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Between fascism and bolshevism: How Alexander Dugin came to head the ‘Ivan Ilyin Higher School of Politics’

Students at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH) have come out against their institution’s establishment of the “Ivan Ilyin Higher School of Politics” (HSP). The students’ petition claims that Ilyin, a 20th century Russian emigre philosopher much admired by 21st century Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, “actively abetted the activities of the Nazi regime and vindicated Hitler's crimes,” making it inappropriate to name the university department after him. As if to further provoke outrage, the openly imperialist ideologue Alexander Dugin was appointed as head of the department. However, Russian philosophy professor Yulia Sineokaya warns against taking the HSP controversy too seriously — the department will either remain a barely noticeable discussion club, or it will be shut down after yet another scandal. Still, she argues that the appointment of Dugin is rife with symbolic irony: Dugin, a figure commonly mislabeled as “Putin’s brain,” has consistently spoken unfavorably of Ilyin, “Putin’s favorite philosopher.”


The gist of the conflict: Dugin, patriots, communists, and the academic community

Late last summer, the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH) went against its own administrators’ wishes, establishing the “Ivan Ilyin Higher School of Politics” (HSP) as an interdepartmental educational and scientific center within the university. In practice, however, HSP attracted relatively little attention until April of this year, when a leaked video showed its head, the notoriously imperialist ideologue Alexander Dugin, calling on faculty to aid in “creating a new humanitarian paradigm and transmitting it to society.” Within days, students had set up an online petition characterizing the department’s namesake Ilyin as someone who “actively condoned the activities of the Nazi regime” and calling for the HSP to be renamed.

The conflict involves three groups. First, there are the patriot-activists — those who support the Kremlin’s official policies both at home and abroad (paradoxically, this group includes both those who support Dugin's imperialist visions and those who are fearful his provocative rhetoric could serve to discredit the “patriotic” movement). The second group consists of more liberal youth, many of them students at the university. Finally, there are the professional academics, who watch the unfolding events with growing concern.

Dugin's new position: promotion or demotion?

Appointing Dugin as the director of an educational and scientific center at a prestigious university appears to be a promotion, seemingly legitimizing his academic status. The ideologue — whose perceived influence inside Russia is often greatly exaggerated in the West — is now a scholar, teacher, and administrator. But is this really a promotion? After Dugin's harsh condemnations of the Russian authorities, government officials became anxious. Perhaps they simply decided to find him a suitable occupation that would confine him within specific boundaries?

After Dugin's harsh condemnations of the Russian authorities, government officials became anxious

The concerns of RSUH students, staff, and administration are understandable: it is doubtful that such an unrestrained character can be transformed into an acceptable instructor. One only needs to recall his dismissal from the sociology faculty of Moscow State University in the spring of 2014 — a scandal provoked by Dugin’s too enthusiastic support for the Kremlin’s covert efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

How dangerous can his Higher Political School be for RSUH?

Russian universities, especially academic institutes, are largely resistant to reform and spend half their efforts on reporting results. Implementing substantial changes in their operations (as Dugin would like) is simply impossible. This venture is likely to result in nothing more than short-term imitation for the sake of appearances. Hopefully, the obedience of the RSUH academic council has its limits. Therefore, the two most likely scenarios are that the HPS will either become a platform for discussions and gradually stagnate, or another scandal will occur, leading to its closure.

Who was Ilyin really?

The discussion of Ivan Ilyin's “connection” with fascism/Nazism follows the well-known reductio ad Hitlerum model proposed by political philosopher Leo Strauss in 1951. Certain statements, and even life situations related to national socialism or fascism, can be found in the biographies of many European intellectuals and Russian emigrants living in Europe, especially in Germany, in the 1920s–1940s. Ilyin is, unfortunately, no exception.

But we must not forget that Ilyin was an implacable opponent of a different form of misanthropic ideology and politics: Bolshevism. He spent most of his life searching for ways to fight it. This struggle seemed hopeless, but Ilyin was prone to self-deception. Today, after the horrors committed by Nazism can no longer be disputed, some of his “hopes” seem monstrous to us.

