Historian Timothy Snyder has twisted the Russian leader's statements
I don’t like to keep returning to the same topic, but The New York Times leaves me little choice. A few months ago I wrote a piece denouncing a lecture by historian Timothy Snyder which, roughly speaking, proposed the following thesis: Vladimir Putin has quoted philosopher Ivan Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; ergo Putin is a fascist. Today Snyder repeated his thesis in an op-ed entitled ‘How a Russian Fascist Is Meddling in America’s Election’. In this he argues that, with Ilyin as his philosophical guide, Putin is trying to ‘discredit both elections and their observation’ and thereby ‘bring down democracy everywhere’.
According to Snyder, ‘Mr Putin has relied on Ilyin’s authority at every turning point in Russian politics’. This is clearly an enormous exaggeration given that Putin has quoted Ilyin a grand total of five times in the 16 years that he has been in power. Furthermore, Snyder’s description of Ilyin’s views is decidedly one-sided. He writes, for instance, that ‘Ilyin believed that individuality was evil’. Now I confess that I haven’t read everything that Ilyin wrote, but I’ve read a reasonable amount, and I have yet to come across anything which would suggest such a conclusion (see the quote below about soldiers being individuals). Moreover, Snyder errs in saying that Ilyin’s critical views of formal democracy could justify undermining democratic procedures in foreign countries. Ilyin was actually of the view that in some countries, such as Switzerland and the USA, formal democracy worked well. He made it clear that, even if he didn’t want Russia to follow their example, he was very happy for other countries to do things the way they did. The political system of each country had to match that country’s specific form of legal consciousness, he insisted.
But Snyder’s errors on those points are not what I am most interested in challenging. Rather, what exercises me is the assumption underlying his argument, namely that if someone quotes somebody who at some point said something else which was distasteful, then the person doing the quoting obviously shares that distasteful opinion in full.
To show why this is wrong, let us consider somebody else Putin has cited: the Slavophile thinker Konstantin Aksakov. Does Putin share all Aksakov’s views on everything? Surely not. There is the Konstantin Aksakov who supported centralized state power. But there is also the Konstantin Aksakov who was something close to an anarchist. There is the Aksakov who backed autocracy. And there is the Aksakov who opposed serfdom and was a fierce proponent of free speech. Which Aksakov is Putin?
Take some other examples. Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, but he was also at one point a member of the Nazi Party. Many philosophers continue to cite him and make use of his ideas. It would be ridiculous to claim that they are all Nazis. The jurist Carl Schmitt has become increasingly popular in academic works in the past decade. He too was a member of the Nazi party. But it would be preposterous to call all the legal scholars who cite him fascists.
So, let us look at which of Ilyin’s sayings Putin has actually referred to. There are as follows:
25 April 2005:
The great Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin wrote that, ‘State power has its limits … The state cannot demand from its citizens faith, prayer, love, goodness, and convictions. It cannot regulate scientific, religious, and artistic creation. … It musn’t interfere in moral, family, and everyday life, or except in extreme necessity restrict economic initiative.’
10 May 2006:
The well-known Russian thinker Ivan Ilyin said that the calling of soldier is a high and honourable title and that the soldier ‘represents the national unity of the people, the will of the Russian state, strength and honour’.
23 January 2012:
It is this special quality of Russian statehood that was outlined in Ivan Ilyin’s works: ‘Not to eliminate, not to suppress, not to enslave other people’s blood, not to stifle the life of different tribes and religions – but to give everyone breath and the great Russia…to honor all, to reconcile all, to allow everyone to pray in their own way, to work in their own way, and to engage the best in public and cultural development.’
26 June 2013
As the famous philosopher Ivan Ilyin said, ‘The Russian army will never forget the tradition of Suvorov, which maintained that the soldier is an individual’.
4 December 2014:
I will cite here Ivan Ilyin: ‘Whoever loves Russia should desire freedom for it; first of all freedom for Russia itself, its international independence; freedom for Russia—as the unity of Russian and all other national cultures; and finally, freedom for Russian people, freedom for all of us; freedom of religion, the search for justice, creativity, labor, and property.
Professor Snyder thinks that these quotations make Putin a fascist. I cannot imagine what definition of fascism he is using to draw this conclusion. In 1990 the New York Times admitted that Walter Duranty’s reporting was some of the worst it had ever printed. Given what the newspaper is publishing nowadays, Duranty is facing some stiff competition.