20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues the series of publications by prominent scholar Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. In this article, the author analyzes the reasons for the Slavophiles’ victory over the adherents of “state patriotism.”



The reader has undoubtedly realized already that the riddle at the end of the previous article has a double meaning. The first one is evident: it has to be explained how the Slavophiles, dissidents of the “Russian idea,” who were hardly noticeable in the 1840s, could overthrow the all-powerful “official nationality,” and take away its status as the "hegemonic idea " of post-Nicholas Russia.

There is a catch, though: I am not sure that most readers are acquainted with the aforementioned expression.  Without it, however, it would be difficult to understand the subsequent history of Russian nationalism and Russia itself. I have to digress to explain the expression. The author of this term is the famous Italian dissident Antonio Gramsci, a leading Marxist thinker, former general secretary of the Italian Communist party, who spent the last decade of his life in prison in Fascist Italy. In his Prison Notebooks, he challenged a sacred cow of Marxism of that time, namely Lenin’s theory— that only "parties of a new type" can win the struggle for power. He was, so to speak, doubly dissident.

According to Gramsci, not parties, but ideas play the decisive role. He claimed that the dissident idea that succeeded in winning the minds and becoming the "hegemonic idea," gained power in Italy in 1922.  National Socialism did the same in Germany in 1933. It goes without saying that, judging from the experience of Slavophilism, the status of the "hegemonic idea" does not necessarily guarantee power (nor does the fact of there being "parties of a new type,"—witness their defeat throughout Europe). It can also happen—and this time, I am applying Gramsci's ideas to Russia—that the "hegemonic idea" leads the country to a dead-end, and a different dissident idea gains influence over the minds by offering a way out.   This is what happened in Russia in 1917.

Slavophiles, who were hardly noticeable in the 1840s, overthrew the all-powerful “official nationality.”

However, the victory of Slavophilism in the 1850s is just the first aspect of our riddle. Its second aspect requires that we explain why the idea of “official nationality,” which was established under Nicholas I (during the epoch that the well-known historian Alexander Presnyakov called the "golden age of Russian nationalism,") and which many thought would last forever, suddenly disappeared without a trace after the Czar’s death.   It the 1840s, the Uvarov triad1—Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality—embraced by Nicholas I was indeed strong. Even major talents and minds came under its influence. Nikolai Gogol, for instance, could never free himself from it.  Fyodor Tyutchev remained its prisoner for a long time.  And here is the confession of Nikolai Nadezhdin, one of the most enlightened editors, whose Teleskop journal published Belinsky's Literary Dreams and Chaadaev's famous Philosophical Letter.  "We have one eternal, unalterable element—the Czar! One source of the people's life—sacred love for the Czar!  Our history has been until now a great poem with one hero, one character. This is the distinctive authentic character of our past. It also shows us our great future mission." Quite eloquent, is it not?

But suddenly, there was no "poem" anymore. Slavophile Konstantin Aksakov denounced the "unscrupulous adulation, which...turns the respect due to the Emperor into idolatry."  One has to agree that our discussion cannot move forward until this catastrophic downfall of the triad, the "hegemonic idea" of Nicholas's Russia, is explained.  Let us try to do it. Especially considering that this explanation turns out to be surprisingly relevant for today.



I remember from my school days my history teacher's contempt when he talked about Uvarov's triad. In college, I found the same attitude prevalent among academics, even in Soviet times.  Imagine my surprise when, recently, I came across a sort of a short course of "national patriotic" thought by S.V. Lebedev, where the author writes with admiration: "It is no coincidence that this triad is still one of the most popular slogans of today's Russian right-wingers.  It is characteristic of modern patriots to strive to reduce all of Russian culture to these three words. Thus, according to a well-known sculptor, V. Klykov, the Russian idea is Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality."

Unfortunately, S.V. Lebedev did not explain whether "modern patriots" (the book was published in 2007) were also advocating the return to serfdom, which the author of the triad, so cherished by them, had been vehemently supporting.  Here is what Uvarov wrote about this: “The question of serfdom is closely related to the question of autocracy...They are two parallel forces that developed together.   They have a single historical origin, and their legitimacy is identical.  This tree has put down deep roots, and both the Church and the throne have given it shade."  Uvarov did not leave any doubts as to what was meant by the Russian nationality in the triad: "Our nationality consists in unlimited devotion and submission to Autocracy." In other words, it consists in serfdom?  The "modern patriots" did not even try to question these revelations by the author of their "motto."

One has to assume then that they do not mind serfdom. But in the name of what, then, are they ready to sacrifice the freedom of their people?


"Pagan peculiarity"

According to Academician A.E. Presnyakov, the triad represented something else besides the total lack of freedom: "Russia and Europe were deliberately opposed to one another as two separate cultural and historical worlds, with fundamentally different foundations of their political, religious, national way of life and character." This was the rejection of both the European enlightenment and universal Christianity. This is why Vladimir Solovyov called it the Muscovite faith, the "pagan peculiarity."

It all turns out to be very simple: just like their predecessors from the period of the triad, the "modern patriots" are prepared to be slaves in their own Motherland in order to break away from the sinful Western world.  As their truest apostle Alexander Dugin put it, they refuse to live in a "world of apostasy, of the coming Antichrist."  Is it surprising, then, that in 19th century Russia, most enlightened people considered such thinking as an unthinkable anachronism, as the death of enlightenment and an anti-Petrine revolution in national thought?

