A Note on Alexandrine Conservatism

At the close of the ‘Introduction’ to his Romantics, Reformers, Reactionaries (1997), Alexander M. Martin remarked on how more recent (Western) scholars of Russian conservatism under Alexander I (1801-25), such as Richard Pipes and Cynthia Whittaker, developed their interest in the subject as part of a general historiographic shift away from Marxist or leftist methods – as ‘part of a broader reevaluation of Europe’s old regimes and Restoration governments that has questioned the thesis of “progressive” social forces challenging “reactionary” rulers’. Such historians of Alexandrine conservatism, Martin saw, have fitted in with a general academic shift in focus ‘away from what Eric Hobsbawm called the “dual” (liberal and industrial) revolution’, and have instead ‘placed cultural change and the growth of state power at the centre of their analysis’; arguably, this shift aligns them with John Connelly’s current questioning of the concept of the ‘short’ twentieth-century (defined in terms of global military conflicts and the Cold War) through his emphasis on the centrality of political assertions – historical and ongoing – of the national state.[i]

The removal of a Left-revolutionary agenda from contemporary history-writing about Europe is in keeping with the era of Alexandrine conservatism itself, in connection with which Martin writes of ‘the relative shapelessness of the political landscape, where, prior to the Decembrist revolt of 1825, ideological divisions had not yet fully crystallized’ (10). As Martin reminds us, the ‘Francophone Enlightenment’ which ‘shaped the French revolutionaries’ at the close of the eighteenth-century also ‘decisively moulded the thinking of the Russian nobility’. This meant that ‘the two movements, conservative and revolutionary’ that existed during the reign of Alexander I had ‘grown out of the same eighteenth-century European culture and inhabited the same intellectual universe’ (6). The resultant ideological shapelessness was replicated within Alexandrine conservatism, of which Martin discerns three strands: romantic nationalism, gentry conservatism and ‘the reform-oriented religious conservatives’. These latter figures, such as Alexander Golitsyn and Alexander Sturdza, interestingly supported both reform and tradition, hoping that a combination of ‘Christian spirituality and state-supported social activism’ would ‘reconcile the elite as well as the masses in Russia with their old regime’ (5). Martin observes that Sturdza and Ioannes Capodistrias ‘typify the ambiguity of the terms liberal and conservative in the early nineteenth century’ (170).  

Martin divided his three currents of Alexandrine conservatism according to the two halves of Alexander’s reign. As James H. Billington noted, ‘constitutional monarchy was the predominant ideal for the first decade of Alexander’s reign, the dominant figure of which was Michael Speransky.’ But Alexander exiled Speranskii in 1812, dismissing along with him ‘the most serious plan for the introduction of representative and constitutional forms into the Russian monarchy that was to appear for nearly a century’.[ii] Whilst the more liberal first half of Alexander’s reign provoked reaction in the form of romantic nationalism and gentry conservatism (56), the more reactionary second half kindled reformism amongst religious conservatives. Billington saw how in fact ‘the gradual triumph of [Nikolai] Karamzin’s conservatism at court forced proponents of reform in the second half of Alexander’s reign to assume more extreme positions than those taken by Speransky.’[iii] Yet as a cultural movement Alexandrine conservatism did not really change its moral agenda. In the first half of the reign, Martin observed, Karamzin’s gentry conservatism supplied a ‘defence of noble caste interests’, with romantic nationalism, as propounded by writers such as Alexander Shishkov and Sergei Glinka, seeking ‘in the uncorrupted culture of the common people an antidote to the moral and political dangers associated with Westernization’ (5). For Martin the religious conservatism of the second half of Alexander’s reign represented ‘a continuation of the earlier conservative movement’, in that ‘the same search persisted for a way to purify society morally without damaging its overall institutional framework’ (143).

The fact that the more reactionary second half of Alexander’s reign was characterized by a less reactionary type of conservatism was underlined by the moral aims of the religious conservatives, which showed them to be traditionalist yet capable of being critical of organized religion. Whilst the religious conservatives ‘held that the spiritual cleansing of Europe could proceed only if nobles and kings everywhere repented of their wicked ways’, Martin writes, these moralists ‘never resolved the problem of their own highly ambivalent attitude toward that pillar of Russian religious tradition, the Orthodox Church’ (6). Interestingly, in this way religious conservatives resembled Russian adherents of Freemasonry which, Martin points out, ‘revived with great vigour under Alexander I’ following its persecution by Catherine the Great. As Martin summarizes, ‘among its followers, the spirituality of the masons was comforting to people whom Western rationalism had shaken in their Orthodox faith but not in their religious longings’; at the same time, ‘that spirituality also earned freemasonry the stigma of being insufficiently loyal to the established church’ (11). In more general terms, after all, the lodges ‘promoted social progress through moral self-improvement’, and represented ‘a crucible in which were formed the critical attitudes toward the ancien regime that Russian conservatives shared with Western radicals’ (6).     

Martin distinguished the conservatisms of the distinct halves of Alexander’s reign by stressing how, unlike the earlier conservatives, religious conservatives ‘actually controlled the levers of state power and could attempt to implement their ideas’ (143). In addition, insofar as ‘Alexander’s commitment to political and social reform gave the debate between conservatives and progressives a new urgency’, the government’s reform plans themselves helped stimulate ‘the conditions under which a conservative ideology could develop and spread’ (5). Alexandrine conservatism’s alliance with and dependency on Alexander’s reformism explains why conservatism under Alexander could be seen, as Martin sees it, as potentially working towards ‘confirming the crown’s mission of authoritarian modernization’ (6). Martin underlines that ‘until 1825, the state and the nobility were the engines of modernization in Russia’ (8).

