Putin Myths and Putin Ideology

SovBez 15 IX 2014 by Gordon M. Hahn
{originally published on Russia – Other Points of View on 16 January 2015}
As the Ukrainian crisis and civil war continue to fester on, alarmist assessments of ‘Putin’s Russia’ continue to monopolize Western media space. Such assessments begin with distortions about the nature of Russia’s history and culture and end with dire predictions about Russia’s future domestic and international behavior. These assessments are often embedded into the now fully demonized figure of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is portrayed alternatively as a new Stalin, Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, or mafia don. For example, much has been made recently about the supposedly sinister ideological influences permeating Putin’s mind and Russian discourse. These influences are held up as indicators of Russia’s ultra-nationalist, dictatorial, and imperialistic future against which the West must mobilize in a new cold war. However, the representation of these influences are replete with mischaracterizations and falsehoods. Putin’s ideological influences and orientation are more moderate, eclectic, and ambivalent than the many overwrought accounts suggest. Hence, the resulting predictions regarding Russia’s future development typify the process ‘garbage in, garbage out.’
The Dugin Myth
For example, it is commonly believed now that the most prominent influence on Putin’s thinking is the neo-fascist Eurasianist geopolitical philosopher Alexander Dugin. American conservative-libertarian commentator Glenn Beck and others – including certain political scientists who apparently advised him – have recently been alleging the importance of ‘Eurasianist’ geopolitical analyst Alexander Dugin, calling him a “Putin advisor” and the man who “controls Moscow State University.”
Such accounts allege that Dugin has insinuated into Putin’s mind an imperial expansion project inspired by his Eurasianist theory, which interprets Russia as the leading force in a Eurasian civilization destined for world domination. Included in the Dugin myth is Putin’s now supposed adherence to the medieval Russian concept of Moscow as the “third Rome” or as capitol of the Christian world – a kind of Russian Orthodox Caliphate to be added to the Islamic one that truly does threatens the West. In fact, Dugin’s aggressively political, imperialistic and neo-fascist Eurasianism is a far cry from Putin’s purely economic project of creating a united free trade and customs union under the ‘Eurasian Economic Union.’
In fact, Dugin was never a Putin advisor. He was an advisor of the chairman of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin. Dugin’s role in this position, however, goes back to the Yeltsin era, when in 1998 he became advisor to then speaker Gennadi Seleznyov. Dugin blamed his termination at MSU on Putin, asserting that the Russian leader has a both dark and enlightened side and that his dark, more liberal side decided to fire him against the interests of Putin’s more ‘enlightened’ nationalist side.
In June 2014, Dugin was fired from his position at Moscow State University for his criticism of Putin’s ostensible passivity in Ukraine. Indeed, the June decision to fire Dugin came as he and his colleague, Sergei Kurginyan, were leading the public effort to help supply and even arm the Donbass rebels in Ukraine and push Putin into a large-scale invasion of Kiev. Putting aside the veracity of Dugin’s and Kurginyan’s esoteric and ultra-nationalist geopolitical theories and the specifics of their increasingly negative assessment of Putin, there is some truth in the former’s view that Putin is something of a multiple ideological personality. Western propagandists persisted in overstating Dugin’s importance, insisting on his closeness to Putin. Ben Judah, for example, wrote four months after Dugin’s demise from MGU that Dugin is a “Kremlin-controlled ideologue” (Ben Judah, “Vladimir Putin’s Coup,” Politico, 19 October 2014, www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/10/vladimir-putins-coup-112025.html#.VEWqO_nF-ux).
