20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. In this new essay, the author relates that Nicholas I’s reactionary policy brought Russia into a state of absolute paternalism.



“Black Hole” in History

We saw how the defeat of the Decembrists removed the European choice of Petrine Russia from the agenda, and with it the possibility of reunification of the divided country. The immediate effects of this defeat were intimidating. Even the thought of abolishing serfdom became henceforth known as “a criminal assault on the public peace.” Education itself, according to the famous historian S. M. Solovyov, “proved to be a crime in the eyes of the government.” It was obvious to insightful people like Chaadayev or Solovyov that if the rulers of the country did not change their course, Petrine Russia was doomed; such a deadly cataclysm was predicted, I hope the reader remembers, by Herzen.

In other words, different people answered the Decembrists’ questions differently. Those people in whom the “bloody merciless revenge [had] been brewing for generations” had in mind not a constitutional monarchy or public education, like the Decembrists did, but blood. Here is an example, if anyone forgot: “The thrones stained with people’s blood we will stain with the blood of our enemies. Ruthless death to all adversaries, to all parasites of the working masses.”

But a century is a long interval of time. History was not in a hurry; it moved slowly, as if to give the new director of an old drama time to think again, to understand the mistakes of his predecessors, to replay the game. But the new directors did not win the game. They tried, in the 1860s and the 1900s, but stopped midway. Something prevented them. Nevertheless, the task of both the historian and the playwright is to render for the audience this age-old drama, scene after scene, with all its twists and turns, even if everybody knows the ending. “Why?” you ask. Because the tragic fall of Petrine Russia didn’t end the old drama. Because history still gives new directors and their audiences the chance to comprehend the errors of their precursors, to find out what prevented those precursors from replaying the game, and to try not to repeat those mistakes. But to understand all of this, we need to know who those precursors were.

We are now in the decisive moment of the Petrine Russian drama, and it’s time to look closely at its second main character, the vanquisher of the Decembrists, who was to become the director of a long scene, protracted for generations. I have to say at once: Nicholas I was not Skalozub, as was the common portrayal of him. And he was not a “man of monstrous stupidity,” as Tyutchev described him. Rather, despite his reputation as a resolute soldier, he resembled a man who was forever at a loss in a situation too difficult for a soldier to handle. And he contradicted himself too often. It is for these reasons that his reign turned out to be fruitless, a sort of “black hole” in history. My late colleague at the University of California, Berkeley, the famous American historian N. V. Ryazanovsky, was right when he wrote that “Russia has not made ​​up for thirty years lost with Nicholas.” Here is an example.


The Autocrat and the Peasant Question

Let’s do Nicholas justice: he was really shocked by the picture of mayhem that was revealed to him during the investigation of the Decembrists. And he immediately instructed the file clerk of the investigative commission, Mr. Borovkov, to make a systematic digest of the Decembrists’ testimony, which he kept until the end of his days. The chairman of the Committee of Ministers, V. P. Kotchoubey, once said to Borovkov: “His Majesty often looks through your curious digest and draws from it a lot of use.” Moreover, a copy of this digest was given to the secret committee (a state consultative body) on December 6, 1826, with the admonishment to “extract from this information the greatest possible benefit for your work.”

That was the first of six, as V. O. Kliuchevsky thought, or the first of nine, as the great expert on the peasant question V. I. Semevsky thought, or even the first of ten, as the American historian Bruce Lincoln calculated, secret and very secret committees, which were strictly charged with finding a way to end the landlords’ tyranny. Borovkov described the situation, drawing from the Decembrists’ own words: “The landlords maltreat their peasants; they consider nothing of [dividing and] selling families, stealing innocence, perverting peasants’ wives, and do it explicitly, not to mention the painful encumbrance of forced labor and rent.”

