In 2014 Vladimir Putin recommended three books for his regional governors to read: Justification of the Good, by Vladimir Solovyov; Philosophy of Inequality, by Nicholas Berdyaev; and Ivan Ilyin’s Our Tasks. Although each of these writers had very different visions, they were all united by a belief in “The Russian Idea:” the belief that Russia has a unique, providential, indeed messianic role to play in world affairs.
The political philosophy of Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) is known to have struck a particular chord with Vladimir Putin – to the extent that in 2005 the Russian President ordered that Ilyin’s remains be moved to the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow. During his life, Ilyin had been a fervent Russian Orthodox churchman. Ilyin saw Russia as an organic being, an extra historical, mystical unity, rather than in terms of the kind of legalistic understanding of nationhood that had emerged out of the European Enlightenment. Like Dostoevsky, Ilyin believed in the importance of Russia preserving its tradition of autocracy, as well as avoiding the nineteenth-century western fashion for constitutional government.
In Ilyin’s view Ukraine, where Russia had received its Christian faith direct from Constantinople New Rome, was the absolute foundation stone of the Russian people. One of Ilyin’s greatest fears for the future of Russia was its possible “Balkanisation,” the dissection of Russia’s cultural unity. Ilyin predicted that, under the pretext of Enlightenment principles such as “self-determination,” “freedom” and “independence,” the West would seek to divide Mother Russia and thereby neutralise her. By the early 1990s, Ilyin’s predictions were starting to come true. In 1991 Ukraine broke away from Russia.
Ilyin’s belief in the “Russian Idea” was shared by many Germans, including Oswald Spengler, who predicted that “the next thousand years would belong to Dostoevsky’s Christianity.” In 1919, Herman Hesse published A Glimpse into Chaos, which argued that Europe is in a state of terminal decline. Dostoevsky’s work had made clear why this was so while also offering hope for the possibility of renewal and rebirth in the West.
Crucially, however, the light that Hesse saw burning in the East is not the light of peace and enlightenment but rather the light of chaos, and Hesse’s “Russian man” is the promise of a new beginning and all the uncertainty and apprehension that accompanies a journey into the unknown. Indeed, history shows us that all moments of genuine transformation are preceded by periods of genuine chaos. Constantinople, New Rome, from whose Emperors the Tsars had claimed their descent, had been born out of the chaos that followed the collapse of the Pax Romana.
Interest in the “Russian Idea,” the idea that Russia has a redemptive role to play in world affairs, resurfaced in Moscow in the 1990s when Russia was in the depths of a profound existential crisis following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. One man who was especially influenced by the “Russian Idea” at that time was Alexander Dugin, a practising Russian Orthodox layman in its Old Believer tradition. Dugin has been called “Putin’s Rasputin” and has undoubtedly had a significant influence on the development of Putin’s geopolitical vision for Russia. As well as being a devout Russian Orthodox churchman, Alexander Dugin is a student of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Dugin has spoken of a coming cataclysm in world affairs and has constructed an entire political philosophy, which he has called the “Fourth Political Theory”. The “Fourth Political Theory” draws heavily upon Heidegger’s special term. Indeed his central concept, “ereignis.” For Heidegger, eriegnis is the moment when there will be a sudden return of Being, an event which will take place at the darkest moment in the world’s history.
In “Fourth Political Theory” Dugin writes that, at the heart of his philosophy, there “lies the trajectory of the approaching Ereignis (the “Event”), which will embody the triumphant return of Being, at the exact moment when the world forgets about it, once and for all, to the point that the last traces of it disappear.” Dugin’s highly apocalyptic view of history is typically Russian. Metropolitan Kirill of Moscow, for example, has warned that: “One must be blind not to see the approach of the terrible moment of history about which the Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian spoke in his Revelation.”
Let us be in no doubt. The fulfilment of the “American Dream” is for many societies, especially traditional ones of the kind championed by Vladimir Putin, an eschatological nightmare. It remains to be seen whether the crisis that is currently unfolding on the borders of Ukraine represents the moment when the world is thrown into the kind of chaos that Herman Hesse envisaged as the task for which “Russian Man” has been destined.
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