On Power and Death

As expressed in this 1928 essay, Russia’s philosopher of national renewal Ivan Aleksandrovich Ilyin (1883-1954) understood well the nature of power and authority. Power, he saw, descended from God and due to the great weight of its responsibility shared close proximity with the other world, with death. A traditional elite responsible for defending its people and their well-being would be imbued with faith and martial virtue, for each of them would answer to the Dread Judge at the end of time. Translated by Mark Hackard.


“For supreme power doth not tolerate a weak hand…”

Alexander Pushkin


To doubt whether Russia shall draw forth from her depths a religious, vigorous and state-cultivating intelligentsia would mean to doubt Russia herself and her future. She can and she shall. And Russia herself will be reborn, will strengthen and grow. But the sooner this is done, the better; the quicker shall come her restoration; the less blood, suffering, hazards and dishonor there shall be. And the first thing the new Russian intelligentsia must understand and ponder is this: the volitional nature of the state and sovereign authority.

State power, in its most essential idea, should belong to the strongest and the most noble. For he who takes it accepts and exercises it with will and namely with noble will; he stands at the helm and on guard – at the head of the people and guarding the sacred. And therefore he should prepare his will not only for leadership and coercion, but for the honorable death of a guardian and a leader.

Living in the state and building it, men are united not simply by territory or common subordination; they are united in a concerted, willed effort and willed action; they unite to set forth and recognize those most noble leaders and those strong and loyal guardians, who are called to create for them, for their sake and through them, the cause of popular unity and flourishing – those who are called to support and defend this unity and uphold what is sacred to the nation even at the cost of their death. Therefore state power by its essence presents us this drama: the struggle and death of the best men for the existence and holiness of their people. And this drama, most clearly expressed in the face of the warrior or the soldier, makes each citizen participating in authority a warrior standing his post, a guardian ready for death.

We must understand and ponder this once and for all: he who assumes power takes on not only authority and not so much authority as he does the duty to rule. He thereby accepts not only higher rank and honor, but higher responsibility and danger. And he who seeks status and desires honor – but does not want responsibility and fears danger – such a man is ambitious without the capability for authority. His reign can only lead to general destruction.

To be near power is to be near death. And how many of the best men in history – Tsars, leaders, great captains and heroes – have proven witness to this by their own ends! I said that sovereign authority should belong to the strongest and the most noble.

To the strongest: I speak, of course, not of muscles, not of weapons or a rallied mass of men. I speak of will. For authority is a matter of will. The vocation of authority is not only to see and understand; for this there are men of experience, men of intellect, men of science and men of knowledge. The vocation of authority is to select, decide, direct, persist and compel. This is its cause, its nature, its purpose.

A weak-willed master is an internal contradiction, an absurdity of life, and the spiritual ruin of a whole cause: he is akin to a man without arms who wants to become a pianist; a blind man who decides to paint. It is here that will, and moreover a strong will, is necessary – not impetuousness, petulance or hysteria; not empty vanity, shrillness or impulsiveness; yet also not stubbornness, callousness or cruel savagery. What is necessary is the ability to decide, i.e. to focus on the one best outcome, to break with all other “possibilities” as rejected; and to turn one’s chosen possibility into necessity – both for others and for oneself. Here we need firmness sufficient for ourselves and others; we need a striking pressure; unshakable authority; the readiness to stand one’s ground and shatter impediments; the ability to overcome – both another’s will and another’s lack of will. In a word, we need a will capable of deep, powerful and long respiration: of profound design, of strong energy, and of great tenacity.

Without this, there shall be no authority: there shall be anarchy, decay and the abyss. Here is why the weak-willed man who comes to power fashions self-deception and deceit. And he who promotes that man either foolishly ruins the cause or is slyly modeling himself a marionette. In normal times, the mistake of a strong authority is better than the correct but fruitless daydreaming of a feeble ruler. In an hour of disaster, the obvious and full absence of authority (one can still stumble and create it!) is better than the simulation of power by a weak-willed man or a group of them. It’s understood that an irresolute Tsar may become dangerous for his country, yet precisely for this reason the organized irresolution of authority that occurs in republican and parliamentary states conceals within itself not only danger, but outright hopelessness and doom. And the political experience of Russian history has long expressed this in the popular generalization: “Better a dread Tsar than the rule of seven boyars…”

Hence the meaning of fascism as a universal phenomenon: men seek a willed and sovereign way out of the organized dead end of lack of will. But from this dead end, the path forward attains only a breach…We said that state power should belong to the most noble. We are speaking neither of “blood,” nor “breeding” and “gentility,” and even less of wealth. I know the value of breeding, inheritance, heritage and tradition, and when all of this stands at the apex combined with personal qualities of the soul, then achievement tends toward the very highest.

Donbass Fighter

But we think that for the Motherland a common hero is more valuable than an aristocratic non-hero; and a common genius is higher than a pedigreed mediocrity; and an intellect without forebears is capable of governing better than a fool with forebears. What use to the country is there from a prominent idiot or a genteel miscreant? What salvation, what exploits can we expect from a man “noble” only by his name? Only the blind can deny the spiritual significance of descent and inherited culture, but only a deceiver can assert that descent in itself is the necessary “qualification” or sufficient “record” for building the state and participation in power.

The best men must ascend to sovereign authority. And he who demands evidence for this thesis has by his demand exposed the decadence and perversion of modern political consciousness. Let him take upon himself the burden of proof and let him prove that state power should belong to thieves, traitors, liars, bribe-takers, rapists, and careerists with neither principles nor ideals. And when he finishes and “proves” his case, we will know that we have listened to a representative of the Bolshevik element.

