Category Archives: Political theory

Visualizing Russian conservatism

I’ve just finished doing the index for my book on Russian conservatism, and in the process I noticed that I had mentioned some names and terms much more often than I thought I had. Peter the Great, for instance, is the second most mentioned person in the book (Nicholas I is the most), and that’s odd because I don’t discuss him or his reign at all. In fact the book starts in the early 1800s, about 100 years after Peter. But it seems that the shadow he cast had such a powerful effect on nineteenth century Russian conservatives (who to a large degree were reacting against the process of Westernization that Peter set in motion) that his name kept cropping up regardless.

That got me thinking. It turns out that the index provides quite a useful tool in determining what persons and subjects my book addresses, and thus determining who and what are really important. So, with that thought in mind, I set about quantifying Russian conservatism by totalling the number of mentions people and ideas get in the book, and then producing some word clouds. The results provide a visual rendition of Russian conservatism past and present.

The first world cloud shows the persons and institutions which were most often mentioned in the book. The first thing which strikes one is the centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church. Beyond that, though, this word cloud is perhaps rather misleading as the most prominent names aren’t those of conservative philosophers but of Russian tsars, e.g. Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Alexander I, I, and III, and of the Communist Party and Vladimir Putin. In short, the dominant figures are Russia’s rulers. Yet, except for Nicholas I and Putin, I say very little about any of them. They get a lot of mentions, but they’re mostly in passing, as a way of providing context.

But that itself reveals something. An ideology like liberalism can be seen as abstract and absolute, that is to say that it embodies certain absolute, abstract ideas which are considered valid regardless of time and place. Conservatism by contrast is relative; it is what is called a ‘positional’ or ‘situational’ ideology – i.e. it depends on the given situation. Another way of looking at it is as a ‘reactive’ ideology – i.e. it’s a reaction to whatever is happening in the time in question. In short, with conservatism, context matters.

Word Art1a

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Double standards and the Rules-based order

A year ago this week, I gave a presentation at a conference at the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research in Moscow on the topic of ‘Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order’. There was some talk of publishing it on a Russian website, but as that hasn’t happened I’ve decided to publish it here. It is long, but I hope that you will find it worth the effort. Here goes:

 

Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order

When seeking a solution for the current tensions between Russia and the West, we need first of all to determine what the root problem is. For many in the West, the root problem is Russian aggression, the dictatorial nature of the Russian regime, and even the evil character of President Vladimir Putin. For many in Russia, it is American hegemony and Western double standards. The tendency to see the cause of conflict as lying in the hostile nature of the other is fairly common, but international relations scholars have long since understood that conflict is very often a product not of aggression by one side or the other but of misperception and mutual misunderstanding. These in turn have their own causes, which are far too many to recount here, but one cause of misunderstanding is the fact that the same words or the same concepts mean different things to different people.

So, for instance, a few years ago Russia and NATO countries reached an agreement that security in Europe should be considered indivisible. But they understood this completely differently. The Russians thought that this meant that NATO had agreed that European security had to encompass all of Europe including Russia, with no divisions in a geographical sense. But NATO thought that Russia had agreed that security was indivisible in the sense that it should not be divided up into different types of security, such as military security and human security, and so accepted the idea that human rights were an inseparable part of security. This mutual misunderstanding meant that future discussions on the matter went nowhere.

Today, both Russia and Western countries claim to believe in a rules-based international order, and each accuses the other of breaking the rules of the international system; Russia by annexing Crimea and supporting rebellion in Ukraine; and the West by invading Iraq, toppling Muamar Gaddhafi, and supporting rebellion in Syria. What I want to show today is that part of the problem is that the two sides interpret a rules-based order very differently. For Russia, it is a system in which the same set of rules applies to everybody. To the West, it is a system in which one set of rules applies to the just and another to the unjust. This leads Russia to accuse the West of double standards. In a sense, this accusation is justified, but it isn’t just a case of hypocrisy but also a case of a different conception of what the rules are.

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The loneliness of the half-breed

Vladislav Surkov, long considered an important ideological figure within the ‘Putin regime’, has previously been described as a ‘relative Westernizer’ among Vladimir Putin’s advisors. But even he is apparently now fed up with the West. In an article published yesterday in Russia in Global Affairs, Surkov declares that Russia is neither of the West nor of the East. Instead it stands alone.

The events of 2014 (the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine) marked a turning point, Surkov argues,

the completion of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the end of numerous fruitless attempts to become part of Western civilization, to join the “good family” of European peoples. From 2014 onwards, a new long era, the epoch of 14+, stretches into a future in which we will experience a hundred (two  hundred? three hundred?) years of geopolitical loneliness.

Surkov states that for the past 400 years, the Russian elite have tried to Westernize their country, following whatever trend seemed to be most in fashion in the rest of Europe, be it socialism a hundred years ago or the ideology of the free market in the 1990s. None of this has led the West to accept Russia as one of its own. The problem, says Surkov, is that

Despite the external similarities of the Russian and European cultural models, their softwares are incompatible and their connectors dissimilar. You can’t make a common system out of them.

