Russian conservatism talk

On Tuesday evening, I gave a talk at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) about my book. The text of my talk is below. It was delivered in English, with consecutive translation, but Q&A was in Russian.

Good evening. I would like to start by thanking Vasily Shchipkov and MGIMO for arranging this presentation here this evening. I am very grateful to them.

The first issue to address is why I wrote a book on Russian conservatism. The simple answer is that the publisher asked me to do it! But more seriously, when they asked, it immediately struck me as a great idea. Although Russian authors have addressed the subject, until now a comprehensive survey of the history of Russian conservatism has never been written in English. And that matters for several reasons:

First, for long periods of history conservatism has been the prevailing intellectual current within Russia. The attention that historians have paid to the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia can easily lead one to believe that nineteenth-century educated Russians as a whole were alienated from the Tsarist system. But this is obviously not the case as can be seen by the thousands of educated people who served loyally in the Tsarist administration, as well as from the writings of prominent conservatives such as Nikolai Danilevsky, Mikhail Katkov, Lev Tikhomirov, and the like. A complete history of Russia requires that conservatism be properly studied. To date, it hasn’t been.

Second, the list of conservative thinkers contains some of the leading lights in the history of Russian philosophy – people like Aleksei Khomyakov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Conservatives have made significant contributions to numerous aspects of Russian thought, such as the understanding of Russian national identity. Conservatism can’t be lightly dismissed as having no intellectual value.

And third, Russian conservatism is very much in the news nowadays due to the supposed conservative turn in Russian politics following Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. Unfortunately, because the history of Russian conservatism is so poorly known in the West, our understandings of this conservative turn are often coloured by ignorance. My hope is that once people have read my book, they will be much better placed to understand what is true and what is not.

The book therefore aims to improve understanding both of Russia’s past and of its present. In writing it, I confronted an immediate problem – how to define conservatism in general and Russian conservatism in particular. This is far from easy, as philosophers have never produced an adequate definition of conservatism and those which they have produced often contradict each other. In my book, after considering all the alternatives, I define conservatism as a philosophy of organic change. In other words, conservatism isn’t about defending the status quo – in fact if you look at Russian conservatives you will see that very often they have been thoroughly disenchanted with the status quo. Rather, conservatives accept change, but believe that it must respect existing realities rather than being founded on abstract principles.

Conservatism may thus be seen as a response to change rather than an automatic rejection of it. In Russia’s case, I define Russian conservatism as a ‘response to the pressures of modernization and Westernization, and more recently globalization’. In particular, it can be seen as a reaction to the bursts of rapid, top-down modernization imposed on Russia by various governments over the past two centuries – be it the great reforms of Alexander II, the rapid industrialization of the late Tsarist period, Stalinist collectivization and industrialization, or more recently the shock therapy of the 1990s. Conservatives have opposed such rapid bursts of modernization, and instead sought to find methods of change of a more gradual, organic sort. The types of questions they have asked are: how to create a modern society while preserving the traditional values of Russian Orthodoxy; how to develop an advanced and influential culture while preserving a distinct Russian national identity; how to develop a powerful state, able to defend Russia and its people, without unleashing destructive revolutionary processes; and how to forge a modern economy, without similarly unleashing the forces of social unrest.

The answers that Russian conservatives have given to these questions have varied considerably. As a result, one cannot speak of a single Russian conservatism. Rather there are many varieties of it. One distinction I do think it is important to make is that between the conservatism of Russian philosophers and that of the Russia state and its leaders. While the two may sometimes overlap, they are not, and never have been, the same thing. In general, the Russian state has looked on conservative ideology with some suspicion, and as far as I can tell, still does so today. Meanwhile, conservative philosophers have often been strongly opposed to the policies enacted by their government. This can be seen as far back as people like Nikolai Karamzin and other members of the so-called ‘Russian Party’ who opposed the policies pursued by Alexander I. What one may call ‘intellectual conservatism’ stands very much in opposition to ‘state conservatism’, or as it is sometimes known ‘official’ conservatism or ‘bureaucratic’ conservatism, although it is very much a loyal opposition.

