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By Paul Valliere


The Montréal Review, October 2022



Edited by Paul Valliere and Randall A. Poole
(Routledge, 2022)


Ivan Aleksandrovich Ilyin (1883–1954) was born in Moscow, the son of Aleksandr Ivanovich Ilyin, an attorney. Ivan’s mother, Ekaterina Iulievna Shveikert, was the daughter of a German Protestant physician who made his career in Russia. She converted to Orthodoxy when she married. The Ilyins were of noble rank and owned properties in Ryazan Province.

Ivan Aleksandrovich received a classical education in Moscow gymnasia and matriculated in the law faculty of Moscow University in 1901. Ilyin’s student years were a time of intense political ferment in Russia, culminating in the Revolution of 1905. Ilyin was a political radical during his student days. His older brother Aleksei joined the Social Democratic Party in 1905 and took part in the armed uprising of Moscow workers in December of that year. Ivan’s radicalism, however, did not disrupt his academic work, and he graduated on schedule in the spring of 1906.

That summer, Ilyin married Nataliia Nikolaevna Vokach (1882–1963). Like Ilyin, Nataliia Nikolaevna came from a family connected with the legal profession. Her father was a Moscow attorney, while her uncle, Sergei Andreevich Muromtsev (1850–1910), was Russia’s leading scholar of Roman law and an activist in the cause of constitutional government in Russia. In 1906, he served as chairman of the First Duma, Russia’s frst elected parliament. Nataliia Nikolaevna was an intellectual in her own right. Early in their marriage, she and her husband translated several works of European social and political thought, including Georg Simmel’s On Social Differentiation and Paul Elzbacher’s Anarchism. Their marriage was a long and happy one. Ilyin dedicated most of his principal works to Nataliia Nikolaevna. The couple had no children.

N.N. Iliyna and I.A.Ilyin, Zurich, 1954

Ilyin followed the conventional path of a young man headed for an academic career in one of Russia’s top universities. With the support of his mentor, the Kantian jurist Pavel Novgorodtsev, Ilyin entered the master’s program of the law faculty in 1906. He passed his examinations in 1909 and was elected in the same year to membership in the Moscow Psychological Society. In 1910, his frst scholarly article, “The Concepts of Law and Force,” was published in the society’s journal. He also began teaching courses in Moscow academic institutions. Study abroad in Europe came next. The Ilyins traveled widely, although they spent more time in Germany than elsewhere. Ilyin’s visit with Husserl in Göttingen, in the summer of 1911, may have been the most signifcant of his contacts for his philosophical development. Ilyin’s intuitionism bears a resemblance to Husserl’s.

One thing Ilyin failed to accomplish in Europe was completion of a master’s thesis. A thesis on “the crisis of the rationalist philosophy of law in Germany in the nineteenth century” was one of the stated purposes of his sojourn abroad.6 However, his growing interest in Hegel defected him from his plan. Returning to Russia in 1912, Ilyin began work in earnest on what would become the most impressive scholarly product of his life, a two-volume exposition of Hegel’s thought. He defended the work as a master’s thesis in May 1918, but his examiners, Novgorodtsev and Evgenii Trubetskoi, were so impressed that they awarded him both the master’s degree and a doctorate.

The Hegel book sheds light on how Ilyin positioned himself in the Russian religious-philosophical movement of his day. A protege of Novgorodtsev, Ilyin had to decide whether he would be a keeper of the Kantian flame or do something new. He was a decade or more younger than Novgorodtsev and the other leaders of the Russian religious-philosophical renaissance. By the time he entered Moscow University, Russian idealism had emerged in both its Kantian and Schellingian- Solovievian versions. Ilyin showed character and originality when he decided to explore a less traveled path. In the study of Hegel, he found his daimon.

Because of the chaos of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Ilyin’s book on Hegel received little attention when it appeared, and the work was ignored in the Soviet Union. After World War II, however, Ilyin prepared an abridged German edition. Since then, the book has been much admired by Hegel scholars and others, including theologians, who have taken the time to study it. Pace Feuerbach and Marx, Ilyin conveyed the theological seriousness of Hegel’s thought. Hegel sought a grand synthesis of the Christian faith with scientifc and humanistic culture. For Hegel, “the religious essence of the Christian religion, as the ‘absolute’ religion, is determined precisely by the good news of the realizability of the ‘organic identity’ of humanity and God.” What makes divine-human identity possible is what Hegel called Geist (spirit). Geist is both human and divine. Human beings fulfll their humanity through the clarifcation of Geist as freedom, while God fulflls God’s divinity in and through the consciousness of human beings. The mutual actualization of human beings and God is what Hegel meant by spiritual life.

