Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954), the White emigre philosopher who articulated Russian national renewal, shows an essential requirement for the strength of any culture – a dedicated elite committed to serving God and defending its people. Ilyin knew that only through such leadership could a nation recover and flourish, and his essay written a decade after the Russian Civil War confirms this fact with clarity and force. Translated by Mark Hackard.
Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Psalm 51:10
Through all the great discord of our days, amidst catastrophe, tragedy and loss, in disputes and temptations, we must remember one thing and live by it: the maintenance and propagation of a spirit of knightly service. First and foremost within ourselves, and then within our children, our friends and the like-minded. We should protect this spirit as something sacred; we must strengthen it in those who trust us, those who confide in us, and those who seek our direction. This is what we must advocate to our leaders and pastors, insisting and even demanding it. For this spirit is as the air and oxygen of Russian national salvation, and where it would run out, there would immediately set in an atmosphere of rot and decay, overt or hidden Bolshevism.
The decades we have experienced are such that men accustomed to holding indifferent and lukewarm positions, unable or unwilling to fortify themselves and make a decision, have already had their judgment signed in advance. They are condemned humiliation and the mire, and their vital forces will be used by the tempters of this world. Everywhere that there is no will, the will of the sons of perdition shall take the field. Everywhere that the conscience is silent and greed divides the soul in two, Bolshevism already conquers, and everywhere that the crude lust for power of some irritates the insatiable ambition of others, there is prepared seduction, disintegration and the triumph of the enemy. Everywhere that the spirit of chivalry weakens or disappears, disaster awaits us. So it stands now, and so shall it be henceforth.
At whatever post a man may stand, this duty (if only the cause is not in itself shameful) has its idea giving meaning to his cause, consecrating it not as an occupation, but as service, service to God’s Unified Cause on earth. In distinction from the subject himself, having his own personal interests, sympathies and desires, God’s cause has its Transcendent paths of necessity and exaction. And so man’s personal interests and the Transcendent interest of his Cause at any moment can part and place him before the temptation of self-interest. At any moment, a man can find himself in the position of a mercenary, not knowing upon what course to decide, or the position of a traitor who prefers his interest to the Transcendent. The spirit of chivalry is comprised of steadfast loyalty to the Transcendent path.
There are men who do not see the Cause at all and do not comprehend Transcendent requirements. They know only their own business, personal success, and everything else for them is only a means to that end. All their activity proves to be servility and treachery, and from the works of these careerists, flatterers, bribe-takers and time-servers have perished and will perish all human organizations and institutions. Venality is their credo – it matters not for what they sold out the Cause, whether for money, honors or authority, and it matters not what was hidden in their soul behind the betrayal: open nihilism (as among the Bolsheviks) or a sentimental lack of character and justifying sophistry (characteristic of the pre-Bolshevik Philistines).
There are other men who know of the demands of the Cause and the Transcendent, but who treat them with formal indifference, as if they were a heavy and unpleasant duty or a repellent inevitability – without love, inspiration or creativity. Their activity is “service,” but their service is merely carrying out the next “order” or “item”; they work as hirelings, and in the best case do not curse their labor, or as slaves, weighed down by their every effort. The fate of the Cause makes no difference to them. The demands of the Transcendent, however it might be named – the Church, the Motherland, Orthodoxy, the Army, Science, Art – only belabor and burden them. They are not dedicated to God’s Cause on earth. And from the works of these unfeeling machines, these indifferent men and time servers, all human organizations begin to be emptied internally and die away, disenchanting and irritating all who come into contact with them, provoking censure and straining an atmosphere of destructive protest.
