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 explains how Nicholas I created a powerful and durable myth of osobnyachestvo (Russia’s own unique way) and thus destroyed the idea of the European way for the country.



Perhaps it was the first Russian political samizdat. Like any self-publishing venture, it was risky, particularly in Nicholas I’s Russia, a country separated from the rest of the world, and one where, as Alexander Nikitenko recorded in his diary, “people began to fear for themselves every day, thinking that it may be the last one they spent with friends and relatives.” But Mikhail Petrovich Pogodin, a university professor who was born a serf, always had a reputation among Moscow’s intelligentsia (and with the police) for being a bit of an enfant terrible. No, not because of political unreliability, for he was a model of loyalty. Rather, because of his remarkable candor: he spoke what he thought. He did so even with Nicholas himself—writing frankly in uncensored letters to the czar.

Of course, Pogodin was a Russian nationalist, a believer in a strong state and autocracy; in this sense, he was the antithesis of Russian philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev. As we recall, Chaadaev was worried that in “separating from European nations morally” (he was, of course, referring to the ideology of Official Nationality) Russia risked “standing apart from them politically also,” and this could lead to anything, even war between Russia and Europe. Pogodin had a different worry: namely, that Nicholas, while standing apart from Europe morally, did not dare stand apart from it politically. Instead, as we know, Nicholas dreamed of saving Europe from revolution. In terms of Russia’s state interests, this was, according to Pogodin, the peak of nonsense.

Pogodin wrote, “a million Russian troops were ready to fly everywhere, to Italy, to the Rhine, Germany, and on to the Danube to deliver their help and reassure accommodating allies.” Why? What were they to Russia? Pogodin was upset with the amazing inefficiency of the czar’s policy, his inability to make good use of the “Napoleonic” power of Russia. At last, he had a gigantic army, transcending all European armies put together. So what? Did he, like Napoleon, remake the continent? Did his word become law for Europe? Did Europe play by his rules? Nothing of the sort.

“If we review all of the European countries, we will see that they did whatever they wanted to anyone, despite all our threats, disapproval, and other measures,” Pogodin wrote. One would have to be blind not to see what all this led to, at least in the European Revolutions of 1848 and after: “Governments betrayed us, people hated us, and the order we supported was violated, is being violated, and will be violated... We have no allies; enemies and traitors surround us, so you tell [me], is your policy good?”


You Imitated the Wrong Person, Your Majesty!

Pogodin had to limit his opus to rubbing salt in wounds so he wouldn’t get his head blown off. Especially since the emperor was grumpy, irritable, and angry at the whole world. And Stepan Shevyriov’s (Pogodin’s coeditor at Muscovite magazine) delight would have been absolutely incomprehensible, when he wrote to him from Petersburg, “Your letter was in the czar’s hands,” had it not been accompanied by “[and] was read by him and initiated complete pleasure in him.” It’s clear that Nicholas had not liked the critical part of the opus, but rather what followed it: the detailed scenario for a complete reorientation of Russia’s policy. In this he discovered the unexpected—and wonderful, it seemed—prospect of revenge against Europe for the misfortune of 1848, the subtext of which was obvious: “Napoleon can imitate the Russian czar, and not [vice versa]...”

This was due, first of all, to the “Slavs—our singular, reliable, and powerful allies in Europe. There are ten million Slavs in Turkey and twenty million in Austria. This number is even greater in terms of quality, compared to the pampered children of the West. Montenegrins, in fact, will join the ranks without exception. Serbs also; Bosnians will not lag behind; some Turkish Slavs can put up 200 or 300 thousand troops.”

And further, Pogodin wrote, “What is happening now? Now is the time to ready the solutions to the great questions, which are ripe for decision. The European question is about the destruction of barbaric Turkish rule in Europe. The Slavic question is about the release of ancient and numerous tribes from alien domination. The Russian question is about crowning, completing Russian history... about its place in the history of mankind. The religious question is about the rapture of Orthodoxy in its rightful place. This has to be in the lead! Yes! Novus nascitur ordo! The new order, the new era begins in history. The dominion and influence transfer from one nation to the other... And if you miss this favorable moment, then you will have nothing but eternal remorse and eternal shame!”

