Friday, January 24, 2014

Window on Eurasia: The Kremlin’s Disturbing Reading List for Russia’s Political Elite

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 24 – The Kremlin sent as New Year’s presents to the leaders of the ruling United Russia parties copies of Nicholas Berdyaev’s “Philosophy of Inequality,” Vladimir  Solovyev’s “Justification of Good,” and Ivan Ilin’s “Our Tasks,” three books which celebrate authoritarianism and the last of which suggests fascism is the only bulwark against communism.

            In the current issue of “Vlast,” Elizaveta Surnacheva says that she was able to confirm this distribution from sources close to the Presidential Administration but found that opinions varied as to how seriously the recipients were to take the collection of Russian conservative thought and what it means (

            Ilya Osipov, who works as a United Russia secretary in Yaroslavl, said he “hadn’t heard” about any “list of literature” but that he had received the Berdyaev and Ilin volume from Sergey Neverov, the secretary of the party’s general council.  But he suggested it was “absurd” to see this as assigned reading.

             Surnacheva’s anonymous Presidential Administration source said that the books were a present rather than directed readings, although he said that Kremlin officials often refer to the works of Berdyaev and Ilin because President Vladimir Putin has cited them in speeches and press conferences.

            And another, again anonymous regional United Russia leader said that he didn’t see “anything strange or terrible” in such distribution of books.  “It would be worse if they were prohibiting us from reading something.  The “Vlast” writer said she had been unable to speak with senior Kremlin or United Russia officials.

            But she did interview Andrey Teslya, a specialist on Russian conservative thought at the Pacific State University.  He noted that Solovyev and Berdyaev had become popular in the late 1980s and that Ilin had “become fashionable” during the first decade of this century, almost “a symbol of the Putin administration” in its drive to promote “state thinking” in the elite.

            Putin has cited Ilin, who is “well known for his articles about fascism as the single weapon against bolshevism,” several times over the last decade, Teslya pointed out, adding that his only reference to Berdyaev, a Russian religious philosopher, was in his 2013 address to the Federal Assembly.

            The authors of the books the Kremlin has sent around are of very different intellectual levels, he continued. Solovyev, is “one of the most significant figures in the history of Russian thought.” But Ilin, although a noted historian of philosophy, was primarily a popularizer, someone who by his own account wrote “for junkers and White emigres” and whose texts reflected “a certain conscious primitivization” to make them easier to understand.

             Viktor Sheptiy, secretary of the United Russia organization in Sverdlovsk Oblast, said that Russian leaders “should have a single understanding of [Russian] history and ideology” and that reading such books will help promote that as well as the development of a single new history textbook for the next generation.

            Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s ideologist until recently, did not favor distributing such books, the “Vlast” journalist says, but recently, doing so has become frequent. Party leaders were sent a set of books last fall and now they have received the latest collection.  It is possible that more will follow.

            Such reading should be seen in the context of the Kremlin’s promotion of lectures and roundtables on conservative themes, Surnacheva says. She adds that it is likely that there will be more such activities in the year ahead as the regime seeks to define its ideology more definitively.

            According to Leonid Ionin, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, such readings won’t transform party and government officials into “theoreticians.”  But it will help shape their thought and in this case in a more conservative direction, something he personally thinks is “correct” and welcomes.

            But there are at least two problems with this reading list and the Kremlin’s goals in promoting it. On the one hand, it represents another step toward the creation of a new official ideology, something the 1993 Constitution prohibits.  And on the other, that ideology, to the extent Ilin typifies it, is authoritarian and ugly in its implications for the future.

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