Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first democratically elected President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, said, "In Russian history during the 20th century, there have been various periods—monarchism, totalitarianism, Perestroyka, and finally, a democratic path of development. Each stage," Yeltsin noted, "had its own ideology [...] but now [the stage of the democratic path of development] we have none."
Yeltsin's observation was correct. After the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia lost not only its empire and international influence, it lost its identity. For years, the communist ideology served for legitimization of the Russian political system and expansionism, it was a source of national pride and, even more importantly, a proof that Russians were an exceptional people. Russia prided itself on being the first country in the world to adopt and apply in practice Marxism—the most "humanist," most "advanced" social theory according to the communist propaganda.
The 20th century was an era of great ideologies. Political ideologies such as communism, democracy, capitalism, provided the political regimes of the epoch with an idealized identity reflecting the features, qualities and the character of individual nations. For example, the Americans were proud and "exceptional" with their freedoms and democracy; French people were proud and exceptional with their republican and democratic values; Germans with their welfare capitalism, culture, and work ethic; Russians with their socialism. Political ideologies and the related to them national mythologies were a source of creative inspiration; they were both necessary for successful governing and dangerous; dangerous because historically, when a dominant political ideology is discredited, this alsways leads to a failure or change of the entire political system and order. And this exactly is what happened in Russia in the 1990s.
After the fall of communism, Russia was devastated and had to rebuild itself as a new state; it was forced to create a new political order. It looked to the West for successful models around which it could form, hopefully, a new and better national identity. Russians quickly embraced the Western parliamentary system and economic liberalism. They changed the political system, yet the nation still did not prosper. As Yeltsin rightly observed, Russia's "democratic path of development" was lacking true ideology. The reforms and the imported from abroad principles of government brought neither healthy political and social order, nor genuine identity. Under Yeltsin's presidency, the Western prescriptions for good society not simply did not work, they only intensified the feeling of defeat and humiliation among Russians, increased poverty and economic hardship, created organized crime and class of oligarchs, while the territorial disintegration continued with occasional wars on the peripheries of the former Union.
Putin appeared in this moment of disarray and despair. Yeltsin, himself, appointed him as his successor. According to the Russian state media today, and in fact, according to the majority of Russians, Vladimir Putin saved the nation from complete destruction. When he took presidency, Putin has started rebuilding the state not on the foundations of some foreign to the Russian experience ideology such as democracy, individualism, and liberalism. Also, unlike Yeltsin, he did not ask for advice and support the Western political and economic strategists, the very same people who fought against Russia in the Cold War. On the contrary, he seemed to rediscover the exceptionality of the Russian political model. Destroying his political enemies, he gradually channeled peoples' energies under his own power, and redirected the country towards fulfilment of its national aspirations. And so far, his policy seems successful. Today, the state media describe him as the man who ended the war in Chechnya, who purged the oligarchs and saved the country from their robberies, and who stopped the Western interference in Russia's domestic affairs. In 2012, before the presidential elections, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, compared Putin's advent to power, and the prosperity and stability that followed, to "a miracle of God."
If Putin did not chose a Western model of political development and legitimization, what ideology did he find to support his policy and regime? The communist ideology was discredited, therefore, communism was not an option for him. The Western democracy and liberalism did not work either. The so-called "Western values" were historically regarded by ordinary Russians with suspicion and even contempt; this is prerhaps why Yeltsin did not succeed to implement them. The Russian monarchy was long gone. It could not be resurrected. Romanovs and the old aristocracy were destroyed by the Bolsheviks and dispersed over the world. (Michael Ignatieff, the grandson of Count Pavel Ignatieff, the Tsar's minister, lives in Canada today, not in Russia; and he was a leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, not of the People's Freedom Party, the party of the Russian liberals.) Then, what ideological sources Vladimir Putin used to rebuild a new, great Russia?
After the failure of the secular and political ideologies, Orthodox Christianity was left as the most convenient and useful source for national, political emancipation for Russians. With its mystical character and turbulent history, the Russian Orthodox Church has been exceptional for centuries. Moreover, Russia was traditionally a state with its own, independent, national religion. Here we may add also the fact that the greatest Russian writers, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, were both passionate Christians. Solzhenitsyn, the prisoner of Gulag and renowned anti-communist dissident, was a Christian, too. He was the one who famously said, “Men have forgotten God. That is why all this [the Bolshevik revolution and, for the same reason, the post-communist destruction] happened.”
