Home / Articles / Putin’s Philosophers: Reading Vasily Grossman in the Kremlin
Vladimir Putin fashions himself a learned man and self-schooled in Russian literature. One can examine his strategic outlook and propensity to engage in warfare by analyzing his attachment to certain Russian writers and philosophers such as Ivan Ilyin, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Putin has cherry-picked some aspects of their writing to propagate his views on Russian cultural exceptionalism and even to defend his invasion of Ukraine.
In this essay, I introduce two Russian writers, Vasily Grossman and Isaac Babel, who could have made a much more valuable and positive contribution to Putin’s strategy had the Russian leader been influenced by their work. Perhaps Grossman and Babel could have shifted Putin’s propensity toward warfare to a more peaceful outlook.
What makes Putin tick? Many have attempted to answer that question. Most conclude, especially after the invasion of Ukraine, that he is evil, diabolical, and a war criminal. He may be all of those things, but he didn’t start out that way. Putin was once just another middling KGB officer, not a great one at that. He is chekist (a product of the security services) and siloviki (a security bureaucrat), but that shouldn’t have necessarily made him evil.
So how did Putin transition into the villain he is now? What has he read and who has he followed? Answering these questions can peel the onion back to better understand such an enigmatic character. He has developed a philosophy over the years that undergirds his actions. By examining who and what he follows, Western officials can better understand how to formulate strategies to box him in, even overcome his tactical and operational moves on the battlefield by realizing what drives his personal beliefs and policy opinions.
Most Russia-watchers first point toward Alexander Dugin as a major influence on Putin. Dugin is something of a mystic sage and ultranationalist. He is a prolific author and influential commentator who makes regular appearances on Russian television programs to offer his brand of Russian patriotism, geopolitics, and Eurasianism. Dugin is in mourning as his daughter recently died from a car bomb thought to be carried out by Ukrainians targeting her father. Before this tragic event, he was portrayed in the Western media as Putin’s brain, a close adviser, and a guru who influenced the Russian invasion.
However, this depiction is hyped and overplayed. Dugin is simply an author and public intellectual who believes in Russian nationalism like Putin does. It’s not even clear if Putin and Dugin have ever met.
So, if not Alexander Dugin, who is inside the tsar’s head and heart? Putin’s speeches are one source to investigate. His address to the Duma and the Federation Council in 2005 is well known because of a now-familiar quote, “It should be recognized that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
But there is more in that address that offers better hints into Putin’s psyche. He referenced another long-dead Russian political philosopher named Ivan Ilyin. Ilyin was religious and ran afoul of the Bolsheviks, likely for counter-revolutionary views. He was a White Russian (a Russian who fought the Bolsheviks), and the Communists forced him out of the country in 1922. Ilyin wrote at least forty books. He was critical of Western democracy and preferred an autocratic Russia. Ilyin was a uber-patriot and a nationalist.
What did Putin see in Ilyin? For one, he appears to have been attracted to Ilyn’s belief in “sovereign democracy,” with the Russian idea as paramount. Putin believes that Russia charts its own path without Western neo-liberalism. Russia is a unique civilization.
The hero takes up the burden of his nation, the burden of its misfortunes, of its struggle, of its quest, and having taken up that burden he wins—wins already by this alone, indicating to all the way to salvation. And his victory becomes a prototype and a beacon, an achievement and the call, the source of victory and the beginning of victory for everyone connected with him into one whole by patriotic love. That’s why he remains for his people a living source of cheer and joy, and his very name sounds like victory.
Ilyin can be credited for Putin’s obsession with a Russian victory in Ukraine. Putin as a result thinks of himself as a benevolent leader who exemplifies idealism offering salvation and redemption for the Russian people who he believes were victimized after the Cold War. At that time, many Russians found themselves outside Russian borders after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
If Ilyin—and not Dugin—is Putin’s political and spiritual guide, what other literary influences can we find with arms around Putin? The love of the Russian world could be traced back to the idea of Pan-Slavism, a political movement to promote a union of all Slavic peoples in the 19th century. Pan-Slavism has also been associated with Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Literary expert Nadine Bjursten pointed out that Tolstoy was a pacifist after serving as a war correspondent during the Crimean War. “Understand … that to want to impose an imaginary state of government on others by violence is not only a vulgar superstition, but even a criminal work,” Tolstoy wrote in Sevastapol Sketches.
So, Tolstoy probably would not have approved of the invasion of Ukraine. Putin is more influenced by Tolstoy because of patriotism and nationalism instead of the grand regard for peaceful humanity that Tolstoy espoused.
