Russian Conservatism
By Paul Robinson.
Northern Illinois University Press, 2019.
Hardcover, 300 pages, $41.95.

Reviewed by Matthew Slaboch.

On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces under the order of President Vladimir Putin invaded neighboring Ukraine, escalating a war that began in 2014. Westerners reacted to this new stage of the war with near-universal condemnation and a unified response. Even the European Union, which until that point had been anything but united on matters of foreign policy (with member states taking different stances on issues like Operation Iraqi Freedom, or, closer to home, the recognition of Kosovo’s independence) spoke as one bloc in support of Ukraine. The unity that transcends regional divides in the West has likewise transcended ideological boundaries: there is no strong left-right split when it comes to responses to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. Apart from a widespread feeling of revulsion that a larger state could attack a smaller neighbor without provocation, another common sentiment among Westerners is incredulity: Why is Putin behaving as he is, and why do ordinary Russians support him?   

As war between Russia and Ukraine drags on, fissures in the West might emerge. Rising energy prices and a renewed demand for cheap Russian oil could break Westerners’ commitment to sanctions on Russia. Their leaders’ pledges of foreign aid to Ukraine could stir in voters a feeling of resentment as they struggle with inflation, which culminates in the ouster of resolutely pro-Ukraine parties and politicians. Already, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has tried to thwart EU efforts to help Ukraine and punish Russia. Elsewhere, isolationists declare war in Eastern Europe to be of little or no concern to the West. Still other voices in the West, mostly outside the political mainstream, ask not why Russians have a Putin, but how they too can get a “strong leader” who defends the state and Christian society against the forces of globalization, liberalism, and secularism.       

Published in 2019 (and now in paperback), Paul Robinson’s Russian Conservatism predates Putin’s so-called “special military operation,” and it does not explicitly purport to explain how or why Putin emerged where he did. Yet, readers interested in how the past acts as prelude to the present will find in this book a telling of Russian history that makes the happenings in contemporary Russia easier to comprehend.

Russian Conservativism offers an intellectual history of Russia from the tsars to the post-Soviet present, with a special focus, as its title suggests, on conservative ideas, institutions, and actors. Sandwiched between a brief introduction and conclusion are ten substantive chapters, each of which explores an episode in the development of a native conservative tradition in Russia. The book begins with Robinson’s acknowledgment that there is no universally accepted definition of “conservatism,” and a summary of competing understandings of the term. The definition that Robinson settles on is that conservatism is more than an attitude or a disposition: it is an ideology, whose adherents “propose organicism and religious truth” in place of “rationalism, universalism, and, arguably, also liberalism.” With this characterization in place, Robinson proceeds to examine main defenses of organic change and divine revelation against challenges from within Russia and from abroad.  

The strengths of Russian Conservatism are many, including clarity of expression. In a mere 215 pages (excluding notes), Robinson manages to trace the genesis and development of conservatism in Russia across three very different epochs. Impressively, the book’s brevity does not entail superficiality; Robinson combines conciseness of language with rigorous analysis of his source material. In addition to its clear prose, the book is readable because of the analytical framework that Robinson adopts. Russian Conservatism is arranged chronologically, beginning with the reign of Tsar Alexander I (r. 1801-1825). In each of his book’s constituent chapters, Robinson looks first at cultural conservatism, then at political conservatism, and finally at social-economic conservatism. Recognizing that there is much overlap between these three strands of conservatism, Robinson defends the tripartite classification as something that “enables a focus on issues rather than personalities.” The book’s organization also clues readers in to what they should look for as one chapter proceeds to the next, and it makes cross-temporal comparisons easier.  

Apart from its admirable clarity, Russian Conservatism is laudable for the wide range of ideas that it presents. Robinson looks at a variety of contributions and contributors to the creation of a conservative ethos in Russia: memoranda and speeches from government officials, scholarly treatises from academics, and manifestos from journalists, critics, and activists. The result of this exploration is a text that analyzes both the “official” or “state” conservatism of Russia’s rulers and the “oppositional” conservatism of detractors. 

Another noteworthy feature of Russian Conservatism is its potential appeal for a wide audience. The book does not presuppose extensive knowledge of Russian history or politics, nor expertise in conservatism or ideologies more generally. While specialists in any of these topics have much to gain from reading his book, Robinson provides signposts for sophisticated readers who are exploring unfamiliar terrain, guiding them along a clear path towards understanding. Just as Russian Conservatism can appeal to readers who have different levels of familiarity with the topics under Robinson’s purview, it can connect with readers of various political persuasions. Robinson impartially presents ideas to his readers, leaving it up to the audience to decide if theories and arguments are good or bad, sound or illogical; there are no heroes or villains in Russian Conservatism – not liberals as superior to conservatives (or vice versa) nor the Western world as preferable to the Russian. 

