Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Russian Conservatism and its Critics

Richard Pipes' Russian Conservatism and its Critics: A Study in Political Culture discusses the work of a selection of intellectuals who are considered to be the major apologists for Russian autocracy and the status quo from the sixteenth century to the 1917 Russian Revolution.  What is interesting is that in Pipes' presentation these thinkers do not offer a uniform picture of Russian conservative thinking over time.  But before I speak about the book's main narrative, in this post I would like to briefly discuss Pipes' interesting historical claims.

Pipes does touch on a major thesis in his book -- namely, that Russian rulers have always treated their state like a private patrimony, much like the Frankish rulers of the eighth century AD in the West.  In a state [gosudarstvo] that made no distinction between the public powers and private ownership rights of its sovereign [gosudar'], there could be no room for society, and thus no independent social opinion (15).  Yet this thesis, as Pipes demonstrates, is best supported by appealing to the thinking and behavior of Russia's ruling elites, and not to the intelligentsia.  Indeed, two of the more interesting anecdotes illustrating how the conception of the Tsar's proprietary right over his country and its people passed down from gosudar' to gosudar' are included in the concluding chapter of the book.  The first comes from the openly atavistic reign of Nicholas I: "During the audience he accorded Iury Samarin to scold him for presuming to criticize Russian policies in the Baltic provinces, [Nicholas I] said: 'You have attacked both the government and me, because the government and I are one and the same; although I heard that you separate me from the government, I don't accept this" (180).

The second comes from just months before Nicholas II's abdication in 1917.  This is more surprising given the second Nicholas' much more precarious hold on power:

On the eve of the Russian New Year (January 12, 1917, new style) and two months before he would be compelled to abdicate, Nicholas [II] received Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador.  It was a difficult time, as the parliamentary majority was mounting a concerted assault against him and his conduct of the war, an assault that at times assumed revolutionary features.  Buchanan, asking for and receiving permission to speak frankly, alluded to this political crisis and then went on: "'Your Majesty, if I may be permitted to say so, has but one safe course open to you -- namely, to break down the barrier that separates you from your people and to regain their confidence.'  Drawing himself up and looking hard at me, the Emperor asked: 'Do you mean that I am to regain the confidence of my people or that they are to regain my confidence?" (180-181).

So even to the very end of the Romanov dynasty Russian rulers lacked the ability to distinguish between the ruler and the body politic, a notion that had become a commonplace in Western political thought by the Early Modern era (note, for example, Hobbes' Leviathan).  It is no wonder that it is commonly observed that Russia did not participate in the Renaisannce.  This observation is also tangential to the fact that Russia, though excelling in literature and the other arts, does not have a vital tradition of political philosophy.

Pipes also finds other reasons for why Russia never developed an active social discourse, other than from adopting the Eastern despotism of the Tatars during the period of Mongol occupation.  He cites Geoffrey Hosking's Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917 in noting that Russia failed to develop any national consciousness.  (Look for my comments on this book in the near future).  Great Russians were widely dispersed across the vast Russian Empire, thus keeping them from developing any sense of shared ethnic identity.  Pipes' point that Russians have always been more likely to identify themselves on the basis of their religion (Orthodoxy) rather than nationality rings true from my study of Russian literature and culture.  After all, Anton Chekhov's Anna Sergeevna (from "The Lady with the Lapdog") concedes that her husband, though having a German grandfather, is Orthodox (rather than being simply "Russian").

I also really like how Pipes supplements this argument by using demographic data, noting that "the density of population in Muscovite Russia around 1500 was 2.9 inhabitants per square kilometer; in England a century and a half earlier, it had been nearly ten times as great (28.1)" (182).  The idea here is that the amount of empty physical space between people influences how society develops (or does not develop).  The ability to deploy this kind of comparative statistical information clearly shows Pipes' pedigree as an historian.

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