Mikhail Pogodin wrote, “Russia should become the head of the Slavic Union. It will happen naturally, because the Russian language should eventually become a common literary language for all Slavic countries.”

What was the autocrat, confused and depressed following the debacle of 1848, supposed to think upon reading this passionate sermon? Perhaps Pogodin was not a fool, in spite of being an “armchair intellectual.” Indeed, compared to the precedents set by other “armchair intellectuals” before him, his opus was heaven and earth! What did Russian diplomat and poet Fyodor Tjutchev prove with his idea of revolution? Or Minister of Education Count Sergey Uvarov with his ridiculous circular of 1847, which prescribed that high school teachers and university professors teach students that Slavdom “should not arouse any sympathy in us. It is in itself, and we’re on our own. We arranged our state without it; it did not have time to create anything and has now finished its historical existence.” That fateful circular began with the declaration that it was “made ​​by the supreme will.” But the memories of czars, as we know, are selective...

Anyway, Russia led the new world order; even Napoleon himself couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing! Yes, he refashioned the continent at whim, dissolved some states and invented others, giving them away to his brothers and marshals. But why? As if toying with dolls, he played with Europe. His game cannot be compared to what Pogodin offered: a “great Orthodox empire from the Eastern Ocean to the Adriatic Sea,” standing on the firm ground of religious and ethnic communities. He had a whole philosophy behind his vision, and a detailed script attached. Here it is:

“Russia should become the head of the Slavic Union. It will happen naturally, because the Russian language should eventually become a common literary language for all Slavic countries. Greece, Hungary, Moldavia, Wallachia, Transylvania should refer to the Russian emperor as the head of the world, i.e. the Union all Slavic tribes, and be assigned to this union by their geographical position as the Slavic lands.” And of course, to borrow Pogodin’s language, “it would happen naturally,” that the “Russian grand dukes [would be placed] on the thrones of Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Kroatsi, Slavonia, Dalmatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Petersburg in Constantinople.” These nations would then be connected to Russia not only by spiritual bonds, but by imperial and administrative bonds, as well. And the latter are more reliable.


“The Abduction of Europe”

At first glance of this scenario, one is most impressed by the monarch’s military division of Europe. After all, the Russian grand dukes could not be placed on the thrones of Bohemia and Croatia without war and the dismemberment of the Austrian Empire. And even “Petersburg in Constantinople” could not exist without dissection of the Sublime Porte, as the former Eurasian superpower Turkey insisted on calling itself now. In the subtext of Pogodin’s scenario, however, there was something else, something much more ambitious than even the “great Orthodox empire” described above. And Pogodin never concealed this; he wrote about it openly, even in the censored press in 1838. He then traveled to all of the European countries and, after the trip, came to the firm conviction that, having lost its traditional values, Europe was doomed and ripe for conquest.

Hence the eulogy he delivered to Russia, to which few people paid attention at the time: “Now the Russian czar is closer to realizing his dream of universal (i.e. world) empire than Charles V or Napoleon had ever been to theirs. Yes, the future fate of the world depends on Russia.” And Pogodin argued, quite logically, from his point of view, “He who looks impartially at the European states would agree that they have outlived their age... The debauchery in France, laziness in Italy, cruelty in Spain, selfishness in England—are these compatible with the concepts of civil happiness, of the ideal society, of the city of God? Is the Golden Calf—money, which the whole of Europe worships—really the highest degree of the new Christian education? Where is the holy good?”

Moral isolation from Europe—osobnyachestvowas bound to spawn monsters. That is to say, political isolation was fraught not only with half-crazed plans of conquest, but also with the threat of a very real war.

