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.

Constructing 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).