We keep being told that no one knows what’s going on in Vladimir Putin’s mind. Strategically and tactically, perhaps. But the strange thing is, Putin’s world view is very well understood – indeed, it is based on one powerful strand of Russian philosophy. If we think of his invasion as simply the aggression of a tyrant, we risk misunderstanding his motives.
Authoritarian tyrants never emerge from a vacuum. They are born out of the deeply held values, resentments and grievances of the people they lead. Putin is no exception. His world view is a twisted version of a philosophical outlook that has shaped his nation. As Lesley Chamberlain writes in her magnificent book Motherland, Russian philosophy is “the key to the mystery of that country and culture”.
Chamberlain explains that Russian philosophy, like Russia, self-consciously positions itself as distinctly Eurasian. “We don’t belong to any of the great families of the human race; we are neither of the West nor the East,” the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev wrote in the 19th century.
One key aspect of this is the rejection of the European Enlightenment ideal of the autonomous, rational agent. In traditional Russian thought, such an ideal is blasphemous against the Orthodox Church’s ideal of kenosis, a self-emptying necessary to make oneself ready to receive God. The self is not to be elevated, but overcome. Even secular thought in Russia embraced this idea. For example, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote that “one must wholly annihilate one’s personal ego, annihilate everything that forms its life, its hopes and its personal beliefs.”
In Russia, it’s the collective, not the individual, that holds supreme value. The country embraced the ideal of the obshchina, a peaceful, harmonious peasant community of souls that contrasts with the corrupt, decadent, godless, competitive, materialist atheism of Western rationality. The only thing communism removed from this concept was God. The socialist state replaced the role of the Church – continuing a long-running preoccupation with maintaining the unity of Russia as an almost spiritual entity. In this philosophy, intuition and feeling matter more than cold reason. There is also little concern for Enlightenment notions of truth. Even the Russian language distinguishes between istina, the immutable, natural truth of the universe; and pravda, the constructed truth of the human world.
Putin is unique only in so far as he has supercharged all these currents of Russian philosophy for his own aggressive agenda – needless to say, his philosophy is very different from that of an ordinary Russian’s. A permissive attitude to truth became a dismissive one; a rejection of decadent Western values became a crusade against their perceived evil; a sense of national exceptionalism became an exaggerated sense of national superiority; the importance of holding the nation together, a revanchist quest to rebuild a lost empire. Most worryingly, the unimportance of the individual compared with the collective has made Putin willing not only to massacre his enemies but to see many of his own soldiers die.
Putin has his own more idiosyncratic philosophical influences, as the French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff explained in his prescient book Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin (2018). Although Putin is not Russia, and does not represent the values of the Russian people at large, his mission is framed in the context of a long Russian tradition of resistance against the decadent, materialistic Western values that have eroded national and cultural identities. According to Eltchaninoff, this Russian identity knows no borders, “especially between countries like Russia and Ukraine”.
Philosophy is a window into culture. Russian philosophy helps us to understand the buttons that Putin has repeatedly pushed to advance himself and his nationalist agenda. Without such an understanding, we have no hope of stopping him.
[See also: The truth about Putin’s “denazification” fantasy]