Even cynics like to feel moral. Even hard-eyed men who play power politics need to feel that their efforts are part of a great historic mission. So as he has been throwing his weight around the world, Vladimir Putin has been careful to quote Russian philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries like Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin.
Putin doesn’t only quote these guys; he wants others to read them. As Maria Snegovaya pointed out recently in The Washington Post, the Kremlin recently assigned three philosophic books to regional governors: Berdyaev’s “The Philosophy of Inequality,” Solovyov’s “Justification of the Good” and Ilyin’s “Our Tasks.”
Putin was personally involved in getting Ilyin’s remains reburied back in Russian soil. In 2009, Putin went to consecrate the grave himself. The event sent him into a nationalistic fervor. “It’s a crime when someone only begins talking about the separation of Russia and the Ukraine,” he said on that day.
To enter into the world of Putin’s favorite philosophers is to enter a world full of melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions. “We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness,” Ilyin wrote.
Three great ideas run through this work. The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.
These philosophers often argued that the rationalistic, materialistic West was corrupting the organic spiritual purity of Russia. “The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia,” Ilyin wrote, “Having lost our bond with God and the Christian tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism.”
You can hear echoes of this moralistic strain in Putin’s own speeches, especially when he defends his regime’s attitude toward gays and the role of women. Citing Berdyaev, he talks about defending traditional values to ward off moral chaos. He says he is defending the distinction between good and evil, which has been lost in the outside world.
Most important, these philosophers had epic visions of Russia’s role in the world. Solovyov argued that because Russia is located between the Catholic West and the non-Christian East, it has a historic mission to lead the way to human unification. Russia would transcend secularism and atheism and create a unified spiritual kingdom.
“The Russian messianic conception,” Berdyaev wrote, “always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity.”
Russia is frequently seen as a besieged fortress. The West is thought to be rotten to the core and weak yet so powerful that it can be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Russia has immeasurable spiritual potential yet is forever plagued by a lack of self-respect, lack of self-assertion and unmet potential.
In his 1948 essay, “What Dismemberment of Russia Entails for the World,” Ilyin describes the Russian people as the “core of everything European-Asian and, therefore, of universal equilibrium.” Yet the West, he argues, is trying to “divide the united Russian broom into twigs to break these twigs one by one.” The West is driven by “a plan of hatred and lust for power.”
All of this adds up to a highly charged and assertive messianic ideology. If Putin took it all literally, he’d be a Russian ayatollah. Up until now, he hasn’t taken it literally. His regime has used this nationalism to mobilize public opinion and to explain itself to itself. But it has tamped down every time this nationalistic ideology threatens to upend the status quo.
The danger is that Russia is now involved in a dispute in Ukraine that touches and activates the very core of this touchy messianism. The tiger of quasi-religious nationalism, which Putin has been riding, may now take control. That would make it very hard for Putin to stop in this conflict where rational calculus would tell him to stop. Up until now, we have not been in a Huntingtonian conflict of civilizations with Russia. But with passions aroused and philosophic zealotry at full boil, it may temporarily appear that we are.
The implication for Western policymakers is that we may not be dealing with a “normal” regime, which can be manipulated by economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks. Threatening to take away inclusion in the Group of 8 or freeze some assets may become irrelevant because the Russian regime will have moved up to a different level. The Russian nation may be motivated by a deep, creedal ideology that has been wafting through the culture for centuries and has now found an unlikely, cynical and cold-eyed host.David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.