Nicholas’ ministers understood that there was only one way to end the landlords’ tyranny over the villages—and that was the Decembrists’ solution. It was not possible to assign a policeman to monitor each landowner. But the ministers were prohibited from even considering this suggestion, because it would be a “criminal attempt on the welfare of the state.” Naturally, the work of all these secret committees led nowhere—for thirty years! All the reign of the autocrat Nicholas I was marked by such unsolvable contradictions. It could not end well; from the very beginning, it was, shall we say, pregnant with catastrophe. And given Russia’s status at that time as a European superpower, this catastrophe inevitably impacted the nation’s foreign policy. In short, our hapless monarch was destined to destroy this status. But this did not happen immediately.


In Waiting for a Revolution

The irony was that this catastrophe was also caused by the Decembrists’ uprising—or so Nicholas I explained to himself. Here, however, there was no mystery. How else could an autocrat explain a catastrophe, if not by “the madness of our liberals”? That this madness came from the West was as obvious to Nicholas in the second quarter of the nineteenth century as it is to Putin in the second decade of the twenty-first.

But unlike Putin, our autocrat inherited not a peripheral oil and gas station, but a formidable superpower of which Europe was scared. And it goes without saying that a crackdown was not enough to control the outrageously Westernized Russia of Alexander I. Inevitably, the task of eradicating the liberal madness of “rotting” Europe (the nationalist circles of post-Decembrist Russia could not imagine liberal Europe in any other way) in its very lair fell to Nicholas. There was no chance that the country could cope with the liberal madness generated by permissiveness, which, as the autocrat was well aware, was fraught with revolution.

Only mighty Russia, led by its autocrat, could cope with the imminent European revolution. Nicholas had dealt with his own Decembrists, and he’d do the same with the European upstarts—a view encouraged by nationalist ideologues who had convinced him that there was nothing that was impossible for him. Here is a sample of the rhetoric these nationalists deployed: “I ​​ask if anyone can compete with us, and who we could not force to obey? Don’t we have the destiny of the world in our hands, if only we want to decide it? What is impossible for the Russian emperor? Let them invent any sort of problem, though similar to the ones that are given in fairy tales. I think you cannot invent any that would be difficult for him, if only his supreme power would decide to do it.”

Nicholas’ only chance to live up to the glory of his deceased brother (and at the same time put an end to liberal contagion) was to fight against the revolution, as Alexander fought against Napoleon—and win.

These words belong to Mikhail Pogodin, a well-known Russian historian who was not seen as an influential ideologue in his time. We will meet him again later, and from his mouth we will hear very different songs. It is important, however, that Pogodin’s words in the 1840s matched the autocrat’s character and his idea of ​​Russia's role in the world. Our monarch was vain and desperately jealous of the glory of his late brother. For all of their differences, the sons of Tsar Paul I were as similar as twins in one thing: the belief that a Russian tsar could gain immortal glory and the eternal gratitude of posterity only in the European arena.

The elder brother, Alexander, achieved this aim by driving Napoleon to St. Helena. The Holy Synod, the Council of State, and the Senate consequently bestowed upon him the title of “The Blessed.” Obsequious Holy Alliance colleagues called him the “Agamemnon of Europe.” The younger brother, Nicholas, however, did not have a Napoleon. In his time, the European revolution (which was also a source of the liberal madness in Russia) took the place of the great Corsican. That’s why Nicholas’ only chance to live up to the glory of his deceased brother (and at the same time put an end to liberal contagion) was to fight against the revolution, as Alexander fought against Napoleon—and win. Then he too could claim the title “Agamemnon of Europe.”

Fyodor Tyutchev, the classic Russian poet, was, in his spare time, active, like Pogodin, in the field of nationalist ideology. Here’s how he formulated Nicholas’ task: “In Europe, there are only two real forces, two true powers—Russia and Revolution. Now they come face to face, but tomorrow they can fight each other. There cannot be any contracts or transactions between them. What is life for one is death for the other. All political and religious life of mankind depends on the outcome of this struggle for many centuries.”

