The following is an English translation of a presentation given by our associate, Paul Grenier, at the “Berdyaev Readings” conference in Kaliningrad, Russia, April 17, 2015.
I first began studying Russian philosophy quite a while ago, at Columbia University, under Prof. Marc Raeff. That was when I understood that I am a great admirer not only of Russian literature but also of Russian thought. I point this out because I want to warn you that during my presentation today I’m going to occasionally speak about Russia as if I’m also part of it, and that’s because I don’t consider myself only an American. After coming to love Russia I came to consider myself also in some respects Russian.
I was invited to this conference, if I’m not mistaken, in connection with my recent articles on the role played by ideology in the new Cold War between the United States and Russia. I hope these articles will soon be available to the Russian reader. For now I would like to acquaint you with some of the main ideas of these articles because they are thematically close to the subject of today’s conference.
These articles, I should add, were written in the first instance for the American reader and especially for the benefit of those Americans who today have a hostile attitude toward Russia. And it is America that is their chief object of criticism. I will repeat some of that criticism today, but taking into consideration my audience, I think it’s at least as important to turn my critical gaze in the opposite direction.
In the first of the two articles I begin by saying something that we already know: in the area of foreign policy, the United States says one thing but does another. This has been already written about quite a bit, for example, by Prof. John Mearsheimer in 2001. But this leads to another question, one which is difficult to answer: Why is it that so many Americans, and not only Americans, buy into it? Why is it, for example, that when President Barack Obama spoke in Brussels not long ago, and said that the United States—even in Iraq—had tried hard to act within the framework of international law—why is it that no one laughed?
No doubt this is partially explained by the fact that Western mass media and Western politicians are always emphasizing the central importance of Western ideals and values. These latter are of course primarily liberal ideals and values. Frequent reference to these ideals serves to distract the eyes of the public from the United States’ own dirty laundry, from the various acts of violence committed by the U.S. government. I place a fair bit of emphasis in my articles on this aspect of American hypocrisy and even demagogy. Indeed the first of the articles is called “Rescuing Diplomacy in an Age of Demagogy.”
At the same time it must be admitted that this rhetorical technique works to a great extent because these well-known American ideals – rights, rule of law, freedom, democracy – are popular in the United States and in the West generally. And the reason they are popular, despite their undoubted limitations, has to do with the fact that they are (more or less) actually realized in practice. And that is why so many are ready to forgive, or at any rate to treat as temporary difficulties, such events as Abu Ghraib, the war in Iraq, the widespread use of torture and so forth. These are seen as temporary hiccups on the path toward complete realization of the widely-shared liberal ideal.
At the same time it’s quite easy to cast Russia in a dark light. Whereas, in respect to the United States, attention is directed toward shining ideals, in regards to Russia all of the attention is directed toward actions, whether real or more or less invented (and how is an ordinary person to know the difference?). It is constantly repeated that Russia acted illegally when it annexed Crimea. That Russia violated human rights when the members of “Pussy Riot” were imprisoned. That Putin was wrong to take off his shirt when he went riding horseback. American ideals are compared with unpopular Russian actions. At the same time the impression is created that Russian ideals essentially do not exist.
Now, as I explain in some detail in my second article, in those rare instances when attention is actually paid to Russian ideals these same ideals are severely distorted (See: “ ‘A Conservative Russia? This Means War!’ The Tragedy of American Ideology,” Russia List, March 4, 2015). But such distortion has not always been the norm. Indeed, prior to 2014, the attitude of Western specialists toward the Russian philosophers Nicholas Berdyaev and Vladimir Solovyov (whose classic expressions of the Russian ideal has been recently much distorted, as the above essay illustrates in some detail) had always been one of great respect bordering almost on reverence. And the same held true for many other important figures from the Russian Silver Age of philosophy. Again, respect for them had been the norm. However, after 2014, for reasons that are not too hard to divine, such prominent American publications as the New York Times and the Washington Post suddenly discovered that Solovyov and Berdyaev are dangerous nationalists and Eastern Orthodox fanatics prepared to wage a worldwide messianic religious war. If Putin respects them, then they must be bad! So-called ‘analysis’ of this sort is obviously simply a continuation of the Cold War. Its goal is to prove to the ill-informed that there is no such thing as a legitimate Russian world.
When one finds oneself in a difficult situation, often the best thing to do is to take special care in defining one’s categories; to try to come to an agreement, at least provisionally, regarding what is meant by the various political categories we are using.
As far as I know, the central task of these Berdyaev Readings is to try to formulate a correct political orientation for Russia. By way of hypothesis it has been suggested that Russia’s correct orientation is conservatism.
I would formulate the question more broadly: What is Russia? Or, to put it a bit differently, what is the essence of the Russian inheritance? Which inheritance is worthy of using as the foundation for the Russian Federation? If one formulates the question in this manner, does it not become obvious that what one wants to say in response is that we—that is to say, Russia—will want to make use of everything good from Russia’s past? We will want to preserve the Russian tradition in its integrity.
What is conservatism? Conservatism can be defined as a political and cultural position oriented towards the preservation and defense of everything that is of the most value from the past. Since such a broad definition seems a bit flimsy, let’s add to it something like the following. Conservatism is a direction of thought which preserves its roots in the religious and ancient world, in other words in the world which precedes modernity.
It is important to differentiate between conservatism defined in this sense from what I would call “ideological” (ideologized – turned into an ideology) conservatism. Such a conservatism sets an equal sign between our ideals and what is only a subset of that integral whole just referred to. It favors exclusively that part of the whole which, for whatever reason, happens to be favored by this or that group. It is my impression that in Russia today some conservatives value only that part of Russia’s inheritance which is consonant with the values of loyalty, obedience, preservation of honor and similar values of the governmental order. These are the values which, in Plato’s Republic, are characteristic of that part of the polis which takes on the function of the guardians.