To what extent Ilyin shared Hegel’s theological vision is a matter of debate. Igor Evlampiev, a contemporary philosopher who has written extensively on Ilyin, argues that the position Ilyin attributed to Hegel was his own, but that this fact has been obscured by “the myth of Ilyin as a strict Orthodox philosopher,” a myth promoted by Ilyin himself after he moved to the right politically following the Russian Revolution. Before 1918, Ilyin’s occasional comments on Orthodox Christianity do not call up the image of a devoted churchman. He complained about the “ecclesiastical rigmarole” (naviazchivuiu tserkovnost’) he had to go through to marry Nataliia Nikolaevna. He lamented the “hysterical prattling about Orthodoxy” (istericheskie pravoslavnichaniia) infecting Russian philosophy in his day. When he talked about ultimate reality, he employed the Hegelian discourse of spirit. While the language of spirit may be heard by some as echoing the Orthodox mystical-ascetical tradition, Ilyin is generally talking about something else when he invokes spiritual life at this stage of his career (and even later). He is talking about cultural creativity in its several modes, such as literature, science, philosophy, and law. For Ilyin, as for Hegel, spiritual life was closely associated with the universitas litterarum.

Ilyin’s debt to Hegel cannot be doubted, but neither should it be exaggerated. A humorous report preserved in Ilyin’s memoirs is pertinent here. Ilyin was arrested and incarcerated by the young Bolshevik regime on several occasions between 1918 and 1922, but he escaped harsh punishment. He was told at the time that his apparent immunity was due to Lenin’s esteem for his Hegel scholarship, Lenin valuing Hegel as a forerunner of Marx. As Ilyin reminisced,

The “tame” Communists (and there were such) used to tell me that I had a good rating at the GPU [the secret police]: they saw me as a “Hegelian.” I usually answered that this was a confusion: that I was never a Hegelian and that Marx has nothing in common with Hegel. They replied: “Be quiet and make no objections! When we’re no longer around, you can put it out that you’re not a Hegelian; until then, that’s your cover.”

During the Russian Civil War, Ilyin stayed in Moscow, lecturing and conducting seminars to the extent possible amid arrests and the upheaval of the time. Following the Civil War, Ilyin seemed to hope that he could resume his professional work under more normal circumstances. In the spring of 1922, he addressed a meeting of the Moscow Law Society, the frst gathering of the association since 1917. His theme was “The Fundamental Tasks of Jurisprudence in Russia.” In September, however, he was expelled from the Soviet Union along with many other non-Marxist intellectuals. He and Nataliia Nikolaevna settled in Berlin, where, in the spring of 1923, Ilyin became one of the founding faculty members of the Russian Scientifc Institute. The German capital would be his home until 1938.

Ilyin’s legal thought

In his debut article, “The Concepts of Law and Force” (1910), Ilyin proposes a bold, categorical solution to the question of how we should understand the titular concepts. Law and force, he argues, belong to entirely different “orders” of experience. The concept of force “lies always in the order of the real.” It pertains to actual processes: physical, psychic, social, political, or metaphysical. Law is a normative concept. It pertains to the order of the obligatory “completely abstracted from any temporality and actuality whatever” (353). Law can be subjected to logical analysis, but this operation takes place within, not outside, the juridical order. The orders of law and force require different methodologies of those who would investigate them. Blurring this distinction vitiates the investigation from the start. Ilyin does not deny the possibility of studying law in terms of its engagement with “forces” of various kinds, as in the psychological, sociological, historical, or political investigation of law. However, he insists that “a juridical defnition and examination of law is the logical prius” of all such enterprises (359). If the juridical moment proper (the norm and its logic) is eliminated or bracketed, the phenomenon under investigation will not be law at all but some sort of surrogate, or even its opposite. So, for example, a jurist will reject the defnition of law as “defended interest” because an interest belongs to the psychological, not the juridical order, and “a ‘defended’ interest does not cease to be an interest.” On the other hand, a division of labor is acceptable to Ilyin. In the example at hand, the jurist will study what it means to be “defended,” while “the psychologist-legal theorist” will study interest “in the measure of [its] recognition through law” (371).

The normative and formalist idea of law that Ilyin elaborates in “The Concepts of Law and Force” stands in the Kantian tradition in which Ilyin was schooled, but the extremism with which he pursued the distinction between the normative and the “real” could not fail to invite criticism. Ilyin’s most eminent critic was Bogdan Kistiakovskii, who incorporated criticism of Ilyin in his magnum opus, The Social Sciences and Law (1916). Kistiakovskii was a Ukrainian idealist who distinguished his worldview, which he called “scientifc-philosophical idealism,” from the “metaphysical and mystical idealism” of Novgorodtsev and other religiously inclined philosophers (189–90). Kistiakovskii believed that the defense of absolute values against positivism could be, and should be, a secular and scientifc enterprise.

Kistiakovskii criticized “The Concepts of Law and Force” on two grounds. First, he charged that Ilyin’s position suffered from formalism. Ilyin “confuses the concept of law with law itself”; he reduces norms to the logic of norms. For Kistiakovskii, the aim of law is always a norm imagined as realized, or at least as capable of realization, and this should be acknowledged even in a methodologically pure distillation of the concept. He agreed with Jhering’s maxim that “law exists to be realized.” By ignoring the intentionality of law, Ilyin steers legal thought in the direction of a “jurisprudence of concepts” and fails to provide criteria for distinguishing realizable juridical norms from fanciful products of the formalist imagination (313–17). By detaching concept from reality so categorically, Ilyin risks falling into a “scholastic Platonism” (308).

