Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political
Culture

by Richard Pipes.
Yale University Press (New Haven, Connecticut), 216 pp., $30.00 cloth, 2006.

book cover imageConstructing
a sustainable political order has been the fundamental challenge
for Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of
1991. It underlies other debates over economic reform and
political institutions, along with conflicts among the big
personalities of this post-Soviet era. Boris Yeltsin raised
hopes in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse,
but alcoholism and economic trends disrupted his ability
to direct events. Power devolved onto provincial groups and
the oligarchs who controlled key economic sectors, and the
failed war in Chechnya undermined government authority. Yeltsin’s
successor Vladimir Putin set a priority on restoring state
power and asserting the central government’s control.
Recent critics have decried what they perceive as Russia’s
falling away from democracy, and a sharply critical tone
shades views in both the American media and the policy community.

Understanding recent trends in Russia requires a perspective
beyond the past two decades. With Russian Conservatism
and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture
, Richard
Pipes offers an important contribution to the historical
literature that also sheds light on current problems. The
slim volume provides much more than its title suggests, presenting
the social and institutional context for an important facet
of Russian political thought while summarizing Pipes broader
interpretation of Russian history. Pipes examines the theory
and practice of autocratic government in Russia, addressing
why it originated and what forces sustained it against liberal
and radical challenges. Although Pipes ends the story before
the crisis of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, his
discussion of a much-neglected tradition shows how the twig
of Russian political culture bent in a direction that shapes
its growth today.

Pipes began working on Russian conservatism early in his
career during the 1950s to answer the question of why Russia
retained an autocratic system after most European states
had abandoned it. After publishing a translation of Nicholas
Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia,
which defended autocracy from early 19th century reforms,
with an historical introduction, Pipes turned his attention
to the career of the liberal conservative Peter Struve and
then produced definitive work on the Russian Revolution and
the Bolshevik regime. Pipes’ background as a Jewish émigré from
Poland whose contemporaries perished at the hands of Soviets
or Nazis made him an implacable adversary of totalitarianism.
If Western academics sympathetic to the Soviet project criticized
his bias against Communism, archives opened after 1990 vindicated
his views. The failure of stable democracy in Russia during
the 1990s and popular desire for a “strong hand” brought
Pipes back to his original inquiry about the nature of Russian
conservatism. Taking as a starting point the view of David
Hume and other philosophers that opinion governs events,
Pipes asks what made Russian opinion so favorable to autocratic
rule?

Russian political culture took a different path from much
of Europe at an early stage. Pipes recaps an old story with
flair, arguing that the synthesis of classical, Christian,
and Germanic influences limited power in post-Roman Europe
and emphasized consent by the governed. Plural sources of
authority and sense of impersonal law developed, and feudalism
involved a contractual relationship that imposed responsibilities
on rulers as well as their subjects. Rulers acknowledged
the liberties of nobles, townsmen, and peasants. While rules
and custom varied by country, a general pattern set Europe
apart. Private property created a right protected from arbitrary
seizure or taxation by the state as Jean Bodin, the 16th
century French theorist of sovereignty, acknowledged. Far
from being a Dark Age, the Medieval period in Europe’s
history laid the foundations for Western liberty.

Geography and culture established a very different context
in Russia, which lacked defensive frontiers for its vast
territories. Demand for good land encouraged peasants to
extend settlements in a pattern of migration that drove Russian
expansion across Eurasia. Monetsquieu argued in the Spirit
of the Laws
that

A large empire presupposes a despotic authority in the one
who governs. Promptness of resolutions must make up for the
distance of the places to which they are sent; fear must
prevent negligence in the distant governor or magistrate;
the law must be in a single person; and it must change constantly,
like accidents, which always increase in proportion to the
size of the state. (Book 8, chapter 19)

This general theory from the 18th century encapsulated Russia’s
reality from the 12th century onward, and institutions shaped
by it left no space for independent social orders that balanced
royal authority in Europe. Since all estates were held in
return for service, Russia also lacked private property in
land. Rule by the Mongols stamped out such aspects of feudalism
as existed, replacing them with an oriental despotism that
became a model of the Muscovite princes who later overthrew
the Tatar yoke.

Pipes describes Muscovite Russia as a “patrimonial
monarchy,” outlining a theory of Russian history he
developed at length in Russia Under the Old Regime.
No distinction existed between a ruler’s public powers
and private ownership; he held the realm as a possession
no different from other land or chattels. Rulers accordingly
disposed of their principalities at will, without reference
to public law or society. Patrimonialism involved assumptions
about the sovereign’s relationship with the people
as well as with the kingdom. The term “gosudar” used
by Russia’s rulers from the 1470s through 1917 meant
the power of a free man over a slave, and Pipes uses this
and other terms to illuminate the assumptions of Russian
absolutism. Absolutist sovereigns in France and elsewhere
in Europe never applied the concept too broadly. Quite simply,
absolutism in Russia left no barrier of law, rights or status
between the sovereign and individual subjects. Ruler and
ruled marked the fundamental divisions in Russia, and, where
rulers claimed rights, their subjects only carried responsibilities.

