Failures of Russian Liberal Conservatism

For Richard Pipes, writing in his Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture (2005), the ‘quintessence’ of Russian conservatism is ‘autocracy’; whilst historically ‘liberals or conservative liberals’ were those who wished ‘to limit in one way or another the powers of the sovereign’. Pipes maintains of Russia that conservatism has been ‘throughout her history the fundamental theory of government: consistently upheld by the crown and dominant in public opinion’. But the way in which Russia is ‘committed to authoritarian government’ was shown too by post-1917 Communist rule – described by Pipes as ‘the most extreme form of autocratic rule ever known’ – and continues to be shown by Vladimir Putin’s government under which the Russian people, ‘seemingly ready to embrace democracy, have once again, as in 1917, sought safety in submission to “a strong hand”’.[i] Yet despite Pipes’s argument that ‘the dominant strain in Russian political thought throughout history has been a conservatism that insisted on strong, centralized authority, unrestrained either by law or parliament’ (1), Russian Conservatism and Its Critics – as I want to highlight – presents conservatism in Russia as a political strain that is consistently tempered by (failing) attempts at a more liberal politics.

Pipes’s presentation of a conservatism characterized by failed liberal moments can be distinguished from Paul Robinson’s more recent characterization of Russian conservatism in terms of its adherents’ vision of a limited autocracy. Robinson concluded his 2019 study Russian Conservatism with the statement that, by Russian conservatives, state power has ‘always been seen as limited by custom and religion, and in more recent times by law, as well as being restricted in terms of its competencies, that is to say those things over which it has authority’.[ii] Robinson’s stress on the idea of limited autocracy complements the main argument of his book – that Russian conservatism is marked by ‘a preference for organic change’. Here Robinson evokes not the spasmodic, inadequate bids for change noticed by Pipes, but instead a continuous progressive movement: ‘change of a certain, gradual sort that is in keeping, as much as possible, with national traditions’. Robinson’s book undeniably shows that Russian conservatives have often propounded the principle of organic change. But it does seem to me that to say that Russian conservatives typically identify with ideas of a limited autocracy, or that Russian conservatism is ‘not a philosophy of the status quo’, risks presenting actual Russian autocracy – for instance in its contemporary Putinite form – as something that is more flexible and less aggressive, less tyrannical, than it actually is.[iii] Pipes’s identification of a conservatism characterized by failed liberal moments appears to offer an analysis which is more true to reality and hence more capable of generating a viable alternative to autocracy.

Here I will look into two forms of failing Russian liberal conservatism: autocrat-enabled liberalization and the nineteenth-century ‘conservative liberals’.[iv] Pipes describes the latter phenomenon as a product of the former. He argues that ‘at least since the accession of the Romanovs, the crown had been the main source of liberal initiatives’. Peter the Great launched Russia’s Westernization; Peter III abolished compulsory state service for nobles; Catherine the Great ‘made possible the emergence of public opinion and with her 1785 Noble Charter created in Russia private property in land’. For Pipes, it was ‘awareness of this reality’ which ‘led to the emergence of a singular school of “conservative liberalism”’. Though he notes that Peter Struve recorded how ‘the term “liberal conservative” was applied by Prince P. A. Viazemskii in the 1830s to define the politics of Pushkin’, Pipes focusses on the work of ‘conservative liberals’ later in the nineteenth-century. Conservative liberalism, as he summarizes it, ‘gave up on political democracy in the hope that the foundations of a liberal regime in Russia would be laid by the autocratic monarch and the expectation that in time they would bring about a constitutional order’ (157).  

