Putin often quotes the philosopher Ivan Ilyin and General Anton Denikin. They lived a century ago, both denied Ukraine’s independence and advocated dictatorial rule. And this is how they described Russia

Oleksiy Yarmolenko
Serhii Pyvovarov
Putin often quotes the philosopher Ivan Ilyin and General Anton Denikin. They lived a century ago, both denied Ukraine’s independence and advocated dictatorial rule. And this is how they described Russia

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On February 24, Russian Launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This was preceded by two speeches by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the first one, he recognized the "Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics". In the second one, delivered after the beginning of the war, he presented a distorted image of the world and Ukrainian history. In the early XX century, a number of these myths were spread in Russa. During his public speeches, the Russian President often quotes the works of writers, philosophers, and other public figures. When speaking of worldview issues, very often Putin refers to the works of Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin and one of the leaders of the White Movement, Anton Denikin. Babel tells about the lives and views of these people: about the “inseparability” of Ukraine from Russia, opposition to the West, “special” Russian Orthodoxy, and an exclusively dictatorial form of government. All this aptly describes what is happening in nowadays Russia.

Ivan Ilyin was born in 1883 in the noble family while Russia was an Empire. His father was the godson of the Emperor Alexander II. Ilyin received a good education and became a philosopher. He was most interested in teachings of the German scientist Georg Hegel, who paid considerable attention to religion.

Ilyin took the Bolshevik coup of 1917 extremely negatively. He openly opposed the Soviet government and the Bolsheviks, supported the White Movement instead. But the “whites” lost the civil war in Russia, and the USSR was formed. Proponents of “white” ideas became undesirable to the Communists, so the Soviet authorities started to persecute them. In 1922, on the orders of Vladimir Lenin within the Communist program of fighting against dissent, the so-called “philosophers’ steamboats” went from USSR to Germany with the undesirable expelled public figures on board. Ilyin was among these intellectuals. As one of Lenin’s allies, Lev Trotsky, said at the time, “we sent these people away because there was no reason to kill them, and it was impossible to tolerate them”.

On September 29, 1922 the Oberburgermeister Haken steamer sailed from Russian Petrograd city (nowadays St.Petersberg) to the German Stettin city (now ― Szczecin, Poland). Ilyin and his family were aboard.


Ilyin lived and worked in Germany for a long time, but in 1934 he moved to Switzerland, where he died. The reason for the move was the conflict with the Nazis. His official biography in Russia states that Ilyin refused to become a teacher in the Third Reich, but there are versions that the views of the philosopher and the Nazis differed on key issues: “Jewish” and “Ukrainian”.

While Ilyin opposed the Holocaust and did not accept the Nazisʼ idea of exterminating the Jews, the supporters of the "whites" never considered Ukraine an independent state. During the Civil War, the entire White Movement spoke under the slogan “Great, United, and Indivisible Russia”. Of course, they perceived Ukraine exclusively as part of the Russian state.

In 1938, the “white” organization held the congress in Romania and approved resolutions drafted by Ilyin. On the issue of Ukraine, he noted: “Ukraine is recognized as the most threatening part of Russia in terms of secession and conquest. Ukrainian separatism is an artificial phenomenon devoid of real grounds. It arose from the ambition of leaders and international conquest. The “Malorossians” [the Little, Lesser Russians] are a branch of a single Slavic-Russian people. This branch has no reason to be at enmity with other branches of the same people and to be a separate state. In case of separation this state becomes an object of the conquest and plunder of foreigners. Little Russia and Great Russia are united by religion, tribe, historical destiny, geographical location, economy, culture, and politics. Foreigners preparing for dismemberment must remember that they are declaring an age-old struggle for all of Russia”.

Ivan Ilyin, 1883—1954.

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Being in exile, Ilyin opposed the Communists and the Soviet Union. He also constantly wondered what Russia should be like after the Soviet Unionʼs fall. All his works are imbued with the ideas of monarchism and special Russian Orthodoxy role. Ilyin believed that Russia could not be a republic (i.e., a democracy).

"What form of government will then be possible, necessary, desirable, saving? The answer is clear and simple: non-partisan, supra-class, national, religiously inspired, and vitally creatively flexible dictatorship. Only it will be able to stop any new civil war with a powerful, authoritative hand, suppress party massacres and nationalist pogroms, reduce the period of chaos, urge the population to immediately start peaceful work, to cleanse the country of communist evil, and introduce just, sustainable forms of justice. Without this, the country will face a new era of prolonged disintegration and chaos, with perpetual uprisings of adventurers subsidized from abroad and new attempts at disastrous dismemberment from both outside and inside. No republican form, centrifugal by its nature, will cope with this task”, wrote Ilyin.

The philosopher constantly wrote about Russia’s ideological struggle with Western countries. The latter, according to Ilyin, will never be able to understand Russia. It will consider it a “colossus on the clay feet”, and think only about dividing it.