Now as never before, Russia needs men capable not of servility or time-serving, but service. Men who not only see the Cause and comprehend the demands of the Transcendent, but who are devoted to God’s Cause on earth. Men not only not indifferent and not unfeeling, but inspired and inspiring others – men who do not concede the interests of the Cause neither for money, honors, and authority, nor over any requests or favors – incorruptible in the fullest and highest meaning of this word. These are men for whom duty is not hard labor and obligation is not repellent, because in their soul, obligation is covered by personal devotion, and duty has been submerged in passionate interest for the cause. These are men who are, of course, gladdened by any personal success, but for them, their own success always remains a means to serving the victory of God’s Cause. These are men who do not fear responsibility precisely because they are wholly invested in the Cause, and not at all do they seek personal good fortune and advancement at whatever cost. These are men of character and civic courage, men of an idea of will, volunteers for the Russian National Cause. Men summoned as organizers of Russia.
The spirit of chivalry comprises first and foremost the voluntary and willed acceptance of hardship and danger in the name of God’s Cause on earth. And we must admit that if life expects this from us always, and even in the most happy time it proposes us such burdens and the responsibilities and danger tied to them at every step – then after Russia’s military collapse in the Great War and her defeat in the Revolution, all of her rebirth and restoration will depend totally on whether there shall be found in our land a cadre of men firm in such a spirit and capable of such service. An incorruptible cadre, and therefore selling out nothing to either foreigners or the internal enemies of Russia; loyal in love and conscience, and therefore capable of gathering around themselves trust and dedication in all hearts faithful to the Motherland; knightly, and therefore called to service and the organization of public salvation.
The essence of knighthood necessary to Russia is first of all not in infringement, but in self-denial. Not one of the contemporary political parties is knightly, for they all infringe upon power and its attendant benefits. What Russia needs is a cadre of men with renewed and ennobled political motivation in their souls. Only new men can create a new regime, “new” not in the sense of age, name or the all-corrupting “revolutionary standing,” but namely in the sense of direction of the will and strength of will: of Transcendent direction and unbreakable strength. He who over these years of disasters, tragedies and losses has been unable to find within his soul new sources of political reason and political activity – sources religious, patriotic and chivalrous – who as before conceives of Russia (regardless of whether from the left or right) as a field for his career and private advancement – such a man is an enemy of Russia, bringing her poison and death from his heart, whatever programs and slogans he would use as cover. Outside of the knightly spirit of national service, all is aimless, harmful and in vain; outside of it, no one will free or restore anything, but will only create new discord, new chaos and a new civil war to Russia’s ruin and the joy of her immemorial adversaries the world over.
Here is why those who stand aside from all foreign and Soviet “policy,” from all of these endless “initiatives” (abroad) and treacherous “compromises” (in the underground), from all the concoctions and squabbling of political parties, are right. However, this distancing should hardly signify the denial of sovereignty; not at all does it coincide with political meaninglessness and a lack of will. To the contrary – its entire meaning is in stockpiling political meaning and political will and in the Transcendent purification of the soul, in the concentration of the soul’s capability for comprehension and its most noble forces. This abstinence from the frivolous and the premature, from the vanity and intrigues of party politics, is imperative precisely to set a beginning for a new ideational and volitional approach to sovereignty in general and to Russian statehood in particular – the knightly way.
For this we must begin from the establishment of an indisputable maxim that holds: Russia’s ruin was brought about and conditioned by the fact that Russian men possessed insufficient chivalry, and henceforth have flowed all the errors and crimes that have despoiled Russia, all these currents of spinelessness, faint-heartedness, greed, cowardice, venality, betrayal and savagery. And these errors and these crimes will be repeated; and the currents of this cravenness and faint-heartedness will pour out – until Russia paves a course to spiritual and religious renewal; until men of knightly style and knightly character arise and close ranks. And when this takes place, it is then they will found and strengthen a new sovereign tradition, for now dispersed and lost, but conceived many centuries prior in the spirit of Russian Orthodoxy, a tradition that endured through ages of struggle for Russian national greatness. This is the tradition of religiously-rooted state voluntarism that was again reborn in the Russian lands ten years ago.
This is what is most elementary and important. If it is not there, then neither shall there be a Russia, but there shall be discord and chaos, shame and disintegration. It is now that we must take this path and begin our renewal, today, without hesitation or delay.