One of the thinkers most readily cited today by Russian elites linked to the power camp is the philosopher and writer Konstantin Leontiev, who lived from 1831-1891. He was an enemy of Western civilization, which he considered rotten and decadent, and with which he contrasted a healthy Byzantine civilization. At the same time, he noted with horror that Russia was subject to the same decaying processes as Europe, so he advised that it should be “frozen” a bit so that it would not rot to the core. According to Leontiev, Russia can save the world. Still, for this to happen, it must be “frozen,” that is, liberal-egalitarian progress must be stopped, even if this were done with violence and at the cost of many victims.
A similar argumentation appears today in the statements of many representatives of Russia’s political and religious elites associated with the ruling establishment and the Moscow Patriarchate. Leontiev – along with Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Danilevsky – is the Russian philosopher most often quoted by Vladimir Putin in recent years.
The Only Joy in Warsaw
Probably not many Poles know that for a time, Konstantin Leontiev also lived in Warsaw, where he worked on the editorial board of the “Warszawskiy dnevnik” or Warsaw Daily newspaper published in Russian. However, one can learn little about the Poles and their lives from his newspaper texts of the time; they could just as well have been written in St. Petersburg or Crete (where he had previously served as a diplomat). Sometimes, however, Polish realities serve the author as a backdrop for his thoughts and reflections. This is the case, for example, in an article published in the pages of the aforementioned daily on February 21, 1880.
It is worth quoting a fragment of this text, bearing in mind that it comes from the “mystical” period of the philosopher’s life – already after his conversion to Orthodoxy, when he spent a lot of time locked up in monasteries (including Mount Athos and the Hermitage of Optina). Here is the beginning:
“No matter how long a Russian might live in Warsaw, he can never fully feel at home here. An alien type of city, lacking the worldly importance and those material comforts that European capitals are full of, nor the national mementos dear to our hearts that draw us to the Moscow Kremlin; uncomfortably cold apartments, unbelievable overpricing, and a society that is reserved and distrustful in its relations with us….
All this, taken together, has an unpleasant effect on the Russian resident of Warsaw.
However, with all these inconvenient conditions, there is one side of life in Poland that is particularly striking and rewards the Russian heart for all its heavy and depressing feelings here – with just one, but for that extraordinarily pleasant impression.
This impression is created by the Russian troops stationed in Warsaw.
In the street, in the cathedral, at mass during the holy days, in the tiny church on Miodowa Street, in the theater, in the Russian club – everywhere you see the military… All the crowds of fresh, young, fearless soldiers, those brave, energetic faces of the officers, those commanders, ‘tested in the great hardships of the storms of battle,’ and ’those gray-haired old generals, the sight of which is humbling and lifts us up’…. and those Cossacks, hussars, and lancers ‘with their mottled badges,’ the infantry (‘that tireless infantry’), marching somewhere with their even, firm and robust step…”
To see all this so often, to encounter it at every turn and almost at random, and where is it… At the very borders of neighboring countries, where cautious leaders have long since barely restrained the hostile impulses of social prejudice against us… This is an absolute joy!
In Praise of Violence
It is no coincidence that this admiration for the omnipresence of Russian troops in Warsaw is a prelude to Leontiev’s musings on the nature of war and violence. Later in his text, he writes:
“Great is this thing – war! He who called the war a “divine institution” was correct. It is a devouring fire – it is true – but a cleansing one!
We Russians ourselves are obliged to regard our military as the best and the greatest of our people if we want to be just in our reasoning and honest in our hearts.
Without violence, it is impossible. It’s not true that one can live without violence… Violence not only wins but also convinces many, if there is an idea behind it, behind this violence.”
The idea that Leontiev served was the concept of an imperial Russia – the bearer of Byzantine civilization and the Orthodox religion – the only one that can save a broken, corrupt world. In turn, the tool of this salvation is the Russian army. Similar phrases can be heard today from the mouths of both Kremlin officials and the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate.
A Satanist in Christian Disguise
Let the words written by another Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev (1874-1948) sum up Leontiev’s thoughts:
“For Leontiev, Christianity is not a religion of love and good news, but a dark religion of fear and violence. (…) I dare to call Leontiev a satanist who put on a Christian disguise. His religious pathos was aimed at apocalyptic prophecies about the rejection of love, the death of the world and the Last Judgment. He enjoyed this dark vision of the future and was not attracted to the other, positive side of the prophecies: of the Resurrection, of Christ’s final victory, of the ‘new heaven and new earth.’ There was a dark pathos of evil in Leontiev’s split and demoralized nature, and he loved violence more than anything in the world.”
It’s a characterization that fits today with that (not at all small) part of Orthodox Russians who see the bloody war against Ukraine as a manifestation of a divine mission. One thing is sure: they have an audience to appeal to.
For the Polish language original, please see: