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 discusses the birth of national liberalism, a new world outlook that combines two conflicting ideologies: modern liberalism and the medieval belief in the exceptionalism of the Russian nation.



Metamorphosis of the autocracy

Following the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, power and brainpower in Russia existed on different sides of a social barricade. The autocracy, with its Gendarmes, twelve censorships, and its official rhetoric, was considered a stranger, an enemy to the people. Nobody could defend the ban on dissent, which was based on Czar Nicholas’s ideology of Official Nationality. The poet Pyotr Vyazemsky wrote about this: “An honest and compassionate Russian can no longer speak in Europe about Russia or for Russia. You can obey, but you cannot justify and defend.” There were plenty of Russians, of course, who served the regime voluntarily—or forcedly. But no one wanted to associate with them. Then, in the 1840s, something incredible happened.

Suddenly, the autocracy was praised to the high heavens. No, not the monarchy that had reigned in Russia since the Decembrist’s defeat, but another—one that was clean of the governmental husk, from censorship and serfdom, refined, so to speak, but still an autocracy. It was presented to society as the embodiment of the national—and civilized—Russian identity. It seemed incredible because few citizens could imagine an autocracy other than the inarticulate and rude monster that was Nicholas’s regime—which the autocrat himself declared despotism—let alone one that was respectable and equipped with all the latest philosophical and cultural accessories, or, if you prefer, with state-of-the-art science.

Nevertheless, a group of talented and respected Moscow philosophers and writers (among them Konstantin Aksakov, Alexei Khomyakov, Ivan Kireyevsky, and Yuri Samarin) were hard at work on this autocratic metamorphosis from the end of 1830. Some opponents called them Slavophiles (they, however, did not object to this). And nobody, not even the philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev (who so criticized Russia’s isolation and backwardness), could foresee that these seeming eccentrics were destined to become the standard-bearers of the myth of osobnyachestvo (Russia’s moral isolation from Europe), making it a kind of immortal idea. Or that, because of their writing, Mikhail Pogodin’s postulate “Russia is not Europe” would become Russia’s national idea.


Teachers and pupils

Of course, the very notion that an idea can be national was one they borrowed from the German Romantics—“Teutonophiles”—who, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, desperately revised the European tradition of the Enlightenment (I do not have to remind the reader that in this tradition, ideas have no country). The Germans invented their own Sonderweg (“special path”) in protest against the Napoleonic despotism that had ruthlessly shredded and degraded their homeland, which was already torn into dozens of tiny states. In their minds, the Enlightenment was linked to the image of the pan-European despot. And so they came up with their own special path, separate from Europe.

“Where does the internal corruption, bribery, robbery, and deception, overflowing in Russia, come from? All this comes from the oppressive system of our government, because the government intervened in the people’s moral life…”.

But the Russian Slavophiles lived in a giant monolithic empire—moreover, in the mighty superpower that had defeated Napoleon. So from where, I ask, did the Russian Sonderweg come?

Imagine the level of intelligence, talent, and ingenuity these Slavophile pupils needed in order to adapt the national idea of their German teachers to Russian realities. That mystery, however, is easily solved: the Slavophiles also protested against despotism, and their despot, they believed, had enslaved Russia, too. His name was Peter; he had been the emperor of Russia, but he was an emperor-traitor. Like a sentry who had neglected his duty, he’d opened the gates of the Orthodox fortress to the alien ideas of the European Enlightenment, crippling Russia’s “cultural patterns” and turning it into a kind of mongrel half-Europe. And now, the Slavophiles stated, Russia was reaping the fruits of his betrayal. In short, Russia was, in their opinion, just as mercilessly humiliated by Nicholas as Germany had been under Napoleon.

It was humiliated to such an extent that Nicholas could, as we recall, publicly announce that despotism was “acceptable for the genius of the nation.” As if Russia were a nation of slaves. Moreover, as one of his closest aides General Yakov Rostovtsev explained, “A person needs a conscience in private domestic life, but in the service and in civil relations, the higher authority replaces it.” The Official Nationality pretended, therefore, to be not an autocratic power, but a national shepherd, a moral teacher, a conscience. As Rostovtsev noted, “the sovereign’s name: The God of the Earth, although not included in his title, is acceptable as an interpretation of the tsar’s power.”


