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 discusses the ideological influence of Slavophiles on the Great Reform of 1861.



In the time of the Great Reform, the press mainly debated the issue of how to liberate the peasants—whether they would or would not receive repayment, whether they would be allowed to keep their existing land allotment or whether it would be cut off in favor of the landlords. In short, the controversy was over an idea and revolved around a key question: As a result of the liberation, would serfs become the “prosperous rural class” promised by the government, or would the “white negroes turn into day laborers with land,” as opponents of the reforms predicted?

After this storm of controversy, the “power over a peasant’s identity focused in the village,” that is, in the land community (from which Stolypin would try to liberate the peasants half a century later)—a fact that went almost unnoticed. The difference lay only in the fact that, as a historian of the Great Reform noted, “The community executed all the public police functions, which were carried out by a landowner, free-of-charge, as chief of police during the law of serfdom.”

The emperor chose an interesting man, General Yakov Rostovtsev, to lead the process of liberating the peasants. Rostovtsev once publicly explained that “a man needs a conscience in his domestic life, but in the service, the higher authorities replace it.” Later he wrote: “Russia needs a community-based structure at the present moment. People still need a strong government that can replace the power of the landowner.” It appears that the community was intended to take on the role of chief of police.

In the eyes of the law, a peasant was dead. He was not subject to rights or property, and he was not considered an individual—he was not a man, if you like. The subject was part of a collective, whether this was called the village, the community, or the kolkhoz. And the peasant could still be flogged—if not by the will of the landlord, then by the order of the community elder. Is it any wonder that historians commented on this collective slavery this way: “The community, as in the time of Ivan the Terrible, was more about state authority than it was about peasants’ self-government.”

In the eyes of the law, a peasant was not subject to rights or property, and he was not considered an individual.

None of this, however, could be learned from the writings of the Slavophiles. For the first time, in the enslaving of peasants by the community, they experienced their future “hegemonic idea.” Collectivism, in which the identity of a peasant sank without a trace, represented, in their opinion, “the supreme act of personal liberty.” As Alexei Khomyakov wrote, “Collective principle is the basis, the ground, throughout Russian history, in past, present, and future.” Community for a peasant “is like a personification of his social conscience, in front of which he straightens up the spirit; it supports the feeling of freedom in him, consciousness of the moral dignity and all higher motives, from which we expect his revival.”

Something of George Orwell’s 1984 pervaded the tirades of the Slavophiles (“Slavery is freedom!”), especially if we compare them with the evidence of a witness—and what a witness! Alexander Engelhard was not only a professor but also a practicing landowner. In his famous Letters from the Village, a bestseller in the 1870s, he literally wiped the myth of the Slavophiles from the face of the earth. Here is how the “higher urges” of a peasant looked in reality: “Peasants highly developed individualism, egoism, and the desire for exploitation. Envy, distrust, a tendency to undermine one another, the humiliation of the weak by the strong, the arrogance of the strong, the worship of wealth. . . . Kulak’s ideals reign [in the community], each proud to be a pike and seeking to devour a carp. If the circumstances favor it, every peasant will exploit another; no matter whether he be a peasant or a landlord, he will squeeze the juice out of him and exploit his need.” So wrote one of the most famous narodniks (populists) of his time.

However, not only empirical observations contradicted the Slavophile myth. Science also conflicted with it. The most outstanding historian of the Russian peasantry, Boris Nikolayevich Chicherin, proved that “our present rural community does not natively ancestrally belong to the Russian people, but turns up as a result of serfdom and the capitation tax.” In response, the Slavophiles branded Chicherin a Russophobe who slandered ancient Russia. The real riddle, however, was elsewhere.



This mystery is that nobody asked a very simple question: Where was Russia heading if the peasants were deprived of their civil rights at the very moment that urban residents were allowed to acquire these rights (through representation in the City Dumas, access to independent courts, and the abolition of corporal punishment), deepening the terrifying chasm between the two Russias—European and medieval, Peter’s and Muscovia’s—and perpetuating, in fact, “the power of darkness” over the majority of the Russian people? The great question of the unification of Russia that the Decembrists had posed to the country was forgotten entirely. Yesterday's liberals, the Slavophiles, were in fact revealed as nationalists (or, if you will, “national liberals”). In the name of “artificial identity” (the expression of Vladimir Solovyov), they burned bridges between their own educated Russia, with its Pushkin and Gogol, and the illiterate, boorish kingdom, where nobody could recognize these great writers from one another.

Using their position in the editorial committees presiding over discussion of the Great Reform, the Slavophiles easily imposed their will not only on the government, which was dreaming of finding a new chief of police for the peasants, but also on the Westernizers. That was the first instance of the Slavophiles acting in the role of a “hegemonic idea,” having subordinated practically the entire country’s elite to their influence. And boorish Russia was not only robbed, but also locked into some kind of ghetto, with its special medieval laws. Half a century had to pass before Witte and Stolypin asked whether such a peculiar system would eventually lead to new peasant uprisings.


And What’s With Westernizers?

Slavophiles didn't ask this fatal question in the 1850s and 1860s, because they themselves were prisoners of the myth. But why was this question not asked by the Westernizers, Russia’s Europeans? Here is my explanation: the Westernizers, successors to 16th century “non-possessors,” who sympathized with all the humiliated and offended, took the defeat of the European revolutions of 1848 hard. They searched desperately for evidence that the workers had a fair future, in spite of reactionary triumphs throughout Europe. And they found it with the help of the Slavophiles—in Russia, of course, and in the same peasant community. So liberal Westernizers (like Herzen) and radicals (like Bakunin) accidentally found themselves in the same boat as the Slavophiles.