You can see this across a broad spectrum of issues. Roughly speaking, these issues can be divided into three types: cultural, political, and social-economic. In my book, I follow Russian history from the reign of Alexander I through to the present day, with each chapter covering a distinct period. Then within each time period, I analyze these three types of Russian conservatism – cultural, political, and social-economic. So, for the rest of this talk, I will go through each of these categories in turn, describing what conclusions I have drawn.

Let us start with cultural conservatism. The only other history of Russian conservatism to be published in the English language was that of Richard Pipes, entitled Russian Conservatism and its Critics, which appeared in 2005. Pipes defined Russian conservatism in a purely political way, as a belief in unlimited autocratic power. I think that this is a mistake, as in my mind Russian conservatism is just as much a cultural project as it is a political one. In particular, it is a reaction to successive waves of Westernization which Russia has experienced since at least the reign of Peter the Great. As I mentioned, conservatism is a philosophy of organic change. In the case of Russia, therefore, one has to consider what organic change might mean, which can perhaps best be done by considering what it is opposed to. Organic change means progressing in ways which accord with Russia’s national identity, religion, culture, and traditions. And that means progressing by means other than blind copying of the West.

Russian conservatism may therefore be considered to be founded on anti-Westernization. This is not the same as being anti-Western. Many Russian conservative thinkers have been deeply influenced by Western, especially German, philosophy, and many of them have been very open about their admiration of the West. Even a man like Konstantin Pobedonostsev spoke multiple European languages, took regular holidays in Europe, and was in every respect a thoroughly Westernized person. Such people therefore are not anti-Western per se; they just don’t think that what works in the West is necessarily suitable for Russia. Russian conservatism is the product of a complex dialectic of anti- and pro-Western views.

Nevertheless, the idea of organic change has forced Russian conservatives to focus on cultural questions, above all on what it is that distinguishes Russia from the West. Only in that way can they determine what constitutes organic change. Russian conservatives, therefore, have put a lot of effort into trying to define Russian national identity.

For some, the factor which distinguishes Russia from the West is Orthodoxy. This is a strong component of what one might call ‘Slavophile’ conservatism. But while the Slavophiles insisted that Russia’s historical development was distinct from that of the rest of Europe, they also insisted that the two were connected. In the eyes of the Slavophiles, Russia had a mission –to save the West. By preserving Orthodoxy and its key values, such as the principle of sobornost’, Russia could in due course export these values to the West and so redeem it. This idea was later taken up by late nineteenth centuries adherents of Orthodox patriotism and continues to find adherents among Orthodox Russian conservatives today.

In the eyes of many conservatives, the West is morally decadent, while Russia is the defender of traditional values. In the twenty first century this concept is particularly associated with resistance to Western gender and sexual politics and with defence of so-called family values. But although the West is the target of criticism in this form of conservatism, the fates of Russia and the West still remain intimately connected. Russia rejects the West, but also wishes to save it.

This is not the case in a different type of Russian conservatism, which might call ‘civilizational conservatism’. This dates back to Nikolai Danilevsky and Konstantin Leontyev. Whereas Orthodox/Slavophile conservatism sees Russia and the West as part of one Christian world, civilizational conservatism sees them as distinct civilizations. In Danilevsky’s era this was to some degree associated with Pan-Slavism. From the 1920s onwards, it has become associated more with Eurasianism. It posits that the world is divided up into separate civilizations, none of which can be morally compared to one another. Whereas Orthodox /Slavophile conservatism is universalistic, in that it sees Orthodoxy as embodying the universal truth and wishes ultimately to spread it, civilizational conservatism rejects universalism. Instead it praises the benefits of diversity.

Both Pan-Slavism and Eurasianism view Russian identity as subsumed within something larger. This is rejected by other conservatives who instead adopt an ethno-nationalist definition of Russia identity. Examples of this would include nineteenth century journalist Mikhail Katkov, the mid-twentieth century contributors to the Soviet magazine Molodaia Gvardiia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or nowadays someone like Mikhail Remizov.

