What Is Russian Conservatism?

By Paul Robinson

This article appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 print edition of The Dorchester Review, Vol. 9., No. 1, pp. 86-89.



IN A SPEECH to the World Russian Peoples’ Council on Nov. 1, 2017, Russian president Vladimir Putin complained of “the efforts [which] are being taken today to ‘reformat’ the world and destroy the traditional values and the cultural and historical spaces that have been forming for centuries.” Russia, he said, was defined by “our tradition and internal spiritual culture, our identity, and finally by the history of our country as an authentic civilization. … it is impossible to imagine the history of humanity without such unique civilizations as India, China, Western Europe, America and many others. It is really a multifaceted complexity where each facet supplements and enriches the others.” Putin then cited conservative 19th-century Russian thinker Nikolai Danilevsky (1822-1885), who said that, “no civilization can call itself supreme, the most developed one.” Putin reiterated his oft-stated desire for a multipolar world founded on “the complexity of civilizational development,” which he implicitly contrasted with the American-led unipolar order, globalism, and the homogenizing effects of liberal universalism.

​Putin’s view of the world as divided into distinct civilizations (of which Russia is one) and his reference to Danilevsky derive from Russian conservative philosophy and testify to the influence of that philosophy on recent Russian politics. There is widespread agreement that in the past decade Russia has taken a conservative turn. But what is conservatism in the Russian context?

"Solzhenitsyn thundered against totalitarianism, following a line of conservative thought which emphasized personal freedom."


CONSERVATISM IN general defies easy definition. It has been called a “reactionary” or “reflective” philosophy, in the sense that conservatism at any point in time is a reaction to, or reflection of, other ideological currents prevalent in society. It is thus more easily defined by what it is against than what it is for. Conservatism has also been described as a “positional” ideology, whose content varies considerably from place to place and time to time. For the most part conservatives accept the necessity of change, but insist that change should be “organic”; in other words that it should be gradual and respect context and tradition. It is this organic worldview rather than any fixed set of values or policy proposals which forms the core of conservatism.

​It was only in the late-18th and early-19th centuries that European philosophers began to turn this organic worldview into a formal political ideology. Their primary impetus was the French Revolution, which many in Europe regarded as proof of the danger of elevating abstract reasoning over tradition. Russian conservatism appeared in the early 1800s and can also be seen as a reaction to Enlightenment thinking, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. However, from its earliest days Russian conservatism was distinct from its Western European counterparts in one important way, namely that a major additional causal factor was the process of Westernization imposed on Russia by Peter the Great and his successors in the 18th century.

​By 1800, Peter’s reforms had so thoroughly Europeanized Russia’s elite that many of its members spoke French better than they did Russian. At the same time, the mass of the Russian population — the peasantry — remained largely untouched by Westernization, creating a huge cultural gulf between the rulers and the ruled. The result was what has been called an “identity crisis.” Russia was one of the most powerful nations in Europe. In 1814, its army had advanced as far west as Paris. And yet, it appeared to have become “denationalized”; it lacked a strong cultural identity of its own; and the processes of modernization and Westernization had created divisions in Russian society which threatened revolutionary turmoil if left unchecked. Faced with these problems, some members of the Russian ruling class decided that the only way forward was to reject Westernization, forge a distinct Russian national identity, and progress in an organic fashion, based on Russian models of government and economics. In short, they became conservatives.

​Since the first major contacts between Russia and Western Europe in the 16th century, Russia has been perceived by many as lagging culturally, politically, and economically behind the West. The questions Russian conservatives have tried to answer are: how to catch up with the West and create a modern society while preserving the “traditional values” of Russian Orthodoxy; how to develop an advanced and influential culture while preserving a distinct Russian national identity; how to build a powerful state, able to defend Russia and its people and provide the stability required for cultural and economic progress, without unleashing destructive revolutionary processes; and how to forge a modern economy, without similarly unleashing forces of social unrest. Russian conservatism is not opposed to reform and modernization, but it seeks a distinctly Russian path that does not involve blind copying of Western examples. It favours a type of gradual, organic progress that contrasts with the repeated efforts of Russia’s rulers (Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet) to transform the country through rapid bursts of forced modernization on the basis of Western models.

THE DESIRE FOR organic change has required Russian conservatives to define what is organic in Russia’s case. This has meant that conservatives have taken the lead in the process of defining Russian national identity. They have stressed Russia’s distinctness. Particularly important were the mid-19th century Slavophiles, such as Aleksei Khomiakov (1804-1860) and Ivan Kireevsky (1806-1856), who argued that Russia could never make a valuable contribution to world culture if all it did was copy its Western neighbours. Instead, it would have to foster what was unique about itself. Subsequent generations of Russian conservatives felt a need to assert not only that Russia was different, but that it had a right to be so. To this end, they developed the idea that civilizational diversity is both natural and desirable. A key figure was Nikolai Danilevsky, who in an 1869 book entitled Russia and Europe proposed that the history of mankind did not consist of a universal march towards a single future but rather of the progress of multiple distinct civilizations, each moving in a different direction. According to Danilevsky’s contemporary Konstantin Leontyev, diversity of this sort was a thoroughly good thing. Leontyev praised what he called “flowering complexity,” and warned of the dangers of Western liberalism which, he said, had a tendency to homogenize everything and thereby threatened to bring all progress to an end.