That does not mean that Russia should turn east, Surkov says. Russia has done that in the past, during the era of the Mongol ‘yoke’. That left its mark on Russia, but in the end Russia moved on. Thus, Surkov writes:

Russia moved East for 400 years, and then moved West for another 400. Neither the one nor the other took root. We have gone down both paths. Now we need the ideology of a third path, a third type of civilization, a third world, a third Rome … And yet, we can hardly be called a third civilization. Rather, we are dual one, a mixture of both East and West. Both European and Asian at the same time, and thus neither completely Asian or European. Our cultural and geopolitical identity resembles that of somebody born of a mixed marriage. He’s a relative everywhere, but nowhere is he a native. He’s one of his own among strangers, but a stranger among his own. … Russia is a western-eastern half-breed country.

It’s time to recognize this reality, Surkov argues. This doesn’t mean total isolation. Russia will continue to trade, to exchange scientific knowledge, to participate in multilateral organizations, and the like. But it should do so ‘without denying its own self.’

Surkov’s article will no doubt get a negative reception among Western commentators, and be spun to argue that Russia is bent on confrontation with the West. After all, if you’re not with us, you must be against us. But it’s worth noting that Surkov at no point condemns the West nor argues that Russia should be trying to undermine Western hegemony. He simply argues that Russia and the West are doomed to go their separate ways. This is far removed from the ambitious Eurasianist designs of the likes of Alexander Dugin, who argue that Russia should lead a grand international coalition to overturn the existing international order. In this regard, it’s noteworthy that Surkov avoids using the term ‘Eurasia’ to describe Russia and also directly denies that Russia is a ‘third civilization’, thus failing to endorse a key Eurasianist concept.

Rather than Eurasianism, with its often expansionist, anti-Western ambitions, Surkov’s view of Russia’s place in the world seems closer to that of the late Vadim Tsymbursky and his idea of ‘Island Russia’ into which Russia should retreat. That is keeping with the editorial line of Russia in Global Affairs, which in recent times has published a number of Tsymbursky-inspired pieces, such as articles by Boris Mezhuev on the idea of ‘civilizational realism’ and an essay by Nikolai Spassky, entitled ‘Island of Russia’.  These bear witness to a growing isolationist trend in Russian geopolitical thought. ‘Isolationist’ isn’t actually a very good word, because as Surkov points out, separation from the West doesn’t mean that Russia won’t still be connected with the wider world. Perhaps the word he chooses to use – ‘loneliness’ (odinochestvo) – might be better. But whatever word one uses, the point is the same. If Surkov’s article, and others in Russia in Global Affairs, are anything to go by, Russia’s elite aren’t looking for a conflict with the West, but are increasingly convinced that partnership is impossible and that Russia will have to learn to live on its own. People in the West should not find that threatening, but personally I do find it more than a little bit regrettable.

Interview with Mikhail Remizov

Mikhail Remizov, author of the book Russians and the State, and president of the Moscow-based Institute for National Strategy, is considered one of the sharpest minds among Russian conservative intellectuals. I had the pleasure of interviewing Remizov a few weeks ago while in Moscow. Below is my translation of the interview. Happy reading!

 

Paul Robinson (PR): I am writing a book on Russian conservatism. But, as you know, philosophers like Samuel Huntington have said that there is no history of conservatism. Do you think that there is a link between the conservative views of thinkers today and those of thinkers in the past?

Mikhail Remizov (MR): Well, if we look at a document like Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, which one can consider one of the earliest manifestoes of the conservative worldview, then we find the same leitmotivs which remain topical today. You know that this memo was given to Alexander I and was a critique of his reforms and foreign policy, as well as an apologia of autocracy. Judging by this memo, the basic line of Russian conservative thought consists above all of a distrust of government reformism, of the reformist syndrome, of the desire to restructure activity according to an abstract plan. Moreover, these plans are borrowed from abroad. This line is relevant today, as the liberal reformist syndrome is very clear in the Russian government. If we look, for instance, at how it has reformed the system of education, then we see that it has been done mechanistically, in accordance with Western models and standards, without thinking of the effect and content of those standards. This is reformist syndrome in its purest form, when the authorities and the experts around it consider themselves progressive, consider that they are cleverer than everybody else, take Western models and begin to apply them mechanistically, but end up with an entirely different result. You can see this in the system of Unified State Exams and the so-called Bologna standards and citation ratings, which are being introduced into education here. And conservatives today apply the same methodology to criticize this reformism.

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Mikhail Remizov

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Interview with Alexander Dugin

On 31 August, I interviewed Alexander Dugin in Moscow. Below is my translation of the interview.

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Alexander Dugin.

Paul Robinson (PR): I am writing a book about Russian conservatism and wanted to talk with you as a well-known Russian conservative. In the West, many people talk of a ‘conservative turn’ in Russia. Do you think that this is the case?

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Ethnogenesis in America

I’ve just finished reading Lev Gumilev’s Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere (which, for those of you who don’t know, is an influential work in neo-Eurasianist thought). It certainly isn’t light reading, and is more than a little odd. The idea that ethnic groups (ethnoi) are a product of an upsurge of people who have a mutation giving them a greater capacity to convert energy into work (passionarnost’) is weird enough. The idea that this energy comes from the animate matter of the ‘biosphere’ and also from some sort of mysterious and undefined ‘cosmic radiation’ is downright kooky. At least old Lev was smart enough to realize that the ‘noosphere’ [derived from the Greek word ‘nous’, meaning mind] was a load of nonsense, but otherwise I can’t say that he convinced me of his theories. I sympathize with those who think that they’re pseudo-scientific gobbledegook. Yet, looking at the United States, I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something to the theories after all.

An ethnos, Gumilev said, is not a social-economic phenomenon as described in Marxist theory. Nor is it a racial, or a cultural, or a territorial phenomenon. Nor is it, as Benedict Anderson has said of nationality, an ‘imagined community’. Ethnoi are very real, according to Gumilev, and what distinguishes one from another is that they all have different ‘behavioural stereotypes.’ Everyone except a newborn baby has an ethnos, wrote Gumilev, because everybody behaves in some way. How he or she behaves determines what ethnos he or she belongs to.

According to Gumilev, behavioural stereotypes are a product of adaptation to the physical landscape. Although he never said this, one could regard big cities as a type of landscape. The modern city has required adaptation which in turn has created new behavioural stereotypes. In other words, there has been a process of ethnogenesis which has led to the emergence of a new ethnos in the cities alongside the existing one in the rest of the country.

This model actually fits the United States, which in Gumilevian terms contains not one ethnos but two. Ethnos 1 lives in the big cities, and behaves one way; ethnos 2 lives in the smaller towns and the countryside, and behaves another way. If two ethnoi have sufficient ‘complementarity’ (another Gumilevian term) they can form a ‘superethnos’. To do so, they must share what Gumilev called a ‘dominant’ – that is some ideal which can be given verbal expression. The two American ethnoi, however, appear to increasingly lack either complementarity or a dominant. Consequently, the American superethnos is disintegrating.

In Gumilev’s theory, the rise and decline of ethnoi is not a constant; the graph has numerous peaks and troughs. Perhaps an unexpected shower of cosmic radiation will generate a great ‘passionary’ who will revitalize the American superethnos. Or perhaps the two American ethnoi will each throw up their own passionaries who will accelerate the process by which the two Americas become distinguished from one another. Or then again, the whole thing might just be a load of pseudo-scientific hogwash after all.

Autocracy and the media

Thinking a bit more about the recent report on the Kremlin’s alleged weaponizing of comedy, as well as other claims concerning ‘Russian propaganda’, what has struck me is how many people seem to assume that everything which happens in Russia is directed by the Kremlin. As it happens, in the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Russian conservatives in the last 50 years of the Russian Empire. One might imagine that in an autocratic country such as late Imperial Russia, the press was under the firm control of the state, that there was no independent ‘civil society’, and that conservative and patriotic groups took their orders from the central authorities. Yet this is not exactly how things were.

Take, for instance, the most prominent Russian journalist of the 1860s, 70s, and 80s, Mikhail Katkov. He was a fervent supporter of the autocracy and was given free rein to write what he pleased. But it would be a huge mistake to believe that the products of Katkov’s pen reflected the opinions of the Tsar and his bureaucracy. On the contrary, much of his work consisted of severe criticisms of Russia’s rulers for what Katkov considered their weak-willed policies and insufficiently aggressive defence of Russian interests. These writings sometimes infuriated Tsars Alexander II and III, but they permitted it in part because Katkov also railed against the Tsars’ revolutionary enemies, and in part because they knew that Katkov’s views were shared by a large portion of educated public opinion. On one occasion Alexander III was so angered by a Katkov article that he threatened to issue a public denunciation. But he was persuaded not to on the grounds, among other things, that the negative public reaction might cause a crash in the stock exchange.

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Mikhail Katkov

Whether the labels ‘autocratic’ or ‘authoritarian’ really apply to modern Russia is a matter of debate, but those who believe that they do also appear to think that this means that the Russian media is entirely under the state’s direct control, and so everything that it prints or broadcasts represents the government’s wishes. Arkady Ostrovsky has pointed out in his study of the post-Soviet Russian media that its shift to patriotic themes from the late 1990s onwards responded to a clear public demand. Too many commentators choose to ignore this inconvenient fact. Some historians consider Mikhail Katkov an opportunist. He said what he said because it sold newspapers; but it sold newspapers because people supported it and wanted to read it. Much the same dynamic is probably true today.