Kistiakovskii also criticized Ilyin for skating too lightly over the concreteness of law. Ilyin recognized that law “can be ‘introduced’ into the ‘order’ of the real and ‘move’ within it,” but he failed to explain how this happens (312–13). This point was especially important to Kistiakovskii, who, besides being an eminent jurist, was a leading sociologist. He believed that the values of Neo-Kantian jurisprudence could be combined with the scientifc method of sociology and other social sciences to advance the cause of the rule-of-law state in Russia.

Kistiakovskii’s criticisms of “The Concepts of Law and Force” were for the most part fair. He could be faulted, however, for not underscoring the most important point of Ilyin’s article, a point with which Kistiakovskii surely agreed: the sui generis character of law. Ilyin and Kistiakovskii wrote during a creative period of legal thought in Russia marked by the rise of new approaches emphasizing the “incarnate” aspect of law, as Kistiakovskii called it, that is, the embeddedness of law in social, psychological, political, and historical processes (317). Ilyin did not reject these approaches, but he was determined that law should not be swamped by the weight and complexity of the processes in which it is embedded. For Ilyin, no social science, however discerning, will ever arrive unaided at the idea of law. The idea of law must be there, and be recognized as there, from the beginning. It cannot be derived from something else. It certainly cannot be derived from force.

Ilyin took Kistiakovskii’s criticisms to heart. In his most important jurisprudential work, On the Essence of Legal Consciousness, the titular concept presupposes the embeddedness of law in actual experience. The term “legal consciousness” does not occur in “The Concepts of Law and Force.” By the time Ilyin began writing his new book, however, legal consciousness had become, and would remain, the focus of his legal thought. Ilyin wrote the frst ten chapters of On the Essence of Legal Consciousness between 1916 and 1918. He completed the work after World War II. It was published posthumously in 1956 by the press of a Russian Orthodox monastery in Germany.

The concept of legal consciousness (Rechtsbewusstsein) came into currency with Savigny and the historical school of jurisprudence in nineteenth-century Germany. However, Ilyin did not receive it from them, but from Novgorodtsev and Kistiakovskii. In 1909, Novgorodtsev brought out a survey of modern legal and political theories titled Introduction to the Philosophy of Law: The Crisis of Modern Legal Consciousness. In a lucid introduction, he identifed the “crisis” as loss of faith in the transformative power of law. As Novgorodtsev saw it, faith in law reached its apogee in the French Revolution and the social and political philosophy of the German idealists. In that time,

law appeared to be the crown and culmination of cultural development or, as Kant believed, the fnal end of world history. This was a kind of apotheosis of law issuing from faith in its divine destiny on earth. Hegel merely turned this faith into clear philosophical symbols when he called the state “an earthly god,” “the incarnation of the ethical idea.”

The subsequent realisms, materialisms, positivisms, and failed revolutions of the nineteenth century undermined this faith. Novgorodtsev, however, did not accept the verdict of the nineteenth century as fnal. He sought to renew faith in law by making a case for natural law based on metaphysical idealism.

An essay by Kistiakovskii was also important in turning Ilyin’s attention to legal consciousness. Kistiakovskii’s “In the Defense of Law: The Intelligentsia and Legal Consciousness” appeared in Landmarks: A Collection of Essays on the Russian Intelligentsia (1909). Landmarks (Vekhi) challenged the Russian intelligentsia to rethink their role in Russian society in light of the Revolution of 1905. Radical intellectuals, inspired by liberalism, populism, or Marxism, played a crucial role in making the revolution, but they failed to achieve their aims. Neither liberal democracy nor peasant socialism nor a workers’ state resulted from the upheaval. What did result was the frst constitutional limits on the power of the Russian monarchy along with the creation of Russia’s frst elected parliament. Most of the radical intelligentsia rejected this outcome. As they saw it, Russia needed a second, better revolution. The vocation of the intelligentsia was to bring it about. The Landmarks group dissented. What Russia needed most, they argued, was a season of peace, self-examination, and reconstruction. They acknowledged the defciencies of the new institutions but believed it was possible to work within them for a better future. The group was not of one mind about how best to work for change. Some appealed to religious values, others favored cultural work. Kistiakovskii called for the cultivation of “legal consciousness.”

As Kistiakovskii saw it, the low level of legal consciousness in Russia was “the result of a chronic evil—the lack of any kind of legal order in the daily life of the Russian people” (116). Instead of recognizing the absence of legality as a problem, however, many Russian intellectuals preferred to celebrate it as a virtue. Conservative, religiously oriented thinkers regarded formal legality as morally fawed because it appeared to justify self-interest and individualism. Radicals viewed legality as a bourgeois stratagem for blocking the revolution. Even many Russian liberals were prone to minimize the importance of the legal order. Kistiakovskii cites the example of K. D. Kavelin, a mid-nineteenth-century Russian liberal who opposed the constitutionalist projects of his day because he believed they would be dominated by the nobility (and thereby vitiated). “While rejecting the constitutional state in the name of his own democratic aspirations, however, he ignored its legal signifcance” (119). Kistiakovskii faulted the liberals of his own day on the same grounds, namely, for putting political struggle (regime change, revolution) ahead of the struggle for legality, that is, for the cultivation of legal consciousness and the rule-of-law state.