Here is the testimony of censor and academician Alexander Nikitenko: "Everything indicates that the work of Peter the Great has no fewer enemies today than it did during the... streltsi rebellions.  However, in those days they did not dare crawl out of their dark holes...  But now, having heard that the Enlightenment was freezing up, growing torpid and decaying, all these secret underground swamp reptiles have crawled out again.”  Famous historian Sergei Solovyov's criticism was equally harsh: "From Peter the Great to Nicholas I, enlightenment had always been the ambition of the government. With the enthronement of Nicholas I, enlightenment ceased being a virtue and became a crime in the eyes of the government."


Konstantin Aksakov (left) and Nikolai Chernyshevsky


Even stronger and sharper were the voices of those who only saw the light after Russia’s shameful capitulation in the Crimean war, into which Nicholas I and his “official nationality” had led the country. Those who repented were close to sprinkling ashes on their heads.   The following is Tyutchev's verdict: "In the end, it would have been unnatural for the thirty-year regime of stupidity, depravity and abuses to bring success and glory." And he addressed theses verses to the Czar, a man, as he put it, of  "monstrous stupidity:"  "To serve God and Russia was never your intention. Your conceit alone deserved your full attention. Whether good whether bad, your every task was nothing but spectral, false invention. You had no throne—you wore an actor's mask!" Mikhail Pogodin, at the time a well-known historian and publicist, with whom we shall meet again, wrote the following prophetic epitaph of Nicholas' Russia: "Ignorant people praise its quietness, but it is the quiet of the graveyard, rotting and stinking, both physically and morally. Slaves praise its order, but such an order will lead it not to happiness and glory, but into an abyss."

I intentionally quoted contemporaries of the “official nationality” of different, sometimes even opposite, beliefs. The reader can also see that among them there are no famous dissidents of that period, such as Belinsky, Herzen, Chaadaev and Bakunin, although they could say a lot about their time.  The same idea united the moderate conservative Nikitenko, the moderate liberal Solovyov, the poet of the empire Tyutchev and the father of Russian Pan-Slavism Pogodin: their recognition that in the 19th century, a Muscovite regime and Muscovite ideology were unbearable.  After Peter the Great, Russia simply could not go back to the streltsi rebellions and "pagan peculiarity." These people's unanimous outcry did not leave any doubt that after Nicholas' era ended, Russia would find itself at a new crossroads.



Many realized that after Nicholas's death the triad would have to surrender its status as the "hegemonic idea" to a different ideology. What is not so obvious is why the triad was replaced by Slavophilism, that is, by another incarnation of the “Russian idea,” whose main postulate, like that of the triad, contradicted Catherine the Great’s project for Russia to become a European power.

There is no doubt that the Slavophiles were incomparably more civilized and refined than the triad's ideologists. They quoted from Schelling by heart and borrowed a lot from German romantic Teutonophiles. The experience of Nicholas' regime and the national humiliation that the country suffered in the Crimean war quickly cured them of old Muscovite fantasies.  However, they remained faithful to Karamzin's school, which explains their whole-hearted support for autocracy that (as in Nadezhdin’s time) they saw as the "distinctive and authentic character" of the Motherland.

On the other hand, after the days of the Decembrists, liberal Russia matured as well. Especially considering that once Alexander II allowed free speech, there was no longer any need for secret societies or military pronunciamentos. The code word of the Decembrists' program to become a part of Europe—"constitution"—was on everyone's lips. The thirty-year nightmare that the country had just gone through, and the 1856 "shameful peace" were considered to be direct consequences of autocracy. Uvarov's argument that the "question of serfdom is closely related to the question of autocracy" was turned against the retrogrades: the abolition of serfdom demanded the rejection of autocracy ("of any form of slavery," as Alexei Unkovsky, marshal of the nobility of Tver province and leader of the liberals of that time, put it). They repeated Nekrasov's verses: "Enough rejoicing!" the Muse whispered to me.  It's time to move forward. The people are free, but are they happy?"

Slavophiles idolized the “people” and contemptuously labeled the educated part of society as the “public.”

The attitude toward this illiterate people was what divided once and for all these two ideologies—Slavophilism and liberalism—which, in the 1850s, had for a short time been rivals in the fight for the status of the "hegemonic idea" in the post-Nicholas Russia (by that time, “official nationality,” as the reader understands, was already out of play).   At some point both ideas competed to be considered the heirs of the Decembrists’ legacy, and Herzen wrote about them: "Like Janus...we were looking in different directions, but a single heart was beating within us." This was under Nicholas I. The first breath of freedom changed it all.

Now, on a crossroads, it turned out that the Slavophiles idolized the “people” and contemptuously labeled the educated part of society as the “public.” They were sure that the “people” possessed some kind of original wisdom, and the "public" was yet to learn it. As Konstantin Aksakov put it, "the whole country's thought is concentrated in the common people."   In other words, they were the first Russian "narodniks," or, as Vladimir Solovyov called them, "narodopoklonniki" ("worshipers of the people").

Liberals, on the other hand, supported the enlightenment of the people. Their worst fear was that the continuity of autocracy would inevitably radicalize young people, who would, in their turn, waken the terrible "peasants' kingdom" before its time. As strange as it may seem, Nikolai Chernyshevsky expressed the liberal credo better than anybody: "Our people are ignorant, filled with crude superstition and blind hatred for those who have rejected their wild habits.  Therefore, we are equally against the anticipated attempt by the people to rid themselves of all supervision and care and to take on the management of their own affairs. In order to avert this horrifying denouement, we are prepared to forget everything—our love of freedom and our love of the people."

Considering that the passionate haters of reforms and the retrogrades represented the only alternative "hegemonic idea," the Czar Liberator did not have much choice.  Thus, the Slavophiles, who had until then been hardly noticeable, became the dominant force in the editorial committees that were drafting plans for the Great Reforms. This is how it all started.


1 Named after its author Sergei Uvarov, education minister under Nicholas I.