Russian Conservatism and Its Critics
by Richard Pipes
Yale University Press • 2006 • 216 pages • $30.00
Reviewed by Richard M. Ebeling
Why do some nations seem more open to the ideas of liberty, while others appear resistant to them? Friends of freedom often work from the axiom that liberty is something all men desire and want. Yet there are parts of the world in which large portions of the population seem to resist the trend toward liberal democracy and free markets. Both intellectuals and “ordinary” people in those societies often say they reject “Western” notions of freedom and individualism.
This question touches on many of the most important issues of the contemporary world. One example of a country that seems to be reversing many of its earlier steps toward the rule of law, civil liberties, and market freedom is Russia. I was in Moscow in August 1991, when a group of hard-line Communist Party members attempted a coup to prevent the breakup of the Soviet Union and to reassert centralized Party control. After three days, the coup failed. The next day, in a large square behind what was then the Russian Parliament building, thousands of Muscovites attended a rally to celebrate the survival of their fledgling democracy. At one point there arose from the ocean of people a chant, which they shouted in unison: Swaboda! Swaboda! Swaboda!—Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!
After nearly 75 years of communist tyranny, those Russians were declaring their hope and desire for the chance to be like us in the West—what they called a “normal society.” Yet 15 years later the hope has faded a great deal. The government of Vladimir Putin has reasserted central control over the far-flung regions and districts of the country. Radio and television news is dominated by the government, as are many newspapers. Many economic reforms have been reversed, with government ownership or control of the economy being reestablished. The new class of wealthy Russian businessmen, sometimes referred to as the “oligarchs,” has been thoroughly intimidated by the government, with few of them willing to risk their property and position by challenging Putin’s near monopoly over political power. And there is a longing and nostalgia among many in the country for the reestablishment of Russia as a great power that would be feared and followed in the arena of international politics.
Part of the reason why there has been acceptance of these trends by so many in Russia has to do with the culture and the mentality that has evolved and shaped the Russian outlook on life, society, and the State over several centuries. Richard Pipes’s recent book, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics, attempts to explain how this has come about.
In the beginning there were accidents of history. The Mongols invaded and conquered what is now European Russia. They appointed the ruthless rulers of the Grand Duchy of Moscovy as their enforcer of taxes and control. When the Mongols withdrew 400 years later, Moscow asserted itself by expanding and annexing regions that were potentially more open to liberal and commercial values. As the conquest advanced, the rulers in Moscow threatened the position and wealth of the Orthodox Russian Church and the landed aristocracy. To hold on to what they had, they conceded total power to the expanding government in Moscow. They gave away all their potential “rights” to maintain their political privileges under the absolute autocratic rule of the Russian monarch, the tsar. This meant that unlike in the West, there were no countervailing sources of power to check the authority of the king.
There was a consensus that in a country as large as Russia, with an ethnically diverse population, and with no “natural borders” to block potential invaders, strong, centralized power was necessary to hold the state together. The three elements of legitimacy for the Russian monarchy became autocracy, religious orthodoxy, and a growing nationalism that emphasized the unique and special character of the Russian people, making them distinct from other peoples in the West.
As much as both Russian liberals and advocates of absolute monarchy may have admired and valued what they saw and learned from France and England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they all were suspicious of or hesitant about a liberal political system in Russia. Social unrest and political chaos could be prevented only by strict obedience and loyalty to the all-powerful tsar.
Russian religious orthodoxy emphasized that only the Russian Church had remained pure and devout in the face of the decadence and wayward spirit of the Western Christian faiths. Russian Orthodoxy was the true faith, ordained by God to bring salvation to the world. Western ideas could only poison the Russian soul and threaten Russia’s religious mission in God’s plan.
Even in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when Russian liberals attempted to influence political currents, they could not let go of the idea of autocracy. The most laissez-faire of the Russian liberals, Boris Chicherin (1828–1903), could not endorse Western-style representative government. He insisted that to do so “would mean renouncing one’s whole past, rejecting the obvious and universal fact of our history that demonstrates clearer than the day that autocracy can lead the nation with giant steps toward citizenship and enlightenment…. In a word, under present conditions, popular representation will bring nothing but chaos.”
Peter A. Stolypin (1862–1911), Russia’s last important pro-market reformer before World War I, declared, “Supreme authority is the sustaining idea of the Russian state, it embodies its strength and unity, and if Russia is to be, then it will be only by the effort of her sons to defend, to protect this authority, which has forged Russia and keeps her from disintegrating.” As for Western political ideals, he added, “One must not attach to our Russian stem some alien, foreign flower.”
Even the peasantry endorsed the idea of absolute monarchy. In the late nineteenth century, Pipes points out, “the peasants regarded the tsar as the proprietor of Russia and expected to receive from him the land allotments they so desperately needed. Peasant rebellions in Russia were invariably directed not against the tsar but carried out in the name of the tsar against what the rebels perceived as selfish nobles and usurpers of the tsar’s authority.”
Russia’s status as a great power that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean was attributed by the Russian people to the unquestioned power of the monarchy. Centralized power not only kept Russia together, it also made Russia a force among the powers of the world—something Russians could take pride in regardless of how lowly their rank might be.
Autocratic government, Pipes explains, prevented the emergence of an independent middle class. Private property rights never took hold because in principle all land and the objects on it were the possessions of the tsars. There were none of the intermediary institutions of civil society that had nurtured the growth of liberty in the West.
These are the cultural and psychological legacies left to the Russian people by centuries of autocratic rule, many of which were reinforced by three quarters of a century of communist dictatorship. Pipes’s book may help us to understand why Russia’s path to liberty seems so slow and tortuous.
Richard Ebeling is the president of FEE.