In Ilyin’s thought, the concept of legal consciousness functions as a means of linking the empirical and transcendental elements of law. His position may be summarized as follows. When one observes a legal system, one sees a set of concrete determinations designed to direct human conduct in a particular context. If one asks why these determinations command obedience, however, one confronts a problem: there is nothing in the determinations themselves to explain this. Even in a hard-wired positivist theory of law, human beings’ recognition of law as law has to be explained, whether via quasi-biological concepts such as instinct or adaptation, or via the concept of self-preservation, or in terms of some other material factor. Empirically considered, law is not self-authenticating: it does not tell us why it is law. Terms such as right, justice, fairness, and the like are transcendental. They are nowhere to be found except in the mind, and it is an act of the mind, not something else, that links these unseen realities with the visible determinations of a legal system. This act of mind is the primordial act of legal consciousness. Legal consciousness is “the living effcacy of law in the human soul.”

The idea of legal consciousness involves considerable optimism about human beings’ ability to grasp standards of rightness. Ilyin embraced this optimism. He believed that “it is impossible for a human being not to possess legal consciousness.” Legal consciousness is “already given in embryo to each person” (121; cf. 334). This embryonic sense of rightness forms the basis of natural law. Natural law is the sum total of the transcendental values that stand above positive law and justify positive law as they take concrete form in it. The foundation of natural law is human beings’ awareness of themselves as spiritual beings. For Ilyin, as for Hegel, spirit is the spark of the divine in the universe. Human beings possess an aboriginal “will to spirit and to spirituality” (186). Right springs from spirit. Hence, the most fundamental human right is “the right to lead a spiritually-dignifed life” (156). From this right, Ilyin derived “the basic axioms of legal consciousness: a sense of one’s own spiritual worth, the capacity for self-obligation and self-governance, and the mutual respect and trust of people in one another” (185).

If law is grounded in spirit, however, it is equally true that spirit needs law:

Law in its original, “natural” sense is nothing other than a necessary form of the spiritual being of a human. It indicates that order of equal, free self-suffciency of each in which alone spiritual life is possible on earth. From this it follows that law in this sense could be extinguished or become unnecessary only if the basic mode of human existence were to change, that is, if humanity ceased to be a multiplicity of self-suffcient subjects, united by a shared basis of external life.

For this reason, Ilyin opposed visions of history or society that predicted the withering away of law, such as Marxism, anarchism, or Petrażycki’s dream of an epoch when law will give way to love. Freedom under law and law in support of freedom: this is the core of what may be termed Ilyin’s liberalism.

The concept of legal consciousness has numerous practical applications in Iyin’s jurisprudence. For example, it explains how legal systems change for the better. Laws improve as the people subject to them become more aware of the transcendental norms of law present in legal consciousness and fnd ways to concretize those norms more adequately. Improvement is always an option. Hence, a mature legal consciousness will affrm law as such, even in the face of unjust laws or poor administration of the law. Socrates’s acceptance of the unjust verdict of an Athenian jury was the gold standard of legal consciousness for Ilyin.

Ilyin also appeals to legal consciousness as a way of bearing the burdens involved in a system of positive law. Ilyin had a keen sense of these burdens:

One who has lived under the burden of a totalitarian regime and terror; who has thought over the essence of material inequality and understood the regular connection between the sizes of the harvests in a country and the quantity of crimes against property; who is acquainted with the essence of the previous Russian suit for divorce; who has been in a convict prison and has heard the rattling of chains on human beings; who knows what corporal punishment is, and has had contact with a person condemned to capital punishment; who saw all that and understood that it is also carried out in accordance with law—such an individual possesses suffcient psychic motives to no longer trust in a single formulation of the problem of the spiritual justifcation of law.

Justifcations of law based on pragmatic considerations such as self-preservation, security, and the like do not solve this problem. They might justify a legal system as a necessity, but they do not address the problem of moral degradation. “Only a free recognition of law is not degrading for a human being” (142). That recognition depends on legal consciousness; indeed, it is legal consciousness.

The proper exercise of judicial discretion also depends on legal consciousness. Only through an act of intuition, “an intuition of the whole,” as Hegel called it, can a judge, “in the spirit of genuine right,” bridge the gap between the rule or letter of the law and a singular case. Ilyin also followed Hegel in affrming trial by jury as the best way of engaging a defendant’s legal consciousness in a judicial proceeding. Judgment by a jury of peers allows a defendant to see the court’s verdict as if it came from his own soul.

Force, fascism, and the future of Russia

“The Concepts of Law and Force” anticipated llyin’s lasting concern with the problem of force. The events Ilyin and his generation were destined to endure— world war, revolution, civil war, exile, and a second world war—made this concern existential. The best known of Ilyin’s writings on the subject is On Resistance to Evil by Force (1925), in which he advocated the use of violence in the struggle against Bolshevism. His rhetoric was at times extreme, as when he called for wielding “the Orthodox sword” against the Soviet regime. The book sparked a storm of debate in the Russian emigration. Some of the leading lights of the religious-philosophical intelligentsia expressed shock at Ilyin’s position, which they deemed unchristian. Nikolai Berdiaev branded Ilyin as a propagandist for “the evil good,” comparing him to “inquisitors” such as Torquemada, Robespierre, and Dzerzhinsky (frst head of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police). “The ‘Cheka’ in the name of God,” Berdiaev averred, “is more repulsive than the ‘Cheka’ in the name of the devil.”

