In 2013, the year before his invasion of Crimea, Putin himself took part in a state-produced follow-up film titled The Second Christianization of Rus’, which positioned the post-Soviet resurgence of interest in the Russia for Christianity as a second iteration of Volodymyr’s original conversion. to Eastern Orthodoxy. The following year, in the midst of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, state television broadcast the reading of an essay by Fyodor Dostoyevsky chiding the ungrateful Slavic tribes towards Mother Russia. As well as being a brilliant novelist, Dostoyevsky was also a committed monarchist who believed that Russia would one day reconquer the Byzantine capital Constantinople (now Istanbul).
In truth, according to Peter Yeltsov, professor of security studies at the United States National Defense University, this obsession with Byzantium was not an ancient tradition: “It’s a 19th century invention”. The idea of the Byzantine spiritual roots of Russia imposes itself at this time as an explicit bulwark against the bursting of the empire, just as the notion of national identity settles in Europe. As the anti-Western monarchist philosopher Konstantin Leontiev asserted: “Whether we like this Byzantine foundation or not, whether it is good or bad, it is the only sure anchor not only of Russian preservation but of the preservation of all Slavs.
In Putin’s 2021 essay and the 2022 presidential speech on the invasion of Ukraine, there are clear echoes of the same strategy, appealing to an ancient religious bond between the peoples of Russia and Europe. Ukraine as justification for war: “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” Putin wrote in 2021. called Russians and Orthodox Christians”.
The Eastern Orthodox Church, in other words, is a way to sew the Russian Empire.
A new fascism
The legacy of Byzantium Rus was not the only idea to emerge in the closing days of the Tsarist era in an attempt to counter the lure of the Western nation-state. Along with a soup of conservative, religious and exceptionalist ideas from Russia, a new breed of Russian fascism was developing. And that’s where we come back to our exhumed friend, Ivan Ilyin.
Ilyin was a conservative philosopher exiled from communist Russia for his opposition to the Bolsheviks. It ended up in Berlin just as the new ideology of fascism was taking off in Italy and Germany. Ilyin saw in Mussolini and Hitler models for the reinvention of a new Russian tsarism, in which a strong leader could abolish the individuality of his people and bind them into a spiritual and collective whole, free from corruption and impurities.
Putin is clearly not a philosopher, but of all the intellectuals in Russian history, he quotes Ilyin the most. According to Yale historian Timothy Snyder, as troops prepared to invade Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin arranged for all senior Russian officials and regional governors to receive a copy of Ilyin’s Our Tasks, in which the philosopher predicts the emergence of a “national dictator” who will be “the living organ of Russia”.
Today, the task of popularizing this type of messianic fascism falls to a movement called Eurasianism, propounded by a zealous Putin supporter named Aleksandr Dugin, which regularly appears on Russian television screens. Russia must rediscover itself as a Eurasian civilization, according to Dugin, which means it must impose on the continent a new collectivist, religious and autocratic political model. For this task, he argues, the conquest of the former Russian Empire is essential.
Like Ilyin, Dugin casts this battle in apocalyptic and moral terms. He asserts that it is incumbent on Russia to save the world from Western degeneracy and nihilism, as evidenced by phenomena like same-sex marriage and the transgender debate. In this, Dugin is one with the Russian Orthodox Church.
On March 6, 10 days after the start of the invasion, Patriarch Cyril delivered a sermon calling the war a “metaphysical struggle”. It was essential that Russia intervene, he said, to combat the “so-called values” proposed by the West, in which “you have to have a Gay Pride parade” to be a member of the club.
Putin, in his presidential address on the eve of the war, also blamed the West for trying to “destroy our traditional values” and replace them with “attitudes that lead directly to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature”.
But the hostility to Gay Pride is not just ideological. Opposition to anything seen as undermining the family, such as feminism or homosexuality, is mixed with a more mundane anxiety that Professor Yeltsov says is driving the war: demographic change.