The question we then have to ask is to what extent the Russian state has ever shared any of these positions. My sense is that while occasionally it has adopted bits of everything I’ve mentioned so far, in general it has rejected them. The Slavophiles, for instance, were forbidden to publish under Nicholas I. Both Nicholas and later Alexander II rejected Pan-Slavism. Molodaia Gvardiia was eventually forced to change its tune; and I don’t see much evidence that the modern Russia state truly endorses Eurasianism. Putin, for instance, regularly refers to Russia as being culturally a European state.

In general, the view of official Russian conservatism has always been that what makes Russia a nation is its state. Loyalty has been demanded not to the Church or the People, but to the dynasty or the Party. Official conservatism therefore is a form of civic, or state nationalism. And this, I think, puts it rather at odds with the forms of intellectual conservatism I have spoken about.

That brings us on to the second area I wish to talk about – political conservatism. Normally speaking, Russian political conservatism is associated with the idea of autocracy. It is seen as supporting a strong centralized state, whose powers are theoretically unlimited, even if in practice that is not the case. This, of course, was the position adopted by Karamzin in his famous Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia. However, in my book I argue that the idea that Russian conservatives believe in unlimited state power is something of a myth. Historically, they believed in autocracy, but the word autocracy says nothing about how much power the state should have, nor what spheres of life it should have competency over. It merely stipulates where power should rest, namely in the hands of one person. In Russian conservative thought that person is meant to be bound by custom, religion, and even in some later thinking by law. As Ivan Ilyin put it, ‘The first thing which must be understood with regard to the Sovereign is the limited nature of his power, and the unlimited nature of his concomitant obligations.’

For Russian conservatives, therefore, autocracy is a form of limited government. You can see this in documents such as Konstantin Aksakov’s 1855 memorandum to Tsar Alexander II, in which Aksakov insisted that while the people should stay out of the affairs of the state, the state equally should stay out of the affairs of the people. You can see it also in later demands for the summoning of a Zemskii Sobor, as well as in proposals for constitutional reform put forward by the likes of Sergei Sharapov and Lev Tikhomirov in the late nineteenth century, and a hundred years later by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. For these conservatives, autocracy had to go hand in hand with local self-government.

Unsurprisingly, state officials have generally been unsympathetic to such demands. This has not always been for reactionary reasons. Mid-nineteenth century liberal conservatives such as Boris Chicherin opposed representative government precisely because they believed that it would be dominated by reactionary forces and so would obstruct liberal reform. Liberalism and the preservation of Russian autocracy were seen to go hand in hand. This arguably was also the case in 1993 when Boris Yeltsin forcibly dissolved the Supreme Soviet and introduced a new constitution centralizing state power. Boris Mezhuev therefore argues that the key struggle in Russian politics is between liberal authoritarianism and conservative democracy. Unsurprisingly again, this is a message which doesn’t go down too well with the Russian state. Mezhuev complained recently that the Russian state seems to view conservatism purely in terms of bureaucratic control and the power vertical, while conservative intellectuals are isolated and shut out of public debate. This is not a new phenomenon. As Leonid Polyakov notes, ‘conservatism in Russia has never turned into a real force, and all Russian conservatives have felt the tragedy of their alienation from power.’