The polemics unleashed by On Resistance to Evil by Force can make it diffcult to arrive at a fair assessment of its contents. It is worth noting, therefore, that Ilyin had covered much the same ground a decade earlier. In the opening months of World War I, he published an essay on “The Fundamental Moral Contradiction of the War,” in which he explored the question, “Is it permitted to kill a human being?” Ilyin argued that the question of killing is perplexing because conscience responds to the question in contradictory ways. On one hand, conscience intuitively recognizes the guilt involved in taking a human life. In killing, human beings transgress God’s sovereignty over life and death, they violate the social and spiritual love which knits the human race together, and they effect an outcome that cannot be rectifed because it cannot be reversed. The burden of killing elicits responses like Tolstoy’s: it is better to surrender one’s earthly goods than to accept the deflement that comes from killing. Nevertheless, the same conscience that recoils from killing recognizes that there are also situations where yielding to aggression contradicts morality. For example, if someone tries to force another person to commit a despicable act or attacks a defenseless neighbor, conscience prompts resistance. In such cases, human dignity is at stake. Hence, the moral contradiction of war: conscience recognizes killing as a guilty act yet knows that there are times when one must vigorously combat evil. What is the way out of this dilemma? As Ilyin saw it, there is no way out. The human ethical situation is “tragic.” The right path is the path of heroic endurance. One must “bravely accept one’s guilty mission.”

Ilyin makes the same argument in On Resistance to Evil by Force. The main difference is that he adds Christian content to the argument. Christian faith does not fgure in “The Fundamental Moral Contradiction of the War,” not even in the pages on love. On love, Ilyin sounds like Hegel. Love is the “social-spiritual fabric of life … the unbroken, continuous connection of all with all.” In On Resistance to Evil by Force, however, Ilyin loads his text with references to Jesus, the Gospels, and (to a lesser extent) the church. He also has more to say about love, which he now presents as grounded in God. In the effort to construe love in relation to the practice of force, Ilyin contends that the hero of conscience who raises the sword against an evildoer is actually performing an act of love—not positive love (subjective affection) but “negative” or objective love.

A person who has smothered the image of God in himself, does not stand in need of a weak-willed, sympathetic “Yes,” but of a severe, condemnatory “No,” and this “No” that restrains him and brings him to his senses can and ought to have, as its genuine source, love for God in heaven and for the Divine in our fallen and spiritually extinguished soul.

Resistance to evil presents the “negative face of love.”

What made Ilyin’s book controversial was not so much his core argument as his determination to Christianize it. To this end, he devised dubious interpretations of biblical passages, especially those concerning Jesus. With respect to Jesus’s command to love one’s enemies, for example, Ilyin argues that Jesus was speaking only about one’s personal enemies, not “the enemies of God,” whom, as Ilyin would have it, Jesus slated for punishment. He also argues that Jesus viewed capital punishment in a favorable light (5:141–43). At points such as these, one can appreciate Berdiaev’s vexation: “It is monstrous to suppose that the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, concerned himself with questions of criminal justice and worked out a system of punishments.” Berdiaev viewed the gospel according to Ilyin as “legalism devoid of grace.”

Despite the weaknesses of Ilyin’s Christianization of the argument in Resistance to Evil by Force, his position was by no means the moral and religious travesty that his critics saw in it. Ilyin can certainly be exonerated of the charge that he proposed to induce virtue by force, like Torquemada or Robespierre. He explicitly rejected this idea. He can also be exonerated of the charge of advocating holy war, although his position bears a resemblance to holy war in certain respects. The issue hangs on how one understands Ilyin’s notion of “the guilty mission” that fghters for righteousness embrace. The Russian word translated as “mission” is podvig, a term redolent of the Orthodox Christian notion of holiness. Ilyin’s point, however, lies not in the noun but the qualifer: “guilty.” Far from being pure, Ilyin’s hero recognizes that he is caught in a web of sin and guilt. For this reason, “the active, heroic struggle with evil is not at all a direct and immediate path to personal holiness” (5:187). On the contrary, “man is not righteous; and he does not conduct the struggle against evil as a righteous person or in the company of righteous persons” (5:179). The hero’s situation is paradoxical: “he is not righteous, but right” (5:208). Ilyin’s Christian soldier bears a resemblance to Luther’s Christian person: simul justus et peccator, simultaneously righteous and a sinner.

Ilyin’s exploration of this paradox suggests a wider context in which to set Resistance to Evil by Force. Ilyin was not the only modern thinker who wrestled with the challenge of reconciling Christian ethics with what Max Weber called an “ethic of responsibility.” In Russia, Vladimir Soloviev embraced the challenge a generation before Ilyin. In the West, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich embraced it in their effort to craft a Christian response to Nazism. Niebuhr’s “Christian realist” attack on the pacifsm of the interwar period turned on the same paradox as Ilyin’s: Christians do not fght for the right as righteous persons but as sinners in need of forgiveness, even in their noblest actions. Paul Tillich invoked Luther’s idea of “the strange work of love.” The strange work of love is the use of force “to destroy what is against love.” This ethical formula involves the further discovery “that love’s strange work, the compulsory element of power, is not only the strange but also the tragic aspect of love” (emphasis mine). Tillich’s position was the same as Ilyin’s.