"The West has never really known or understood Russia. Not knowing its language, not feeling its spirit, the West believed every nonsense about Russia and invented and spread this nonsense itself. Europe feared, disliked, and despised Russia. For the past 100 years, Europe has always been prepared to harm, weaken, and slander it. The West was interested in Russia only regarding trade and military. And maybe in what its possible dismemberment or subordination meant for society. Following the secret instructions from European political centers, which will later be established and revealed by historians, Russia was slanderously glorified around the world as a "reactionist stronghold," the nest of despotism and slavery, a hotbed of anti-Semitism, and a colossus on the feet of clay," said Ilyin.

Despite being effectively banned during the Soviet era, religion also played an essential role in Ilyin’s views. The philosopher constantly wrote about the peculiarities of Russian Orthodoxy and believed that it should play an important role in the restoration of national Russia.

"Being Russian means more than just speaking Russian. It means to accept Russia with all your heart, love its precious identity, and unparalleled originality in human history. It means to understand that this uniqueness is a gift of God given to the Russian people, and at the same time, Godʼs sign protecting Russia from the encroachment of other nations. It means to demand freedom and independence on earth for this gift. To be a Russian means to perceive Russia in Godʼs ray, in its eternal fabric, its imperishable substance, and to accept it with love as one of the main, cherished relics of oneʼs personal life", said Ilyin.

However, there is a moment in Ilyin’s biography that is rarely mentioned in modern Russia. World War II split Russians that were living abroad into two camps. The first one supported he Third Reich in the confrontation with the USSR. Others, despite their hatred of communism, still chose to side with Russia. Ilyin was in the first group. He generally believed that fascism and Nazism “saved” Europe from the spread of communism. According to him, Adolf Hitler stopped the process of Bolshevism in Europe, doing European countries “the greatest favor.” After the war, Ilyin wrote another piece, analyzing why fascism and Nazism failed and what lessons Russia should take from this.

Nazi Germany's leader Adolf Hitler greets the crowd during a parade in Nuremberg in 1936.

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"Fascism appeared as a response to Bolshevism, a concentration of right-wing forces protected by the state. This was a healthy, necessary, and inevitable phenomenon during the onset of left-wing chaos and left-wing totalitarianism. In the future, such concentration will take place even in the most democratic states. In the hour of national danger, the healthy forces of the people will always concentrate in the direction of [the countryʼs] protection and dictatorship. Thatʼs what happened in ancient Rome, thatʼs what happened in the new Europe, thatʼs what will be happening in the future ... [Francisco] Franco and [Antonio] Salazar understood this. They try to avoid such mistakes. They do not call their regime "fascist." Letʼs hope that Russian patriots will fully understand the mistakes of fascism and [Nazism] and will not repeat them", the philosopher wrote.

In Soviet times, no one knew about Ilyin, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, independent Russia began to restore his “legacy”. The philosopher’s works have been included in school and university programs. Questions about Ilyin are often asked in the Unified State Exam (Russian state testing for school graduates). In Yekaterinburg, the Institute named after Ilyin was opened, and a monument to him was erected there. A memorial plaque was hung on the building of the Moscow State Institute in Moscow, and the Ilyin Orthodox Law Foundation appeared in St. Petersburg.

Putin quoted Ilyin at least three times in his address to the Federal Assembly: in 2005, 2006, and 2014. “The main source of his [Putin’s] thoughts were the works of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin. Based on his works, Putin formulated the basic values ​​of the Russian man: God, family, and private property. “Despite all external fluctuations, Russians must defend this conservative order more than other nations. This order is more important to us. We are Orthodox not by chance. If it was not for Orthodoxy, our identity would be different. And by accepting Orthodoxy, we have, one way or another, opposed ourselves to the Western world, repeats after Putin one of his advisers. Another insider says that at some point, Putin himself became the most important "screpa" that "binds" the Russian people from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka. The president believed that everything would fall apart without him”, Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar wrote in his book All the Kremlinʼs Men.

In 2005, Ilyinʼs ashes were reburied in Russia, on the Don Monastery territory in Moscow. Other well-known representatives of the White Movement, Generals Vladimir Kappel, and Anton Denikin, were reburied there with him. For several years, their graves were neglected, but then Putin addressed the issue himself. According to the Russian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Tikhon, who is often called the Russian presidentʼs deputy, when Putin saw photos of the graves, he was unhappy and ordered to build a memorial there. He personally participated in the sketch approval, and the monument itself was allegedly erected "at his own expense". In 2009 a memorial to white warriors was opened there. Putin participated in the opening ceremony.

Memorial to "white soldiers" in the Don Monastery in Moscow. Denikin, Ilyin, their wives and General Kappel are buried here. The memorial was opened in 2009 wih the ceremony that included speeches from Russian Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin.