But to begin with autocrat-enabled liberalization. A first notable failure of the liberalization initiated by autocracy relates to the depoliticization or divorce of society from politics that has typically accompanied autocracy in Russia. Pipes stresses how, as far back as in Muscovite Russia, ‘the various social groups had no collective rights to safeguard and, feeling little in common, could not perform a political role’ (22). Moreover, for most of its history Russia ‘knew only autocratic government that forbade, under severe penalties, any public interference with politics’ (xv). It is certainly the case that Pipes’s account of the purification or heightened definition of politics in Russia effected by Peter the Great – which involved the emergence of political theory, as ‘a doctrine of the state’ – points toward the phenomenon of a politicization of elite (intellectual) life. For Peter was the first ruler to impose a view of the state as ‘an institution in its own right, distinct from the person of the monarch, whom [sic] everyone, the monarch included, was duty-bound to serve’; in addition, by the succession crisis of 1730, Western European political thought had infiltrated Russia to the point where ‘her leading polemicists could freely cite Bodin, Hobbes, Locke, Grotius, and Pufendorf’ (52). Significantly, however, even this Westernizing politicization could strengthen Peter as autocrat. Enlisted by Peter, Feofan Prokopovich ‘preached sermons defending royal absolutism with reference to Natural Law drawn from Western authorities’ such as the theorists named above. Prokopovich’s principal treatise followed Christian Wolff in arguing that ‘since the monarch’s foremost duty was to attend to the well-being of his subjects, he required unlimited powers’ (Pipes: 55). Pipes finds the treatise to be ‘the first in Russia to define and vindicate royal absolutism in theoretical terms with reference to the political contract’ (56).

Despite the phenomenon of Petrine politicization, the depoliticization which typically accompanies autocracy in Russia returned – so Pipes argues – as a consequence of the 1730 succession crisis. Pipes quotes Struve’s comment that the events of 1730 – which concluded in Anna’s rejection of Dmitrii Golitsyn’s reforming ‘conditions’ to her accession – ‘had for the political destinies of Russia a fateful, predetermined quality’, in that they ‘laid down in definitive form the tradition of basing the Russian monarchy on the political submissiveness of the cultured classes’. Pipes agrees that the events of 1730 ‘did seal a compact between the crown and the Russian nobility by virtue of which the latter, in effect, surrendered any claim to political power: the crown showered the gentry with privileges in exchange for staying out of politics’. The freeing of nobles from compulsory state service in 1762 and the 1785 charter giving them their estates in private ownership, show Pipes how ‘step by step the monarchy bought off the nobility’ (62-63); being limited to the pursuit of these two gains, the influence the nobility did exert proved that ‘its interests were purely self-serving’. Nonetheless, a proto-intelligentsia, or what Pipes calls a ‘thin layer of gentry critics of autocracy’, appeared ‘as early as the middle of the eighteenth century’ (63). This original intelligentsia was a minority element of the ‘public opinion’ which emerged as a result of the gains granted the nobility in 1762 and 1785, which had created ‘for the first time, a leisured and propertied class […] able to view itself as “society” (obshchestvo)’ (64).   

This account of eighteenth-century Russian history supports Pipes’s more general argument that depoliticization in an autocratic Russia can actually generate a type of potentially positive political influence, in the form of ‘public opinion – what Russians call obshchestvennoe mnenie’. Pipes suggests that the fact that throughout Russian history autocracy has ‘forbade, under severe penalties, any public interference with politics’, has meant that ‘political concerns and passions found their main outlet in the realm of ideas’. This has enabled in turn both a love of intellectual history and ‘a rich development of public opinion […] that even if unable to influence politics directly did so obliquely by compelling the monarchy to react to it either by repression or concessions’ (xv).

Pipes thus presents depoliticization and public opinion as twinned aspects of autocrat-enabled liberalization. He draws attention to how, by publishing the Nakaz [Instruction] and convening the Legislative Commission of 1767-69, Catherine herself ‘defined the principles of good government’ and gave Russia’s upper class ‘an opportunity publicly to discuss to what extent the country met its criteria’ – this meant that ‘Russian public opinion emerged in the 1760s owing to this initiative, and it never died down until silenced by the Communists’ (72). Public opinion-forming higher education and learning were important features of Russia’s autocrat-led Westernization process; it was Catherine who allowed for the first time the establishment of private printing presses (64, 65). Nikolai Novikov’s large publishing enterprise – publisher of 28% of all the books published in Russia during the 1780s (67-68) – was allowed to operate. But this was, Pipes adds, ‘presumably because he never criticized institutions but only behaviour’ (67). Novikov was a rationalist Freemason intellectual, preoccupied with issues of morality, and was ‘extremely careful not to write anything that could be interpreted as criticism of autocracy’ (68). But even he ‘came under pressure from the court to mute his criticism’ (67), Pipes writes, and his case came to exemplify how ‘the instant public opinion turned critical of the government, they resorted to repression’ (64). Novikov’s situation illustrated perfectly how, in relation to its twin effects of depoliticization and the emergence of public opinion, autocrat-enabled liberalization in effect represented a failure. ‘Although a writer who deliberately avoided political subjects, Novikov made an indirect contribution to Russian political theory by treating constitutional forms as irrelevant.’ The compatibility of his goals of ‘enlightenment and virtue’ with any regime ‘had the unintended effect of justifying autocracy’ (68): also effectively reconfirming Catherine’s inadequate liberalization.