Ilyin was an implacable opponent of the misanthropic ideology and politics called Bolshevism

However, one can find more than just apologetic quotes about the Nazis from Ilyin. Consider his writings after fleeing Germany in 1938. Recall his famous letter of that year, addressed to writer Ivan Shmelev, in which Ilyin meticulously details his experiences in Germany during the 1930s, describing them as “persecutions.” How many Russian emigrants associated with Germany were as outspoken denouncers of Nazism during those years?

Today's defenders of Ilyin often quote the memoirs of the convinced anti-communist Yuri Lodyzhensky. According to him, after leaving Germany Ilyin said:

“It has become impossible to breathe or work freely there; national socialism preaches a savage doctrine; some have gone mad there, others are so stupid they don't understand where it is leading them.”

Ilyin became disillusioned with national socialism as soon as he recognized in it a kind of “racist Bolshevism,” carrying out its genocide using ethnicity rather than economic class as a justification. Ilyin had a negative attitude towards racism, which was clear as early as 1933. In 1951 he wrote:

“We have seen leftist totalitarianism and rightist totalitarianism; we have experienced both regimes up to arrests, interrogations, threats, bans; and even more. We had the opportunity to study both regimes thoroughly and feel undisguised moral and political disgust for both.”

It is also notable that Ilyin was one of the few “statist” Russian emigrants who avoided the “enchantment of evil” — the idea that the Stalinist regime could be transformed for the better after the war.

Did Ilyin sympathize with some of the socio-political ideas of fascism? Undoubtedly, yes, both before and after World War II. Was he a fascist in the complete sense of the word? He was not — either formally (he did not belong to any relevant movement or party, despite their presence among Russian emigrants) or ideologically (as his writings make clear). In the current firestorm around collections of Ilyin's decontextualized statements, a crucial point is often overlooked: Ilyin was not merely a philosopher, but a philosopher of personal religious experience, one who emphasized the importance of “quiet contemplations.”

Did Ilyin sympathize with some of the socio-political ideas of fascism? Undoubtedly, yes, both before and after World War II

The most significant works of his emigration period were “Axioms of Religious Experience” (he worked on the book from 1919 to 1949) and “The Singing Heart. A Book of Quiet Contemplations” (1943). Can anything fascist be found in them? Absolutely not. It is important to remember that the national socialists exploited religion every bit as cynically as the Marxists did, treating it as a tool of propaganda — in the case of the Nazis, as a “traditional value” to be preserved for the sake of the nation's health. A religious thinker and believing Christian first and foremost, Ilyin had no affinity for fascist ideology or politics.

The disputes over Ilyin's persona that flared up in connection with the opening of Dugin's school have their roots in the early 1990s, the time of contemporary Russia's self-determination as a sovereign state. During these years, two antagonistic camps emerged in the country's ideological space: the liberal anti-imperialists, whose ideas were expressed by Georgy Fedotov in his widely quoted work “The Fate of Empires,” and the opposing union of imperial-statist forces, represented by Ilyin’s “What Dismemberment of Russia Entails for the World.” Since then, Ilyin's name has been associated in public circles with patriotic-statist ideology, turning him into a symbol of the Putin era.

Ilyin's name has become a symbol of the Putin era

The fervently anti-communist, anti-Tolstoyan Ilyin is the philosopher most frequently referenced by Putin himself. His arguments justifying resistance to evil through force, the importance of state coercion, the role of a strong leader, and the promotion of state patriotism, nationalism, the church, and family, serve to legitimize Putin's actions, aligning them with Russian cultural tradition. Putin has hailed Ilyin as a “true patriot” and has admitted to regularly reading and revisiting the philosopher’s works. However, terms like “Putin's favorite philosopher,” akin to the clichés that Dugin is “Putin's brain,” are little more than successful journalistic constructs. According to Michel Eltchaninoff, author of “In Putin's Head,” Ilyin's texts were likely introduced to Putin by filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov. As Putin referenced the philosopher in his speeches, Ilyin gradually came to be seen as an undisputed spiritual authority in Russia.

Who is Dugin really?

On April 26, Alexander Dugin announced a call for papers in advance of his scientific-educational center’s first conference, an event for “thorough, serious, patriotic, and polite people” dedicated to the philosophical legacy of Ilyin himself. Judging by Dugin's announcement, he aims to revamp Russian philosophy:

“Ivan Ilyin does not divide us but unites us, breaking off only the withered branches of the Russian tree. After some time, we will fully realize this. But everything has its time.”

