Ivan Ilyin was born in Moscow in an aristocratic family that claimed Rurikid descent. His father, Alexander Ivanovich Ilyin, had been born and spent his childhood in the Grand Kremlin Palace since Ilyin's grandfather had served as the commandant of the Palace. In he entered the Law faculty of the Moscow State University. Ilyin generally disapproved of the Russian Revolution of and did not participate actively in student political actions.

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Welcome sign in sign up. You can enter multiple addresses separated by commas to send the article to a group; to send to recipients individually, enter just one address at a time. An agonized God told the Russian a story of failure. In the beginning was the Word, purity and perfection, and the Word was God. But then God made a youthful mistake. He created the world to complete himself, but instead soiled himself, and hid in shame. Each individual thought or passion deepened the hold of Satan on the world.

And so the Russian, a philosopher, understood history as a disgrace. Nothing that had happened since creation was of significance. The world was a meaningless farrago of fragments. The more humans sought to understand it, the more sinful it became. Modern society, with its pluralism and its civil society, deepened the flaws of the world and kept God in his exile.

Because the unifying principle of the Word was the only good in the universe, any means that might bring about its return were justified. Thus this Russian philosopher, whose name was Ivan Ilyin, came to imagine a Russian Christian fascism. Expelled from his homeland in by the Soviet power he despised, he embraced the cause of Benito Mussolini and completed an apology for political violence in In German and Swiss exile, he wrote in the s and s for White Russian exiles who had fled after defeat in the Russian civil war, and in the s and s for future Russians who would see the end of the Soviet power.

A tireless worker, Ilyin produced about twenty books in Russian, and another twenty in German. Some of his work has a rambling and commonsensical character, and it is easy to find tensions and contradictions. One current of thought that is coherent over the decades, however, is his metaphysical and moral justification for political totalitarianism, which he expressed in practical outlines for a fascist state.

For the young Ilyin, writing before the Revolution, law embodied the hope that Russians would partake in a universal consciousness that would allow Russia to create a modern state. The Russian Federation of the early twenty-first century is a new country, formed in from the territory of the Russian republic of the Soviet Union. It is smaller than the old Russian Empire, and separated from it in time by the intervening seven decades of Soviet history.

Because Ilyin found ways to present the failure of the rule of law as Russian virtue, Russian kleptocrats use his ideas to portray economic inequality as national innocence. Ivan Ilyin was a philosopher who confronted Russian problems with German thinkers.

This was typical of the time and place. He was child of the Silver Age, the late empire of the Romanov dynasty. His father was a Russian nobleman, his mother a German Protestant who had converted to Orthodoxy. For the neo-Kantians, who then held sway in universities across Europe as well as in Russia, humans differed from the rest of creation by a capacity for reason that permitted meaningful choices.

Humans could then freely submit to law, since they could grasp and accept its spirit. Law was then the great object of desire of the Russian thinking classes. Russian students of law, perhaps more than their European colleagues, could see it as a source of political transformation.

Law seemed to offer the antidote to the ancient Russian problem of proizvol , of arbitrary rule by autocratic tsars. Even as a hopeful young man, however, Ilyin struggled to see the Russian people as the creatures of reason Kant imagined. He waited expectantly for a grand revolt that would hasten the education of the Russian masses. When the Russo-Japanese War created conditions for a revolution in , Ilyin defended the right to free assembly.

With his girlfriend, Natalia Vokach, he translated a German anarchist pamphlet into Russian. The tsar was forced to concede a new constitution in , which created a new Russian parliament.

The tsar dismissed parliament twice, and then illegally changed the electoral system to ensure that it was even more conservative. It was impossible to see the new constitution as having brought the rule of law to Russia.

Employed to teach law by the university in , Ilyin published a beautiful article in both Russian and German on the conceptual differences between law and power. Yet how to make law functional in practice and resonant in life?

Kant seemed to leave open a gap between the spirit of law and the reality of autocracy. Hegel — , however, offered hope by proposing that this and other painful tensions would be resolved by time. History, as a hopeful Ilyin read Hegel, was the gradual penetration of Spirit Geist into the world. Each age transcended the previous one and brought a crisis that promised the next one.

The beastly masses will come to resemble the enlightened friends, ardors of daily life will yield to political order.

The philosopher who understands this message becomes the vehicle of Spirit, always a tempting prospect. He found Russians, even those of his own class and milieu in Moscow, to be disgustingly corporeal. The individual paid a psychological price for sacrifice of his nature to culture.

Only through long consultations on the couch of the psychoanalyst could unconscious experience surface into awareness. Psychoanalysis therefore offered a very different portrait of thought than did the Hegelian philosophy that Ilyin was then studying.