By the final years of the reign of Nicholas I, as Pipes observes, censorship had grown to ‘grotesque dimensions’ (117) in Russia. This contributed to the way in which ‘after the thirty-year reign of Nicholas I [1825-55], there was in Russia nothing resembling public opinion: there were only isolated salons and circles’. It was the Slavophile publicist Ivan Aksakov who, in developing the concept of ‘obshchestvo,’ focussed attention on how – as Pipes puts it – ‘Russia had as yet no obshchestvo but only narod [the people]’. Aksakov was attempting to reformulate ‘obshchestvo’ to refer not so much to society but instead to public opinion. For Aksakov, ‘it was through education and public discourse that the narod would transform itself into obshchestvo’, as Pipes summarizes; ‘freedom of expression was to him the life-blood of obshchestvo.’ Aksakov himself defined obshchestvo as ‘a narod that is conscious of itself’, or ‘that environment in which takes place conscious intellectual activity of a given people, an environment created by the entire spiritual might of the narod which is developing its national consciousness’ (134, quoting Aksakov).

The fact that Aksakov thought a free press more important than representative institutions points towards the depoliticizing tendency of his elevation – through the concept of obshchestvo – of popular consciousness or spiritual life. Pipes emphasizes how, because in Russia ‘the state stood apart from the population’, the term ‘obshchestvo’ always had ‘designated everything that was not government’; Slavophile thinkers such as Ivan and his brother Konstantin continued to make ‘a distinction between state and obshchestvo: the state should confine itself to politics and not interfere with the “land”’. The state, Ivan wrote, should be restricted to ‘the superficial and remain in those modest limits assigned to it by the spiritual and moral activity of obshchestvo itself’ (133, quoting Aksakov). His projected state also required ‘the active support’ (134) of an obshchestvo, Pipes noted. For Aksakov,

‘In constituting the Russian state, the Russian people conceded to the former, in the person of the tsar, the full freedom of governmental action, the unlimited freedom of state power – and as for itself, eschewing all claims to power, all dominant intervention in the realm of the state or supreme governmental authority, mentally acknowledged for the land the full freedom of social and spiritual life, the freedom of opinion, that is, of thought and speech.’ (quoted on 133)

Claiming for itself and ‘the land’ the status of public opinion, or social, cognitive and linguistic rights, Aksakov’s narod would thereby abjure political rights (134), and confirm unlimited autocracy – ‘the unlimited freedom of state power’ – as its necessary partner. As Konstantin Aksakov would phrase it in 1855, ‘To the government unlimited freedom to rule, to which it has the exclusive right; to the people full freedom of life, both outward and inner, which the government safeguards.’ We can identify this dialectic of autocratic government and popular freedom as the bridge between the Slavophile concern with obshchestvo and the thinking of the ‘conservative liberals’, who would come to control the centre of Russian politics until the end of the nineteenth-century (159). Pipes appends to the Konstantin Aksakov quotation the comment that ‘it was a novel theory that anticipated the ideas of the conservative liberals like Konstantin Kavelin and Boris Chicherin’ – thinkers who ‘a generation later, would try to combine autocracy with civil rights’ (110, quoting Aksakov).