The reader has no doubt realized by now where Pogodin believed civil happiness could be found: in the same place Russian “patriots” discover it to this day. In domestic backwardness. In traditional values. And in the absoluteness of state power that lies at the center of these values. The reader has guessed correctly: “It is not the same in Russia,” Pogodin wrote. “All its strength, physical and mental, makes one huge edifice controlled by the hand of one man, by the hand of the Russian czar, who at any moment and with a single movement can give it a jolt, can vector it in any direction he likes, and give it any sort of speed. Finally, we note that this machine is animated by a common feeling, and this feeling is submission: the boundless trustfulness and loyalty to the czar, who is the god of the earth for it.”

I could paraphrase all this briefly in my own words, but I fear you would hardly believe me that one of the most distinguished and conservative intellectuals of Nicholas-era Russia could think as he thought. Quoting him verbatim is my only hope of not losing the reader’s confidence. And I quote from the person to whom the emperor not only listened, despite the incredible audacity of his samizdat invectives, but whom he obeyed: in the 1850s Nicholas’s whole policy was built precisely on the basis of Pogodin’s script (on the part, of course, that it seemed could be realized immediately).

It’s hard to say whether Nicholas knew what hid beneath the tip of this iceberg, i.e. about the fact that he was closer to a “universal empire” than Charles V or Napoleon. But we know now that Chaadaev was right: moral isolation from Europe—which I call osobnyachestvo, after the philosopher Vladimir S. Solovyevwas bound to spawn monsters. That is to say, political isolation was fraught not only with half-crazed plans of conquest, but also with the threat of a very real war.


The Myth of Osobnyachestvo

I was intrigued by my colleague historian Nicholas V. Riasanovsky’s conclusion in his book Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia, 1825–1855: “Alexander II instituted reforms; Alexander III appealed to the nationalist sentiment…; in the reign of Nicholas II the country obtained even a shaky constitutional machinery. But all these new departures remained somehow tentative and incomplete. And it was still largely the old order of Nicholas I, the antiquated ancien régime, that went down in the conflagration of 1917. In some ways, the willful autocrat proved to be more successful than he could have imagined.” (Italics mine—A.Y) This seems to contradict the main finding of the same book: namely that the “plague years” of Nicholas I were lost years for Russia. I even asked the author about this. But he just shrugged his shoulders…

Meanwhile, the solution seems to be that Riasanovsky was right in both cases. Yes, the reign of Nicholas really was as fruitless as the biblical fig tree. And yes, the myth of osobnyachestvo—a powerful and durable myth that quelled Petrine Russia, was really created in his time. And after this, Soviet Russia realized Pogodin’s vision literally, without even knowing about it: Europe became prey. And what is most striking is that even today, even after this tragic experience, the myth endures in its full power and glory. I am, of course, talking about the myth of osobnyachestva—which still opposes Chaadaev’s proposed “merger with Europe”—the very values ​​that forced Russia to start over from scratch twice in the same century, the same “artificial identity,” in Soloviev’s words. From listening to proponents of osobnyachestva, you’d think that Germany and France were forced to give up their identities for the sake of “merging with Europe.”

But we digress. Pogodin accepted Nicholas’s myth as a given. He only drew conclusions that followed logically from it. And according to this logic, Russia would not end up saving Europe from revolution, as it failed to do so in the first quarter-century of Nicholas’s reign; instead, it caused her to fight. The immediate results of this call were catastrophic: a disastrous war, the first in modern times; Russian capitulation; the final wreck of its superpower status. Alas, Riasanovsky is right: all of this taught its rulers and the ideologues of osobnyachestvo nothing. And Chaadaev, who predicted this outcome, did not have to argue with Pogodin, much as, for example, today I don’t have to argue with Alexander Dugin, a popular Russian ideologists of the creation of a Eurasian empire. There is no more common language between us—the gulf of myth.

But the advantage is still with Chaadaev—and with me. History, the reader finds, is on our side. Nothing, other than this, did I want to show here.