Interpreting Spiritual Philosophers

Western Mainstream Media

Putin Can’t Stop

Even cynics like to feel moral. Even hard-eyed men who play power politics need to feel that their efforts are part of a great historic mission. So as he has been throwing his weight around the world, Vladimir Putin has been careful to quote Russian philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries like Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin.

Putin doesn’t only quote these guys; he wants others to read them. As Maria Snegovaya pointed out recently in The Washington Post, the Kremlin recently assigned three philosophic books to regional governors: Berdyaev’s “The Philosophy of Inequality,” Solovyov’s “Justification of the Good” and Ilyin’s “Our Tasks.”

Putin was personally involved in getting Ilyin’s remains re-buried back in Russian soil. In 2009, Putin went to consecrate the grave himself. The event sent him into a nationalistic fervor. “It’s a crime when someone only begins talking about the separation of Russia and the Ukraine,” he said on that day.

To enter into the world of Putin’s favorite philosophers is to enter a world full of melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions. “We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness,” Ilyin wrote.

Three great ideas run through this work. The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.

These philosophers often argued that the rationalistic, materialistic West was corrupting the organic spiritual purity of Russia. “The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia,” Ilyin wrote, “Having lost our bond with God and the Christian tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism.”

You can hear echoes of this moralistic strain in Putin’s own speeches, especially when he defends his regime’s attitude toward gays and the role of women. Citing Berdyaev, he talks about defending traditional values to ward off moral chaos. He says he is defending the distinction between good and evil, which has been lost in the outside world.

Most important, these philosophers had epic visions of Russia’s role in the world. Solovyov argued that because Russia is located between the Catholic West and the non-Christian East, it has a historic mission to lead the way to human unification. Russia would transcend secularism and atheism and create a unified spiritual kingdom. “The Russian messianic conception,” Berdyaev wrote, “always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity.”

Russia is frequently seen as a besieged fortress. The West is thought to be rotten to the core and weak yet so powerful that it can be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Russia has immeasurable spiritual potential yet is forever plagued by a lack of self-respect, lack of self-assertion and unmet potential.

In his 1948 essay, “What Dismemberment of Russia Entails for the World,” Ilyin describes the Russian people as the “core of everything European-Asian and, therefore, of universal equilibrium.” Yet the West, he argues, is trying to “divide the united Russian broom into twigs to break these twigs one by one.” The West is driven by “a plan of hatred and lust for power.”

All of this adds up to a highly charged and assertive messianic ideology. If Putin took it all literally, he’d be a Russian ayatollah. Up until now, he hasn’t taken it literally. His regime has used this nationalism to mobilize public opinion and to explain itself to itself. But it has tamped down every time this nationalistic ideology threatens to upend the status quo.

The danger is that Russia is now involved in a dispute in Ukraine that touches and activates the very core of this touchy messianism. The tiger of quasi-religious nationalism, which Putin has been riding, may now take control. That would make it very hard for Putin to stop in this conflict where rational calculus would tell him to stop. Up until now, we have not been in a Huntingtonian conflict of civilizations with Russia. But with passions aroused and philosophic zealotry at full boil, it may temporarily appear that we are.

The implication for Western policymakers is that we may not be dealing with a “normal” regime, which can be manipulated by economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks. Threatening to take away inclusion in the Group of 8 or freeze some assets may become irrelevant because the Russian regime will have moved up to a different level. The Russian nation may be motivated by a deep, creedal ideology that has been wafting through the culture for centuries and has now found an unlikely, cynical and cold-eyed host.

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Eastern and Alternative Views

Response to: Putin Can’t Stop by David Brooks

~ by Catherine Baird, 3/13/2014

On 3/4/2014, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an editorial trying to explain (blame) Putin’s approach to what is happening in the Ukraine and Russia today upon 3 philosophers.

Attacking the works of Ivan Ilyin (classical philosopher & Russian patriot), Nikolai Berdyaev (champion of freedom, creativity and compassion) and Vladimir Solovyov (supporter of Love and reunification of the Christian churches) –Brooks states: “Three great ideas run through this work. The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.”

