How should Russia’s garden grow? Paul Robinson’s Russian Conservatism [100th review, 400th post]

A sinister vine is creeping across contemporary Russia. Conservatism, that reactionary ideology pushed by the likes of Uvarov, Solovyov, Ilyin, and even – allegedly – Dostoevsky, threatens to drag Russia back into its dark, autocratic past, where nothing will ever change.

Not so fast, says Russian Conservatism, a monograph by University of Ottawa professor Paul Robinson. Not only is Russian convervatism not inherently opposed to change, it has gone through quite a few changes itself. The beliefs of paleoconservatives, liberal conservatives, and neocons appear to fit uneasily together, but at their core, all strands are guided by a preference for gradual evolution in keeping with national traditions.

The book is a well-organized introduction to Russian conservativism as a phenomenon, bringing individuals and periods together under one roof. Each chapter presents a different era and follows a predictable structure: an overview of the prevailing school of thought followed by sections on the period’s cultural, economic, and political dimensions. Those anticipating an extensive look at conservativism in contemporary Russia might find themselves mildly disappointed: only one chapter is dedicated to the present day, and one of the shortest at that. However, the book’s main goal is to trace conservatism’s historical development not explain current affairs, of which it does a great job.

Conservative ideology tends to define itself in terms of what it’s against. One of the first myths Russian Conservatism debunks is that it’s against change. It may not entertain rationalism, universalism and liberalism, but nor does it leave an ideological hole. Instead, Russian conservatives propose organicism and religious truth. Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod under tsars Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II, explains this succintly by comparing society to a budding flower:

To the conservative, society is a living organism. Plants and animals grow and develop, gradually, and in accordance with their own nature. An attempt to change an organism’s nature, or to transplant an alien organism into it, will bring it no benefit, and may even kill it. The same applies to human societies. (p. 9)

Taking the view of society as a living creature reveals three core beliefs of Russian conservatives. First, organisms are not unchanging, so it makes no sense to oppose change. That doesn’t mean that one can’t prefer a certain kind of change – conservatives do, and it’s slow and gradual, accompanied by order and stability, and coupled with belief in the value of customs (p. 11). Organisms can eventually die, leading conservatives to take a cyclical view of progress and embrace moral relativism. And organisms have different natures, so universal values are out and nationalism is in. Specifically, a nationalism based on a recognition of difference rather than superiority of one nation over others.

Another key concept is symphony – the idea that the church and state have their own autonomous spheres of responsibility but cooperate as parts of an organic whole. Organisms aren’t just collections of autonomous cells, they’re a single whole made up of specialized parts. So, there is space in society for both church and state to advance collective interests together. Religion in particular is viewed as a positive due to its ability to impose hierarchy, cultivate “inner freedom,” and produce belief in common values.

At this point, readers might ask – justifiably so – whether an autocratic state and a hierarchical church running the show might pave the way for a totalitarian system. The Russian thinkers Robinson cites appear to answer no. An autocratic state that restricts external freedoms for the sake of the collective is acceptable, but it’s harder to exercise inner freedom when external freedom is scarce. As such, many Russian conservatives have been supporters of free speech and opposed totalitarianism (p. 16). Furthermore, their support for autocracy wasn’t so much a belief in a strong state as a belief that state power should be controlled by one individual (p. 21). Even the notorious Ivan Ilyin, whom many authors including historian Timothy Snyder have accused of being a fascist, denounced totalitarianism. He refused to produce anti-semitic propaganda for the Nazis and endorsed rule of law and personal freedom (all while also supporting authoritarian forms of government) (p. 133).

Of course, these ideas have been applied to varying effect. Convservatism couldn’t save the Russian Empire in 1917. It was swept away by Bolshevism in the 1920s before coming back with a vengeance in the 1930s and 40s. The late Soviet period saw thinkers struggle to determine what in communist society was “organic.” And while contemporary Russia embraces conservatism’s preference for stability, it’s more interested in statist goals than spiritual ones – territorial integrity, sovereignty, opposing globalism.

Russian Conservatism effectively argues for a more nuanced view of its eponymous school of thought. After reading the book, it’ll be hard to buy the simplistic notion of conservatism as a static ideology imposed on fertile Russian soil by crusty guys who forever dream of the good old days. Robinson also makes it clear that it’s difficult to speak of one monolithic conservatism: Its many waves in Russia shared core tenets, but also went in multiple directions, drawing from multiple influences. For example, the 19th-century thinker Vladimir Solovyov subscribed to a mix of Christian-theocratic and liberal-universalist values and was highly critical of his conservative contemporaries.

The book captures Russian conservative ideology’s contradictions as well. Sometimes they lurked in the core tenets of conservatism itself. Remember organicism and our little budding flower? Organicism holds that each society is unique and should develop in its own way, denying universally suitable social values or institutions. But this clashes with religious truth, which argues that such values do exist (and are God-given, so everyone must follow them). Other times, contradictions arose in the beliefs of invdividual movements. The Slavophiles adopted contradictory positions, seeing Russia as different from the West but also part of it, believing in autocracy but also limited government, and rejecting political freedoms but also supporting freedom of speech (p. 76).

Is Russian Conservatism going to fundamentally alter the discourse about Russian political ideology? Probably not. But that’s also not the book’s fault. I doubt that many outside of academia will find this book, and those who do may not enjoy wading through all the names and developments. Furthermore, people seem to have made up their minds on the matter. Historians married to a certain narrow interpretation of conservatism might not budge. Commentators who find it convenient to explain away Putin’s Russia via the dark sides of Uvarov, Ilyin and Dostoevsky will be reluctant to relinquish or modify their beliefs, even in light of such compelling evidence. However, for those interested not only in why, but how Russia’s tangled intellectual garden has and might grow, Robinson’s book is an important contribution.

Russian Conservatism by Paul Robinson. Pub. 2019 by Northern Illinois University Press. Hardcover, 300pp. ISBN13: 9781501747342.

Disclosures and disclaimers: I received a free copy of this book from Cornell University Press in exchange for an honest review. I’m also a regular reader of Robinson’s blog, IRRUSSIANALITY. All opinions expressed in the above review are my own.

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