Regarding the word ‘ideology,’ if I may digress for a moment, I want to say that I well understand that often in Russia it is used as a synonym for philosophy. But it is important to preserve a sharp distinction between these two terms. An ideology, as defined by Hannah Arendt, is always a simplified version of reality. It performs the role of a certain formula which always, supposedly, can generate the right answer to any question. Ideologies in the strictest sense of the word are a form of sectarianism, and as a sect they divide the world into two groups: good people like us, and bad people, in other words, everyone else. The Americans who see in Russia nothing but evil and who fault it for lacking the appropriate degree of liberalism (as defined by themselves) are precisely ideologues.
What is liberalism? I propose that one useful way of understanding what liberalism is can be derived from the writings of Nicholas Berdyaev and the Russian historian George Fedotov: it is a political stance oriented toward creating a space in the world where man is free from illegitimate and undue control or interference from the state. Liberalism in this sense needs to be strictly differentiated from ideological liberalism. The latter has been best defined by the French philosopher Pierre Manent. According to Manent, what I am here calling ideological liberalism is a sort of endless project which has for its goal the unlimited expansion in the world of the sphere of abstract freedom (see Manent, The City of Man, 48 and passim).
Let’s take a look again at the original question: what is the essence of Russia’s inheritance? It is quite clear that this tradition (i.e. the best of it) includes both liberal and conservative elements, and that it is, for the most part, free of ideology. This can be seen sufficiently clearly from looking at the statements of such philosophers as Berdyaev, Solovyov and Ilyin, who both in the U.S. and in Russia are seen as among the most important pillars of the Russian idea. It is perfectly clear that the ideas of these thinkers are not reducible either to liberalism or to conservatism according to the definitions which have been given above. Each of them, along with many other Russian thinkers of similar rank (Semyon Frank, Struve, Chicherin, Fedotov) have worldviews which contain both liberal and conservative elements.
Both Berdyaev and Solovyov are of the opinion that the liberal political order is something strictly formal. And this, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Berdyaev in his The Philosophy of Inequality and Solovyov, in his A Critique of Abstract Principles, state that liberalism is correct in defending our rights and freedoms. But both philosophers also demonstrate that it is impossible to found these rights in a sufficiently convincing manner if one insists on remaining within the framework of secular rationalism. Solovyov is in agreement with the liberal Kant that man must never be merely a means (for society); he must be an end, even an absolute end. And yet, “only man understood as a being who participates in divinity, man in God or man as God” can be such an end. 
Let’s also not forget the position of George Fedotov, for whom the idea of freedom in the liberal (non-ideological) sense was born not during the Enlightenment, as is commonly thought, but during the Middle Ages and thanks to the Christian Church. Liberals in Russia admire Fedotov and regularly quote him, and they are right in doing so. But in absolutely no sense of the word was Fedotov a secularist.
And finally, let’s take a look at the philosopher Ivan Ilyin. On the one hand, it seems hard to imagine anyone more conservative. After all, isn’t it Ilyin who has justified an authoritarian political order for Russia? Nor is he a member of the pro-western (so-called Westernizer) school of Russian thought. Also, as distinct from Solovyov and Berdyaev, he is not particularly friendly toward Catholicism.
And yet in many respects even Ilyin is a liberal. Respect for the rule of law stands right at the heart of his worldview, which sets him distinctly apart from (the more ‘romantically’ oriented) Slavophiles. Ilyin, furthermore, is one of the leading specialists in the world on Hegel and was heavily influenced by the great German philosopher. Wasn’t it Hegel, after all, who made of freedom the supreme value, “freedom as the expression of the absolute spirit”?
It is time, though, to set aside all this talk about ‘absolute spirit’ and come back down to earth. President Putin, as is well known, has considerable respect for Ivan Ilyin. We are told that Ilyin’s book, Our Tasks, is on the short list of books that have been recommended by the Kremlin. Listen to the following quote from Putin’s speech of April 25, 2005:
“State power,” wrote the great Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, “has its own limits defined by the fact that it is authority that reaches people from outside … State power cannot oversee and dictate the creative states of the soul and mind, the inner states of love, freedom and goodwill. The state cannot demand from its citizens faith, prayer, love, goodness and conviction. It cannot regulate scientific, religious and artistic creation … It should not intervene in moral, family and daily private life, and only when extremely necessary should it impinge on people’s economic initiative and creativity”. Let us not forget this.
As the courtroom lawyers put it: ‘I rest my case.’
 “It should be obvious to intelligent observers that the United States speaks one way and acts another. In fact, policymakers in other states have always remarked about this tendency in American foreign policy.” The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 26.
 This question has been treated brilliantly by the Canadian-American scholar Jane Jacobs in her Systems of Survival: a Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (New York: Vintage, 1992). Jacobs makes use of, and creatively develops, ethical categories found in Plato’s Republic, and demonstrates that the ethical system of the guardians differs from the ethical system of the traders, and indeed, in a healthy society, they must in certain ways differ.
 V. S, Solovyov, Kritika otvlechenykh nachal [A Critique of Abstract Principles], cited B. N. Kozlova, “Problema poiska pravovogo ideala v diskussii liberalov V.S. Solov’eva i B. N. Chicherina” [The problem of the legal ideal in the debate between the liberals V. S. Solovev and B. N. Chicherin], Solovovievskie issledovaniia, 2013, no. 39, 65.
 George P. Fedotov, Sud’ba I grekhi rossii [The Fate and Sins of Russia], Sankt Peterburg: Sofia publishing, 1992, 275.