The power of the weak man despoils the authority of rule and brings about chaos and disintegration. The power of the depraved man sows vice across the land and accumulates an atmosphere of spite toward authority, undermining both the form and content of popular life. So it has been always and everywhere: it is sufficient for a depraved government to install a scoundrel for baseness to become the state’s qualification and record. Men begin to be selected for higher positions according to the degree of their obvious ignobility or hidden amorality; higher than anyone else stand inveterate malefactors and experienced cheats, while around them successful scammers and adaptive prevaricators set camp. There unfolds a political atmosphere where everyone is forced to judge and act according to baseness, where men deprived of a bare minimum of guile and crooked inclination are condemned to perish outright.

Healthy sovereign power signifies the willed emphasis on nobility: on patriotism, conscience, honor, loyalty, and service. At the apex is the state system that actually organizes the selection of such men, the best men for authority, and any other system (whatever historical name it carries – “autocracy” or “democratic republic”) is doomed to disintegration and collapse. This is historically and spiritually an undisputable axiom. And if the Greek term aristos – best – is to be understood by its genuine and strict meaning, then we must naturally ask the question: after the experience of the Russian Revolution, who could dare deny the aristocratic nature of sovereignty?

At the head of the people and guarding the sacred should stand the strongest and most noble men. We must accept this precisely as an axiom. And let us not allow clever sophists to dissect this axiom with reference to everything in this world being “relative,” and that for “will” and “nobility” there is no firm, objective standard. There is such a standard, and it must be considered to the end and mastered as an unbreakable rule of behavior: by whatever path men have come to power, whether from above (by appointment) or from below (by elections), neither weak-willed “nice guys” nor strong-willed rogues should be promoted or supported. Neither because these are men of “my party” or “my secret organization, nor because “otherwise they’ll damage me.” And neither because “I know no one else regardless,” nor by any other considerations. He who takes this path twists his soul, violates his sovereign oath and betrays his Motherland. For this is direct treason – to place a deceitful adventurer at the head of the people or charge the common salvation to a cowardly chatterer. It is also ruinous flippancy to bring to power a spineless conniver or assign guardianship of the people’s sanctity to a known scoundrel.

And let no one say this is “elementary” or “known to all,” that this is supposedly “old news,” for trampling this axiom caused Russia to crumble before our eyes.

To stand near power means to stand near death. Yet only the strongest and noblest are capable of sensing this and achieving it in practice. He who rules stands before death and not only in the sense that duty often requires of him extreme labors beyond his power and undertakings or participation under common danger. Death was close not only when Peter the Great fought at Poltava or saved the drowning at Lakhta; or when Frederick the Great lead his forces on the attack; or when Napoleon visited plague-ridden infirmaries in Egypt; or when Stolypin battled against revolutionary collapse and for years worked eighteen hours a day. No, the idea of struggle unto death is contained in the very principle of sovereign authority.

The fact of the matter is that he who receives authority (whatever the amount) takes at his disposal a part of the people’s most valued goods, goods purchased through centuries of endurance and suffering. The opportunity to create and to protect, to organize and to construct through authoritative orders, is a treasure of the whole nation, the fruit of many sufferings and longtime culture. This is a certain “public good,” and the faithful sentry guards it even at the price of his life, keeping the sovereign authority entrusted to him: uncorrupted, un-disparaged and un-squandered. To the contrary, by squandering the authority in his charge, he who wields power commits genuine embezzlement of the national good, and it is unimportant whether he undermines this authority himself or allows others to seize and make off with the power he was assigned through his passivity and abuses. History will call him to account as a careless sentry.

He who exercises authority is called to watch over the section of state power entrusted him, and he cannot – he has no right to – extinguish this duty by a unilateral refusal. The sentry cannot “replace himself” at his post. The ruler cannot arbitrarily “leave the playing field” or prefer inaction. Unilaterally he can refuse commissions of property, but not public duties. The only man who can replace me is the one who placed me there, and the only man who can release me is the one who can appoint a successor. For everyone else, by the weight of my responsibility, I am authority. And I am obligated to wage the struggle for this authority to the death. A civilian revolutionary cannot replace a sentry at the treasury: he may shoot the sentry, but he cannot relieve him. Soldiers cannot fire an officer; the city duma has not the power to “remove” a commander. An official of a department is not in any condition to grant a minister retirement, and the crowd cannot extinguish the duty of the Emperor!

Sovereign authority has the significance of fate for those who accept it. He who takes it lashes it to his fate and remains connected to power until that time when it is relinquished lawfully and by succession. The man who wields it does so not only toward the goal of success, but in the face of danger. Success gives him laurels, but does the foresight of danger provide him basis to relinquish all his responsibilities? A man who issues orders commands not only the obedient, but also the disobedient, and he should be prepared for this beforehand. While he is obeyed, he is “powerful,” though when there appear people sufficiently brazen for disobedience, shall he simply admit his “weakness” and relinquish authority?

No. Within the very nature of sovereign power there is laid this responsibility: to either coerce or break the unruly, or die at one’s post. And in this sense the idea of a warrior’s duty and a warrior’s honor are a profound and mature prototype of civil honor and civil obligation: it knows neither unilateral abdication nor faint-hearted urging.

Sovereign authority is a genuine living drama in which the decision of the leader and the action of the guardian define the fate of an entire people. This is a drama of will, nobility, life, and death. And let the future generations of Russia consider this truth in depth.