One thing people in the West sense about Putin’s war is that it’s unreasonable. Therefore, the logic goes, it’s inexplicable. Perhaps that’s true—no war can be fully explained. But if we want to understand the deep roots of the current crisis, we need to go back in time. Historians have come close to bull’s eye by pointing to Aleksandr Dugin and Ivan Illin, Putin’s favorite ideologues. But these are merely two in a larger movement that deserves our attention: Slavophilism. Slavophiles from the end of the nineteenth century blew illiberal air into Russia’s lungs, they inspired the government’s war on their own people through assassinations, pogroms, and other acts of state-sponsored persecution. Slavophile ideas visibly penetrate Russia today through the manifold monuments to Tsar Nicholas II, praise for the Russian Church, and patriotic outpourings, including hostile contempt for the West.
Who were the Slavophiles? The first generation were spiritual dissenters who opposed Nicholas I. The second generation also kept its distance from power, hoping to “save Russia” through tradition. However, it was precisely the third generation that joined the government to impose its will on political enemies, liberals, Catholics, Ukrainians, and, of course, Jews. These men provided the state with a positive rearguard ideology against modernity and Western individualism. They envisioned a reactionary utopia that divided Russia from the West in terms of values, purpose, and the future.
One individual stands out, Pavel Florensky, because he embodies the movement, uniting ambition, brilliance and intolerance. Florensky was a gifted mathematician, finished a PhD as a youth, and was recognized by everyone as a genius. He acutely understood Russia’s spiritual history and wrote the most important books on Russian icons. And yet, during the Mendel Beilis blood-libel trial (1911-1913), he wrote anonymous pamphlets, claiming Jews killed children to make matzah. Florensky was unwilling to countenance a multinational Russia, home to many religious faiths and national identities.
At its core, Slavophilism is an ideology based on an anti-materialist conception. It says that, although Russians lack the opulence of the West, they are the bearers of suffering that paradoxically reflects a spiritual superiority. In older times this idea was known as “Moscow as the Third Rome.” God’s seat of truth moved from defiled Rome to ascendent Moscow.
Slavophilism is visible in Putin’s indifference to the brain drain of educated citizens (“let them leave”), and also in his nonchalant attitude toward casualties. Here we leave the realm of calculation—how many dead are acceptable?—and enter into necessity—whatever it takes to win because spiritual values are in play. Moreover, we see Slavophile thinking in Putin’s justification for war. He claimed that Russia needed to clean Ukraine of Nazism. However, few understood what he meant (the Azov Brigade?). He claimed that Russia represents everything Nazism is not. Although many of us suspect that Russian goals resemble exactly those that Putin condemns in Ukraine, clearly we don’t get it. The war with Ukraine aims not only to keep the European Union at bay or constrain Ukrainian democracy, but is waged to preserve Russia’s unique place in the world.
Despite its resistance to logic, Slavophilism is an ideal worldview for Putin’s last stand. It connects Ukraine to a decadent and repulsive West and exonerates the Russian government of responsibility for casualties because his goal is wholly positive.
Putin confuses us because we cannot see how he can justify his actions. But if you think like a Slavophile, you see that the war can be explained as struggle against the West and for Russian values. Moreover, in this struggle Putin is not alone, many millions of Russians support him and (more importantly) are convinced by him. Slavophilism might seem to us as an example of the child’s game, opposite day, but it’s not a game and hardly innocent, but that doesn’t make it less dangerous or less intelligible to those who know the rules.