Russian conservatives have also tended to find themselves at odds with their government’s view of the third topic I discuss in my book – economics. In the West, conservatism is generally associated with free market economics. One can find examples of Russian conservatives with free market views. This is particularly true of liberal conservatives – Boris Chicherin again being an obvious example. On the whole, though, Russian conservatives have been suspicious of laissez faire economics, while also being opposed to top-down campaigns of forced modernization. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, Sergei Sharapov rejected the economic policies pursued by the governments of Alexander III and Nicholas II, which relied on foreign capital, protectionist tariffs, and state spending. Not only did such policies put Russia in debt to foreign powers, he complained, but they also squeezed the peasantry, in effect industrializing the country at the expense of the mass of the people. It would be much better, he argued, to put money in the hands of the people by lowering interest rates and external tariffs and by printing money. This would boost domestic demand, and so provide the means for organic growth. Somewhat similar logic can be seen in the writings of some twenty first century conservative Russian economists such as Sergei Glazyev, who likewise demand looser credit and a reduction of Russia’s dependency on foreign money. As far as I can tell, in modern Russia, liberal conservatives dominate in the structures of the state – in the finance ministry, the Central Bank, and so on – but ‘left conservatives’, who are deeply critical of the economic system created under Boris Yeltsin, predominate among conservative intellectuals.

The support for left conservatism in part derives from Orthodoxy, which brings with it a sense of social obligation, and in part derives from the legacy of the Soviet system of social welfare, which in effect became a part of the country’s heritage. The Stalinist experience of rapid industrialization also provides a model which some contemporary Russian conservatives look to for inspiration. This Soviet heritage, allied to a little dose of Cosmism, with its belief in the transformative effects of technology, inspires the likes of Alexander Prokhanov with grand visions of a new great leap forward. Oddly, this makes this kind of conservative in some respects very radical.

Not every conservative, however, agrees with this approach. There is also a strand of Russian conservative thinking which is very suspicious of rapid economic growth. This strand has a strong environmentalist element. This can be seen, for instance, in the writings of village prose authors such as Valentin Rasputin, as well as in the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The views of Russian conservatives on economic matters are therefore very varied. But overall, I think that it is fair to say that the association of conservatism with free market liberalism, so common in the West, doesn’t fit Russia very well.

Obviously, the exact content of Russian conservatism has changed over time as the political, social, and economic context has changed. In my book I chart these changes, but at the same time also chart the continuities. I argue that for the past two centuries Russian conservatives have sought to adapt to the pressures of modernization and Westernization while seeking to preserve national identity and political and social stability. Though the specific policies they have proposed have changed over time, the basic approach to change has remained consistent. In this way, Russian conservatism of today displays a clear continuity with Russian conservatism of the past. Over two hundred years, each generation of Russian conservatism has drawn on and developed the ideas of previous generations, modifying these ideas and generating new ones to fit the specific conditions of their time. Twenty first century conservatives consciously draw inspiration from their predecessors. Thus, I argue in my book that while conservatism in Russia shares some roots with its counterparts in Western European countries, it has its own history that continues to shape its present.

Conservatism is an important part of Russia’s political and intellectual landscape. I believe therefore that the ideas discussed in my book are of far more than historical interest. They will help to shape Russia’s future, for better or for worse, in the years to come. For that reason, I think that it is important that people understand them. They don’t have to agree with them, but they should at least know what these ideas are, and where they come from. I hope that my book will enable readers to acquire that knowledge, and in that way will at least do a little bit to enhance understanding of Russia in the English-speaking world.

On that point, I finish my talk. I am very grateful to you all for listening to me. Thank you.

7 thoughts on “Russian conservatism talk”

  1. Very interesting, thanks. But it sounds like that ‘conservatism’ is, perhaps, too generic a sentiment to be subjected to meaningful analysis.

    What’s the opposite of conservatism (generic term) – radicalism? In that case, it could be just a hallmark of a mature (or, alternatively, senile) mind. As in “if you aren’t a conservative when you’re 40, you have no brain.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A case of “взагали по взагалям” intro lecture

    As Leonid Polyakov notes, ‘conservatism in Russia has never turned into a real force, and all Russian conservatives have felt the tragedy of their alienation from power.’

    No, the real “tragedy” is that they (mostly philosophical idealists, suffering from the advent of the capitalism) never “clinked” with the People. Meaning – they were utterely useless.


  3. The concept that resonated with me from the CrossTalk episode was the idea that “if you do not agree with me you are wrong.” There is a totalitarian strain in politics of the left that uses democracy as an excuse to shut down or witchhunt ideas they feel threatened by.


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