Top critical review
An important book but with a lack of understanding of Orthodox Russia
Reviewed in the United States on December 3, 2018
First let me say that I value and appreciate Mr. Snyder’s work. I’ve literally purchased copies of his books and given them to my sons.
In the case of this book, though, he has grossly missed the mark on Ivan Ilyin. My argument is not with the basic premise of Mr. Snyder’s work but with the distortions of Ilyin’s basic premises. That Putin has distorted Ilyin does not mean Ilyin is the source of the corruption. It means the contention is with Putin and his efforts to wrap himself in the mantel of an Orthodox inheritance he neither comprehends nor deserves.
I have seen this repeatedly when Russian Orthodox theologians/philosophers are examined through the lens of Western Scholastic culture -- and, yes, ex-Marxist Putin’s distortions are thoroughly Western. Let us not forget Marx and Engels were children of Hegel and that Homo Sovieticus was a Western overlay of a culture alien to its understanding.
The points raised by this book are being used to make political arguments when Ilyin’s original concepts are eschatological, e.g. his assessment of Hitler: “Hitler, with his vulgar godlessness, behind which was concealed equally vulgar self-deification, unto the end never recognized that anticipating the Bolsheviks, he walked the path of Antichrist.” – from “On Fascism”
There are many examples of this in his writing. He may be speaking of political situations but the core of his point is the spiritual or eschatological implications.
There are these types of concepts in Russian/Slavonic that, while they can be translated into English, they cannot be understood outside of their original Orthodox context. These have been built up over a millennium of Orthodox life and, quite simply, the West does not have the conceptual or spiritual basis to interpret them. It’s not unusual to see writers thrash at the messenger because the message does not fit Western molds.
Sobornost is a good example. It can be translated into catholic or universal, but the inherent unity of the word cannot be comprehended outside of the Orthodox understanding.
When Ilyin was writing to the Orthodox he was writing in a spiritual patois, in a language only the Orthodox in general, and Russian Orthodox in particular, could fully understand and interpret. He was writing in terms ingrained in the Orthodox mindset, like speaking in a range outside normal hearing abilities. (I’m sure someone will “dog whistle” that….)
That Ilyin was a threat to fascists is apparent by the fact his writings were not only banned by the Bolsheviks but also the Nazi party. He was removed from his professorship in Berlin by Hitler personally and, after four years of persecution (1934-1938), ended up in exile in Switzerland (the Bolsheviks exiled him on a “philosopher’s ship” in 1922).
I’d like to end my point with two excerpts from his writing, first from a work on sovereignty and secondly from a letter of Ilyin’s to his son:
“[E]very people and every land are a living individuality with their special characteristics, their own unrepeatable history, soul, and nature. To every people is therefore due its own special individual form of sovereignty and a constitution corresponding to that people only. There are no identical peoples, and there should not be identical forms of sovereignty and constitutions. Blind borrowing and imitation is absurd, dangerous, and can become ruinous.” – from “On Sovereignty”
“Will without love is empty, harsh, hard, violent, and, what is most important, blind to good and evil. It will quickly transform life into penal discipline under the command of vicious men. The world already has a whole series of organizations built on such principles. May the Lord guard us from them and their influence.” – from a letter of Ilyin to his son.
Hardly sounds like the rantings of a fascist.