather than killing God, as the Left Hegelians had done, Ilyin left him wounded and lonely. Life was poor and chaotic, as the Marxists thought, but not because of technology and class conflict. People suffered because God’s creation was irresolvably conflictual. Facts and passions could not be aligned through revolution, only through redemption. The only totality was God’s, which a chosen nation would restore thanks to a miracle performed by a redeemer.
Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) was the most important Marxist, since he led a revolution in the name of the philosophy. As an activist of a small and illegal party in the Russian Empire, Lenin believed that a disciplined elite had the right to push history forward. If the only good in the world was the restoration of man to his essence, then it was reasonable for those who understood the process to hasten it. This reasoning enabled the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Soviet Union was ruled by a small group of people who claimed legitimacy from this specific politics of inevitability. Lenin and Ilyin did not know each other, but were uncannily close: Lenin’s patronymic was “Ilyich” and he used “Ilyin” as a pen name; the real Ilyin read and reviewed some of that work. When Ilyin was arrested by the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, Lenin intervened on his behalf in order to express his admiration of Ilyin’s philosophy.
Ilyin despised Lenin’s revolution, but he endorsed its violence and its voluntarism. Like Lenin, he thought that Russia needed a philosophical elite (himself) to define ends and means. Like the Marxist socialist utopia, Ilyin’s “divine totality” required violent revolution—or rather violent counterrevolution. Other Russian philosophers saw the resemblance. Nikolai Berdyaev found in Ilyin’s work “the nightmare of evil good.” Reviewing a book that Ilyin published in 1925, Berdyaev wrote that “a Cheka in the name of God is more horrifying than a Cheka in the name of the devil.” His judgment was prophetic: “The Bolsheviks would have no fundamental problem accepting Ivan Ilyin’s book. They consider themselves the bearers of absolute good and oppose those whom they regard as evil with force.”
Lenin (left) and Ilyin (right)
As Ilyin aged in Germany and Switzerland, his positions tracked those of Lenin’s successors. After Lenin died in 1924, Joseph Stalin consolidated power. Ilyin shared Stalinist judgments about the contagious perversity of Western culture down to the smallest detail. He believed, for instance, that jazz was a deliberate plot to reduce European listeners to mindless dancers incapable of normal sexual intercourse. The communist party newspaper Pravda offered a strikingly similar description of the experience of listening to African American music: “some centaur must be conducting with his gigantic phallus.” Though Ilyin wrote books chronicling terror under Stalin, his attitude to the law was essentially similar to that of its perpetrators. Andrei Vyshynskii, the notorious prosecutor at the show trials, believed that “formal law is subordinate to the law of the revolution.” This was precisely Ilyin’s attitude with respect to his planned counterrevolution.