Husserl — , the founder of the school of thought known as phenomenology, tried to describe the method by which the philosopher thinks himself into the world. The philosopher sought to forget his own personality and prior assumptions, and tried to experience a subject on its own terms. Like an Orthodox believer contemplating an icon, Ilyin believed in contrast to Husserl that he could see a metaphysical reality through a physical one.

As he wrote his dissertation about Hegel, he perceived the divine subject in a philosophical text, and fixed it in place. Hegel meant God when he wrote Spirit, concluded Ilyin, and Hegel was wrong to see motion in history. God could not realize himself in the world, since the substance of God was irreconcilably different from the substance of the world.

Hegel could not show that every fact was connected to a principle, that every accident was part of a design, that every detail was part of a whole, and so on. God had initiated history and then been blocked from further influence. Ilyin was quite typical of Russian intellectuals in his rapid and enthusiastic embrace of contradictory German ideas.

Hegel had seemed to provide a solution, a Spirit advancing through history. Husserl allowed Ilyin to transfer the responsibility for political failure and sexual unease to God. The philosopher had taken control and all was in view: other philosophers, the world, God. Indeed, even as Ilyin contemplated God, men were killing and dying by the millions on battlefields across Europe. In February , the tsarist regime was replaced by a new constitutional order.

The new government tottered as it continued a costly war. That April, Germany sent Vladimir Lenin to Russia in a sealed train, and his Bolsheviks carried out a second revolution in November, promising land to peasants and peace to all.

Ilyin was meanwhile trying to assemble the committee so he could defend his dissertation. By the time he did so, in , the Bolsheviks were in power, their Red Army was fighting a civil war, and the Cheka was defending revolution through terror. World War I gave revolutionaries their chance, and so opened the way for counter-revolutionaries as well.

Throughout Europe, men of the far right saw the Bolshevik Revolution as a certain kind of opportunity; and the drama of revolution and counter-revolution was played out, with different outcomes, in Germany, Hungary, and Italy.

Nowhere was the conflict so long, bloody, and passionate as in the lands of the former Russian Empire, where civil war lasted for years, brought famine and pogroms, and cost about as many lives as World War I itself. In Europe in general, but in Russia in particular, the terrible loss of life, the seemingly endless strife, and the fall of empire brought a certain plausibility to ideas that might otherwise have remained unknown or seemed irrelevant.

Lenin and Ilyin did not know each other, but their encounter in revolution and counter-revolution was nevertheless uncanny. Both men interpreted Hegel in radical ways, agreeing with one another on important points such as the need to destroy the middle classes, disagreeing about the final form of the classless community.

Lenin accepted with Hegel that history was a story of progress through conflict. As a Marxist, he believed that the conflict was between social classes: the bourgeoisie that owned property and the proletariat that enabled profits.

Lenin added to Marxism the proposal that the working class, though formed by capitalism and destined to seize its achievements, needed guidance from a disciplined party that understood the rules of history. In , Lenin went so far as to claim that the people who knew the rules of history also knew when to break them— by beginning a socialist revolution in the Russian Empire, where capitalism was weak and the working class tiny.

Yet Lenin never doubted that there was a good human nature, trapped by historical conditions, and therefore subject to release by historical action. Marxists such as Lenin were atheists. They thought that by Spirit, Hegel meant God or some other theological notion, and replaced Spirit with society. Ilyin was not a typical Christian, but he believed in God.

For Marxists, private property served the function of an original sin, and its dissolution would release the good in man. There was never a good moment in history, and no intrinsic good in humans. The Marxists were right to hate the middle classes, and indeed did not hate them enough.

Because the middle classes block God, they must be swept away by a classless national community. But there is no historical tendency, no historical group, that will perform this labor.

The grand transformation from Satanic individuality to divine totality must begin somewhere beyond history. According to Ilyin, liberation would arise not from understanding history, but from eliminating it. Since the earthly was corrupt and the divine unattainable, political rescue would come from the realm of fiction.

In , Ilyin was still hopeful that Russia might become a state ruled by law. After he departed Russia, Ilyin would maintain that humanity needed heroes, outsized characters from beyond history, capable of willing themselves to power.

In his dissertation, this politics was implicit in the longing for a missing totality and the suggestion that the nation might begin its restoration. It was an ideology awaiting a form and a name. Ilyin left Russia in , the year the Soviet Union was founded.

Ilyin was convinced that bold gestures by bold men could begin to undo the flawed character of existence. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?


Ivan Ilyin



Ivan Iljin


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