Ilyin differed from the Protestant realists in wanting to see a heroic element in Christian ethics. Niebuhr and Tillich would have agreed with Sergei Bulgakov’s contention in Landmarks that Christian ethics involves a fundamentally different spiritual dynamic than the ethics of heroism: the Christian turns away from the voluntarism, egocentrism, and elitism of the heroic tradition to embrace humility and the theological virtues. Ilyin, on the other hand, casts his Christian soldiers as heroes. They are knights in whom “the Orthodox chivalric tradition [still] lives.” They take the martial saints Michael and George as their models (5:141). They stand apart from the common crowd because, as Ilyin believed, the majority of human beings are rarely capable of heroism (5:138, 185). Appeals to heroism and moral aristocratism appear throughout Ilyin’s writings. How well these Romantic, at times quixotic, appeals served him is questionable.

A darker fact must also be considered: Ilyin’s relationship to fascism. Like Tillich and Niebuhr, Ilyin had to deal with fascism, but unlike them, he was sympathetic to it. His sympathy compounded the controversies surrounding his work, and these controversies have not ceased. Timothy Snyder, a distinguished contemporary historian of Eastern Europe, refers to our thinker as “the fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin.”

Ilyin’s contact with fascism began in 1924, when he visited Italy. The Mussolini regime was not yet two years old but had captured international attention. The following year, Petr Struve commissioned Ilyin to report on Italian fascism for his Paris-based Russian newspaper, Vozrozhdenie (Renaissance). The product of Ilyin’s efforts was a series of impressions published in 1925–26.38 Ilyin’s portrait of Italian fascism was sympathetic but not uncritical. He commended the movement for steering Italy clear of the civil war that threatened it during the early postwar years. Here, as in many of Ilyin’s writings on social and political topics in the emigration, the Russian Civil War loomed large as a point of comparison. Ilyin’s chief caution regarding Italian fascism was that its patriotism, which he admired, could develop in the direction of an exclusivist nationalism, which he did not admire.

In 1927, Ilyin launched a journal of his own, Russkii Kolokol (The Russian bell). Nine issues appeared between 1927 and 1930. In the one article where Ilyin discusses the possibility of a Russian version of fascism, he makes two distinctions that maintain distance between him and such a project. First, he explicitly distinguishes the émigré political association with which he himself was connected, the Russian General Military Union, from fascism. This organization stood on the right wing of Russian émigré politics, but it derived from the White Army of the Russian Civil War, not from contemporary fascist movements. Second, Ilyin devotes most of his article to warning would-be Russian fascists against imitating existing fascist movements, since those movements were operating in contexts quite different from Russia.

The high watermark of Ilyin’s sympathy for fascism came in the spring of 1933, when he penned an article for Vozrozhdenie on Hitler’s accession to power earlier that year. Ilyin seems to have been as surprised as many other observers when Hitler took the helm of the German state in the wake of the Nazis’ dramatic gains in the elections of 1932. Ilyin’s frst response, however, was positive. The point of his article was to combat what he viewed as the uncritical rejection of Hitler by liberals and leftists. He regarded Hitler and Mussolini as allies in the struggle against Bolshevism. He noted the Nazi government’s assault on the civil rights of German Jews but did not regard those measures as a suffcient reason for calling the entire German fascist project into question. Ilyin’s positive attitude toward the Nazi regime started unraveling soon enough, when he himself came under pressure as a foreign intellectual of independent views. In the summer of 1934, Ilyin was removed from his teaching position at the Russian Scientifc Institute for refusing to promote anti-Semitic policies. He and Nataliia Nikolaevna abandoned Nazi Germany for Switzerland in 1938. They settled in Zollikon, outside Zurich, and resided there for the rest of their lives. Ivan Aleksandrovich died in 1954; Nataliia Nikolaevna, in 1963.

The question of Ilyin and fascism is best placed in the context of his political philosophy, the clearest exposition of which is found in the second half of On the Essence of Legal Consciousness. There Ilyin argues that the constitution of a state should be geared to the level of legal consciousness in the population the state is called to govern. A country where legal consciousness is rudimentary needs a different constitution than a country where legal consciousness is robust. Hence,

the wise statesman, introducing political freedom, takes account of the cultural and spiritual level of the masses: he is frmly convinced that the spiritual maturity of the population will inevitably take the form of political freedom; just as the premature seizure or the untimely bestowal of freedom can turn out to be a vain and fatal gift.

“To fnd that historically best combination of ‘solidary self-governance and ruling trusteeship’ means to correctly solve the problem of the organization of state power.”

