Saturday, August 28, 2010

Russian Conservatism and its Critics Part II

In his Russian Conservatism and its Critics: A Study in Political Culture Pipes argues that the beginnings of Russian conservative ideology emerged from the possessor versus non-possessor controversy that took place around the turn of the sixteenth century. That the party of Joseph of Volokolamsk defending the Orthodox Church's landholding practices won out over Nil Sorsky's denying the validity of Church property was not a given in a patrimonial state where the sovereign aspired to own everything. (Pipes explains that it was Metropolitan Daniel's support for Basil III's decision to divorce his barren wife Solomoniia and marry a Lithuanian princess, Elena Glinskaia, which swung the Grand Prince's support in favor of Joseph's possessor party (37)). According to Pipes, what is important about this argument is that it opens the first debate in Russian intellectual history between proto-liberals who claimed that the body politic must rest on law and justice, and those first conservatives (namely the followers of Joseph) who believed it was sufficient that the state rely on the will of the ruler (38). I found it very surprising that there was anyone in the nascent liberal category at this time. Pipes points to one Fedor Karpov [1], a diplomat in the service of Basil III, who wrote against the injustices committed by the Josephites in power by invoking the rule of law:
The public order in cities and states perishes from long suffering; forbearance without justice and law destroys the well-being of society and reduces the people's affairs [delo narodnoe] to naught, allowing the penetration of bad customs and producing men who, because of poverty, dis-obey their sovereign (Druzhinin 106-113, quoted in Pipes 38).
Karpov not only challenges the consolidation of autocracy, but he also rejects the quintessentially Russian values of passivity and humility in the face of oppression. (Compare the Saints' Life of Boris and Gleb, who became model figures for their willingness to let themselves be murdered by their overly ambitious brother). It is also important that Karpov invokes the people's affairs, the very thing that pre-twentieth century Russian rulers always denied when insisting on their prerogatives. Notably, the Russian words here for this concept, delo narodnoe, are also a direct translation of Latin res publica.


[1] Dmitri Cizevskij also writes about the same passage from Karpov's epistle in his Comparative History of Slavic Literatures.  Cizevskij makes clear that Karpov was acquainted with classical political theory, namely in the form of Aristotle.  Having read many standard narratives of Russian history, I am surprised that sixteenth-century Russia harbored any students of Western learning.  Yet in addition to Karpov Maksim Grek, Juraj Križanić and Prince Andrei Kurbsky all were influenced by Renaissance thought.  It should be pointed out, however, that Maksim Grek and Juraj Križanić were both foreigners who came to Russia after studying in Renaissance Italy.  Kurbsky only became acquainted with classical European thought after he defected to Russia.  Indeed, like Karpov, Kurbsky also invoked Western political theory as a way of snubbing the Tsar's autocratic rule (though the Tsar in this case is Basil's son, Ivan the Terrible):
Residence abroad gave Kurbsky the opportunity to become acquainted with the writings of Aristotle and Cicero, as evidenced in one of his letters, where he refers to the "laws of nature" mastered by the ancients — of which, he wrote scornfully, the Russians knew nothing (Pipes 44).
Works Cited

Letopis' russkoi zaniatii arkheograficheskii komissii, vol. 21 (1908). Supplement edited by V. G. Druzhinin (St. Petersburg, 1909), 106-113. [Note: this looks like a very important resource, but Google Books and the Hathi Trust both have spotty coverage of this series. This website has digitized volumes 1-19, but nothing after that].

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