Conservatism and Russian IR Theory

Last week I gave a talk to the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa on the topic ‘Conservatism and Russian International Relations Theory.’ You can watch it here:

For those of you who don’t have time to watch the whole thing, here is a summary:

I began the talk by referencing a survey of the work of Russian international relations (IR) scholars which identified the most cited Russian authors in Russian IR publications. The results were as follows (with a couple of typos – it should be L. Gumilev and P. Savitsky):


The notable thing about this list is that the first three names – Danilevskii, Leontyev, and Panarin – are generally considered conservatives, as are several of the others. Given that this suggests that conservative ideas are influencing contemporary Russian IR theory, the purpose of the talk was therefore to determine more exactly what these ideas are.

To this end, I first pointed to an inherent tension within conservatism between its universalist and particularist elements, and suggested that Russian conservatives have attempted to overcome these tensions in two ways:

  • One has claimed that Russia’s particularity is that it is the repository of the universal truth, and has therefore insisted that Russia must defend its separate identity for the benefit of mankind as a whole.
  • Another has identified the universal good with the promotion of national diversity. This second approach has thereby rejected universalism while at the same time preserving the idea that Russia has a universal mission.

In line with this logic, I concluded that many Russian conservatives in the modern era argue that the development of a multipolar world, in which nations protect their sovereignty and defend their right to a separate path of development, serves not only Russian interests, but also those of humanity as a whole.

To make this argument, I then examined briefly the work of a number of conservative thinkers from the 1840s to the present day – the Slavophiles, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Danilevsky, Konstantin Leontyev, Ivan Ilyin, the Eurasianists, Lev Gumilev, Aleksandr Panarin, Aleksandr Dugin, and the post-Soviet ‘young conservatives’ (e.g. Boris Mezhuev). Inevitably, this involved quite a lot of simplification, but in the process I sought to identify a common core, in line with the thesis above.

At the end of the my talk, I discussed what influence these ideas might have had on Russian policy. I stated that it is important to note that the conservatism of the Russian state has nearly always been very different from the conservatism of conservative intellectuals. Indeed the Russian state has normally been rather suspicious of conservative intellectuals. It’s quite difficult to talk of the latter having much direct influence on the former. Having said that, conservative ideas have seeped gradually into public consciousness, albeit in a simplified form, and in this way have helped to shape policy choices. The main ideas, I concluded, were the following:

  • Russia is different from the West. How it’s different, is a matter of considerable debate, with wide differences between Eurasianists, Russian nationalists, and others. But the key point that Russia is different is commonly accepted.
  • As a distinct civilization, Russia is in possession of certain truths which the West does not possess, either because it never had them, or because it’s become atheistic and decadent and has forgotten them.
  • Western liberalism cannot therefore claim to be universally valid.
  • Different civilizations should therefore follow their own path of development.
  • This is a good thing. Flowering complexity, diversity, polyculturalism are to be encouraged.
  • World peace depends on recognition of civilizational difference.
  • This requires Russia to protect its sovereignty and push back against attempts to impose Western liberalism on the rest of the world. How much Russia needs to push back is a matter of debate, with considerable differences between people like Dugin and Tsymbursky. But the idea that there has to be some push-back is common to all.
  • And finally, in pushing back, Russia not only defends its own interests but also acts for the benefit of the world as a whole.

In this way, the pursuit of the particular serves the universal good.


[You can download the powerpoint presentation below.]

Conservatism & Russian International Relations Theory



14 thoughts on “Conservatism and Russian IR Theory”

  1. Isn’t the basic idea so common as to be trivial? Outside of the western intellectual landscape, that is.

    I heard similar narratives from intellectuals of other ‘civilizations’ (Japan, central America, Islamic cultures, Ethiopia). And these days even small European nations (like Hungary) preach the same thing.


  2. Regarding your point that “the conservatism of the Russian state has nearly always been very different from the conservatism of conservative intellectuals. Indeed the Russian state has normally been rather suspicious of conservative intellectuals”

    As a scholar of Russian culture and history, you must know the famous phrase used here “Russian state is the only European in Russia” (1)

    It seems that the pushback of the Russian state to the Russian conservatives originates from the Russian state unconsciously self-identification as a “western-ish” force (which, if you look from the Russian frame of reference, it is) – and because of that it feels naturally opposed to the more nationalistic Russian conservatism (and – more importantly – to the conservatism of the national minorities in Russia, e.g. religious leaders of the Caucasus region).

    (1) Source: Alexander Pushkin, extract from his letter to Chadaev, dated 19 October in 1836, originally stated (in French) as “Il fallait ajouter (non comme concession, mais comme vérité) que le gouvernement est encore le seul Européen de la Russie”.


  3. Nice presentation, Professor. Your blog regulars are, probably, already familiar with the stuff you mention here regarding your research of the Russian conservatism, only here it’s all gathered in one place. I’m afraid, though, that your sine ira et studio way of delivering information to the auditory is more an exception than a rule in the Western academic circles when it comes to Russia.

    I thought that the auditory will start, ah, “having kittens”, when in 59:00 you said that a ruthless “Russification” under the USSR was a myth and that the reverse was true. E.g. – “Pravda of Luhansk”, 19 June 1926 (price: 4 kopeks). Note that the slogan “Proletarians of all countries – unite!” is first in Ukrainian then in Russian.

    “The Ukrainization is a serious task”.

    Also among the headlines: “The English miners will be struggling more tenaciously then ever before”. “What the English press writes about the relations between England and the USSR”. “Opening of the 3rd plenum of the CEC of the CP(b)U”. “Letter from comrade Voroshilov to the workers and peasants of Luhansk”. “The trial of Petlyura’s killer”. “Is the local taxation permissible?” (yes, but only for local needs and strictly on volunteer basis).

    The auditory, it seems to me, did not really believe that the people you are talking about are not influential in Russia as they are portrayed in the West. You were mostly asked about things that have, at best, only tenuous connection to the topic of the presentation. SAD.


  4. For technical reasons I have been unable to view your presentation, so a special thanks for your summary. Because I read your blog, I guess I wasn’t very surprised by your description of the general beliefs that are typical of Russian conservatives’ thoughts. What would be interesting to me, at least, if you were able to identify other “schools” of Russian political philosophy and, perhaps, contrast their beliefs with those that you have just listed. Thanks again.


    1. Technical reasons. Technical troubles over here, they seem to come in clusters. Thankfully by now I at least have an idea that the network interrupts could be related to signal interferences.

      Today I got at least to the second or third question. Tone could be better, But I wonder when was the last time I heard someone use bowdlerized. 😉

      Oh, and Firefox error codes. Longtime not seen. No way to open the link any way possible to the blog via that browser.


  5. Professor, thank you for sharing such an interesting presentation with those of us that live thousands of kilometers away and weren’t able to listen to you in person. It’s like a very welcome gift.

    In the presentation you talk at length about the relationship between the “intellectual conservatism” and the current political class “political conservatism”. You also hint at the fact that the political class might just reference conservative concepts and ideas because it thinks that those concepts trickled down the “social pyramid” and now resonate with the general russian population, while that same political class is somewhat more inclined to mix with western counterparts and values.

    I think it would be interesting if you could expand on the history and relationship between the intellectual class conservatism and the feelings, values and principles of the russian lower classes. Were those intellectuals (in the 1800s) expressing elitist ideas or were they just organizing a system of values that was already present as a central, if subdued, cultural element in Russian society? When did that “trickling” of conservative values happen?


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