After World War II, Ilyin composed a series of journalistic pieces exploring what this optimal combination might look like in Russia following the demise of the Soviet regime. His position was that post-Soviet Russia would not be ready for a maximalist liberal democratic constitution because “the art of freedom,” that is, the proper balance between liberty and self-discipline, would be lacking in Russia. At least for a while, the country would require a top-down system administered by technically, intellectually, and spiritually qualifed leaders. Ilyin described this regime as

a frm, national-patriotic, ideologically liberal dictatorship [that would] help the people prioritize their own best instincts and that would train the people in sobriety, in loyalty freely given, in self-government, and in organic participation in the building of the state.

Ilyin called his recipe “creative democracy,” as distinct from “democracy at all costs.” He believed that the introduction of “democracy at all costs” in post-Soviet Russia would land Russia in anarchy, as it did in 1917. Ilyin acknowledged that his recipe was “authoritarian.” He denied that it was “totalitarian.”

One way to characterize Ilyin’s political outlook is to apply the label that Ilyin’s political mentor, Petr Struve, applied to himself: “liberal conservative.” One might object that Ilyin’s call for an “ideologically liberal dictatorship” is a contradiction in terms, because any talk of dictatorship negates liberalism. On the other hand, there is clearly a cluster of liberal values at the core of Ilyin’s political thought. The entire second half of On the Essence of Legal Consciousness is devoted to the proposition that a political constitution must be founded on the irreducible freedom and dignity of the human person. Ilyin also emphasized the need for “formal legal guarantees” in contexts where “the best substantive guarantee—nobility of legal consciousness—is absent.” Comparison with Hegel is apt here. Victor Cousin wrote of Hegel that “he was profoundly liberal without being in the least republican.” Like Hegel, Ilyin was a statist and a monarchist, but to deny that liberal values occupied a central place in his political thought is a mistake.

For the same reason, it is a mistake to call Ilyin a “fascist philosopher.” Ilyin’s thought never manifested such signal features of fascism as populism, totalitarianism, racism, anti-Semitism, thuggery, or the politics of hysteria. One may criticize Ilyin severely for not recognizing the catastrophic vices of fascism from the start. His expressions of sympathy enhanced the prestige of fascism in the Russian emigration and opened a wide door to harmful misuses of his thought. However, for a fairer assessment of Ilyin’s lapses of judgment, we do better to cite a verdict Ilyin passed on someone else years earlier. As a graduate student, he wrote a paper for Novgorodtsev titled “Plato’s Ideal State in Connection with His Philosophical Worldview.” He concluded that “Plato’s ideal state seeks to realize progressive principles by reactionary means.” The same reproach could be leveled at Ilyin forty years later.

Ilyin’s Orthodoxy

Many of Ilyin’s later works refect his devotion to Orthodox Christianity. The best of these is The Axioms of Religious Experience (1953), which Ilyin conceived in 1919, although he wrote most of it much later. In design and method, Axioms is a phenomenology of spirituality. Ilyin called it “a pneumatic actology,” the “act” being the act of faith and its derivatives (1:11, 135–36). What lends Axioms an Orthodox Christian character is the extensive use Ilyin makes of source material from the mystical-ascetical tradition of the Christian East, that is, the Greek, Syrian, and Egyptian fathers of antiquity and the Middle Ages, along with studies of these sources by modern scholars. Yet Orthodox sources form only one stratum of the literature on which Ilyin draws in Axioms. Hindu, Buddhist, and other religious traditions fgure prominently in the work, as do spiritual writers of the Western church and modern Western investigators of religious experience such as William James. Literary and philosophical references abound. Ilyin states that Axioms has an “Orthodox-apologetic purpose” (1:13), although he serves this end more by implication than directly. His handling of non-Orthodox and non-Christian spirituality is respectful. The apologetic force of the book lies in the author’s assumption that Orthodox Christianity constitutes the fulfllment of human religious aspirations.

In the service of this vision, Ilyin posits a seamless continuity between Christian faith and what he takes to be universal human spirituality. Socrates is a “Christian who did not have to wait until Christ” (1:98). Plato keeps company with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian in “the aquiline soaring of the spiritual mind.” To be “wounded by Perfection” (a Platonic trope) is to experience “the salvifc wound of Grace.” The “fervor” (tapas) of the Upanishads and “dry light” of Heraclitus are the same “immaterial, divine fre” that the ancient Christian ascetic Macarius the Great references in the Philokalia (1:225–27). Vasilii Zhukovskii, a Romantic poet, had it right when he wrote that “poetry is the earthly sister of the heavenly religion” (2:163). In a late essay on the kind of education he envisioned for the post-Soviet Russia of the future, Ilyin had no trouble imagining a perfect harmony between Aristotle and the Gospel: “For in actuality we all serve a higher Cause on earth—God’s Cause—‘the beautiful life,’ as Aristotle called it, ‘the Kingdom of God,’ as the Gospel revealed it.”

