Ever since Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia twenty-two years ago, Western observers have tried to discern his ideology. Is he a Russian nationalist bent on reconstituting the Russian Empire or a neo-Communist, angry over the collapse of the Soviet Union? Perhaps he’s simply a “patriot” without any actual ideology but who practices a Machiavelli-esque realpolitik to rebuild Russia’s international standing.
Putin presents himself as a great opponent of Western European liberalism. He tries to portray liberalism—with its promotion of immoral lifestyles and the destruction of borders—and Western civilization as one and the same thing. According to this narrative, the Russian nation is the great victim of Western aggression. Russia’s role is to organize the rest of the world to overthrow Western power and hegemony.
These questions are especially important for devout Catholics and other Christians who, appalled with Western cultural decadence and the evils of the sexual revolution, are tempted to see Putin as an ally. Upon closer scrutiny, Putin’s ideology is rooted in nineteenth and twentieth-century Russian thinkers who have much in common with their contemporary Western counterparts. While sometimes using the language of Christianity, these thinkers were often rooted in gnostic, pantheistic and pseudo-mystical concepts of society and religion that are in radical opposition to Christianity, especially the Catholic Church.
To better understand Putin’s worldview, French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff went straight to the source: Putin’s own words. In Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin, Eltchaninoff paints a fascinating philosophical trajectory of “Putinism” based on his many speeches, interviews and statements. He also reports on the views of Putin’s closest advisors. The book has the added advantage of being first published in 2015 before the present conflict and thus cannot be accused of tailoring its message to accommodate the times.
Eltchaninoff is well-positioned to study Putin’s ideology. He is an expert in nineteenth-century Russian literature, a professor of philosophy and a fluent Russian speaker. As it turns out, philosophy and literature are everywhere in Putin’s speeches and among the cadres of his party, United Russia. Certain nineteenth-century Russian thinkers, in particular, are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in Putin’s Russia. These writers, many of whom are untranslated, are key to understanding his motives and worldview.
When he started his political career, Putin presented himself as a liberal and an admirer of the West. He is a native of Saint Petersburg, the most Western of Russian cities, and has always indicated an admiration for his city’s pro-Western founder, Peter the Great. When Putin was mayor of Saint Petersburg in the nineties, he even placed a portrait of Peter the Great in his office.
As a law student at Leningrad State University, Putin studied many Western thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. But the Western philosopher he seems to admire the most is Emmanuel Kant, quoting him several times in his speeches. In a speech during a 2005 visit to Kaliningrad (the former Königsburg, Kant’s birthplace), Putin praised Kant’s contribution to Western liberal thought. “Of course, Kant is first and foremost a great figure of the German Enlightenment, but he is more than that. Thanks to his considerable contribution to global culture, he is among that category of people we can call citizens of the world” [emphasis added].
Putin tried to portray Russia as a good neighbor to the nations of Western Europe. “Russia is, of course, a Eurasian country,” he stated in 2002, “But…Russia is without any doubt a European country, because it is a country of European culture.” As such, Russia had no revanchist intentions in Europe, either towards Ukraine or any other country: “We have never proclaimed any region of the world as a zone of national interest.” If there was anything he didn’t want, it was conflict with the United States: “Who here could be interested in a confrontation between Russia and the rest of the world and with one of the most powerful states in the world—the United States? Whom could that interest? People like that don’t exist!”
Whether or not Putin actually believed in these liberal sentiments is another matter. Some analysts believe that he was always insincere. But the fact remains that he spent the nineties and his first decade as President of the Russian Federation trying to appear as a good liberal.
Many of Putin’s declarations about the Soviet period are likewise contradictory. For example, Putin has said that communist ideology with its classless society is “nothing more than a beautiful story but a dangerous one…leading to an impasse…” He blamed the Germans who “forced them [Marx and Engels] on us.” “Anyone who doesn’t miss the Soviet Union has no heart. And anyone who wants it back has no brain.”
Yet Putin often speaks fondly of the Soviet Union and the KGB. In 2005, Putin lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union in an address to the nation, calling it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” On another occasion in 2016, he claimed that he still kept his Communist Party membership card and liked communist and socialist ideals “very much.” The Moral Code of the Builder of Communism, a set of twelve principles that every Party member was obliged to follow, are “wonderful ideas” that, in his view, resemble the Bible in many ways.1 He is also rehabilitating the great figures of the Communist period, including Joseph Stalin. In 2014, Putin voiced support for a proposal to rename Volgograd to Stalingrad.2
Felix Dzerzhinsky, the infamous founder of the Cheka secret police, has also found favor in Putin’s Russia. In 2014, Putin signed a decree renaming the internal operational security division of the Russian Department of the Interior the “Dzerzhinsky Division.” Putin has also built a statue of Dzerzhinsky in Kirov and dedicated a museum to him.