Patriotism rooted in Christianity is the ideological solution that Putin has found to legitimize his authority and re-build the country. It does not mean that the president, a former KGB officer, has suddenly repented and became a Christian. It rather means that Putin proved to be a pragmatic politician, who re-discovered the potential and the power of the Russian Pravoslavie, the "right faith," with all related to it national mythologies: the Orthodox mysticism and spiritualism, the idea of the Third Rome, the mystification of Russian geography, and the idea of the Euroasian civilization. It should be noted that in his politics, Putin did not adopt the humanistic philosophy of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, nor the core principles of Christianity. He was not and will not become a Christian democrat. He turned for inspiration and ideological support to a more convenient source—an obscure 20th century thinker and publicist, the Russian émigré Ivan Ilyin.
Since 2006, in his public addresses, Putin has been mentioning Ilyin's name more and more often. In 2014, he even encouraged his regional governors to read Ilyin's book Our Tasks. Ilyin's popularity grows among the members of the Russian Orthodox Church too; for them he is a "religious philosopher," who preached, during his all life of exile, a "renewal" and "rebirth" of the fatherland. Even the current leader of the communist party Genadyi Ziuganov admits that Ilyin "made a very significant contribution to the development of the Russian state ideology of patriotism."
Who is Ivan Ilyin, and how is he related to the Kremlin's new ideology?
Recently, The New York Times labeled him as a "fascist." In an article, entitled How a Russian Fascist Is Meddling in America’s Election, the historian Timothy Snyder, called Ilyin the "prophet of Russian fascism." The majority of Russians, of course, do not agree with such a label. Nikita Mihalkov, the most famous Russian filmmaker today, described Ilyin as the only philosopher, who truly lived for Russia. Mihalkov, who is an ardent supporter of President Putin, likes to quote Ilyin's advice that a person "should live for the things for which he could also die." ("Жить надо ради того, за что можно умереть").
Ilyin was born in 1883 to an aristocratic family in Moscow, studied law at the Imperial Moscow University, and in 1922, was deported by the Bolsheviks to Europe, along with 160 intellectuals and academics considered as ideological enemies of the communist regime. He lived in Germany, France, and after the Second World War in Switzerland, where he died. Ilyin, like many of the Russian émigré at the time, believed in the idea of Eurasianism, a concept, or rather a mythology, that explains Russia's destiny with its geography. Russia, according to the Eurasian theory, was a civilization of its own, a mix between Christian Byzantine culture and Asiatic Mongol political strength. In the 1930s, Ilyin showed sympathy to Hitler and Mussolini, and was critical to Jews, who, as he believed, were supporters of communism. As a member of the so-called Russian White Movement, the contra-revolutionary forces that fought against the Bolsheviks, he was attracted to the German National Socialism. He discovered in the fascist ideology "patriotism, sense of honor, dictatorial discipline, spiritual renewal, and revival of social justice." He also believed in the providential power of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church, he thought, offered an alternative "third path" for the development of Russia that was neither Soviet communism, nor Western liberalism and democracy. He argued that the Church is a promoter and guardian of the traditional Russian values and the only true source for "spiritual renewal" of the Russian people.
All this explains why Putin and Russians have been attracted to Ivan Ilyin's philosophy. Moreover, Ilyin is considered a prophet. In the 1950s, he wrote an essay titled, "What Dismemberment of Russia entails for the World." In this text, he predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union and explained how Russia could be preserved from the corrupting influence of the West. As a follower of the Eurasian idea, he did not think that Russia belonged to Europe or Asia. Russia, for him, was a unique civilization. He did not trust the European nations, and had the apocalyptic vision that after the collapse of the Soviets, the Germans would annex Ukraine and the Baltic States, the British would takeover Caucasus and Central Asia, and Japan would attack Russia's Far East. His main concern was Ukraine, a territory that he considered historically and culturally Russian. He warned against the Western propaganda language. The words "democratization," "liberalization," "freedom" were only means for destroying the unity and Eurasian spirit of the Russian civilization. He argued that democracy was not the appropriate political form for a big country as Russia; Russia, he argued, was too diverse ethnically, and democracy could not preserve its unity. Instead, he proposed what he called "Russian National Dictatorship" as the best form of governance. The central power that he imagined was not a totalitarian regime, but rather an autocratic rule similar to the one of the old Russian monarchy. Under this regime, he believed, there would be freedom, but not anarchy, and the central power, like the Hobbesian Leviathan, would serve the people, assuring the civil order and peace. As we see, these are all visions that could legitimize the political style and ambitions of President Putin.