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In a conversation with journalists, he also quoted General Denikin. Or, to be more precise, he voiced his views on Ukraine, calling it "Malorossiya" [From Russian "Little Russia"].

Anton Denikin is one of the most famous participants in the Russian Civil War and a member of the White Movement. He was born in 1872 in the Warsaw province and dedicated his life to the Russian army. He participated in the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War. Denikin opposed the Bolsheviks and therefore led the military units of the “whites”. In fact, he was the leader of the White Movement in the south of the Russian Empire, which was its main bridgehead. During the Civil War, the Whites controlled the majority of Kuban, Crimea, and Left-Bank Ukraine. In the summer of 1919, Denikin even took Kyiv but stayed there just for six months.

Антон Деникин, 1872-1947.

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The Whites lost, and Denikin was forced to emigrate from the Soviet state. At first, he went to Constantinople, then, after traveling through a number of European countries, he stopped in France. There he faced World War II. Unlike Ilyin, Denikin did not support the Third Reich and was backing the USSR. After the France occupation, the Germans even came to him with an offer to lead Russian military units of the Third Reich army. He refused. After the war in Europe, there was an increase of Soviet influence. Denikin was worried that he might be deported to the USSR. Therefore, he moved to the United States, where he died in 1955. He was buried there until his ashes were transported to modern Russia.

Denikin was an ardent supporter of imperial Russia and denied any possibility of its division. Independent Ukraine for him simply did not exist. After the capture of Kyiv, he signed the so-called “Address to the Population of Malorossiya", in which he actually stated his attitude to the Ukrainian nation.

"Wanting to weaken the Russian state before declaring war on it, the Germans sought to destroy the united Russian tribe forged in a difficult struggle long before 1914. To do this, they supported and inflated a movement in southern Russia that set itself the goal of separating its nine provinces from Russia under the name "Ukrainian State."The desire to separate the Malorossiya branch of the Russian people from Russia has not been abandoned to this day. “The former German’s protégé [Symon] Petliura and his associates, who laid the foundations for the Russia dismemberment, continue to carry out their evil work of creating an independent “Ukrainian State” and fight against the revival of United Russia”, he wrote.

But Denikin assured that there would be no repression against the Ukrainian language, which he called "Malorossiyan". In his address, he said that it would be permitted in schools, courts, and government agencies. He promised that the Ukrainian press would also be allowed. However, Ukrainian historians note that Denikinʼs policy in Ukraine was almost like genocide: the so-called Galician language was banned, all Ukrainian signs were removed, and Shevchenko monuments disappeared. Denikinʼs subordinates organized killings of Jews and robbed peasants.

"No Russia, whether reactionary or democratic, republican or authoritarian, will ever allow Ukraine to be separated. The senseless, groundless, and externally aggravated dispute between Moscow Rus and Kyivan Rus is our internal dispute, which is not of anyone elseʼs concern and will be resolved among ourselves", Denikin stated.

Memorial to "white soldiers" in the Don Monastery in Moscow. Denikin, Ilyin, their wives and General Kappel are buried here. The memorial was opened in 2009 wih the ceremony that included speeches from Russian Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin.


​​Back in 2009, during the opening of the White Warriors Memorial, Putin quoted the very last part of this statement to the journalists. At the time, the Western media actively discussed his words. Putin was accused of disrespecting Ukraine and its sovereignty. Viktor Yushchenko, who was the President of Ukraine at that time, even had to respond to such statements. "We are building our state with respect for the other countriesʼ independence and sovereignty, and we demand the same attitude from our neighbours: itʼs time to forget about the ambitions of the metropolis and perceptions of the colony. They belong in history", he said.

But Putin continued to stand his ground. A year later, journalists asked him to explain what he meant. What Putin said then only confirmed his views on “Ukraine being inseparable from Russia”.

"Of course, we were a much more powerful force when we were together. That is why sensible and patriotic country politicians never allowed the idea of separating and dividing such unified components of the country like Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. In Soviet times, we liked to blame the leaders of the White Movement. One of them, General Denikin, adamantly opposed even discussing the possibility of dividing the Russian state with Western allies he had at the time, even when he desperately needed their help and support in the fight against the Red Army. He categorically rejected any proposals even to discuss the possibility of Russiaʼs division and stressed that this has always been and will remain an internal affair of the Russian people. The indivisible Russian people", he said.

Translated from Ukrainian by Olya Panchenko.

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Vladimir Putin on an interview with German television, January 2009.

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Ivan Ilyin: About Russian Fascism, 1928. About the Future Russia, 1933. What gives the world the dismemberment of Russia, 1948. Our tasks, 1956. 

Anton Denikin: Essays on Russian Turmoil, 1921. Who Saved Soviet Power from Death, 1937.

Mikhail Zygar. All the Kremlin's Men, 2016.

Timothy Snyder. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, 2018.

Oleksiy Yarmolenko
Serhii Pyvovarov
Russian-Ukrainian war

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