As he admits, Putin much prefers outdoor activities and judo to libraries or study. Putin is neither a philosopher nor an intellectual and sometimes even disparages them. He has repeated that he does not want to implement a Soviet-style state ideology, but a state ideology nonetheless. “I do not think that we need a dominant ideology and philosophy. But the state can, of course, be led by a philosopher—so long as he shares this vision of things.” Putin’s advisors insist that to speak of a “Putin philosophy” is somewhat simplistic. But Putin does seek to reestablish what he considers to be the positive aspects of the Soviet Union, backed up by a replacement ideology.
Eltchaninoff shows how this Putinist ideology began to take form around 2002, especially after the Beslan terrorist attack in 2004 and Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. By his third presidential term in 2012, Putin had become more conservative in his speeches, praising traditional Russian culture, “Christian values,” and “Holy Russia.” He also began to blame the West for its general acceptance of homosexuality and portray himself as a champion of the Christian family.
This change reached a climax in the fall of 2013, which Eltchaninoff calls Putin’s “conservative turn.” Just as the Euromaidan protests began, Putin gave speeches in which he outlined his ideological views in comparison with what he disparagingly calls “Euro-Atlantic” or “Anglo-Saxon” countries. On December 12, 2013, Putin declared that these countries are “revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures.” He called for a “defense of traditional values” and acknowledged that “yes, of course, it’s a conservative position.”
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In January 2014, top officials of the United Russia Party received an odd New Year’s gift from the President’s office: books of philosophy by Ivan Ilyin, Nikolai Berdyaev and Vladimir Solovyov, all nineteenth and early twentieth-century Russian thinkers. In March of that year, members and functionaries of the party were obliged to attend classes on philosophy. In August 2014, Putin held a Tavrida International Youth Forum in the newly-conquered Crimea, where Russian intellectuals gathered to explain the principles of what Eltchaninoff calls Russia’s “conservative turn” inaugurated by Putin. In the words of one professor from Moscow State University at the event, Russia’s destiny is no less than “to build herself up as a separate civilization…to think of herself as the conservative savior of Europe.”
Where did this “conservative turn” come from? Are there certain thinkers who could be considered as Putin’s inspiration? And what, exactly, does Putin mean by “conservatism,” “tradition,” and “moral values”? Is he really an opponent of evils from the West, and is his proposed solution something Western Christians should support? Or does he use the language of Christian conservatism to promote what is at its roots an anti-Christian, revolutionary ideology?
If one could synthesize the common elements of these philosophers cited by Putin, it is that they favor a type of pseudo-mystical populism of the Russian people. Russia has a universal messianic mission to unify the world against the West and the Catholic Church, which they identify with socialism, egalitarianism, universalism and modernity. This mission is based on the “Russian way,” a type of mystical populism that promotes “sovereign democracy” and a “vertical of power” as alternatives to Western-style governments.
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Eltchaninoff explains that Russian intellectuals were divided into two camps in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On the one side were the “Westernizers,” those Russians who believed that their country should follow the example of Peter the Great and embrace Western modernity. These Russians, such as Piotr Chaadayev (1794-1856), Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) and Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848), equated Western civilization with the revolutionary, egalitarian, atheistic and utopian philosophies of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. They were avid supporters of French and German socialist and communist thinkers such as Saint-Simon, Louis Blanc, Hegel and Feuerbach. For them, Russia should join the path of “progress” and embrace these “Western” ideologies.
Opposed to the “Westernizers” were the “Slavophiles.” They saw the West as Russia’s greatest enemy. Like the Westernizers, they equated Western culture with the Enlightenment. But if Napoleon’s invasion of Russia had taught them anything, it was that the West—with its egalitarianism and liberalism—would inevitably try to conquer and destroy the Russian nation. The Slavophiles sought to promote the Russian “national genius founded on a religious view of the world, on the virtues of the Russian people or the particularities of their social organization.” Although it would be incorrect to call Putin a Slavophile, he nevertheless draws on some of their ideas for his worldview.
Some of the most important Slavophiles were Alexei Khomiakov (1804-1860) and Ivan Kireevsky (1806-1856). “Attacking individualism, the dullness of abstraction, the mechanical routine of existence in the West,” writes Eltchaninoff, “Kireevsky also celebrated the organic togetherness of Russian popular life, nourished by a vibrant Christian faith.”
Ironically, the Slavophiles were just as influenced by Western philosophy as the Westernizers were. Most were from wealthy families and were even more likely to have studied in Western Europe than the Westernizers themselves. Slavophilia was a Russian version of Western nationalism that was sweeping Europe in the nineteenth century. Like nationalism, it was rooted in thoroughly modern and anti-Christian revolutionary thought, even if it was sometimes dressed up with Christian language.
The Slavophile philosopher most cited by Putin is Nikolay Danilevsky (1822-1885) and his book, Russia and Europe. Danilevsky advocated for pan-Slavism in which all Slavic peoples would be united in a single state under Russian domination, which would create a “new equilibrium” in the world against the West. He believed Russia’s collectivist mentality and belief in a strong, authoritarian leader (the Tsar) was the only bulwark against Western liberalism and decadence. According to Eltchaninoff:
Drawing on Hegel’s affirmation in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right of ‘the ethical moment of war’…Danilevsky considered that popular mobilization in war represented a special process of fermentation in the evolution of a cultural and political renaissance. He even formulated a ‘law of historical economy’ whereby a reservoir of vital forces had been accumulating in Russia for centuries; part of the population, ‘protected’ by forests, steppes and mountains, had ‘continued…to develop silently, saving up future strength.’ This ‘ethnographic tribal energy’ would one day find the means to expend itself.