And just what did they imagine about the poor people locked in the community ghetto? In their eyes, this community personified not only equality and brotherhood, but life itself. Bakunin once wrote: “Our people are perhaps rude, illiterate, but they have life in them, and there is power, and they have a future—our people are alive. And we, actually, do not exist; our life is empty and pointless.” Compare this with the words of Konstantin Aksakov, who attributed to the same people “the whole idea of the country.” And then compare these words with the heartbreaking recognition of Dostoevsky: “We, in other words, the intelligent layers of our society, now are some quite strange people (narodik), very small, very insignificant.” And try to tell the difference between Bakunin, who was a deep-rooted Westernizer, and the Slavophiles.

Herzen was no less eloquent: “On its hospital bed, Europe, as if confessing or telling its last secret, which was purchased mournfully and too late, points to those elements that strongly and deeply lie in our people’s character as the only way of salvation.”  This in an open letter to the czar! Autocratic Russia, only yesterday the “gendarme of Europe,” whose aggressive attempt to dismember Turkey only a few years prior led to such great bloodshed—as Europe’s savior? Such a claim must have looked strange to the Europeans, especially with its abstract reference to “the people’s character.” Always suspicious, Marx—himself crazy about the other “Messiah,” the proletariat—labeled Bakunin (along with Herzen) a czarist agent.


Alexander Herzen (left) and Konstantin Aksakov


An alternative course of post-reform Russia—let us call it the Stolypin course—was possible also in the 1850s, when it seemed that the life of the country was again springing anew, when Leo Tolstoy, not a sentimental man, wrote: “Who has not lived in 1856 does not know what life is; all wrote, read, talked, and all Russians, as one man, were in urgent delight”; when the star of the czar-liberator was high, and Herzen congratulated him from faraway London: “Thou hast conquered, Galilean!” Alexander II could do everything in those days, not like Nicholas II half a century later, after the execution of the workers and the revolution of 1905, when Stolypin tried to revise the old error. It turned out, alas, that history does not forgive such mistakes.

The origin of this error is clear: the Slavophiles insisted, the government played along, and Westernizers agreed—each for his own, albeit opposite, reasons. No one protested. Fatal errors happen this way sometimes, simply because there is no opposition. Special blame for not asking questions lies, of course, with the Westernizers (what could be asked of the nationalists?). For them, to be in opposition to autocracy is supposed to be a job description. But as we can see, the mission of rescuing Russia was more important for them as well.

Which brings us to this strange and quite seditious thought (at least from the point of view of conventional historiography): Were post-Decembrist Westernizers really Westernizers, as we imagine them to be? Or did they become, God forbid, “national liberals” after the dictatorship of Nicholas I? Of course, they did so with certain reservations: the dream of the constitution was still smoldering and autocracy still disgusted them with its foolishness and archaic police character under the flag of “protection of traditional values,” and the Decembrists’ dream of the conversion of the Empire into a Federation was still not forgotten. And still. . . .

Wasn’t the famous historian Sergei Solovyov right when he wrote that “ignorant government ruined the whole generation”? Or when former Education Minister Alexander Golovnin frankly confessed in his diary: “We survived Nicholas I’s last decade, the experience which mutilated us psychologically”? Of course, there were (as we shall see) exceptions, and, of course, this is no more than a hypothesis.

Were post-Decembrist Westernizers really Westernizers, as we imagine them to be? Or did they become “national liberals”?.

If, however, we were able to prove this hypothesis, it would explain a lot of things about the subsequent course of events in Russia after Nicholas I: Why Slavophilism managed to attain the status of an “hegemonic idea;” why Russia’s elite, which was quite Westernerized in the 20th century, chose Slavophilism in the critical hour; why, when they were given the chance to shape the fate of their country for many generations, they allowed the country to get involved in World War I, a wrong and disastrous choice in the name of the same Russian mission. In other words, why they risked “national self-destruction” (the expression of Vladimir Solovyov) for the sake of Slavophile tribal solidarity and the cross on the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Constantinople.

* * *

To prove this hypothesis is not easy. But here, at a new crossroads, we face questions that nobody, as far as I know, has asked since that time a century ago. The most important among them concerns the following. Every historian, both domestic and Western, without exception, agrees that if Russia had not rushed into World War I in 1914, no catastrophe would have happened three years later. During that fateful July, the influence of “red” demons on political decisions was about equal to the impact of today's supporters of Eduard Limonov—little to zero. But if they did not make that suicidal decision, then who did? In other words, who is responsible for the death of Petrine Russia? This decisive question, it would seem, has been asked by no one.

Would it be interesting to know why almost all the Russian elite—from Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov to the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, from State Duma Speaker Mikhail Rodzianko to the poet Nikolay Gumilev, from high-ranking officials to the theorists of symbolism, from “vekhovtsy” to their most cruel critic Pavel Milyukov—unanimously, in a fit, brought their country into the abyss of “the last war” (again the expression of Vladimir Solovyov)? Note that I'm only saying this about the faithful Westernizers; Slavophiles, of course, were overjoyed on the occasion of this war. “‘Ex Oriente Lux!’ declared Sergii Bulgakov, now that Russia was intended to lead the European people spiritually. Life had justified all expectations, all classic provisions of Slavophile teachings. The byword of the period was Vladimir Ern’s brochure, The Times are Slavophiling.”

Why no one has asked this main question is clear. “What to do?” some say. “There was no alternative for Russia. Germany decided everything for it.” And then the victory of the “red” demons was inevitable. It means that there is only one way to overturn this century-long argument—to prove that there was an alternative.