Volume > Issue > Unmasking Putin’s Rasputin

Unmasking Putin’s Rasputin


By Jason M. Morgan | May 2022
Jason M. Morgan, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, teaches history, language, and philosophy at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan. He is the author, most recently, of Law and Society in Imperial Japan: Suehiro Izutarō and the Search for Equity (Cambria Press, 2020).

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced back into view some of the hardest questions a Christian will face. Where does violence fit, if at all, in the Christian communal life? If, God forbid, the need should arise, is it licit for a Christian to resist evil by force, to take up a weapon and kill an aggressor? If there is a war, may the Christian point his gun at an enemy and fire?

Ivan A. Ilyin, a Russian philosopher, legal scholar, and devout Orthodox Christian, had to find answers to these questions in his own time. Ilyin (1883-1954) was a White Russian, a member of the group opposed to the Bolshevik revolution. Exiled from Russia by the Bolsheviks (the “Reds”), Ilyin immigrated to Germany, where he kept abreast of the communist takeover of his beloved homeland from afar. A Hegelian by training, Ilyin had a typically fascistic view of the state, which led him to embrace Hitler as an antidote to Bolshevism. His hopes were, of course, dashed. It could not have been otherwise. Ilyin was a Christian before he was a Hegelian, so Hitler was bound to end up appalling him — which he did, and more.

Later exiled from Germany by the National Socialists, Ilyin ended up in Switzerland, where he passed the remainder of his days. The White Russians, as well as the German National Socialists Ilyin had once admired, battled the Bolsheviks but lost, and Ilyin died not long after Stalin had finished consolidating control over Russia by means of unholy terror. What does one do when one’s country is overrun by men such as these? May one kill the usurper, take the life of the man who takes the lives of others?

These questions are of deep import for Christians, but Ilyin’s interest in them was not purely religious. He had political motivations as well. Yes, Ilyin was against all things Bolshevik, but this does not mean he was not a Russian maximalist. (Vladimir Lenin, it should be noted, evinced a deep respect for Ilyin’s political philosophy. As a Marxist, Lenin was a Hegelian, too.) On the Ukraine question, Ilyin was almost a fanatic. Ukraine was organically part of Russia, he believed. This may explain why many have seen in Ilyin a kind of “guru” for current Russian President Vladimir Putin, who went so far as to have Ilyin’s remains disinterred from his Swiss resting place and reburied in Moscow, in the heart of the Motherland.

It is against this backdrop that Ilyin’s On Resistance to Evil by Force is worthy of reconsideration. Though his book (first published in 1925 and rereleased several times since then, most recently in 2018) does not apply directly to the war over Ukraine today, it is still germane to the current fighting, and the stakes thereof. Ilyin’s inspiration for writing it was Benito Mussolini, another first-rate Hegelian. Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922 and took Italy by fascist coup. Ilyin thought Mussolini’s violence in the name of the glorified state was not only justified but long overdue. Given this, my guess is Putin has Ilyin pegged correctly, and Ilyin would have supported the Russian Republic’s attempts to take Ukraine by bullet and bomb, by any means necessary.

Thus, On Resistance to Evil by Force is a must-read for this moment in time — not just for the historical context it provides, and not just as a window on Putin’s schemes. Ilyin recreates for us the central drama of the Christian life during a time of political upheaval. What should the Christian do when the world around him is falling apart? That is Ilyin’s question, and it is ours, too. Ilyin’s is a voice, Slavically accented, speaking authoritatively to us from a century before. “What path, o Christian, will you choose?” Ilyin asks us sternly. No serious reader will be able to finish On Resistance to Evil by Force without answering that question for himself.

Ilyin’s book has two central themes. The first is a lengthy refutation, the main target of which is Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the Russian literary genius and author of Cliffs-Noted-the-world-over works such as the mammoth tomes War and Peace and Anna Karenina, among many other books and short stories. But Ilyin is not a literary critic. Instead, his argument is with The Kingdom of God Is within You (1894), a tract in which Tolstoy sets forth the doctrine of radical nonviolence he had been developing throughout his writing career. (One of Tolstoy’s earliest works, The Sevastopol Sketches, is a good introduction to his conflicted thinking on violence. Tolstoy fought in the Crimean War as a young man and saw action at Sevastopol. This seems to have colored his thinking on war and killing for the rest of his life.)