Dostoevsky is different. Hans Kohn wrote about Dostoevsky’s nationalism in 1945. Kohn researched Dostoevsky’s letters as evidence that the legendary author had a hatred for the West and believed in Russia’s greatness and superiority. As Kohn pointed out, Dostoevsky defended and cherished the tsar, his authoritarian rule, and the Orthodox Church as “necessary for Russian power and therefore for human salvation.”
There are some Russian authors I wish Putin would read. It is unfortunate he did not appear to read classic literature more widely. Two author-philosophers who would have been better influences were Vasily Grossman and Isaac Babel.
Grossman and Babel exemplify what I call “philosophical humanism.” This is a belief in human compassion, empathy, and sympathy for all people—a degree of humanism that Putin clearly lacks. Philosophical humanism comes out in times of chaos. It stands for the dignity of human life, especially in times of war. Philosophical humanism is both aspirational and realistic. These are portrayals of people and scenes that have an eye on realistic details of human life in crisis.
Grossman was born in 1905 in present-day Ukraine. He grew up in a town called Berdichev, which was predominately Jewish, and Grossman himself was Jewish. He started his career as a well-regarded chemist, but the great literary procurer of talent Maxim Gorky noticed Grossman’s short story “In the Town of Bedichev,” and another novel about miners. Gorky was impressed. Gorky allowed Grossman to become a war correspondent in World War II. Grossman covered Stalingrad and the battle for Berlin. His two-volume opus, Life and Fate and Stalingrad, has often been compared to War and Peace and the short stories of Anton Chekhov. The KGB took the manuscript away in 1960 and Grossman never lived to see it published. It was finally printed in the West in the 1980s and released in the Soviet Union in 1988.
Grossman believed in individualism and human freedom, along with love, faith, and hope. He was overall an optimist. It’s too bad that Putin appears not to have read Grossman. Had he done so, Putin may have been more anti-war and anti-totalitarian. Grossman’s writings had a smattering of the forces that define good and evil, admitting that good does not always triumph, but that humans can overcome such a disparity in their beliefs and yearn for good. This was the essence of philosophical humanism that first stressed human kindness. As Grossman wrote in Life and Fate:
There is everyday human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water flask, the kindness of youth toward age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft. The kindness of a prison guard who risks his own liberty to pass on letters written by a prisoner, not to his ideological comrades, but to his wife and mother.
Grossman’s philosophical humanism was centered around what he called “universal good” even though people “get tossed about like branches in the wind,” they come back to goodness, even in times of horrible violence of war. “Incidental kindness,” he wrote, “is in fact eternal.”
Another philosophical humanist was Isaac Babel. Like Grossman, Babel was a war correspondent, but his most famous work Red Cavalry took place in the post-revolutionary years of the 1920s.
Babel was born in Odessa in 1894. He was raised Jewish and continued to be a writer throughout his adult life. Gorky also took a shine to him and published Babel’s work in various news sources. It was in 1920 that Babel came of age in his writing. With Gorky’s encouragement and tutelage, he joined the Red Army as it fought in a short war against Poland to report on the skirmishes for a Soviet news agency. He took what he saw there and fashioned the short stories of Red Cavalry, published in 1926, that examined the darkness of war.
Babel was also a graphic realist in his writings. He matter-of-factly described the Cossacks’ murder of a Jewish man for false charges of espionage. Like Grossman, Babel had an eye for detail necessary to share insights on philosophical humanism. It was with the sympathy of civilians who were negatively affected by war that his writing shined.
In the following passage, from the short story from Red Cavalry called “At St. Valentine’s,” Babel’s cavalry unit was using a Catholic church for its headquarters. Babel made an acquaintance with a homeless woman uprooted by war. He described a humanistic scene of empathy and sympathy. Babel described her in his characteristic majesty:
An old woman with flowing yellow hair appeared. She moved like a dog with a broken paw, wheeling round and limping over the ground. Her eyes were filled with the white moisture of blindness and were streaming with tears. The sounds of the organ, now dragging, now hurried, floated over to us. The old woman wiped away her tears with her yellow hair, sat down on the floor and began to kiss the knees of my boots.
Babel believed in humanity. Had he served as a war correspondent in today’s Ukraine he would probably have written about the war from the refugee’s point of view and would have been sacked by Putin’s military. But Babel would have refused to compromise and continue to risk his life at the front to tell the truth.
Putin has claimed various Russian authors as influences, such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. These authors are low-hanging fruit and Putin bastardized them by cherry-picking certain quotes that satisfy Russia’s fascination with past cultural icons.
Unfortunately, he ignores war correspondents such as Grossman and Babel. It is probably too late for anyone else to influence Putin’s strategic mindset. We can only hope for what might have been had Putin been more widely read on literature that put warfare in its proper perspective. Had he read Grossman and Babel maybe the war in Ukraine could have been avoided.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.