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 recounts the 19th century clash between “state patriotism” and “Slavophilism.”



What would have happened to America if, one foggy day in 1776, all of the intellectual leaders who founded the United States, all those who on July 2 voted for the Declaration of Independence, had been suddenly withdrawn from circulation—that is, executed, thrown in prison, isolated from society like lepers? I do not know one single American historian or even science fiction writer who would think of discussing such an absurd hypothesis. I also know that any Russian historian would not find this idea to be so ridiculous. Nor would he consider it a hypothesis. His country has seen such cultural catastrophes more than once in its past.

Such an event occurred for the first time in the mid-sixteenth century, when Ivan IV (the Terrible), despite the opposition of the political elite, turned his attention to the West and threw out a challenge to Europe. All the best administrative and military specialists were simply slaughtered. As a consequence, Moscow was, so to speak, decapitated, which naturally resulted in Russia’s eventual capitulation in the Livonian War. Such an event occurred again in the twentieth century, when the Bolshevik government deported the Silver Age intellectual leaders on the well-known “philosophy steamer” (those who remained on land either rotted in labor camps, like Pavel Florensky; perished in the civil war, like Evgeny Trubetskoy; or died from hunger and despair, like Vasily Rozanov and Alexander Blok). But now we turn our attention to a different cultural catastrophe, which happened in between the two mentioned above.


The Lost Generation

I am not sure that many in today’s Russia, including those who are not indifferent to their motherland’s past, have ever thought about the role of the Decembrist generation in the history of a people divided in two, despite the fact that this split into a “creative” minority and a “proletarian” majority still remains in our society. But this split did not happen yesterday, and it was not Putin who started it.

One can actually name the exact date when this split happened. It was the year 1581, when Ivan the Terrible introduced the “forbidden years” that announced the enslavement of most of the country. Later, Lermontov found an accurate wording for what it had led to: a “land of slaves, land of lords.” A century later, Peter the Great finished the job by turning the minority toward Europe. Since that time, two Russias, divided by an abyss, have lived, each in its own dimension: one in Europe, the other one in the Middle Ages. In one of them, as Mikhail Speransky put it, “academies were being opened, while in the other one, the people put reading among mortal sins.” One amazed the world by the greatness of its culture, the other is best described by Herzen: “In halls and maids’ rooms . . . are buried whole martyrologies of frightful villainies; the memory of them works in the soul and in course of generations matures into bloody, merciless vengeance which . . . will hardly be possible to stop once it has begun.”

Russia was pregnant with a dreadful peasant’s vengeance capable of carrying away its great European culture like a tsunami; pregnant, if you will, with the year 1917. This pregnancy began a long time ago, before the Decembrists, and extended into the future after them. The Decembrists were, however, the first to put society to the task of eliminating this fatal abyss and making it possible for the two Russias to speak the same language again. In other words, they were the first to try to bring together the divided country while it was still a part of Europe, even if a “damaged” part.

Today’s Russia could have been a great European power instead of a provincial oil and gas station.

The Decembrists demanded the immediate freedom of the peasants and a forced education for the people. Autocracy, as the mind’s serfdom, had to be abolished, and “our social sins and weaknesses,” as Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov put it, had to be made public. The Empire had to be replaced by a Federation. That is the reason why the Decembrists went out into the square. What do you think these rather secure people had to do with peasants’ serfdom and people’s ignorance? They risked their lives and wellbeing only because they were intolerably ashamed of their country; because a European country, conqueror of Napoleon, could not live like this. This was the true patriotism that Solovyov was talking about.

Today’s Russia could have been a great European power instead of a provincial oil and gas station if from the December 14, 1825, cultural catastrophe the notorious doctrine known as Uvarov’s triad1 had not emerged, based on the idea that “Russia is already the best of them all,” as Solovyov put it. This triad introduced a mysterious notion of “nationality”—a coded name for that part of Russia that stayed on the other side of the abyss—and transformed the people into a “great mute,” a sphinx, a huge riddle, which “cannot be understood with the mind alone.” Since then, every generation tries to find its own solution to this riddle by applying to it its own stereotypes.

The dream of reuniting the country was forgotten. The only thing left from this lost Russian generation is the never-dying dream of freedom. Here is what Gavrila Batushkov said, in a note sent by him from Peter and Paul Fortress while he was awaiting a death sentence: “Our [Decembrist] secret society was composed of people whom Russia will always be proud of. . . . With such inequality of forces, the voice of freedom could only be heard in Russia for a few hours, but how wonderful that it was heard!” One should also mention an article from Nikita Muravyov’s constitution: “A slave who touches the Russian soil becomes a free man.”


The Moment of Truth

In order to capture the right moment, one has to understand when Pushkin’s feeling of “love to paternal graves” started turning into an ideology of “state patriotism.” One has to look for it in what followed the Decembrists’ defeat. What indeed could happen in a society deprived of its heart, “of all,” according to Herzen, “that was talent, education, nobleness and brilliance”? What else besides the deepest ideological vacuum, spiritual numbness, void? “The first decade after 1825 was terrible not only because of an open persecution of any idea, but because of a complete void that opened in society,” Herzen continued. “It fell, it was confused and frightened. The best men realized that the old ways were hardly possible, and did not know of any new ones.” The point was not only that “talking was dangerous,” but also that “there was nothing to say.”

Chaadaev wrote about this black despair in his famous Philosophical Letters. Herzen later summed up the essence of Chaadaev’s work as follows: “Everybody asked what will happen. “One could not live like this. . . . Where is the way out? ‘There is none,’ answered a man of Peter the Great’s era, of European civilization, who, under Alexander I, believed in Russia’s European future.”

Was there no way out? Could the generation that was coming to replace the Decembrist one live with such a terrible verdict?


Sergei Uvarov (left) and Ivan Aksakov (right).


But not only young people were looking for a way out—the government needed one too. It had to find a plausible explanation for serfdom and autocracy when there was nothing like this left anywhere in Europe (Western Europe’s absolutism had little in common with Russian autocracy—at least there, governments had an independent judiciary and nobody considered monarchs “fathers of the nation” anymore). It is well known what the government did in this situation: it created its own ideology, which came down to the idea that Russia is not Europe.

The leader of the regime could proudly declare that he was the father of the nation and, to make things even clearer, that “despotism still exists in Russia . . . , but it accords with the genius of the nation.” In other words, he headed a nation of slaves. This was the “way out” that the government found. This was what the official “Russian idea” looked like at birth. Young people were harder to handle.


The Second “Russian Idea

Young people hated despotism as much as the Decembrists did. However, after December 14, Catherine the Great’s vision of Russia’s future as a European power, in which the Decembrists had found their inspiration, no longer looked realistic to the new generation. Had not the majority of the Russian people supported autocracy in this conflict? Had not Karamzin taught them that “autocracy has founded and resuscitated Russia” and that “any change in her political constitution has led in the past and must lead in the future to her perdition”? If that were true, should one have striven to replace this salutary autocracy with a European constitution?

It is especially important to consider that Europe itself was at the time going through a difficult transition period (which looked a lot like what Russia is living through now). Ivan Aksakov, a leader of those young people who were later called Slavophiles, wrote: “Look at the West, the peoples have got carried away by vain motives, have begun to believe in the possibility of a perfect government and have made up republics and devised constitutions . . . and have become poor in spirit. . . . [The societies] are ready to collapse . . . at any moment.”

Slavophiles found the “way out” of a hopeless situation in the fundamentalist seventeenth-century Muscovy.

However, in many things young Slavophiles agreed with the Decembrists—after all, the former also descended from the latter. They agreed that peasants’ serfdom was a disgrace to Russia. “As long as Russia remains a country of slaveholders,” wrote Aleksei Khomyakov, “it has no right to be a moral authority.” And, Konstantin Aksakov added, “the main root of the evil is our repressive system of government; it intruded in the moral life of the people and transformed into despotism destructive for the soul.” However, there were also disagreements, and fundamental ones, on both autocracy and Europe—Slavophiles have always been convinced that the latter has no future. But the main difference of opinion could at first appear phantasmagoric.

Slavophiles believed that all evil in Russia had come from Peter the Great, who had perverted autocracy by transforming Russia into some kind of bastard semi-Europe and had betrayed its national tradition by destroying the authentic Orthodox Muscovy. Slavophiles found the “way out” of this hopeless situation in the fundamentalist seventeenth-century Muscovy, with its “Russian God, who belongs to no one else and is understood by no one else,” as historian Vassily Klyuchevsky put it; with its Kozma Indikoplov in the role of Newton; with its “stupor of spiritual activity,” to quote Slavophiles’ most candid leader, Ivan Kireyevsky. Muscovy was their sunken Atlantis, their primeval but autocratic paradise. They found their project for the future in the past.


A Riddle

As we see, not one but two “Russian ideas” originally competed for influence over their contemporaries’ minds, which were frozen after December 14. The first idea was government-made. It was preached by ministers such as Sergei Uvarov, by loyal professors such as Stepan Shevyrev, by magazines supported by the Third Department (the secret police) such as Faddey Bulgarin’s Northern Bee, and by authors of popular historical novels such as Mikhail Zagoskin. Third-rate poet Nestor Kukolnik’s grand “patriotic” dramas were sell-outs. Thanks to well-known literary critic Alexander Pypin, this “state patriotism” went down in history under the name of Official Nationality.

The competing idea put forth by the Slavophiles, although it was essentially based on the same principle that “Russia is not Europe,” was considered a sedition. Besides, Slavophiles’ admiration of Muscovy looked strange, if not grotesque. However, the idea of the official nationality did not survive the Crimean War. Thus, contemporary Russia’s state patriotism owes its almost two-century-long life to Slavophilism. Why? That is a riddle that our readers and I will try to solve.


1 “Orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality.”