The Putin Book Club

“We must love all nations as we love our own,” writes Russian philosopher Vladimir Sergeevich Solovyov in his 1897 book The Justification of the Good. The “greatness and value” of nationality, he claims, lies “not in itself taken in the abstract, but in something universal, supernational … Nations live and act not for their own sake … but for the sake … of what can be of service to all.”

The Justification of the Good is one of three books which the Kremlin sent out this January to regional governors and senior members of the ruling United Russia party. The other two are Nikolai Berdyaev’s Philosophy of Inequality (written in 1919) and Ivan Ilyin’s Our Tasks (penned in exile after the Second World War). As the West seeks to understand what motivates Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, these books perhaps provide a useful start. As Colin Freeman of The Daily Telegraph commented on March 26, “to find out where Mr Putin thinks Russia has gone wrong in the past, read the works of Ivan Ilyin.”

One shouldn’t see the Kremlin’s enthusiasm for these authors as necessarily indicating a profoundly illiberal outlook.

This is good advice—but these authors are sufficiently complex, and view the world from a perspective so far removed from that of modern secular liberalism, that it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions. A prime example is a March 4 article by New York Times writer David Brooks, which Damon Linker in The Week described as possibly “the single worst column about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” According to Brooks, Solovyov, Berdyaev and Ilyin share a “messianic” view of Russia’s place in the world. The Kremlin’s support of these philosophers thus reveals a “highly charged and assertive messianic ideology” of which we should all be afraid.

As the above quotes from Solovyov show, this is far from the truth. Solovyov, Berdyaev and Ilyin all inherited some of the intellectual baggage of nineteenth-century Slavophilism, which did indeed see a special role for Russia in the world—but as Susanna Rabow-Edling has pointed out in a recent book, Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism, Slavophilism was a cultural nationalism. It rested on German Romantic precepts which included the ideas that national diversity was desirable and that nations contributed to the universal good by developing their own unique culture.

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Russian exceptionalism is thus very different from American exceptionalism, which seeks to export American political and economic structures. The Russian version is neither exclusive nor aggressive. Thus in Our Tasks, Ilyin remarks that each people does things its own way, and that “each people is right.”

This is not to say that there is no reason to be concerned that the Kremlin picks Solovyov, Berdyaev or Ilyin as its philosophers of choice. These are not authors whom one would find on the top of any Western liberal democrat’s reading list—in part because the foundations of their thought are religious and not secular, but also because none of them view the democracy practised in the West as a desirable political form. “Formal democracy,” writes Ilyin, “led to left and right totalitarianism. … We insist on a third way for Russia.” Western democracy, writes Berdyaev in Philosophy of Inequality “is profoundly hostile to the spirit of liberty. … Liberty is aristocratic not democratic.”

Still, one shouldn’t see the Kremlin’s enthusiasm for these authors as necessarily indicating a profoundly illiberal outlook. Berdyaev’s complaint, after all, is precisely that Western democracy is bad for liberty. As for Solovyov, he is what one might call a “theocratic liberal”. As Paul Valliere points out in his book Modern Russian Theology, “the fact that Solovyov pursued ‘theocracy’ throws many readers off track, since to most people this word suggests the opposite of liberalism. But Solovyov’s theocracy contains prominent liberal elements.”

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Thus in The Justification of the Good, Solovoyov insists that “the only moral norm is the principle of human dignity or of the absolute worth of each individual”. Solovyov also argues for a welfare state, saying “it is inconsistent with human dignity and with the moral norm of society that a person should be unable to support his existence.” The Justification of the Good is in many ways remarkably progressive: for instance, it denounces the idea that the penal system should be about retribution, saying “we ought to pity both the victim and the criminal.” Just as the victim has a right to safety and compensation, “the criminal has a right to correction and reformation.” “The meaning of the state consists in subordinating, within its limits, violence to justice, arbitrariness to legality,” Solovyov concludes.

This is not a particularly scary philosophy. To be sure, Putin’s reading list reveals a determination that Russia should follow its own path and not be bound by Western liberal democratic models. Yet these authors advocate that position for reasons we can support. The exaggerated reaction to the list shows that Ilyin was perhaps correct in holding this view: “Other peoples don’t know us, don’t understand us, are afraid of Russia, don’t sympathise with it, and are happy to see it weakened. … We are alone, misunderstood, and unpopular.”

A little more understanding would be a good thing.

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