Stepping out of the Decembrist overcoat

As we can see, Nicholas’s despotism angered the Slavophile pioneers, no less than it had the Decembrists. Especially because it seemed to them not only a form of Caesaropapism, as it did to Vladimir Soloviev, and not only “a wild police attempt to cut [Russia] off from Europe,” as it did to Alexander Herzen, but literally a heresy, its own secular religion, designed to replace the Orthodoxy.

Subsequently, Konstantin Aksakov fearlessly expressed in an open letter to Alexander II what he thought of Nicholas’s Russia: “Like bad grass, the exorbitant shameless flattery grew, turning respect for the tsar into idolization... Where does the internal corruption, bribery, robbery, and deception, overflowing in Russia, come from? All this comes from the oppressive system of our government, because the government intervened in the people’s moral life and turned, consequently, into spiritually harmful despotism, which oppresses spiritual peace and the people’s human dignity. The modern state of Russia presents the inner tension, concealed by a shameless lie—all lie to each other, see it, and continue to lie, and it is unknown how far they will sink.”

Here, it is important to us that either Mikhail Lunin or Kondraty Ryleyev could write the previous paragraph. In other words, that the founders of the Slavophiles were liberals who had stepped out, so to speak, of the Decembrist overcoat, would be beyond any doubt, even if it were not for Khomyakov’s famous poem “Russia”:

In the courts, it’s black with the black untrue
And stigmatized by the yoke of slavery
And it is full with godless flattery,
With lies, and feigned
With dead and shameful laziness,
And with all sort of filth it’s full.

And the poem’s ending sounded even more embarrassing, more alien, to the liberal tradition:

Oh, unworthy to be chosen,
You are chosen!


The birth of national liberalism

Like nothing else, this incomparable mystical turn exposed the brutal truth that a completely new worldview, combining two conflicting ideologies, had been born in Russia: modern liberalism and the medieval belief in the sacred exceptionalism—by virtue of its exceptional Orthodoxy—of the nation. Let’s call it national-liberalism. The philosopher Vladimir Soloviev finely observed this fatal split in the Slavophiles between the Decembrist’s ingenuousness and osobnyachestvo, predicting their demise: “The internal conflict between the requirements of true patriotism, wanting Russia to be as good as possible, and nationalism’s false claims, insisting that it is the best anyway, ruined the Slavophiles.”

Strange that the philosopher Nickolai Berdyaev, who wrote a book about Alexei Khomyakov, did not understand the harm of this contradiction, and even admired it: “In his poems, the duality of the Slavophile’s messianship is reflected—the Russian people are humble, and these humble people think of themselves as the first, the world’s only... Khomyakov wants to assure us that the Russian people are not militant, but he himself, a typical Russian man, was full of martial spirit, and it was captivating in him. He rejected the imperialism temptation, but at the same time, he wanted not only the Russian domination over the Slavs, but also over the whole world.” Berdyaev considered himself Soloviev’s devoted disciple, but I'm afraid Soloviev would hardly recognize him as such.

But, alas, the Slavophiles’ contradictions went beyond all of this. Cursing “spiritually harmful despotism,” they praised the autocracy—which was based on despotism, as we have seen—because “people can separate themselves from the state and give themselves a moral life only if they have absolute monarchical power.” They celebrated freedom, but reviled the constitution, without which freedom cannot happen. They condemned “state intervention in the moral life of the people,” while “people’s interference in state power” they considered the mother of all misfortune. “Look to the West,” Ivan Aksakov, the younger brother of Constantine and the future leader of the Slavophiles’ second generation exclaimed. “People attracted to vain motives, they believed in the possibility of government excellence; they made republics, wrote constitutions—and, their souls impoverished, they were ready to collapse at any moment.”

Vladimir Soloviev predicted the death of Slavophilism, proceeding from the fact that the artificial combination of two different principles in one doctrine would lead to degeneration.

But let’s give the floor to them. Let them try to convince the reader of the advantages of their national liberalism. Here is their central postulate [as worded by Konstantin Aksakov]: “The first relationship between a government and the people is the relationship of mutual non-interference”. It rested on a chain of axioms: We are not like the West. Our Orthodox people and the autocratic state are bound by the relationship of a “mutual power of attorney”; for that reason, we will not have violent conflicts like the West. That’s why we do not need limits on state power, a constitution, or parliament. And thank God, because otherwise “legal rules will climb into the world of inner life, enchain its freedom, the source of life creation, will make everything dead, and, of course, become dead themselves.” That’s why Europe was extinguishing, it was on its way out, like a body without a soul; and “the veil of death will cover the entire West.”