For Danilevsky, the Russians were the people chosen by God to reveal religious truth to the world. And for this to happen, Russia had to fight and defeat the West.
The twenty-first-century reincarnation of this pan-Slavist ideology is so-called Eurasianism. On May 29, 2014, Putin signed a treaty with Kazakhstan and Belarus that established the Eurasian Economic Union. Intended to model and rival the European Union, it allows free movement of people, capital, goods and services, with the possibility of a single currency in the future. Eurasianism is a cherished dream of Putin and the Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, in which the countries of “Eurasia” would unite to form a great block to confront and defeat the West.
Putin’s most admired philosopher of Eurasianism is Lev Gumilev (1912-1992), whom Putin has praised on numerous occasions. Gumilev was violently anti-Western and promoted Eurasia as Russia’s only path forward. He also advocated a strange, naturalistic and pantheistic theory of biological determinism. He taught that ethnic groups have life cycles like human beings and form a type of cosmic energy, which he called “passionarity,” that is exchanged between a certain ethnic group and the land, animals and minerals of the territory they inhabit. Russians have a high level of “passionarity” and form a superior ethnic group, while the Western Europeans and Americans are in a state of decline.
Among the Russian thinkers and philosophers most often cited by Putin is Konstantin Leontiev (1831-1891). Nicknamed the “Russian Nietzsche,” he believed in a pantheistic theory that history is an endless cycle of civilizations that are born, rise, fall and die. According to him, the West has been in a state of decadence since the Renaissance, while Russian civilization was on the rise. Leontiev harbored an intense hatred for Enlightenment liberalism and egalitarianism, which he equated with Western civilization. The strict, severe autocracy of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Tsar were the only antidote to Russia defending its identity against a “federal Europe” seeking to destroy it. Russia, he believed, should make a cultural alliance with China, India and Tibet to ward off the threat from the West.
Ironically, Eltchaninoff points out that Leontiev’s anti-Western ideas were quite similar to Western revolutionary thinkers, especially Nietzsche (with whom he is usually compared) and Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West. Spengler was part of the so-called German Conservative Revolution (1918-1933), a movement that anticipated some of the ideas of Fascism and National Socialism. Like those of Nietzsche, their ideas rejected both modernity and traditional Christianity, which they saw as a force that weakened Western peoples. Christianity, at best, must be instrumentalized to favor the nation’s interests. Not surprisingly, this is precisely how the Russian Orthodox Church is used by the Putin government today.
But perhaps the most important of Putin’s philosophers is Ivan Ilyin (1873-1950), a Russian specialist in Hegel. Relatively unknown during his lifetime, Ilyin is now Putin’s “philosopher of choice,” who quotes him in his speeches more than any other Russian thinker. Ilyin was aboard the “philosophers ship” of Russian intellectuals exiled to the West by Lenin in 1922. An opponent of Bolshevism, Ilyin later praised what he saw as positive traits of German National Socialism. He believed Russia is not an “artificially arranged mechanism” but “an organism shaped by history and justified by culture.” He wrote that the West will always seek to “dismember” Russia because “the peoples of the West neither understand nor tolerate Russian originality.”
The solution he proposes is remarkably close to the Putin program. In his book Our Mission, he writes that Russia needs a “Guide,” a strongman ruler who will implement what he calls a new “Russian idea.” This idea is not “the idea of ‘the people,’ of ‘democracy,’ of ‘socialism,” of “imperialism,” of “totalitarianism”…A new idea is needed, religious in its sources and national in its spiritual meaning.”
Putin’s message resonates with many Westerners, especially his rejection of homosexuality and the errors of liberal democracy. Many take him at his word when he praises “Christian values,” the natural family, or “Tradition.” He and his supporters claim that the world, especially the West, must choose either liberal democracy or the Putin model, homosexuality or the natural family, secular atheism or Christian values.
Like most Western liberals, Michel Eltchaninoff seems to agree with this false dilemma. Both Putinists and Western liberals may hate each other, but they come together on one fundamental point: Western civilization and Western liberalism are the same thing.
Christians and Catholics should reject this false dilemma. Liberalism is one of the causes of the crisis in the Western world today, but Putinism is not the solution. Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin shows, however, that Putin’s words cannot be taken at face value. His favorite philosophers are pantheistic, naturalistic and even gnostic, all ideas that are in opposition to fundamental Christian theology.
Liberalism and Putin both wage war on what remains of Western Christian civilization. This civilization was built over 2,000 years in large part thanks to the influence of the Catholic Church. Western Christians should reject the Liberalism/Putinism false dilemma and fight to save the West.