Putin’s Ideological Inclinations
As Russia analyst Mark Galeotti recently wrote: “(Putin) recently assigned regional governors homework, writings by three prominent 19th- and 20th-century intellectuals: Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov, and Ivan Ilyin. These three, whom Putin often cites, exemplify and justify his belief in Russia’s singular place in history. They romanticize the necessity of obedience to the strong ruler — whether managing the boyars or defending the people from cultural corruption — and the role of the Orthodox Church in defending the Russian soul and ideal” (http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/04/21/putins-empire-of-the-mind/). Galeotti’s assessment of the Putin’s three recommended intellectuals is gravely oversimplified and and inaccurate, as is the Western fashion nowadays in commentary on things Russian. However, he points us in a direction worthy of further exploration that might help us understand Putin’s internal ideological universe. Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) was a Christian, anti-communist philosopher, who did not ‘romanticize the necessity of obedience to the strong ruler,’ contrary to Galeotti’s claims. He rejected both the Russian autocratic tradition and revolutionary change driven by Western ideas. Indeed, he spent three years in exile convicted of blasphemy at the behest of the Russian Orthodox Church. Berdyaev proposed evolutionary change in political and social forms driven by a Christian rebirth in the intellectual, cultural and religious spheres. This evolutionary approach to change is something that Putin has often spoken of but generally failed to deliver on. Moreover, Berdyaev explicitly rejected the political, imperial project of Moscow as the ‘third Rome’ isolated from Western culture and ideals, asserting that this “imperial temptation” led Russia “into a spiritual pit.” For Berdyaev, the spiritual, eschatological essence of a third Rome concept was distorted by Ivan the Terrible and came to represent “a manifestation of sovereign power, as the might of the State…expressed in the Tsardom of Moscow and then in the Empire and in the end as the Third International.” Thus, Berdyaev’s worldview was explicitly anti-authoritarian, anti-imperial, and anti-communist (Berdyaev, The Russian Idea, p. 27).
Although claiming a messianic mission for Russia, Berdyaev countered it to the “German idea…of rule, dominance, of might.” “The Russian idea is the idea of community and the brotherhood of men and peoples,” in Berdyaev’s view (Berdyaev, The Russian Idea, p. 267). In his economic philosophy, Berdyaev emphasized that the community over the individual, though he thought that economic activity in support of the community should be voluntary and would be supported by the Christian ideal of sharing and charity. Therefore, he argued in his The Origins of Russian Communism that traditional Russian culture’s “absoluteness of the State, and despotism, a feeble grasp of the rights of man and the danger of a featureless collectivism” rendered Russia vulnerable to communist thought (Berdyaev, The Origin of Russian Communism, pp. 187-88).
Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), son of the great liberal Russian historian Sergei Solovyov, was also a Christian, anti-communist philosopher, but more a religious mystic than Berdyaev. He criticized the particularism of Pan-Slavism and Orthodox parochialism. He was a universalistic mystic, concerned with aesthetics and philosophy, not politics, in the service of humankind’s unity. He sought not isolation of the ‘Russian soul and ideal’ but reunification of Christendom (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) and a “universal church” that would encompass Jews as well. So, contrary to Galeotti’s assertions, Solovyov did not seek to use the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to wall off Russians and Russian culture (presumably from the West), he sought a unity of religions and cultures in order to affect a religious rebirth and a spiritual, mystical, and supernatural orientation in human development as opposed to a materialistic one. In his 1893 book The Meaning of Love Solovyov developed a detailed philosophy of love and its potential role in the transformation of mankind towards unity and godliness. Thus, after the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II Solovyov appealed to his son and successor Alexander III in a fantastically hailed public speech to forgive his father’s assassins and thereby usher in a new era of universal love.
Late in life Solovyov turned to politics. He opposed both liberal democracy and utopian socialism and proposed in their place a “free theocracy,” under which God’s domain would be ruled by the Russian Tsar, a universal church’s Pope, and the Prophet. The Tsar was to unify Christendom and Jewry and defend the Judeo-Christian world from a rising “pagan” Orient led by Japan. Solovyov asserted that if Russia and Slavdom turned to his ideal of a ‘free theocracy’ then they could prevent the coming conflict between a declining West and rising East. This idea has a parallel with some of the ideas and strains of traditional Eurasianism and contemporary neo-Eurasianism. However, Solovyov was a critic rather than a defender of Russian chauvinism. In his 1897 book The Justification of the Good, he urged Russians “to love all nations as we love our own” and called on all nations to serve not themselves but all nations.
Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) was much more interested in politics, political systems, and legal and historical philosophy. He is perhaps the closest of the three to Putin’s heart, if not his mind. Putin played a key role in having his remains returned to Russia from Zurich, re-buried, and consecrated. Ilyin can be regarded as perhaps the leading ideologist of the White forces which fought the Red Army to restore the monarchy in the Russian Civil War (1917-1920). Thus, Putin’s support for Ilyin’s politics contrast sharply with the view put forth by some that Putin is overseeing a restoration of Stalin and Stalinism. Ilyin argued that the authorities and aristocracy misused and abused their power, creating a gulf between the monarch and the state, on the one hand, and the people, on the other hand. The misuse and abuse of power led also created suspicion among the people towards those who possessed property and wealth. These factors led to the communist takeover in Russia, in Ilyin’s view.
In place of Solovyov’s solution based on a moral philosophy and universal love, Ilyin inserted political philosophy and the rule of law in order to restore Russia. Ilyin argued for the development of a “conscience of law” among the elite and the people to bind the Russian state and society together. The elite was to be responsible for developing conscience of the law among the people. Ilyin was a supporter of the idea of an enlightened monarch who fulfilled the paternal function in the nation as in a family. Monarchical, elite, popular, and individual conscience of the law should be based on religious piety and the family. Regarding Russia’s place in the world, Ilyin warned that Russian greatness could not be built on the foundation of any form of hatred, whether social, national or religious, and he opposed Nazism and was forced flee from Germany to Switzerland where Ilyin continued to write until he died.
Conclusion: The Price of Group-Think
In sum, although there is nothing resembling liberal democracy in Putin’s recommended philosophers’ thinking, neither is there anything sinister, national chauvinist, dictatorial, imperialistic or virulently anti-Western. There is a tendency to rely on a search for a humanistic Russian ‘third way’ based on elements of Russian tradition, a reformed Orhtodox faith, and regional global that is not entirely Western or Oriental. Thus, Putin should be regarded as a moderate Russian nationalist and patriot who seeks to build a regional association of states influenced and in some ways led by a modernized Russia that has not lost its native roots. While it is dubious in my and most Westerners’ view that a stable, non-corrupt, legalistic order can be built relying so extensively on religious traditions and with limited incorporation of Western liberal democratic values, it cannot be excluded that the effort could function as a transitional stage between communism and the chaos of post-communism, on the one hand, and the broader adoption of Western values in the mid to long-term. Ultimately, the road and destination is Russia’s choice. One thing is for sure. Western antagonism towards Russia’s interests abroad in places like Georgia and Ukraine and overreaction in response to Russian ‘deviations’ from the liberal democratic choice at home will not encourage its evolution in directions we would like to see it progress.
Postscript
When I offered the facts about Dugin to Beck’s channel, ‘The Blaze’, they were ignored. In one communication with an academic who participated in Beck’s special on Russia aired January 12-14, he said that The Blaze is “not Yale University Press” so one cannot expect all the facts to be gotten right. So the new American analytical standard is to ignore the facts, to not let them get in the way of the larger picture one seeks to paint. However, Beck prides or perhaps used to pride himself on presenting the facts or ‘the truth’ and promised viewers he would always acknowledge and apologize when he got the facts wrong. It seems that The Blaze now, in fact, is just another run-of-the-mill propaganda machine offering only its point of view. America used to be about pluralism and debate; in the heat of interaction between varying points of view the truth would win out – not be pre-selected. Beck himself often laments the inability of Americans with different points of view to interact. Indeed, the country has lost the art of polite, open debate and discussion between holders of very different points of view. Now, one can put out any interpretation without being challenged in real time; the facts be damned – a good entertaining story legitimated by an academic veneer suffices in order to present ‘the truth.’ The new American model both in media and academia – especially when it comes to Russia ‘analysis’ – is demonization, ostracization, and accusations of ‘Putin apologia’ – in other words something akin to what Putin once called (and Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko twice called in a much shorter tenure) the ‘fifth column.’ Analysts are expected to parrot the Washington consensus or have their careers destroyed. Journalists are sicked to write hatchet jobs on anyone who dares dissent. The irony is that many of the very same people who consider themselves champions of democracy and criticize the power of the state and how Putin wields it in Russia, use similar methods in their private capacity as analysts, journalists, and think tanks with an eye to keeping the state grants flowing. Mr. Beck and the champions of the Washington party line on Russia be aware. There are other points of view on Russia, and they deserve to be heard.

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About Gordon M. Hahn