For the later Tolstoy, violence is absolutely forbidden. The Christian may not resist evil by force, under any circumstances. Tolstoy claims he got his nonviolence from the Gospels, but Ilyin says, and I agree, that Tolstoy twists many Gospel passages in order to support the notion that the follower of Jesus must never do anything violent and must accept all violence done to him and to others, with no exceptions. The Russian Orthodox Church condemned Tolstoy for his heretical views, and rightly so. I remember reading The Kingdom of God Is within You some 15 years ago and thinking Tolstoy was playing very loose with the words of Christ. Ilyin spends much of On Resistance to Evil by Force countering Tolstoy’s arguments one by one, marshaling many works of Orthodox theology, Western and Russian philosophy, Catholic theology (including some obscure Jesuits), the Church Fathers (East and West), and Russian literature and folklore to drive home the point that the Christian may not sit by and watch as violence is done by bad men. It is clear why Ilyin would do this. The most famous and influential Russian author of his time had been saying that resisting evil by force is wrong. When the time came to resist evil by force in 1917, just seven years after Tolstoy died, Russians needed clarity on how to act. Ilyin, writing eight years after the Bolshevik takeover, tried to provide this clarity so that the communists could be driven out at the point of a bayonet.

To counter Tolstoy on the point of nonviolence, however, is not to formulate a doctrine by which the Christian can shoot to kill on the field of battle or to stop an imminent rape (to use an example from Tolstoy, which Ilyin borrows). Ilyin says the Christian must use violence, even to the point of killing, to protect the innocent from evil acts. But how does this square with the Christian life? Though Ilyin is a brilliant dismantler of Tolstoy’s rather fuzzyheaded philosophizing about nonviolence, he is less taut in the other theme of his book, his presentation of a positive program for Christian killing.

Some of Ilyin’s pronouncements sound odd at best — even, well, unorthodox. For instance, in one of his key subthemes, he adopts what sounds like a Catholicized ad-libbing of the Lutheran “two kingdoms” doctrine. Martin Luther thought God uses the secular kingdom to restrain fallen man, who needs the hard chastisement of the state to be kept in line. (In the Christian kingdom, by contrast, man has no need for such chastisement, being justified by Christ.) Whereas for Luther the fallen, secular world was separate from the Christian ideal, for Ilyin the body politic is alive with Christian solidarity. People, Ilyin says, “have one unified, common goal among themselves, a common good that everyone at once will either possess or not possess, that everyone will gain or lose at the same time: that is, a peaceful world which blooms from human goodwill” (emphases in original). The “villain” threatens this common good because he “prevents everyone else from abstaining from villainy,” a strangely negative, Lutheran-sounding way of describing the common good, but resonant at the same time with the Catholic conception of the common good as a positive, shared good and not just an absence of evil. People seeking the common good, which is predicated on restraining the villain, create both ecclesiastic and state authority, Ilyin argues. And authority, in turn, is the “servant of the common sacred space, designed and obliged to compel and suppress in the name of the population” (emphasis in original). The people, working together, form a force to protect the sacred space from the villain, and this force is the sacred space’s “living phenomenon” and “living sword” (emphases in original). On Ilyin’s reading, then, the presence of evil, and the need for people to unite to restrain it, is the genesis of the common good. This common good can take up the sword to protect the “sacred space,” which introduces both a classic Russian notion of sacrality (see my review of Victoria Smolkin’s A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism, April 2021) and a geopolitical space, a territory that must be defended.

Some of this language sounds Lockean, such as the argument that people form an authority that acts as the servant of the people. But we are far from John Locke at this point. Recall, Ilyin is no liberal; he’s a Hegelian. The unity Ilyin envisions is much thicker than the Lockean network of “rights,” and much thicker even than the Lutheran notion of the Christian bound in society by the chastising state for his own good. Ilyin’s Christian society is a spiritual sharing by the individual in a nation’s soul, an almost metaphysical concept in its own right. As a translator’s note in the 2018 rerelease points out, Ilyin is operating under the Slavophile paradigm of sobornost, a term that describes “the organic unity of a group of people who, in an act of spiritual freedom, forego their individualism out of love for a greater good. This stands in contrast to social contract theory, in which people submit to authorities for their own benefit. In this case, Ilyin argues that a spiritually meaningful authority is one to which people willingly subject themselves, even to the point of compulsion and suppression, for the greater good of the fight against evil, that is, the work of God” (emphasis in original).

For Ilyin, the sword of the state is for more than punishing man’s wicked nature, as Luther held; it is for keeping man in line in what appears to be a tribal union. One can certainly see the bug eyes of Hegel peeking out from behind all this, and one can imagine the muscles of the prose rippling like the bare chest of a shirtless Putin astride his favorite steed. Ilyin’s philosophy of violence is rooted in the integrity of the transcendent Russian state and steeped in Orthodox theology that stretches deep into Kievan Rus’ history. Another reason to read On Resistance to Evil by Force: Ilyin really does seem to be a spiritual godfather to the current leadership in the Kremlin. Russian is not just an adjective or a noun; it’s a force of history.

