Putin's 'Russian exceptionalism'

The Russian president isn't crazy. He's blinded by a strangely familiar ideology.

Vladimir Putin
(Image credit: (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service))

Is Vladimir Putin nuts? After a phone conversation with the Russian president this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly concluded that he's "living in his own world," and may not be "in touch with reality." Ah, but whose reality? In the reality of the West, the Soviet Union lost the great "clash of civilizations," and its collapse was a triumph for capitalism, democracy, and human rights. But from where the former KGB agent sits, the dismemberment of the USSR was a tragic mistake. For a window into Putin's worldview, says David Brooks in The New York Times this week, we should look closely at the three Russian nationalist philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries he often quotes and has assigned underlings to read: Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov, and Ivan Ilyin.

All three, Brooks notes, advocate a grand, quasi-religious notion of "Russian exceptionalism" in which Russia is destined to play a pivotal role in world history. The West, these philosophers preach, is morally corrupt, excessively materialistic, and weak; hence Putin's embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church and his disdain for homosexuality and feminism. Only Russia, awakened to its destiny by a bold visionary such as himself, can lead mankind out of the darkness. "The hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation," Ilyin wrote, "and begin an epoch of new development and greatness." Putin, in other words, is the mirror image of an American neocon — messianic, Manichaean, and disdainful of international law and the sovereignty of other, lesser nations. Recent history would suggest that when a country's leader is blinded by grandiose ideology, his adventures abroad — and at home — will not end as he envisions.

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William Falk

William Falk is editor-in-chief of The Week, and has held that role since the magazine's first issue in 2001. He has previously been a reporter, columnist, and editor at the Gannett Westchester Newspapers and at Newsday, where he was part of two reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes.