A strange reluctance to be free
RUSSIAN CONSERVATISM AND ITS CRITICS: A STUDY IN POLITICAL CULTURE by Richard Pipes Yale, £17.95, pp. 216, ISBN 9780300112882 ✆ £14.36 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 there was widespread talk of Russia soon becoming an open, democratic polity with a thriving civil society. Under President Putin such hopes have faded. The state has seized back much of the power it lost under Yeltsin, devolution has yielded to centralisation, and the prevailing tone is authoritarian rather than libertarian. Yet all this has been popular. Why should the Russian people prefer authority to liberty? The American historian Richard Pipes sets out to answer this question in his latest book.
Montesquieu thought that autocracy was a function of Russia’s immensity. Controlling so vast a space with so low a population density encouraged centralised, authoritarian government. Another factor was that land was plentiful, creating little pressure to establish property rights, the usual foundation of a free, democratic society. The short growing season and the savage climate, so conducive to natural disasters, also promoted authoritarianism, though Pipes pays scant attention to environmental factors. For him the nub of the problem is ideological — Russian constitutional practice may have derived from the Roman imperial tradition but in a distorted form.
Russians could not distinguish between tsar and state. Moreover they conflated state and church and retained absolutism when the rest of Europe abandoned it. The trouble, according to Pipes, began with over two centuries of Mongol domination. It was compounded by the ‘patrimonial’ nature of Muscovite Russia which entrenched the notion that the Tsar owned the people. No room was left for liberty or rights. The argument is cogent, though it rests in part on questionable premises.
Contrary to Pipes’s assertion, the Mongols did not isolate Russia from Byzantium. Nor is it quite right to suggest that the state showed ‘no interest in the well-being of its subjects’ or that there was no limit to a tsar’s power. The monasteries were supposed to care for the sick and unfortunate; and the government of Boris Godunov, for example, spent large sums on famine relief. The Law Code of 1649 echoed the dictum of the Emperor Leo VI in according justice equally to all and Russia’s rulers were aware of their duty to God. In a religious age fear for one’s immortal soul could be an effective check on licence.
That said, the literature on Russian political thought is heavily weighted in favour of the radicals and Marxists, so Pipes has done us a service in giving conservative thinkers their due. He spreads his net wide enough to include not only Shcherbatov, Speransky, Ivan Aksakov and Gradovsky but statesmen like Witte and Stolypin, and even literary figures, including Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky. Some argued for noble privilege under the crown; others thought the rule of many seigneurs more despotic than a tsar’s. Some believed the Russian way might prove to be the salvation of civilisation; others saw it as the last dyke holding off chaos. But all defended autocracy and the ‘good old values’ associated with it. Many saw the monarch as a supreme referee holding down the powerful to allow responsible subjects to exercise their freedoms; and several rulers were enlightened, though Russia never provided fertile soil for democracy. Indeed, the patriotic Pushkin saw the American version, with ‘its repulsive cynicism ... cruel prejudices, implacable egoism and passion for comfort’, as a ‘repulsive tyranny’.
The emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the advent of limited local self-government and of civil rights for virtually every Russian proved to be incompatible with autocracy. Half a century before, Karamzin had warned that two authorities would be ‘like two dreadful lions in one cage, ready to tear each other apart’; and the stage was now set for a chaotic, self-destructive struggle. Dostoevsky and some other voices of the late tsarist period reflect the growing desperation of the times, though with their rabid xenophobia, anti-Semitism and talk of ‘struggles to the death’, they were reactionary, even fascist, rather than conservative.
The irresponsibility of the new political class, or intelligentsia, contributed to the disaster. The trouble lay with the liberal Constitutional Democrats as well as with the ruthless anarchist fringe and the Left. They lacked ministerial experience yet refused Stolypin’s offers to share in a coalition government, demanding complete control. Compromise might sully the purity of their opinions.
If Russian politics sometimes resembles a morality play it is due to another trait of Russian political culture — a Manichaean tendency to treat a leader as a saviour or else revile him as Antichrist. Politics is viewed as a zero-sum game of good versus evil with no room for negotiation. Such attitudes persist in Russia even now. Putin must either combat them or exploit them, but it is they rather than he that is the bigger obstacle to liberty and democracy in Russia.
Philip Longworth’s latest book, Russia’s Empires: Their Rise and Fall from Prehistory to Putin, was published last year by John Murray, £25.