Ilyin’s elision of Christian piety with universal spirituality in Axioms of Religious Experience and elsewhere fnds a parallel in the way he construes the role of the church in the constitution of the state in On the Essence of Legal Consciousness. “Legal consciousness and the kingdom of God,” he opines, “live by one and the same psychic tissue, realize themselves in one and the same spiritual sphere. A mechanical separation of the ‘Divine’ from ‘Caesar’ will always remain a lifeless fction, deprived of being and practical signifcance.” The “spiritual solidarity” of the body politic is “a living system of brotherhood, not only not contradicting Christianity, but corresponding to the spirit of the gospel doctrine” (220–21). In short, “in normal legal consciousness ‘Caesar’ and ‘God’ form a living unity” (226). Piety and patriotism also form a living unity for Ilyin, who, in a lecture in 1934, characterized “the Native Land” (Rodina) as “this living dwelling-place of the Spirit of God, this national treasure house of the Holy Spirit.” In formulations such as these, the church as an independent order of grace does not appear. The church forms part of a comprehensive synthesis, part of the “tissue” of state and society along with law, literature, science, and other departments of the universitas litterarum. The integrative function belongs to the state. Ilyin was faithful to Hegel in this respect, but precisely for this reason one might say that he took the edge off the Gospel—the edge of grace, prophetic witness, radical transcendence, and eschatology. Ilyin rarely pondered the Gospel’s judgment upon law. Nowhere in his writings, for example, does he discuss the jurisprudential implications of the judicial execution of Jesus—the execution of Socrates, yes, but not of Jesus. He passed over the more diffcult case—more diffcult, that is, for a jurist and philosopher of law.

Ilyin’s legacy

Ilyin’s way of construing the relationship between God and Caesar bears on his legacy in Russia today. Since the massive task of rebuilding the culture and polity of Russia got underway following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ilyin’s thought has appealed to those who seek to restore Orthodoxy as an essential element of Russian national identity and, to that end, promote a close relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state. Given the arbitrariness and cruelty of the Soviet regime’s repression of Orthodoxy, the restorationist movement is completely understandable. Nevertheless, it is fraught with tension. Post-Soviet Russia has a secular constitution, and although the Orthodox Church enjoys great visibility and patronage in Russian public life today, its position is not as secure as its quasi-established status might suggest. Collaboration between the church and Caesar in Russia today has an improvised quality about it because the constitution cannot sanction the integration of the two. How Orthodoxy should be accommodated in the legal and political order of Russia is a problem that neither Russian jurisprudence nor Russian Orthodox theology has solved. Ilyin’s solution, which was the reestablishment of Orthodoxy as the state religion of Russia, is problematic in twenty-frst century Russia, its appeal for some Orthodox traditionalists and Russian nationalists notwithstanding.

The effort to reinstate Orthodoxy in Russian national identity also generates tension between Orthodoxy as a Russian patrimony and Orthodoxy as a global faith. Ilyin tended to elide the two, or at least to downplay the potential for friction between them. His Orthodoxy was very much a Russian Orthodoxy. The circumstances of his repatriation to Russia symbolize this feature of his faith. In October 2005, the mortal remains of Ivan Aleksandrovich Ilyin and Nataliia Nikolaevna Vokach-Ilyina were dispatched to Russia from Switzerland and interred in the cemetery of the Donskoi Monastery in Moscow. The patriarch of Moscow presided at the occasion, assisted by clergy from the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, the émigré ecclesiastical jurisdiction to which the Ilyins belonged. This event anticipated by two years the formal reunion of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, one of the signal achievements of reconciliation in the Russian world during the post-Soviet era. Since that time, however, the Moscow Patriarchate’s promotion of the reintegration of the Russian world has generated conficts, not just with the worldwide Orthodox community but with some of its own affliates, most notably in Ukraine. These are not conficts that Ilyin’s introverted Orthodoxy can settle. Only global Orthodoxy can resolve them.

In Russia’s political culture today, Ilyin enjoys popularity among nationalists and authoritarians who admire his emphatic patriotism and his calls for strong state power in Russia. Like many Russians before and after him, Ilyin believed that “Either state power in Russia will be strong, or it will not exist at all.” But if this maxim has at times served to justify despotism in Russia, this was not Ilyin’s purpose. He held a much more nuanced view:

Strong state power is not ipso facto bureaucratic, or centralized, or military, or administered by a brutal police. To be sure, it is easier to create strong state power which is arbitrary, bureaucratic, centralized, military, and administered by a brutal police. But precisely these temptations, these easy paths, can and should be avoided.

Russia needs state power which is strong, but differentiated. Strong, but consistently law-abiding. Strong, but not merely bureaucratic. Strong, but decentralized. Militarily defended, but only as a last resort. Protected by the police, but not infating the competence of the police


Ilyin repeated the same thought in a postwar series of essays on sil’naia vlast’ (strong state power): “Strong state power in the Russia of the future should not be extralegal or supralegal; it should be drawn up by law and, in accord with law and with the assistance of law, should serve a nationwide legal order.” Ilyin’s nationalist and authoritarian admirers conveniently ignore his repeated emphasis on the rule of law as axiomatic for a just and stable political order in Russia. Ilyin never preached state power as an end in itself. A rule-of-law state in Russia was always his goal.


Paul Valliere is Emeritus Professor of Religion at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.


* This article was originally published in the book: Law and the Christian Tradition in Russia. Edited by Paul Valliere and Randall A. Poole. New York and Oxon: Routledge, 2022, 280 pp. 306–237. For this publication, the footnotes and references in the original article were excluded.


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