The irony of Dugin's appointment at RSUH lies not in his leadership of the patriotic-methodical center, but rather in his generally dismissive attitude towards Russian philosophy — in which Ilyin rightfully holds a significant place. Dugin expressed his stance most clearly in the 2011 book “Martin Heidegger: The Possibility of Russian Philosophy.” The book's title page annotation states:

“Russian philosophy does not exist, and the possibility of its emergence is blocked by the disharmonious combination of European modernity and archaic layers of the Russian folk worldview.”

Dugin provides a detailed overview of the history of Russian philosophical thought and effectively denies it any value or independence:

“The two most representative Russian thinkers of the 19th century — Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Fedorov — are monuments to how Russian philosophy did not succeed, how archaic modernity managed to tame, drain, distort, and ultimately destroy the awakening of Russian thought.”

Dugin’s section titles alone tell the story: “Vladimir Solovyov: Marginal of the European Discourse,” “Pyotr Chaadaev: Philosophy as a Russophobic Practice,” “Ivan Ilyin: Russian Patriotism in the Prussian Manner,” “Soviet Philosophy as Toxic Waste,” and so on. Dugin declares the need to overcome the existing “caricatured parody” of philosophy in Russia and create a real Russian philosophical tradition through the careful reading and assimilation of Heidegger's ideas. (Unlike Ilyin, who fled Germany under duress in 1938, Heidegger joined the Nazi party and benefited greatly from his relationship with Hitler’s regime.)

In the book, Dugin assesses Ilyin's work:

“In the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, we find an almost caricatured attempt to construct a swaggering version of Russian nationalism that successfully bypasses any important and significant topics essential for understanding the possibility of Russian philosophy. Instead of questioning and identifying critical issues, Ilyin replaces them with a stream of right-conservative consciousness that copies clichés of European nationalism and applies them to the Russian context.”

In other words, Dugin denied Ilyin the right to a place in the Russian cultural tradition, criticizing his “ignorant aplomb,” “official nationalism,” and even his mother's German origin. Now, however, having secured a position in university administration, Dugin positively invokes “the president's favorite philosopher” in his attempt to carry out “patriotic reforms of Russian education” while bringing Russia's national identity into line with Ilyin's ideas. Unsurprisingly, the union of these two names, Dugin and Ilyin, has caused healthy bewilderment even among the patriotically inclined public.

Dugin denied Ilyin the right to a place in the Russian cultural tradition because of his mother's German origin

In recent years, Dugin himself has emerged as a grim symbol of the catastrophic events unfolding across the former Soviet republics. And yet, remarkably few experts have taken the time to closely examine his writings and statements. This absence of scholarly attention alone would argue against the merits of comparing Dugin and Ilyin, whose work continues to be actively researched and analyzed, especially since the relocation of his archive to Russia. Numerous publications, books, and dissertations explore Ilyin's ideas. In contrast, Dugin's texts and ideological views have failed to garner serious academic scrutiny within Russia and are unlikely to do so, even if abroad he is recognized as one of contemporary Russia’s leading far-right ideologues by commentators largely unfamiliar with his work.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, before his “romance” with the National Bolshevik party began, Dugin really did offer something of intellectual interest. Within the circle of “conservative intellectuals” like Geydar Dzhemal and Igor Dudinsky, he contributed to projects including “The Last Pole,” “Elements,” “Dear Angel,”“Arctogaea,” and “The Magic Mountain.” His book “Hyperborean Theory” (1993) remains a valuable, unique Russian work, providing a thorough examination of the views of Hermann Wirth, a “Frisian” thinker who joined the Nazi party in 1925 and became the first director of Himmler's Ahnenerbe academy.

In contrast to Ilyin, the early “conservative revolution” period of Dugin's work was marked by a fascination with occult Aryan pseudo-science, runes, mystical energies, and symbols. He then transitioned into politics and ideology, reaching the pinnacle of his postmodern activism as the ideologue of the National Bolshevik Party. Ilyin, the ideological voice of the Russian All-Military Union, would have been highly unlikely to endorse such endeavors. And while Dugin has donned multiple masks since leaving the provocative party in 1998 — assuming the role of Eurasianist, stylized Old Believer, and monarchist — these come off as unconvincing. At his core, Dugin remains a National Bolshevik.

Written in association with Konstantin Zaitsev.

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