After 70 years of suppression, it is wonderful to see the names Berdyaev, Ilyin and Solovyov again. Berdyaev, Ilyin and many other students of Solovyov’s were part of “The 160” banished from Russia in 1922 in the purge that Lenin personally orchestrated. Today, every 5 years (2002, 2007, and 2012), Russians publish a memorial on the anniversary:,,

But it is unfortunate that Brooks’ editorial uses 5 citations taken out of context to unjustly accuse these three intellectuals of being in favor a “nationalist autocracy.”

What is his proof?  A quote from Ilyin warning against “materialism, irrationalism and nihilism.”  This does not seem particularly nationalist.  It might help to know what Ilyin said of the Nazi’s: “‘Never and nowhere can the establishment of a one-party monopoly lead to anything good: the best men will depart the stage, and the worst will flock to the party in droves. For the better men think independently and freely, while the worse are ready to adjust to anything in order to make a career.”
Yes, Ilyin was a patriot and he loved Russia.  He believed in law and order, and he did not agree with the execution of the Tsar.  In a statement that patriots anywhere might echo, he said: “Wherever I am, whatever I do, my homeland is always inside me as the spiritual essence of my soul and of my own self. There’s no depriving a spiritual man of his homeland or forcing him to live without it. Only death can separate them, but then again, homeland is worth dying for”.


For Berdyaev, Brooks uses “A contemporary account of the speech [supposedly given to a group of Russian émigrés in 1944] in the Manchester Guardian.”   instead of a simple quote from the over 100 books and articles the Russian authored. “The Russian messianic conception,” Berdyaev wrote, “always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity.”

Berdyaev well could have said this.  But why not use quotes that we know for sure are his?  In his book The Russian Idea which is available, for free, Berdyaev references the term 32 times!

“In respect of this polarization and inconsistency the Russian people can be paralleled only by the Jews: and it is not merely a matter of chance that precisely in these two peoples there exists a vigorous messianic consciousness. …Russia is a complete section of the world a colossal East-West. It unites two worlds, and within the Russian soul two principles are always engaged in strife -the Eastern and the Western.”

Messianic consciousness is more characteristic of the Russians than of any other people except the Jews. It runs all through Russian history right down to its communist period.”

And in Russian communism in which the Russian messianic idea has passed into a non-religious and anti-religious form, there has taken place the same distortion by the will to power, of the Russian quest for the kingdom of right….The majesty and glory of the world remain to them a seduction and a sin, and not as among Western peoples, the highest value…Around those figures of majesty and glory, Peter the Great and Napoleon, the Russian people created a legend that they were antichrists.”

Berdyaev came before Putin in criticizing Western exceptionalism.  He believed Russian people (“at least in their finest moment”) reject “figures of majesty and glory” — anyone who thinks they are better than others, any elite, any autocrat who thinks s/he is *Great* and everyone else is common or worthless.  So do Americans – that’s why we had a revolution in 1776!

Berdyaev abhorred power politics. “I had attacked National Socialism and Fascism on more than one occasion, and it was well-known that I was an ideological opponent of the `new order'” (Berdyaev, Dream and Reality, 304).  He saw them as “…demonic attempts of the kingdom of Caesar to dominate and to enslave man and the world” (ibid 287).  Above all he was a champion of freedom.


These Russian intellectuals believed in spirituality. Yet, spiritual does not mean any one exclusive religious belief. Solovyov embraced Catholicism and was branded as a heretic by the Russian Orthodox Church at the end of his life. Berdyaev was almost sentenced to life in prison for heresy by the Russian Orthodox Church. Many of their fellow Russian spiritual philosophers were Jewish: Gershenzon, Izgoev, and Shestov.  Others embraced their own created faiths, the occult and eastern mysticism.

If I thank David Brooks for making people aware of these philosophers, I do have to ask that we please not *use* them to justify political attacks against Russia today!

As Solovyov said: “The meaning and worth of love, as a feeling, is that it really forces us, with all our being, to acknowledge for ANOTHER the same absolute central significance which, because of the power of our egoism, we are conscious of only in our own selves. Love is important not as one of our feelings, but as the transfer of all our interest in life from ourselves to another, as the shifting of the very centre of our personal life” (Solovyov, The Meaning of Life. 1894).  

They are about as far from believers in Russia as a “quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy” as one can imagine.  Today we might better compare them to compassionate lovers of humanity!

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