The Rebirth of Russian Conservatism
Immediately following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia embarked upon a new project. Upon the ashes of godless Communism, the leaders of Russia, enlisting the advice of an army of Washington technocrats and global financiers, attempted to build a godless capitalism. The instant material prosperity that was supposed to result from this project failed to materialize for most Russians. What is more, many of the worst elements of what Russell Kirk called our latter-day “consumption society, so near to suicide” were allowed to penetrate into Russia’s hitherto closed society all at once. Wall Street individualism and Hollywood hedonism made short work of the Soviet Union’s daft and morally bankrupt, but nevertheless strict, system of values. As a result Russia today suffers both from poverty and from many of the ills which afflict rich countries, such as worsening crime and corruption, the disintegration of the family, substance abuse, and demographic decline. A widening perception that Russia’s current problems are, at bottom, moral ones, has made Russian society increasingly receptive to conservative ideas.
A new class of talented conservative intellectuals has begun to form in Russia. They are, in the main, academics, priests and bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, and, interestingly enough, a significant number of ex-Communists and ex-Liberals. The case of Aleksandr Panarin, a liberal dissident in the final years of the Soviet Union, is particularly striking. During the tumult of the 1990s, Panarin became disillusioned with his former ideals. Having converted to the Orthodox faith of his fathers, he set himself to the task of coming to terms with his nation’s pre-Revolutionary conception of itself and its mission in the world. In his book, Orthodox Civilization in a Global World, he writes “Only if the eternal criteria of goodness, beauty, and justice are fated to regain a leading role in the judgments we make—only then can we achieve our long-awaited rehabilitation—for in the moral sphere there is no progress; in history, written in the language of morality, our ancestors do not appear backward at all; on the contrary, they can serve as an inspiring example for us.”
Aleksandr Panarin draws several important distinctions between classical liberalism and its contemporary forms. Classical liberalism, he says, demanded liberty to work without hindrance, and the right to benefit from one’s own labor. This certainly had benefits for society, and was not incompatible with a life centered on the values of family, church, and nation. Contemporary neo-Liberalism, however, has a very different agenda: it seeks “emancipation” for the individual, and an excessive formalization of the citizen’s relations with fellow citizens and the state. The advance of neo-Liberalism, Panarin argues, is bringing about the slow death of civilization, for emancipation means not liberty to work, but freedom from all hardship, which inevitably comes to be understood as a right to complete self-gratification. What is far worse, emancipation signifies freedom from the constraints of religious and cultural traditions, which have furnished societies with the norms and prohibitions without which civilized life would be impossible.
In their struggle to eradicate the traditional bases of civilization, Panarin argues, liberals not only endanger the political order of their countries; they also doom their national economy to eventual collapse. The economy of any country depends to a great extent on what Panarin calls “unremunerated giving,” that is, all of the things that citizens contribute to their nation’s economy without expecting to receive equivalent monetary compensation. A great deal of what people do, they do out of a feeling of duty, says Panarin: “The feeling of genuine, existential obligation, felt by us as an internal human duty arises only in response to gifts given to us: everything that our parents and ancestors gave us . . . everything that was given us by our native land, our culture and history.” Among the greatest gifts that citizens give to the economy are their offspring, raised and educated by them at enormous expense. From the standpoint of economic advantage, having children is hardly a rational choice, especially if individuals understand life primarily as a quest for self-gratification. The choice to have children is also a cultural and religious one, prompted by a desire to continue a family line, a culture, a people’s history.
Natalia Narochnitskaya, an historian, and popularly elected member of the Russia’s lower House, the State Duma, has done much to re-acquaint her compatriots with Russian conservatism. In two recent books, Narochitskaya calls upon Russia, as well as the West, to form a common cause in order to restore the link between culture and Christianity. Christianity gave Western culture its conceptions of free will and human dignity, of virtue and sin, beauty and ugliness, norm and deviance, harmony and cacophony. It was in virtue of these criteria that our people were able to create a great culture and a just order.
Russia, says Narochnitskaya, cannot rebuild herself upon ideological schemes and abstract universal ideas; she must develop a political order that is consonant with the times and with her heritage. The first step is for Russians to regain their traditional sense of themselves as a people. “Those who know what is felt by a believer during inspired prayer at liturgy know perfectly well the feeling of belonging to an Orthodox Church–which joins with Christ all believers, those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are to be born. Let us strive for a similar hallowed feeling of belonging to our Fatherland,” writes Narochnitskaya. She would no doubt wholeheartedly agree with Russell Kirk, who said that a nation, like a church, is best understood as a “community of souls.”
The current revival of religious and patriotic feeling in Russia notwithstanding, Russian conservatism today faces difficult challenges, not only in the struggle for political power and influence, but also in the task of making contemporary sense of its own traditions and ideals. Many Russian conservatives today look upon the Muscovite era of Russian history, and especially the short period within it that encompasses the reigns of Tsar Mikhail Romanov and Tsar Aleksii Mikhailovich (1613–1689), as a golden age. Historians will note, however, that while the Muscovite period was a time of national and spiritual unity among all classes of society (a unity ultimately shattered by Peter the Great), Muscovy was also a kingdom governed by personal decree, not by law, a kingdom with a strong, centralized state in close partnership with the church.
Indeed, an Orthodox Tsar, constrained in his actions only by Christian morality and the informal prescriptions of tradition, and ruling in partnership with a Russian Church, is the Byzantine model of government known as the “symphony of powers,” which is regarded as an ideal by many Russian conservatives. The Church hierarchy, recognizing the realities of contemporary Russian life, has been much more reluctant to embrace this view. As Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin has written, before any notion can be entertained of a formal partnership of church and state, the Church must work to build a “symphony with Russian society.” Russia must first become a truly Orthodox Christian nation again, if it is ever to become an Orthodox state. Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, widely regarded as the most likely successor to the current Patriarch, has said that democratic institutions such as the rule of law are, in principle, a positive development for Russian society. It is crucial however, that the laws be enforced, and that they be “rooted in moral foundations, in God’s Truth.”
Today, conservatism (particularly religious conservatism) as an intellectual movement is perhaps stronger in Russia than in almost any other European country. Nonetheless, as a political movement, it is still very weak. Whether this will change, only time can tell; some Western scholars, such as Nicolai Petro and Nikolas Gvosdev, already see signs of such growth. In any event, Russia is fortunate to have a Church that is working with parents at the grass roots level to give Russian children a Christian education, as well as learned men of the cloth and conservative academics who are not afraid to make their voice heard on issues that are of vital importance to Russian society.
Ethan Alexander-Davey is a graduate student at the University of Cambridge. As a Fulbright Fellow in Russia in 2004–5, he conducted research on Russian religious philosophy and the resurgence of religious conservatism in post-Soviet Russia. He has published an article on Aleksandr Panarin in the Russian political science journal Politex, and has written an English translation of Russian Parliamentarian Natalia Narochnitskaya’s latest book, What We Fought For.
Posted: March 19, 2007