There was another reason for the superiority of pre-Petrine Russia over the West. Russia had no need for an aristocracy formed from the descendants of ancient conquerors. For Russia, the real aristocrat was—and thank God, still is—the peasant, the keeper of traditional values, and the same people who once called for tsars and voluntarily gave them absolute authority. “We appeal to the common people for the same reason that they appeal to the aristocracy, i.e., because only our people maintain respect for domestic tradition. In Russia, the only shelter for Toryism is the peasant’s black log hut.”

Hence, the surprising conclusion: the supreme sovereignty of people exists only in Russia. As Khomyakov wrote to a fellow thinker about Fyodor Tyutchev’s article that laughed at the people’s sovereignty: “Expostulate him for assaulting souveraineté du people. It is really souveraineté suprême. Otherwise, what was 1612? I have a right to say it, precisely because I am anti-republican, anti-constitution, etc. The people’s obedience is un acte du souveraineté.



I refrained from commenting while the Slavophiles expounded the advantages of their political philosophy. Naturally, now would be the time to ask the reader, So, did their arguments convince you? But Khomyakov’s last quote begs for an immediate answer. In agreeing that the people really were souveraineté supreme in pre-Petrine Russia, we would have to believe that these very people enslaved themselves by their supreme will. Then what was the point of the Slavophiles’ protest against the serfdom? And how dare Khomyakov denounce this acte du souveraineté as “the abomination of legal slavery?” Let alone to declare that, “As long as Russia remains a slaveholder’s country, it has no right to moral significance?”

The Decembrists had the right to say such things. They had the right because they were confident: the autocratic state enslaved the people; and it did so in pre-Petrine Russia, in this paradise of the Orthodox Slavophiles; and it could enslave people without the help of Peter-the-traitor. In other words, the liberal half—the Decembrist half—of the Slavophiles was entitled to hold the anti-serfdom position that it occupied in Nicholas’s Russia. But its “anti-constitutional,” autocratic half deprived the Slavophiles of this right and remained unsettled. It was much the same with other arguments of the Slavophiles, as we shall see. They all (except for the utter nonsense, such as “Europe is living its last days” and is “ready to collapse at any moment”—in 1840!) were half-truths.


The tragedy of the Slavophiles

Another aspect of the matter is much more important. Let us ask, to begin with, if Prince Nikolai Troubetzkoy (one of the founders of Eurasianism, who was destined to restart the rehabilitation of the Russian idea after it collapsed again in 1917) was right when he contemptuously dismissed Slavophilism as “wrong nationalism”? Troubetzkoy’s sentence was merciless: “Slavophilism was supposed to degenerate.” Of course, Vladimir Soloviev predicted the death of Slavophilism, as we remember, half a century earlier, when it was still in a state of power and glory. But not for the same reason. Troubetzkoy believed that Slavophilism would degenerate because “it was built on the Roman-Germanic (i.e. European) example." Solovyov proceeded from the fact that the artificial combination of two different principles in one doctrine would lead to degeneration.

Yes, under Nicholas’s Official Nationality—the symbiosis of the deified state with “the nation’s genius,” of the autocracy with the idolization, of patriotism with serfdom, a symbiosis that was virtually invulnerable to criticism from the outside—the Slavophiles certainly played a highly positive role. Russia was in an ideological trap of such power that any successful attempt to undermine its dominance over the minds of Russians could only, as in the Soviet times, come from the inside. And no one except the Slavophiles could fulfill this task, because, like blasphemy, despotism could only be attacked from the perspective of autocratic apologists. This secular religion could be exposed as heresy only from the protected standpoint of the Orthodoxy. And the Slavophiles did it, ending up in the paradoxical role of fighters for the secularization of power. And if Marx was right that “the criticism of religion is the prerequisite for any other criticism,” they fulfilled their task.

An acknowledged master of dismantling totalitarian ideology, Alexander Yakovlev (Soviet politician who is considered an intellectual force behind perestroika) confirmed: “This monster can only be dismantled from within.” And what was the price the Slavophiles had to pay for this feat? Alas, after the fall of the Official Nationality, in a completely different reality, they did not give up their attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable: freedom with the autocracy; patriotism with the Russian idea; modernity with the Middle Ages. As a result, Soloviev and Troubetzkoy turned out to be right, though for different reasons: Slavophilism degenerated. A symbol of the fight with despotism, as it was in 1840, Slavophilism  became his ideological justification in the 1900s. That’s such a tragedy.