Putin's Philosopher

Ivan Ilyin and the Ideology of Moscow's Rule

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with journalists after a live broadcast nationwide call-in in Moscow, April 16, 2015. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

In the last days of April, Russian television aired a 150-minute documentary about Vladimir Putin’s decade and a half as the leader of Russia. Shown around the anniversary of his first inauguration (May 7, 2000), the movie offered a blunt message: in the 15 years of Putin’s rule, he had saved Russia from the forces of destruction, both internal—Chechnya and the oligarchs—and external—insidious Western influence. He, the movie repeatedly reinforced, is the only thing holding the country together.

According to the film, moreover, Putin is not just a political savior: his leadership has also been important for the spiritual revival of Russia and its people. Fully six minutes of the movie were dedicated to a recounting of his work to repatriate the remains of White Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin.

Ilyin was unknown to the wider public before Russian filmmaker and conservative activist Nikita Mikhalkov brought him back from the abyss in the early 2000s. But ignominy was the best place for Ilyin to hang his historical hat. Never a deep or clear thinker, he was not truly an academic or philosopher in the classical sense, but rather a publicist, a conspiracy theorist, and a Russian nationalist with a core of fascistic leanings.

Ignominy was the best place for Ilyin to hang his historical hat. His works were first promoted within the Kremlin’s inner circle and then quoted by various state officials throughout the second half of the first decade of the 2000s. Putin’s own interest in Ilyin became apparent after 2006, when he began to feature the philosopher prominently in some of his major addresses to the public. Vladislav Surkov, once known as the “Gray Cardinal of the Kremlin” and as the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, is also fond of quoting Ilyin, whose writings he has used as a tool to promote Putin’s idea of sovereign democracy. Putin assigned his regional governors to read Ilyin’s book Our Mission over the 2014 winter break.

Ilyin has also received

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