But dismissing Ilyin as merely a Slavophile is to fail to do justice to the main thrust of his argument, which is neither Hegelian nor Slavophilic but profoundly Christian. Despite the clearly fascistic overtones, Ilyin’s book can best be summed up in three words: Love your enemies. When resisting evil, Ilyin repeats again and again, the Christian must love his adversary, must walk an imperfect road, sacrificing his own moral purity for the sake of the soul of the criminal and invader. Much of On Resistance to Evil by Force is almost mystic in this sense, for the Christian girding for battle must accept the consequences of the bloody deeds he is compelled to do and must render his sacrifice out of love for God and neighbor. This requires constant vigilance and ceaseless prayer.

For Ilyin, the way forward through the darkness of violence is fraught with spiritual peril. In resisting the villain, “there is neither perfection nor moral holiness. And yet, he who leads the fight against the villain must accept this” (emphasis in original). What Ilyin refers to as “the negative modification of love,” loving the other even to the point of being willing to resist with violence the evil he would do, burdens the resister with great spiritual weight. It wracks a soul, makes salvation seem dubious. One must trust in God and fight on. There is little to no succor in this world for the violent Christians who must bear others’ violence away. Ilyin writes:

You cannot completely perceive another’s villainy without sustaining damage, and all the more so if this perception is enduring or lasts a long time. The most consistent and heroic rejection of evil does not rescue the crusader’s soul from the need to perceive his own black nature, and to adapt his experience and worldview to it. Naturally, in the course of this forced adaptation, the weaker soul is quietly infected, while the stronger one becomes stony and hard.

In the phrase black nature, we can again see shades of Luther, and overall, it is clear Ilyin has not reckoned with the just-war doctrine of the Latin West or the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas on the subject. The Jesuits whom Ilyin cites he largely writes off as casuistic.

Ilyin’s view of the state is almost worshipful, and his understanding of man’s life is sometimes Hobbesian. There is a kind of war of all against all in Ilyin’s social vision, but the war is spiritual above all else and not merely a question of politics and rights. For “the overwhelming majority of people,” he writes, the “internal struggle against evil is not yet finalised and complete.” In this “unstable equilibrium” they are “forced to make an external declaration of will, sharply placing themselves on one side, and often incurring long-term or even eternal consequences for this act. Hence, most people find themselves bewildered in the face of crimes, and this confusion is all the greater the more assertive and self-confident the villain is” (emphasis in original). For this reason, in a fallen world, “cowardly people” are grateful to those who confront the villain and deliver them from the “eternal consequences” of doing violence in the name of peace. This is uber-Hobbesian — existentialist avant la lettre, perhaps. Man walks a lonely road, despite all the talk of sobornost and other forms of group solidarity. Man must take on violence in the depths of his soul, out of profound love for his fellow man. This is reverse Tolstoyism. Tolstoy was not willing to sacrifice his moral purity for the sake of the other; Ilyin, by contrast, argues that, when the situation calls for it, the Christian must do just this.

On Resistance to Evil by Force is useful for understanding what is happening in Eastern Europe at the moment. It is not a straightforward book of history, however, and even if one accepts Ilyin as a guide from beyond the grave to understanding Vladimir Putin, On Resistance to Evil by Force will not work as a perfect decoder ring for parsing what the Russian President’s motives might be in besieging Kiev and Odessa. What Ilyin’s book is, at heart, is a powerful work of Christian philosophy. To be sure, Catholics will probably stop short at many of the theological notions that, according to Ilyin at least, the Orthodox seem to hold. I certainly did, scribbling in the margins of my copy, “Do the Orthodox really believe this?” For example, Ilyin argues that the man who restrains the villain with violence “takes on unrighteousness, not for himself, but in the name of God’s work.” This sounds dangerously close to sinning that grace may abound. Ilyin also speaks of “spiritual compromise” and “a frank and sustained acceptance of potential guilt” (emphases in original). But God does not ask us to do what is unjust and never forces us to compromise with evil. Moreover, making a good confession frees us from carrying our sins and, even worse, from “accepting” them. But beyond these qualms is the root Gospel question of what a man must do to be saved. When the bugle sounds and the drums syncopate an army’s march, does the Christian withdraw or fight? This is a choice we all might someday face. It is a choice many Christians in Eastern Europe, and other places in the world, are facing this very hour.


©2022 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.


To submit a Letter to the Editor, click here: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/contact-us/letters-to-the-editor/

You May Also Enjoy

Roman Catholics & Central America

The Church in North America is enriched by the example of the Church in Central America as it struggles for justice and human digni­ty.

By the Lakes of Babylon

Fr. Hesburgh proved to be a perfect avatar for the Notre Dame he created: an endorser of some kind of vaguely conceived “natural religion.”

Saying “No” to Death in All Its Manifestations

Real resistance requires the humble confes­sion that we are partners in the evil that we seek to resist. This is a very hard and seemingly endless dis­cipline.