by Gordon M. Hahn
Russian President Vladimir Putin made his annual appearance at the Valdai Discussion Club, giving a speech and feilding questions (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66975). He appeared in good form mentally, physically, and emotionally – despite the intermittent Western warnings of an ill or mentally inadequate Putin (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/19/putin-is-crazy-and-sick-the-lows-of-american-rusology/) – and gave a performance worthy of an elder statesman. Several points stood out. One is that, contrary to the view that Putin is simply in power to enrich himself and his cronies, Putin clearly came across in this forum and has in others as well as a man interested in ideas and who has his own. I would argue that he has developed a general worldview and view of Russia since coming to power in 2000, when his ideas about politics and history still were not yet clearly formulated.
As Putin ages he appears to be drawn increasingly to themes of history and philosophy, and so he discussed issues related to the history of the Great Patriotic War (World War II), noting his ongoing interest and occasional occupation with historical documents. Regarding philosophy, he repeated his appreciation of early 20th century political philosopher Ivan Ilin, whose work he keeps on a bookshelf and, he says, he often picks up and reads. Some Western propagandists have done their best to paint Ilyin as a ‘fascist’ so they can taint Putin to the hilt, as is the wont of much of Western ‘thought’ about Russia today. Ilyin was opposed to both fascist and communist totalitarianism and supported what he thought of as a Russian – that is, a controlled – form of constitutional republican that would have been more limited than Western models (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/06/11/snyders-distortions-of-ilyin/). His first claim to fame was a balanced refutation of Lev Tolstoy’s radical pacifism.
Putin also noted his respect for Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), the moderate traditionalist political, historical, and philosophical thinker, who was forced by the Bolsheviks to emigrate in 1922 with thousands of other mostly traditionalist philosophers, clergymen, historians, legal scholars and the like. Berdyaev was indeed, as Putin noted, one of the most profound Russian thinkers of his generation, and his works have undergone a popular revival in post-Soviet Russia. A Russian Orthodox Chrisian believer and anti-communist, Berdyaev organized a compilation of articles under the title ‘Vekhi’ or ‘Landmarks’ and a followup collection of articles written by the flower of the traditionalist wing of the largely communist nihilist, utopian and maximalist Russian intelligentsia while in emigration. He also was the leading figure of the Russian émigré community in Europe, most of all Paris, where he continued to publish works about Russia at the émigré publisher YMCA. The Vekhi group and YMCA authors included other brilliant philosophers and theologians, such as the intuitivist philosopher Semyon Frank and the innovative Orthodox theologian Father Sergei Bulgakov.
Putin’s praise for two anti-communist pre-Soviet Russian thinkers reinforces his position as a convinced anti-communist, a position he began to take immediately after the Soviet collapse. At Valdai, Putin attacked the Bolsheviks in comparing them with today’s WOKE liberals: “After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks, relying on the dogmas of Marx and Engels, also announced that they would change the entire customary way, not only political and economic, but also the very idea of what human morality is, the foundations of a healthy society. The destruction of age-old values, faith, relations between people up to the complete rejection of the family – this was the case – the imposition and encouragement of denunciations to loved ones – all this was declared a step of progress and, by the way, in the world it was widely supported then and was fashionable, just like today. By the way, the Bolsheviks also showed absolute intolerance to any other opinions” (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66975). So much for our erstwhile Western propagandists’ assertion that Putin is rehabilitating Stalin (https://gordonhahn.com/2019/05/09/once-more-about-putins-rehabilitation-of-stalin-another-update-the-zhukov-draft-report/).
