Although Ilyin had initially hoped that the Second World War would destroy Stalin’s Soviet Union, in its aftermath he presented Russia much as Stalin did. Stalin called the USSR the homeland of socialism. If the Soviet Union were destroyed, went his argument, communism would have no future, and humanity’s only hope would be lost. Thus any action to defend the Soviet Union was justified. Ilyin saw Russia as a homeland of God to be preserved at all costs, since it was the only territory from which divine totality could be restored. After the war, Stalin gave priority to the Russian nation (as opposed to Ukraine, Belarus, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the dozens of peoples of the Soviet Union). Russia, Stalin claimed, had saved the world from fascism. Ilyin’s view was that Russia would save the world not from but with fascism. In both cases the only receptacle of absolute good was Russia, and the permanent enemy the decadent West.
Soviet communism was a politics of inevitability that yielded to a politics of eternity. Over the decades, the idea of Russia as a beacon for the world gave way to the image of Russia as a victim of mindless hostility. In the beginning Bolshevism was not a state but a revolution, the hope that others around the world would follow the Russian example. Then it was a state with a task: to build socialism by imitating capitalism and then overcoming it. Stalinism was a vision of the future that justified millions of deaths by starvation and another million or so by execution in the 1930s. The Second World War changed the story. Stalin and his supporters and successors all claimed after 1945 that the self-inflicted carnage of the 1930s had been necessary to defeat the Germans in the 1940s. If the 1930s were about the 1940s, then they were not about a distant future of socialism. The aftermath of the Second World War was the beginning of the end of the Soviet politics of inevitability, and thus the opening gesture towards a Russian politics of eternity.
Stalin’s economic policy, forced industrialization funded by collectivized agriculture, created social mobility for two generations but not for three. In the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet leaders agreed not to kill one another, which removed dynamism from politics. In the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev took a logical step towards a politics of eternity, portraying the Second World War as the apogee of Soviet history. Soviet citizens were instructed to look not forward but backward, to the triumph of their parents or grandparents in the Second World War. The West was no longer the enemy because it represented a capitalism that would be surpassed; the West was the enemy because the Soviet Union had been invaded from the west in 1941. Soviet citizens born in the 1960s and 1970s were raised in a cult of the past that defined the West as a perpetual threat. The last decades of Soviet communism prepared Soviet citizens for Ilyin’s view of the world.
The oligarchy that emerged in the Russian Federation after 1991 had a great deal to do with the centralization of production under communism, the ideas of Russian economists thereafter, and the greed of Russia’s leaders. American conventional wisdom contributed to the disaster by suggesting that markets would create institutions, rather than stressing that institutions were needed for markets.
In the twenty-first century, it proved easier to blame the West than to take stock of Russian choices. The Russian leaders who did the blaming in the 2010s were the very individuals who stole the national wealth. Those who proclaimed Ilyin’s ideas from the heights of the Russian state were the beneficiaries rather than the victims of capitalism’s career in Russia. The men of Putin’s entourage ensured that the rule of law had no chance in Russia, since they themselves created and profited from a state monopoly on corruption. Ilyin’s ideas sanctified radical inequality at home, changed the subject of politics from reform to innocence, while defining the West as a permanent source of a spiritual threat.
No Russian state could be built on Ilyin’s concepts. But they did help robbers to present themselves as redeemers. They enabled new leaders to choose enemies and thus create fictional problems that could not be solved, such as the permanent hostility of a decadent West. The notion that Europe and America were eternal foes because they envied pristine Russian culture was pure fiction that generated real policy: the attempt to destroy the attainments abroad that Russia’s leaders could not manage at home.
The politics of eternity cannot make Putin or any other man immortal. But it can make other ideas unthinkable. And that is what eternity means: the same thing over and over again, a tedium exciting to believers because of the illusion that it is particularly theirs. Of course, this sense of “us and them,” or, as fascists prefer, “friends and enemies,” is the least specific human experience of them all; to live within it is to sacrifice individuality.
The only thing that stands between inevitability and eternity is history, as considered and lived by individuals. If we grasp eternity and inevitability as ideas within our own history, we might see what has happened to us and what we might do about it. We understand totalitarianism as a threat to institutions, but also to selves.
In the fury of their assault, Ilyin’s ideas clarify individualism as a political virtue, the one that enables all the others. Are we individuals who see that there are many good things, and that politics involves responsible consideration and choice rather than a vision of totality? Do we see that there are other individuals in the world who might be at work on the same project? Do we understand that being an individual requires a constant consideration of endless factuality, a constant selection among many irreducible passions?
The virtue of individualism becomes visible in the throes of our moment, but it will abide only if we see history and ourselves within it, and accept our share of responsibility.
CHAPTER TWO SUCCESSION OR FAILURE (2012)
History has proven that all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government, are transient. Only democratic systems are intransient.
—VLADIMIR PUTIN, 1999
Ilyin’s conception of the innocent nation disguised the effort required to make a durable state. To propose that a Russian redeemer would enchant the world was to dodge the question of how he would establish political institutions. In discrediting democratic elections in 2011 and 2012, Vladimir Putin took on the mantle of the heroic redeemer and placed his country on the horns of Ilyin’s dilemma. No one can change Russia for the better so long as he lives, and no one in Russia knows what will happen when he dies.
The fascists of Ilyin’s time fantasized away the problem of endurance. In 1940, the Romanian fascist Alexandru Randa proclaimed that fascist leaders “transform the nation into a permanent force, into a ‘corpus mysticus’ freed from borders.” The redeemer’s charisma removes the nation from history. Adolf Hitler claimed that all that mattered was the struggle of the race, and that the elimination of Jews would restore nature’s eternal balance. His Thousand-Year Reich lasted twelve years, and he committed suicide. A state does not endure because a leader mystifies a generation. The problem of political endurance cannot be solved by people who think only of the present. Leaders must think beyond themselves and their clans, to imagine how other people might succeed them in the future.
Functional states produce a sense of continuity for their citizens. If states sustain themselves, citizens can imagine change without fearing catastrophe. The mechanism that ensures that a state outlasts a leader is called the principle of succession. A common one is democracy. The meaning of each election is the promise of the next one. Since each citizen is fallible, democracy transforms cumulative mistakes into a collective belief in the future. History goes on.
The Soviet Union that expelled Ilyin and educated Putin had a troubled relationship with time. It lacked a succession principle and lasted only sixty-nine years. The Bolsheviks were not concerned about succession because they believed that they were beginning a global revolution, not creating a state. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was for the world, a stroke of lightning to set civilization aflame, to start history anew. When this prophecy failed, the Bolsheviks had no choice but to establish a state on the territories they controlled, a new regime, which they called the Soviet Union.