Pipes ultimately dismisses conservative liberalism as ‘an abstract and unrealistic doctrine’, precisely because its projected combination of coexistence of autocracy and civil rights was ‘plainly quixotic’ on account of the fact that ‘given that every political entity strives to enhance its authority, it could not help but view civil rights and liberties as troublesome obstacles and strive to eliminate them’. He underlines that even the leader of the conservative liberal school, Chicherin, when disillusioned by the repressive policies of Alexander III and the persecution of Jews, ‘gave up the ideal of a progressive absolutism’. Chicherin came to feel that the combination of the unlimited powers of the tsar with the bureaucracy threatened Russia with catastrophe, and concluded that, as Pipes writes, ‘the only way to forestall such an outcome was to limit tsarist authority’. In effect, Russian liberal conservatism had failed once more, as liberalism was forced to detach itself from adherents to autocracy: ‘the Russian liberal movement became radicalized, its leadership passing to those elements, concentrated in the zemstva [rural councils], which demanded and in 1905 won for Russia a constitutional regime’ (163). But this brief-lived regime would be removed in February 1917, before in October of that year a new type of autocracy arose, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which was defined by its head, Lenin, as ‘power that is limited by nothing, by no laws, that is restrained by absolutely no rules, that rests directly on coercion’ (quoted on 173-74).

Breaking the historical – for instance Ivan Aksakov’s – separation of the Russian people from ‘all claims to power’, the dictatorship of the proletariat would invest the narod with coercive force and in so doing convert obshchestvo itself into autocracy. How different this conception of obshchestvo was from that of a figure whom Pipes calls ‘the earliest Russian political thinker to appreciate the importance of public opinion and to insist that a government that failed to gain its support was inherently weak and unstable’: the state servant Mikhail Speranskii. Speranskii, who was quite possibly the most vital harbinger of a viable liberal conservatism, came to prominence during a period thus far omitted from this mini-narrative of Russian political history: the reign of Alexander I (1801-25). For Speranskii public opinion was of importance, not as something to be instrumentalized and elevated into autocracy, coercion or ‘claims to power’, but simply in itself. In his 1802 memorandum ‘About the Force of Public Opinion’, he maintained that public opinion, in Pipes’s words, ‘being a force independent of laws and governmental institutions’, could ‘either support governments or topple them’. In the introduction to the constitutional reform project which he went on to draft for Alexander in 1809, Speranskii clarified how ‘the origin and source of [legislative, executive, and judiciary] powers reside in the people: because these powers are nothing else than the moral and physical forces of the people in their relation to the community’ (83, quoting Speranskii).

Anticipating by some decades, with his idea of moral ‘forces of the people’, the Slavophile notions of popular consciousness or spiritual life, Speranskii was also in accord with the Slavophiles’ traditional Russian separation of the people from all claims to power, as when he proclaimed – as no-one had before in Russia and, Pipes thinks, under the influence of the French Revolution – that ‘no government at odds with the spirit of the times can stand up to its all-powerful action’ (quoted on 84). Arguably it is this sort of radicalization of the concept of popular opinion, that makes of it more than an effect of failing, autocrat-enabled liberalization, that marks the true importance of Speranskii’s work towards reform. When his 1809 reform plan is described, as it is by James H. Billington, as ‘the most serious plan for the introduction of representative and constitutional forms into the Russian monarchy that was to appear for nearly a century’, this is in effect simply to acknowledge, with Pipes, how Speranskii’s plans ‘pointed to the necessity of limiting in some way the arbitrary authority of the Russian ruler, transforming him from a despot into a genuine monarch (in Montesquieu’s definition of the word)’ (84-85).[v] In this way Speranskii’s ideas resembled Nikolai Karamzin’s ‘conception of a monarchy absolute but in a narrow sphere’ (88), or indeed the Slavophiles’ conception of ‘an autocracy that was strictly confined in scope and did not encroach on the private lives of its citizens’ (110). The idea of limited autocracy, as we saw, remains the focus of contemporary historian Paul Robinson. But Speranskii’s radicalization of public opinion and the stress he laid on the reliance of the political regime on it – ‘the manner of thought of the present time is utterly contrary to the manner of governance’ – enabled him to suggest that the ‘all-powerful action’ of popular consciousness could substantially undermine, rather than just limit, autocracy in Russia. ‘In the general progress of human reason, our government finds itself presently in the second era of the feudal system – that is, in the era of autocracy, and, without a doubt, is moving directly toward freedom.’ (quoted on 84)   



[i] Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. xii, xv, xii (further references to Russian Conservatism and Its Critics are given after quotations in the text).

[ii] Russian Conservatism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), p. 215.  

[iii] Robinson, p. 5.

[iv] Pipes does not distinguish between liberal conservatism and conservative liberalism.

[v] 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), p. 262.


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