In the 1920s, a group of Russian émigrés known as the Eurasianists took up some of these themes. Drawing on historical, geographical, ethnographical, linguistic, musicological and other studies, they suggested that the lands of the Russian Empire, and then of the Soviet Union, formed a natural unity, making Russia a distinct civilization, neither European nor Asian but Eurasian. In the Brezhnev era, these ideas were adapted by the Soviet ethnographer Lev Gumilev (1912-1992), and in contemporary Russia they have inspired a new generation of post-Soviet Eurasianists, such as Aleksandr Dugin. As shown by Putin’s 2017 speech, the idea that the world consists of distinct civilizations and that a diverse, multipolar order is to be preferred to a unipolar one, is now a common part of Russian political discourse.

​In cultural matters, Orthodoxy is the factor most often cited as distinguishing Russia from Western Europe. According to the Slavophiles, Western Catholicism (and consequently also its offshoot, Protestantism) was excessively rationalistic and individualistic. Russia by contrast had preserved a “wholeness of being” which integrated faith and reason, as well as a collective spirit (sobornost’), which was lacking in the West. Russia’s mission was to preserve and nurture these characteristics so that in due course it could export them to the West and so save it from itself. Russian conservatives have often seen their country’s destiny as intimately bound up with it. Rather than pure anti-Westernism, therefore, Russian conservatism is a complex interplay of both anti- and pro-Western feelings.

In political matters, the main feature seen as distinguishing Russia from the West has been autocracy. This concept is often misunderstood and conflated with despotism or, following the Soviet experience, totalitarianism. This is not what Russian conservatives mean by it. Literally speaking, autocracy (samoderzhavie in Russian) means simply “rule by a single person.” The principle of autocracy, therefore, is that whatever powers the central state possesses should be vested in one individual. But that says nothing about what those powers should be. In the eyes of Russian conservatives, they should be decidedly restricted. In conservative theory, therefore, autocracy is a form of centralized, but limited government.

Historian Nikolai Karamzin (1786-1826) outlined conservative doctrine on the matter in the early 19th century. When power in Russia had been divided, he said, the results had always been catastrophic. When it had been concentrated, Russia had prospered. But the autocrat could not do just anything he pleased. He was bound by the moral demands of Christianity as well as by custom and tradition. According to the Slavophile thinker Konstantin Aksakov (1817-1860), the autocrat was to have complete control over matters such as state defence, but none at all over local affairs or matters concerning people’s private lives. The people were not to meddle in the autocrat’s affairs, but similarly the autocrat was not to meddle in the people’s affairs. The guiding principle was to be “mutual non-interference.” Aksakov, a firm believer in autocracy, has thus been described as something akin to an anarchist.

Later Russian conservatives, such as Lev Tikhomirov (1852-1923), railed against the expansion of the Tsarist bureaucracy, and sought to find ways to combine a strong centralized state with local self-government. These ideas influenced the famous Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), who also thundered against the totalitarianism that he believed was an inevitable consequence of communist ideology. Solzhenitsyn’s anti-totalitarianism followed a line of Russian conservative thought which emphasized the importance of personal freedom.

DESPITE SUPPORTING autocracy, from the early 19th-century onwards many Russian conservatives chafed against censorship by the Tsarist regime. Russian conservatives have consistently stressed the importance of the dignity of the person. Thinkers such as Tikhomirov, Solzhenitsyn, and Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) rejected Western understandings of human rights, which were seen as excessively individualistic, but at the same time insisted that the dignity of the person required the state to respect certain rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech, the right to assembly, freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and property rights. Similarly, the modern Russian Orthodox Church, normally seen as a deeply conservative institution, asserts that individuals enjoy a whole plethora of rights, including the right to life, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, “freedom of creative work,” the right to education, civil and political rights including the “right to elect and be elected,” and a range of socio-economic rights such as the right to property, the right to employment, the right to protection against an employer’s arbitrary treatment. While supporting autocracy and rejecting Western versions of liberalism, Russian conservatism is not inherently illiberal.


"The idea is that the world consists of distinct civilizations and that a diverse, multipolar order is to be preferred to a unipolar one."


The Orthodox Church’s defence of social and economic rights draws attention to the fact that in economic terms Russian conservatism is very different from conservatism in most Western countries. In the latter, conservatism is very often associated with a belief in free market economics. By contrast, Russian conservatives’ views on economic affairs have been shaped by dislike of the top-down policies of rapid modernization enacted by the Russian state. In the late 19th century, Sergei Sharapov (1855-1911) and Lev Tikhomirov argued that Russia should focus on developing its internal market rather than on producing goods for export, supported protectionism, argued in favor of a loose monetary policy, and suggested that Russia reduce its dependence on foreign capital. In the Soviet era, a conservative environmental movement demanded limits to economic growth in the name of environmental protection. And the post-Soviet era has witnessed the emergence of what is called “left conservatism.” The left conservatives argue for a fairer distribution of resources in the name of social justice, and demand that Russia limit its exposure to economic globalization.

​Russian conservatives have continually proposed ideas for cultural, political, and economic development that they believe take into consideration Russia’s existing culture, traditions, identity, and forms of government and economic and social life. More specifically, Russian conservatives reject Western universalism and posit instead the benefits of civilizational diversity; support a highly centralized, but at the same time limited, model of government; and favour economic policies that in the West would normally be described as leftist. The enduring strength of conservative thought poses a significant challenge to any suggestion that Russians adopt Western political, economic, and social institutions. However much the West dislikes this, this is a reality that Western countries must learn to live with.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of a history of Russian Conservatism published in 2019. 

This article appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 print edition of The Dorchester Review, Vol. 9., No. 1, pp. 86-89.

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