The ‘fascist’ philosopher inspiring Russia’s kleptocrats


An advocate of Russian fascism is having a profound influence on the discourse of the country’s politicians and kleptocrats,* including Vladimir Putin, according to a leading commentator.

Because Ivan Ilyin (left) found ways to present the failure of the rule of law as Russian virtue, kleptocrats use his ideas to portray economic inequality as national innocence, argues Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale.

“In the last few years, Putin has used some of Ilyin’s more specific ideas about geopolitics in his effort translate the task of Russian politics from the pursuit of reform at home to the export of virtue abroad. By transforming international politics into a discussion of ‘spiritual threats,’ Ilyin’s works have helped Russian elites to portray the Ukraine, Europe, and the United States as existential dangers to Russia,” he writes for the New York Review of Books:

In Ilyin’s scheme, the Leader (Gosudar) would be personally and totally responsible for every aspect of political life, as chief executive, chief legislator, chief justice, and commander of the military. His executive power is unlimited. Any “political selection” should take place “on a formally undemocratic basis.” Democratic elections institutionalized the evil notion of individuality. “The principle of democracy,” Ilyin wrote, “was the irresponsible human atom.” Counting votes was to falsely accept “the mechanical and arithmetical understanding of politics.” It followed that “we must reject blind faith in the number of votes and its political significance.” Public voting with signed ballots will allow Russians to surrender their individuality. Elections were a ritual of submission of Russians before their Leader.

The first commentator to highlight Ilyin’s significance for Putin’s project was the inimitable Walter Laqueur in his book, Putinism.

Western governments and corporations were too willing to look past Putin’s repressive actions against opponents and the corruption that afflicted the bureaucracy and business, said dissident Garry Kasparov.

“The real Putin model of government is nonideological kleptocracy,” he told the New York Times.

“When the free world decided 25 years ago that it was all right to repress your people at home while still enjoying the markets and acceptance of the free world, it was a deal with the devil,” he said. “Instead of liberalizing the dictatorships, the influence flowed the other way, spreading corruption and disdain for democratic ways.”

In the wake of the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal, British Prime Minister Theresa May is believed to be considering targeting Putin’s kleptocratic allies, including British-based soccer club magnates, news reports suggest.

‘Londongrad’ isn’t the only destination that friends of Putin and other kleptocrats favor. According to Alexander Cooley, a political science professor at Barnard College and author of “Dictators without Borders,” properties in Manhattan, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco are all highly sought-after. What’s more, the National Association of Realtors has successfully lobbied the US government to allow to be exempt from the anti-money laundering requirements of the Patriot Act.

“In the US, you could show up with a suitcase full of cash and buy a penthouse. Oversight is still extremely lax, and brokers have very little incentive to ascertain the origin [of the money],” Cooley told ThinkProgress:

Cooley said that investments in property allow kleptocrats and corrupt officials to gradually transform themselves into respectable members of the global elite, as opposed to government or business officials with direct ties to dictators. “You start with charities, you might buy a soccer club or donate money to universities,” he said. “[You’re] putting the infrastructure in place so that you’re globally mobile, it’s an absolutely vital part of how corrupt kleptocrats operate.”

Putin’s net worth is estimated to be $200 billion [so] the best way to weaken his regime is to go after his assets, says William Browder, the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, who helped craft the Magnitsky Act.

“In order to maintain his kleptocracy, he steals as much money as he can from his people, and he tortures, maims, and kills to do so,” he tells Reason magazine.

“But he keeps his money in the West—in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere.” Putin feels “rightfully threatened by this act,” Browder suggests, because it cuts him off from resources stored around the world. Browder, who believes the U.S. is “effectively involved with a third world war with Russia,” touts his act as “our best point of leverage.”

The problem with prewar fascism, according to Ilyin, had been the one-party state. That was one party too many, adds Snyder, whose new book, The Road to Unfreedom, will be published in April:

Russia should be a zero-party state, in that no party should control the state or exercise any influence on the course of events. A party represents only a segment of society, and segmentation is what is to be avoided. Parties can exist, but only as traps for the ambitious or as elements of the ritual of electoral subservience. (Members of Putin’s party were sent the article that makes this point in 2014.) The same goes for civil society: it should exist as a simulacrum. Russians should be allowed to pursue hobbies and the like, but only within the framework of a total corporate structure that included all social organizations.


*See this special issue of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy for the latest analysis of kleptocracy.

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