The attraction to Ilyin, Berdyaev, and presumably other Vekhi-oriented thinkers is likely part of Putin’s effort either to discover, develop, or justify his own traditionalist leanings. These thinkers have much to offer both Russian and Western readers to this day. Of course, Putin is neither a philosopher, historian, nor a theologian. He is a politician, and he also uses such reading to hone his own arguments in his ‘discourse’ with domestic and foreign political opponents, especially the West. Almost all of the noted writers offered critiques with varying degrees of virulence of not just the pre-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia but of the West as well, in particular Western philosophical materialism, rationalism, and positivism in fields ranging from historical interpretation to psychology. However, most of them had a great deal of respect for Western culture and praised certan aspects of Western life as worthy of emulation by Russians and any post-Soviet regime to come. There would likely be no deficit of criticsm among the ‘Vekhi’ if they were alive today observing Putin’s rule, but there would also be some support.
One point of criticism might be Putin’s support for the foreign agent law, which is designed precisely to limit the opportunity for Westerners to mobilize opposition to the Kremlin, after decades of Western attempts to control Russia’s post-Soviet transformation and those in other post-Soviet states to the point of seeding and backing takeovers by anti-Russian opposition groups and politicians in post-Soviet states and traditionally allied states such as Serbia. In the Q&A portion of his Valdai participation, Putin wrongly asserted and backed pro-Kremlin RT’s director Margarita Simyonyan’s implied claim that there are no felony penalties connected with Putin’s foreign agent law. There are for repeatedly failing to register as a federal agent under the Russian foreign agent law was being listed as being required to do so, for violating the requirements required of resgistered foreign agents, and for NGOs working in the area of military and national security affairs before registering as a foreign agent. Putin hinted to editor-in-chief of the pro-republican ‘liberal’ newspaper Dmitrii Muratov, who complained to Putin at Valdai about the law, that some aspects of the law might be adjusted. This has been hinted at before, but so far the law when it has been amended oe enhanced by other laws has been given expanded scope and greater punch. It is hard to discern whether Putin and Simyonyan were teaming up in a propaganda operation – the context of the discussion of the foreign agent law was that it was a soft version of the American version that predated it – or Putin got his facts wrong, something he usually does not do.
On foreign policy, Putin seemed to give a little more than lip service to the idea that some small positive movement forward in U.S.-Russian relations has occurred since the July meeting with his American counterpart, noting that the working groups on strategic nuclear weapons and cybersecurity they agreed to set up are already working and that trade turnover between the two countries has risen 2-3 percent. In an exercise of ‘practical humility’ that he likes to deploy, he passed up the opportunity to even mention no less gloat over the Biden administration’s decision to abandon the idea of pressing European allies with the threat of sanctions if they continued to cooperate with Putins North Stream 2 natual gas pipleline. Regarding the pivotal issue of the new cold war, Ukraine, Putin showed here for the only time some real consternation, stating in several ways that the entry of NATO’s infrastructure east and into Ukraine with the recently established ‘training center’ poses a real problem and security threat for Russia. He also singled out US Defense Secretary Austin’s incautious remarks in Kiev, which Putin interpreted as a de facto oening of the door for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Echoing Russian Security Council secretary and former president Dmitrii Medvedev’s recent article on the Ukrainian crisis, Putin claimed to be at a loss as to what to do. This is most likely honest talk, but his expression of being at a loss as to what to do might also be a demonstration intended to heighten the sense of uncertainty in the West about the consequences of NATO’s actions and make more likely it might show more self-restraint. Thus, Putin saw now way out of the “deadend” that to a considerble extent he accurately described Zelenskiy to have found himself in, given the influence of the ultra-nationalists. He proposed a wait and see attitude; he would be following “internal Ukrainian developments in the near future.”
On Afghanistan, although he noted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would help in the country’s rebuilding and establishing security, he put the onus, responsibility for rebuilding on those who fought there for the last 20 years. Putin was careful to praise Biden for withdrawing from the country, though he implied that the manner of withdrawal had been a failure. He implied, however, that any damage to U.S. prestige would likely not be long-lasting. Another show of humility? In 1909, Berdyaev called for “humility before the truth (istina) and readiness for renunciation in its name.”
 Berdyaev, “Filosofskaya istina i intelligentskaya pravda,” p. 41.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, forthcoming in 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.