Putin puts Ilyin's philosophy in practice. He is favorable to the Orthodox Church that miraculously survived the communist terror. "The Russian Orthodox Church," he said in a speech, "[...] works tirelessly to bring unity, to strengthen family ties, and to educate the younger generation in the spirit of patriotism." Putin supports the revival of the Orthodox Church. Under his and Medvedev's presidency the Church received back its properties confiscated by the Soviet regime. Today, the Church and its organizations are the biggest recipients of presidential grants. Putin uses Russian Orthodoxy to emphasize Russian exceptionalsim and cultural superiority. In a speech in 2013, he argued that the Euro-Atlantic countries had rejected the "Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization," implying that Russia, in contrast, began to cultivate and defend them. In 2007, the Kremlin created Ruskiy Mir Foundation (Russian World Foundation), whose goal is to support the Russian language and culture abroad. After the fall of communism, the Russian Christianity has experienced revival, and under Putin's presidency this process has accelerated. Between 1991 and 2008 the percentage of the Russians who identify themselves culturally as Orthodox Christians increased from 31 percent to 72 percent. The number of people who believe in God for the same period went from 38 to 56 percent.
The Church seems happy to receive the Kremlin's support. However, it neither has the ability to seriously influence Putin's policy, nor does it unconditionally approve his leadership. The Orthodox Church had a long and tragic history of secular dominance and abuse. Historically, it had much less freedom from state interferences than its Western counterparts. So, it is not a surprise that today there are members of the Church and the clergy who oppose certain policies of the Russian president. For example, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the former head of the Department for Cooperation of Church and Society, criticized the military conflict in Donbas. Nevertheless, Putin enjoys more support than opposition among Orthodox Christians. And one is sure, both Putin and Patriarch Kirill, have mutual interest: Putin needs the Church to legitimize and support his realpolitk, the Patriarch in Moscow needs Putin to re-Christianize Russia after the destructive years of Soviet communism. The Church approves the promotion of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the so-called "near abroad" (blizkie zarubejie), but opposes the military conflict in Ukraine. Both the Kremlin and the Church consider the annexed in 2014 Crimea as a legitimate part of Russia. In the annexation speech, Putin reminded the world that the first Christian prince of Russia, Vladimir the Great, was baptized in the ancient Crimean city of Chersonesus. He called Crimea the 'spiritual source" of the Russian nation and state, having the same sacred value and significance like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism. On the other hand, as I said, the Russian Patriarch is either silent or critical to the conflict in Ukraine. He refuses to support the war, calls it "fraternal," a conflict between brothers, in which "there can be no winners."
Kirill, however, is an active advocate of the Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict. The goals behind his support are not political, but rather humanitarian. He believes that Russia has the responsibility to protect the Syrian Christians from ISIS. Moreover, Russians are among the biggest foreign communities in Aleppo. Yet, the Church is careful not to describe the military involvement as a "holy war." Of course, Putin's goals in the Middle East are geopolitical, not humanitarian.
There is a kind of fusion of religion and politics in contemporary Russia. This does not mean that there is a de-secularization of the Russian state and society; rather we witness a recovery and reinvention of an old form of caesaropapism that is traditional for the Russian political culture and experience. Over the centuries, before the end of monarchy, Russia considered itself as a Christian empire, the Third Rome, a successor of Byzantium, the Euro-Asiatic empire destroyed by the Ottomans. In Byzantium the emperor was the head of state and church. He was God's representative on earth. And now, in the 21st century, we see how these old ideas and mythologies are resurrected and successfully exploited by the power in Kremlin.