Imperial Russia

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.

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15 thoughts on “Imperial Russia”

  1. “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”

    Nah. I wouldn’t claim that exactly none have this sort of a messianic vision, but it must be very few. They sympathize with the western conservatives of course, they lament their decline, they see them as natural allies – yes, but I don’t think they regard themselves as saviors of their civilization…

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  2. This was a very calm and, indeed, generous review of that article. Once again, Paul, I have to say I admire your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Stroop has a more subtle reading of Russian philosophers than is usual in media lately, but his piece is not without some hasty judgments. For example, he cites the Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn (“Putin’s Brain”) article as substantiation for this thesis about Dugin’s influence on Vladimir Putin. As we have seen here before, their research is hardly of academic quality.

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    1. Thanks, Paul. I had noted the exaggerated claim about Dugin’s influence but failed to check the footnote, which as you point out is not a reliable source.

      Incidentally, I have just signed a contract to write a book on Russian Conservatism. As my research progresses, I will no doubt post more musings on the subject on the blog.

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  3. A conservatism rooted in cultural relativism. As different as it might appear to be from western post-modernism, it seems to share its epistemological willfulness and its lack of ethical foundations (we’re different, so we should be allowed to do things differently=ethical relativism).

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    1. Actually, there is a direct link between Western post-modernism and elements of what are sometimes called the Russia ‘far right’. For instance, Dugin has written that ‘multipolarism is the postmodern’.

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  4. I think it’s important to distinguish between what could be called “strong” and “weak” relativism. What I’m calling “strong” relativism is the claim that there are no universal rules at all, whereas “weak” relativism would only claim that universal rules aren’t comprehensive enough to fully determine a complete ethic or social system. Furthermore, both of these should be distinguished from the claim that it’s not up to people in one country or culture to try to “fix” people from another, which doesn’t necessarily imply any relativism at all.
    I think a lot of statements that actually come from a weak relativist or merely anti-interventionist perspective are often misread as if they support strong relativism. As noted, there is some strong relativism on the outer fringes of the Russian right, but I don’t think it’s what lies behind most Russian complaints of Western interference.

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    1. “As noted, there is some strong relativism on the outer fringes of the Russian right”

      Personally, I don’t see any horrors in ‘strong relativism’, nor do I see why it has to be a right-wing idea.

      Take the so-called “uncontacted peoples”, for example. Isolated tribes. There’s a strong advocacy (and it’s not right-wing) for them to be left alone. Even if, for all we know, they practice slavery, or cannibalism, or who the hell knows what.

      I’m totally for non-interventionism, for letting people be; uncontacted – definitely, people living far away – certainly: the farther and more different from me they are, the more so…

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      1. There’s no logical necessity for strong relativism to be a rightist phenomenon; it’s just that it tends to be so in the Russian context. The Russian left, such as it is, seems to be more inclined to absolutist views, either of a traditionally communist or a pro-Western liberal sort.

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      2. I see what you mean, but I think these days they have all kinds of ideological tilts that don’t fall into familiar patterns. One I find fascinating is orthodox religiosity combined with a strong devotion to social and economic justice (for example, Maxim Shevchenko, one of my favorites). Is it left or right? I can’t tell. Was John Brown left or right? Also, I object to categorizing modern Russian pro-western liberals (or, for that matter, western mainstream liberals) as ‘left’… I perceive them as far right…

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      3. Left/Right, conservative/liberal distinctions are notoriously problematic everywhere, and particularly difficult in Russia, where there are people and groups often labelled as ‘liberal conservatives’, ‘left conservatives’, and so on. A serious challenge for my forthcoming book!

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  5. “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.’”

    Outrageous! How can anyone but the (Hopefully Great Again) US of A claim that?!

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