Although it is difficult to sense his political leanings, Robinson sometimes seems to be at pains to defend Russian conservatives against liberal, Western critics. At the outset, he asserts that “Russian conservatism is not a philosophy of the status quo.” As noted above, he defines conservatism in part as a defense of organic change and a rejection of revolution. However, he frequently paints Russian conservatives not as mere defenders of gradual development, but as champions of progress. The Russian historian and poet Nikolai Karamzin, for instance, “argued that nations had to progress in an organic manner, in accordance with their own customs.” Sergei Uvarov, who served as the minister of education under Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855) and developed the famous slogan “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality,” was “in many respects a progressive minister.” The Slavophiles of the 1840s and 1850s defended Russian culture and traditions, but “this did not mean … that the Slavophiles opposed progress. On the contrary, they very much desired it.” A prominent later conservative, Fyodor Dostoevsky, “retained [some of] the progressive views of his youth.” Still later conservatives also supported progressive political, social, or economic reforms. For some readers, the linking of conservatism and progressivism might be jarring. Robinson, though, teaches in Canada, where that pairing might raise fewer eyebrows; for decades, after all, Canada had a Progressive Conservative Party. 

An element missing from Russian Conservatism, the presence of which would have made a good book even better, is more of a comparative focus. As noted above, the book does offer some comparison: of Russian cultural conservatives to political conservatives and social-economic conservatives, and of conservatives from one era to conservatives of another age. But this is largely a comparison of like and like. The so-called “Slavophile-Westernizer debate” of the early-to-mid nineteenth century set the tone for later discussions that continue in Russia to this day. Robinson discusses the former camp, but in a parenthetical remark notes that “the Westernizers, not being conservatives, fall outside the scope of this book.” To better grasp what made the Slavophiles distinctive, though, readers would need to see some presentation of the Westernizers’ ideas. The same holds true with respect to later developments, when Robinson depicts certain conservative figures as defenders of private property and freedom of conscience, speech, and movement, leaving readers to guess what else liberals might have wanted.

Just as a comparison of Russian conservatives with ideological adversaries within Russia would have benefited Russian Conservativism, so too would a comparison of Russian conservatives with non-Russian conservatives. Scholars typically recognize Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre as the fathers of Anglo and continental European conservatism, respectively. The names of both men—the latter of whom spent time in Russia as a diplomat—are absent from Russian Conservatism. Readers familiar with the development of Western conservatism would undoubtedly have appreciated some cross-cultural comparison. For instance, Robinson says of Russian Orthodoxy that it “places firm limits upon human reason. The individual must subordinate his or her own reasoning to the collective wisdom of current and past generations, and recognize the importance of faith.” This sounds like the epistemology of Burke, who claimed of the British that “we are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.” A 2005 manifesto, Russian Doctrine, proclaims that “Russian national government must be a combination of three state principles—democracy, competent aristocracy, and unified leadership.” The manifesto also calls for the restoration of the monarchy and union of church and state. Burke said of his compatriots that “we are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater.” Should readers of Russian Conservatism understand the Doctrine to be a call for Russians to have in the twenty-first century what Burke endorsed for eighteenth-century Britons? Other Russian proposals sound similar to the objectives of Maistre or John Locke or Thomas Hobbes, but readers cannot verify whether Russian writers should sound like more familiar Western authors, because there are no explicit comparisons between Russian ideas and (possible) Western analogs. Robinson writes 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.” He could have done more to examine those roots and then the divergent offshoots that emerged. 

A book cannot do everything, and what Robinson accomplishes in Russian Conservatism is no small feat. Russian Conservatism traces the development of ideas and practices that are underexplored and misunderstood in the West. Robinson presents his audience with the thoughts and endeavors of earlier generations of Russian thinkers and actors, which alone makes for an interesting read. That he shows how contemporary Russians (including Putin and the Eurasianist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin) try to synthesize elements of the tsarist, Soviet, and post-communist periods into something coherent is an added benefit. Russian Conservatism is a worthwhile read that deserves a large audience.  

Matthew Slaboch is an assistant professor in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, where he also serves as a faculty affiliate of the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.

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