Benckendorf, who found Tyutchev’s wording to be remarkably accurate, promised to convey the poet’s notes into the autocrat’s own hands and, as a responsible man—still at the time chief of police—carried out his promise. Consequently, in early 1844, Tyutchev’s notes were “according to the Aksakov testimony—read by the Tsar, who said after reading it: ‘All my thoughts are expressed here.’” Thus, the autocrat solved the question of who was to be his “own Napoleon,” and the deadly fight between “two true powers” was placed on the agenda. He had to wait, however, for the European revolution.


Cleaning Up the Home Front

Meanwhile, the job of cleaning up the home front was carried out so thoroughly that when the Z-hour happened, nothing in Russia could prevent the concentration of all main forces on, in the autocrat’s words, “crushing the revolution in Europe.” And he did this cleaning excellently: in 1848, when the whole continent seemed to have been ignited, a dead silence reigned in Russia, even in the eternally rebellious Poland. The main work, however, was conducted in the 1830s, when the country was cut off from the origins of liberal madness and Russia became the first—and at the time the only—country with a state ideology.

The traditional values ​​of Orthodoxy, as opposed to Western permissiveness, laid at the foundation of this ideology. Hardly anyone could doubt the autocrat’s plan for Russian life if they remembered how O. Klyuchevsky described the choice of values by the Muscovite elite of the seventeenth century: “It thought that it was the only true orthodox world, its understanding of the deity was the only right one, its imagined Russian god, no longer owned by anyone or unknown to anybody, was the creator of the universe.” There is no doubt about the traditionalism of these values ​​in Russia, or about Vladimir Solovyov’s assessment of them as “pagan peculiarity.”

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Education was reorganized as the Office for the Protection and Spread of Traditional Values, and the whole system was patched together with censorship on a scale unmatched by any other regime in the world. An apt description is provided by the academician A.V. Nikitenko, who as a censor himself knew the subject firsthand: “So, how many censors do we have? The general censorship branch of the Ministry of Education, the Department of Censorship, the Secret Supreme Committee, the censorship branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the theater censorship branch of the Ministry of the Imperial Court, the newspaper censorship branch at the Postal Department; the censorship branch at the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty's Own Chancellery. . . . I made a mistake, there was more. There were also censors in the department of legal writings in the Second Section of His Imperial Majesty's Own Chancellery, and there were censors of foreign books. Only twelve. . . . If you count all those censors, the number would be greater than the number of books published during the year.”

The real price of all of Nicholas’ innovations was clarified only later, when it turned out that in the national consciousness, the seeds of osobnyachestvo can be sown relatively quickly—although two centuries is not enough to get rid of them.

Try breaking through this net, European liberal madness! But if you add it all together, from the ideology of the state patriotism to the isolationist prioritization of traditional values ​​and censorship, it seems that the academician A. E. Presnyakov was right: “Russia and Europe are consciously opposed to each other as two different cultural and historical worlds, fundamentally different in the basics of their political, religious, and national life and character.” The real price of all of Nicholas’ innovations was clarified only later, when it turned out that in the national consciousness, the seeds of osobnyachestvo can be sown relatively quickly (especially if the omnipotent administration of the autocratic regime plays the role of the seeder)—although two centuries is not enough to get rid of them.

But our autocrat was a perfectionist. For him, bringing the country up to standard meant plunging it into a state of absolute paternalism. This condition is hard to describe. Three decades later, N. A. Lyubimov, the editor of the reactionary Russian Messenger tried to do it: “An everyman walked down the street and slept in the afternoon by virtue of a superior’s permission. A clerk drank vodka, got married, multiplied children, and took bribes with the grace of a superior’s indulgence. They breathed air because superiors condescending to our weakness let enough oxygen go out into the atmosphere. Military people, representatives of discipline and subordination, were considered fit for all sorts of service, and corporal punishment was relied on as a basis of public education.”

However, the most interesting part of this drama is that the autocrat prevailed. In the next essays, we will see what came out of this national transformation: both for Russia and for him.