Yet precisely the progressive quality of Alexandrine conservatism meant that it was too modern, in the sense of being too civilized (and self-contradictory), to survive the conversion of the (post-)Petrine mission of tsarist, authoritarian modernization into what Martin termed ‘Nicholas I’s bureaucratic-absolutist regime’, in the second quarter of the nineteenth-century. Martin importantly compares the way in which ‘the French Revolution had ended in partial failure in the dictatorship of Napoleon’, to how under Nicholas I ‘the ideas of the [Alexandrine] revolutionary era were both institutionalized and suffocated by a raw state power that was now stripped of old regime restraints and disguised by only a thin ideological veneer’: Official Nationality, presumably (6).

But even without the changes to (post-)Petrine progressivism introduced by Nicholas I, ‘Russian conservatism was crippled at birth by the revolutionary dynamic of the state that it set out to defend’ (4). Martin’s argument here rests on his definition of Russian history in terms of ongoing trauma: as he maintains, ‘traumatic historical discontinuities such as those precipitated by Peter the Great and Stalin dominate the Russian consciousness’ (208). For Martin, the fact that Alexandrine conservatives ‘never fully came to terms with the Petrine legacy’ teaches us about a historical trauma expressed in a ‘fundamental tension within Russian conservatism’, which still remains unresolved after ‘the revolutions of Lenin, Stalin, and Gorbachev’. Martin describes this tension as that ‘between defenders of post-revolutionary vested interests and advocates of prerevolutionary cultural traditions’ (207). Thus he suggests that conservatism reveals the nature of (post-Petrine) Russian historical trauma within a characteristic tension between state power and culture.

Martin lets us see that, unlike the romantic nationalists – ‘patriotic monarchists’ – Shishkov and Glinka, only a religious conservative like Sturdza was able to focus on what we could term Russian moral culture, and the way in which state-directed Westernization upset ‘spiritual harmony’. Martin writes of Sturdza confronting the ‘problem’ that Peter the Great’s reforms ‘destroyed the integrity of Russian life’ and ‘splintered its society’. Now in fact allying Sturdza with Glinka (and also ‘the French radicals of the late eighteenth century’), Martin states that Sturdza ‘worried about a morally decayed social order and had hopes it might be spiritually regenerated’ (172).[iv] He ‘stressed the need for strengthening religion as a remedy for society’s moral disequilibria’. Alternatively, if we view social equilibrium or tranquillity as the goal of Sturdza’s thinking, for him social tranquillity is to be attained through the plain privileging of (moral) culture over the strong (autocratic) state: ‘a state’s tranquillity, he thought, depended on the society’s internalized sense of morality, its extragovernmental institutions and historical traditions, not on external coercion by the state’. Here, Martin notes, Sturdza’s opinions resemble those of ‘contemporary conservatives such as Franz von Baader, Adam Müller, and Edmund Burke’ (171).

This viewpoint seems to run counter to that of Karamzin’s gentry conservatism, with its strategic defence of the autocratic state. For Karamzin, as Martin summarized, ‘government should be omnipotent within the confines of its own jurisdiction (with the restraint of its own laws preventing it from becoming arbitrary or despotic), so that it could guarantee public tranquillity and security’. It is worth remarking, however, that for Karamzin the influence of the strong state was not incompatible with the preservation of culture. As Martin added, for Karamzin government ‘should not interfere in the social spheres of life that were the prerogatives of society’, and such spheres included ‘culture’, caste rights and duties, and ‘national tradition’. Autocracy was to be restricted not only by ‘laws that the monarch voluntarily prescribed to himself’, but also by ‘society’s moral code’; the members of this society, Karamzin thought, should (in Martin’s words) ‘know that their civil (but not political) rights were protected by his [the monarch’s] laws, and would be free to pursue their own moral self-improvement’ (86-87). It was therefore Karamzin’s conservatism which could suggest a resolution of the tension between state power and culture – the tension shown by Russian conservatism to characterize Russia’s modern historical trauma. This is understandable: in that it lacks affinities with European socio-political thought such as Sturdza’s conservatism had (other than with Montesquieu’s thinking, say), Karamzin’s is a more intrinsically Russian form of conservatism.[v]



(I view this as a companion piece to The Early Russian Intelligentsia, which does not address the period 1801-25 in detail).     


[i] Romantics, Reformers, Reactionaries: Russian Conservative Thought and Politics in the Reign of Alexander I (DeKalb, Ill: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997), pp. 13-14 (further references to Romantics, Reformers, Reactionaries are given after quotations in the text).

[ii] James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1970; first publ. [New York(?)]: Knopf, 1966), pp. 261, 262.  

[iii] Billington, p. 264.

[iv] On p. 152 Martin notes that, ‘like the Wisdom Lovers (liubomudry) of the 1820s and the Slavophiles of the 1840s, both of whose views Sturdza anticipated, he published many of his writings in the periodicals of the historian Mikhail Pogodin, who in turn had been an avid reader of Glinka’s Russian Messenger.’

[v] For examples of Montesquieu’s influence on Karamzin’s thinking, see the index in Richard Pipes, Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia: A Translation and Analysis, new edn (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).


Popular Posts