Much has been written in the last couple of years about Russia’s ‘conservative turn’. On the whole, I haven’t been impressed, but I did quite like an article I stumbled across today by Moscow-based American academic Christopher Stroop which was published last month in The Public Eye magazine (which describes its mission as being to ‘challenge the right-wing’ and its ‘threats to human and civil rights’). Entitled ‘A Right-Wing International’, the article describes the leading role which the Russian Orthodox Church has played in the World Congress of Families (WCF), an organization ‘dedicated to what [its members] call “the natural family”.’
Stroop depicts the WCF as the product of a complex mix of Russian and American influences. It emerged out of discussions between Russian sociologists Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov and conservative American activist Alan Carlson, who was strongly influenced by Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian émigré sociologist who taught at Harvard. According to Stroop, Sorokin taught that, ‘absent absolute values grounded in unchanging religious truth, human morality will decay and society will descend into chaos’. Sorokin drew on the writings of earlier Russian thinkers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev, Ivan Ilyin, and Sergei Bulgakov, who all maintained that in the absence of belief in God, people would come to idolize the state. The result would be tyranny. Berdyaev, says Stroop, ‘believed in a particular Providential calling for Russia … in which a spiritually renewed Russia would have an important role to play in reviving the Christian roots of European civilization’. It is this idea, Stroop claims, which now inspires the Russian Orthodox Church and some Russian political leaders.
Stroop warns that the ‘idea of a special role for Russia in the world’s moral progress … [can] all too easily play into a sense of Russian exceptionalism: a sense that Russia represents a morally superior civilization.’ Berdyaev, Bulgakov, and others sought hard to avoid this, but ‘With or without claiming inherent moral superiority, there is a clear claim here that Russia has a spiritual mission to enlighten other nations. Historically, this claim is rooted in Slavophilism.’ Stroop adds:
The Russian discourse of moral mission and the superiority of Christian values to those of the ‘decadent’ West has played a key role in the resurgence of social conservatism in post-Soviet Russia. It should be noted that this discourse is essentially imperial; Russian concerns about morality have never been only about Russia, but have always been bound up with considerations of the role that Russia should play in the wider world.
I agree to some extent. As I have pointed out before, Slavophilism drew on German Romantic claims that nations could only contribute to humanity by following their own path and drawing on what was best in their own culture. Paradoxically, Slavophiles wished to distance themselves from the West, not in order to live in splendid isolation but precisely in order to be able to contribute something to the West. In the same way, some of their modern successors claim that it is precisely by refusing to fully endorse ‘Western values’ that they can save Western civilization from itself.
Yet to call this ‘imperial’ is going a bit too far. ‘Imperial’ implies the imposition of a set of ideas or a form of government by an alien central authority. I do not see any indication that modern Russian conservatives have any such thing in mind. Their idea is not to create a ‘right-wing international’ like the old Communist International. At the heart of the philosophical tradition Stroop describes is a recognition of the value of diversity. The basic claim is that Russia is different, and should be allowed to do things differently. That in turn means that others are different too and should also be allowed to do things differently. It is no surprise that many of those who are now called ‘conservative’ in Russia are resolutely opposed to what they believe are the modern manifestations of imperialism, such as globalization. Theirs is in many ways an anti-imperial philosophy.
Given the declared mission of The Public Eye magazine, it would seem that Stroop’s use of the word ‘imperial’ is meant to sound some sort of alarm about the threat Russia poses to human rights in the West. I think that this is unnecessary. At the end of the day, most Russians are far more interested in being left alone by the West to do things their own way than they are in converting the West to their own point of view.