The philosophers behind Putin

And the fascism label

A developing narrative about why Putin invaded Ukraine is that his thinking was influenced by fascist Russian philosophers. But that account is both reductive and lacking in evidence. Alexander Dugin, the man who’s been called the brains behind Putin, has no direct connection to the Kremlin, and his overall influence is hugely exaggerated. Ivan Ilyin, the other philosopher who is said to have influenced Putin’s thinking, is a more plausible candidate but in his case the label ‘fascist’ is a caricature, at odds with a large part of his philosophy. Calling thinkers or political leaders fascist is an easy way to dismiss them out of hand, blocking a deeper understanding of Putin’s real motives and the ideas that have informed his world view, argues Paul Robinson.  


As people seek to understand Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, one explanation that has become popular is that the Russian leader is a “fascist.” This idea promotes a binary view of the world as divided between good and evil. It is, however, misleading and perhaps even harmful.

To justify the fascist label, commentators have noted Putin’s affection for inter-war émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin and linked this to claims that Ilyin was a fascist. The logic is simple: Putin likes Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; ergo, Putin is a fascist. Pundits also draw parallels between Putin and contemporary Russian thinker Alexander Dugin, who has also been called a fascist. Thus, Juliet Samuel writes in The Daily Telegraph that, “Ilyin saw in Mussolini and Hitler models for the reinvention of a new Russian tsarism … Today the task of popularising this sort of messianic fascism falls to a movement called Eurasianism, propounded by a zealous supporter of Putin named Alexander Dugin, who appears with regularity on Russian TV screens.”


The idea that Dugin is “Putin’s Brain,” is far-fetched.


The primary source for stories linking Putin, Ilyin, and fascism is Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who claimed in his 2018 book The Road to Unfreedom that Ilyin was the inspiration behind Putin’s policies. Snyder says that, “Putin relied upon Ilyin’s authority to explain why Russia had to undermine the European Union and invade Ukraine.” The problem is that Putin did not do so, there being no public record of him ever mentioning Ilyin with reference to either the European Union or Ukraine. Likewise, contrary to what Samuel says, Dugin does not appear “with regularity on Russian TV screens.” He is a fringe figure whose contacts with the Russian state have long since been ruptured. Dugin himself admits, “I have no influence. I don’t know anybody, have never seen anything. I just write my books, and am a Russian thinker, nothing more.” The idea that Dugin is “Putin’s Brain” is far-fetched.

Talk of Eurasianism is equally misleading. As one of that movement’s founders, Pyotr Savitsky, wrote in 1921, Eurasianism’s basic idea is that, “Russia is not only the ‘West,’ but also the ‘East,’ not only ‘Europe,’ but also ‘Asia,” and even not Europe at all, but ‘Eurasia’.” But speaking in October 2017, Putin remarked that while Russia was geographically Eurasian, “as regards culture … this is all undoubtedly a European space as it is inhabited by people of that culture.” Putin has several times quoted the Eurasianist thinker Lev Gumilyov, but in the context of stressing Russia’s multi-ethnic nature. He has never indicated support for broader Eurasianist thought.


While the Putin-Dugin link seems to be pure invention, the Putin-Ilyin connection does exist.


While the Putin-Dugin link seems to be pure invention, the Putin-Ilyin connection does exist. Putin has cited Ilyin five times in his speeches, and in answer to a question last year about his philosophical inspirations, he mentioned Ilyin and said that he had a copy of “his book” and sometimes looked at it. It’s worth noting that Ilyin’s collected works total 32 volumes. The fact that Putin has a copy of one of these (probably the collection of essays entitled Our Tasks) hardly makes him an Ilyin expert. Moreover, he’s far from the only Russian to have quoted the philosopher. The leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, has also cited Ilyin. Ilyin was deeply anti-communist; the fact that Zyuganov has quoted him does not mean that the leader of the Communist Party is anti-communist too.

Furthermore, the description of Ilyin as a “fascist” represents a very selective reading of his work. There are indeed passages in Ilyin’s work that are decidedly authoritarian, but there are many other passages that are distinctly liberal. In the mid-1930s, Ilyin was dismissed from his job teaching in Berlin after refusing Nazi instructions to propagate anti-Semitic views. After moving to Switzerland in 1938, he penned some of the most passionate defences of freedom ever written in the Russian language (for instance, his 1939 essay “Freedom” ). While some view Ilyin as a fascist, others call him a “liberal,” a “liberal conservative,” and a supporter of the “liberal political model of society and the state.” Consequently, “paradoxical” is a word often used to describe Ilyin’s views.

A pupil of the liberal legal philosopher, Pavel Novgorodtsev, Ilyin followed a similar ideological track, as did other Russian liberals whose faith in democracy was shattered by the Russian Revolution and the descent of many European states into totalitarianism in the 1920s and 1930s. Novgorodtsev, a member of the Central Committee of the liberal Kadet party, told colleagues in January 1918 that in the face of Bolshevism they needed to decide which they valued more: liberalism or democracy. To preserve the former, they needed to abandon the latter. “If nothing remains of our democratism, then that is an excellent thing, since what is needed now is dictatorship,” said Novogorodtsev.

Dictators were soon found, in the form of the generals who led the White armies that fought the Bolshevik Reds in the Russian Civil War. One of these, Anton Denikin, adopted the slogan “Russia, One and Indivisible,” denying independence or even political autonomy to minority nationalities in the former Russian Empire, including Ukraine. As Canadian historian Anna Procyk has recorded, the primary promoters of this slogan were the liberals on Denikin’s Special Council who advised him on political issues. “Russia, One and Indivisible” was very much a liberal policy.

One may therefore argue that the correct context for Ilyin’s authoritarianism and nationalism, as well as his defence of freedom, natural rights, and the rule of law, is the history of Russian liberalism rather than that of Western European fascism. Ilyin viewed dictatorship as a necessary step towards defeating communism and restoring order after its demise. This led him to have a naïve view of the right-wing dictatorships that arose in Europe in the inter-war period, although he rapidly became disenchanted with the Nazis.

He criticized Western liberalism for putting too much faith in elections and ignoring the requirement for a well-developed legal consciousness among the people as well as a strong sense of national community. Numerous liberal Russian philosophers, such as Pyotr Struve, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Semyon Frank, agreed, criticizing Western liberalism for allegedly viewing society as a collection of isolated individuals lacking common identity and values. They believed that this failing led to the collapse of liberal democracy and its replacement by communist or fascist totalitarianism. What was needed was what one might call “liberal authoritarianism,” backed by a commitment to Christian values. This may sound jarring to modern secular liberal ears, but reflected a view that autocracy was liberty’s protector, not its enemy.


In short, if you want to find a fascist Ilyin, you can. But if you want to find a liberal one, you can do that too. As it happens, the quotes from Ilyin that Putin has used reflect the latter, not the former.


Snyder writes that, “Ilyin portrayed Russian lawlessness as patriotic virtue … Ilyin used the word ‘law,’ but did not endorse the rule of law.” Nothing could be further from the truth. American academic Philip Grier calls Ilyin’s book On the Essence of Legal Consciousness “perhaps the most impassioned defence of the rule of law ever penned by a Russian legal theorist.” And Ilyin’s biographer, Igor Evlampiev, describes the book as “the main work of the entire school of Russian liberalism … an outstanding example of an original philosophical resolution of the problems of law and the state on the basis of liberal principles.”

In short, if you want to find a fascist Ilyin, you can. But if you want to find a liberal one, you can do that too. As it happens, the quotes from Ilyin that Putin has used reflect the latter, not the former. In April 2005, Putin quoted Ilyin as saying that, “State power has its limits. … It cannot regulate scientific, religious, and artistic creation. … It mustn’t interfere in moral, family, and everyday life, or except in extreme necessity restrict economic initiative.” In 2013, Putin quoted him again, as saying that, “The Russian army will never forget the tradition of Suvorov, which maintained that the soldier is an individual.” And in December 2014, he used the following words of Ilyin: “Whoever loves Russia should desire freedom for it; first of all freedom for Russia itself … and finally, freedom for the Russian people, freedom for all of us; freedom of religion, the search for justice, creativity, labour, and property.” None of this is remotely fascist.

Denouncing others as “fascist” is to portray them as evil and nothing more. In Putin’s case, by doing so and backing it up with dubious historical analysis, we are able to reduce our differences with him to a moral issue. This permits us to ignore the geopolitical aspects of the conflict between Russia and the West – the aspects which actually feature most strongly in Putin’s rhetoric. We are able thereby to avoid having to address any contributions we may have made to our mutual problems. While this may be psychologically satisfying, it’s not an effective way of dealing with international politics.

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