The establishment of the Russian state in the late 14th
and 15th centuries marked the beginnings of what Pipes calls
a conservative ideology to justify absolutism. It emerged
as a response to tensions between Church and State, and the
Orthodox Church failure to assert power over the crown removed
the single impediment to patrimonialism. Peter the Great
may have sought to Westernize Russia, but he pursued his
ends through absolutist means. Subsequent reform efforts
under Catherine the Great and Alexander I stalled when faced
with the contradictions absolutism produced, and its political
culture provided a context for a particularly Russian form
of conservatism.

Russian conservatism differs sharply from strains of conservative
thought elsewhere with its defenses of absolutism and central
authority. Pipes describes conservatism generally as a defensive
response to outside challenges, and in many societies the
challenge came from the central state or metropolitan intellectual
movements. Most organic strains of conservatism from Justus
Moser and Joseph de Maistre onward reinforce a degree of
particularism, if not a devolved political order rooted in
subsidiarity. Conservatives who defined themselves as loyal
to church and crown defended a moral and political order
to which social orders worked in partnership with the crown.
Spanish Carlists fiercely defended the fueros or
historic liberties of provinces. English Tories under the
first two Hanoverians acted, to borrow a phrase from Linda
Colley, in defiance of the oligarchy established by Whigs
including Sir Robert Walpole. John Randolph and John C. Calhoun
developed a sophisticated conservative political theory defending
local and minority rights against majoritarian tyranny. Some
later conservative populists like Pierre Poujade in France
defied the authority of the state to protect local interest,
and 20th century American conservatism reflected a backlash
against centralization. None of the assumptions behind these
trends has any parallel in the world Pipes sets forth.

Russian conservatives believed their country faced a stark
choice between autocracy and chaos. The 19th literary critic
Vissarion Belinsky lamented that the mass of Russia’s
population confused liberty with license, telling a correspondent
that “the liberated Russian nation would not head for
the parliament, but run for the tavern to drink liquor, smash
glasses, and hang the dvoriane who shave their beards and
wear a frock coat instead of a zipun.” Fear of the
masses dated from Emelian Pugachev’s rebellion in the
18th century, and de Maistre presciently warned that revolution
in Russia, unlike France, would be led by a Pugachev drawn
from the intelligentsia. What Pipes described as the “liberal-conservative
controversy” involved the tension between order and
liberal reforms. Such Russian conservatives as Nikita Panin
and Michael Shcherbatov during Catherine the Great’s
reign operated within an aristocratic ethos, and both men
sought unsuccessfully to create a partnership between autocracy
and the nobility. Michael Speransky later tried to build
on Alexander I’s liberal tendencies through legal reforms
that structured governance and ensured predictability while
endowing subjects with rights, but even the most reforming
Tsars refused to compromise autocracy. Conservatives like
Nicholas Karamzin offered historical justifications for autocracy
that emphasized Russian exceptionalism, while others including
Alexander Pushkin looked to moral reform rather than politics
for improvement.

The great reforms under Alexander II, particularly emancipation
of the serfs, transformed Russia, but, again, autocracy became
a vehicle for change that could not be touched. Even the
Tsar liberator refused to share power with subjects, and
Pipes quotes an exchange between Nicholas II and a British
diplomat where the last Romanov responds to a question about
regaining public confidence by asking whether that meant he was
to regain the confidence of his subjects or they were to
regain his confidence. The slavophile movement introduced
nationalism into Russian political thought and broke with
the cosmopolitan assumptions of the aristocracy to appeal
to society at large. Autocracy became nationalized after
the 1860s, as seen in the thoroughly negative views of Konstantin
Pobedonostev, who drove the backlash against Alexander II’s
reforms. Pobedonostev appreciated the danger of weakening
society through reforms at a time when so many people were
alienated from the regime, but he failed to offer any solutions.
Peter Struve’s career as an influential publicist,
though a political outsider, illustrated a journey from radical
opposition to liberal conservatism aiming the build civil
society as a foundation for the regime. Sergei Witte and
Peter Stolypin tried to implement a conservative reform era
in the final decades of the Romanovs, and Stolypin’s
effort to build a nation of peasant proprietors marked a
bet on the strong that might have saved the old regime. His
assassination left Nicholas II without constructive statesmen,
and failed leadership played a central role in the upheavals
that destroyed Russia during World War I.

Despite its brevity and focus on the history of ideas, Pipes’s
book summarizes themes developed throughout his work. Critics
might accuse him of taking an essentialist view of Russian
society, and imposing on his subject the model of a cultural
gradient running from West to East that relegates Russia
to backwardness. Indeed, Russian scholars who recognize Pipes’s
erudition and insights often complain he lacks fairness in
judging Russia, never giving their country the benefit of
a doubt. These questions aside, Pipes offers a well-written
overview of a subject that merits attention. Although his
work ends with Stolypin’s assassination in 1911, Pipes
implicitly raises the question of how the burdens of Russian
history affect current prospects for democratization. The
Yeltsin era of the 1990s saw a weakening in state power that
Putin sought to redress. Russia’s borrowing of a French-style
Gaullist constitution provides for a quasi-monarchial presidency
with strong authority. Creating a stable civil society offers
a way through the extremes of autocracy and disorder, and
Russia seems to have picked up where Stolypin left affairs
at his death. Prospects seem brighter today than a century
ago, and taking the long view provides a different perspective
from bleak views in the press. But history offers a cautionary
tale that reformers and observers alike would do well to
mind.

William Anthony
Hay,
an historian at Mississippi State University,
is author of The Whig Revival, 1808-1830 (2005).

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