Northern Illinois University Press

Russian Conservatism and Models of Russian Nationhood

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At the end of April, the former Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky unveiled a new monument in the city of Sevastopol. Entitled the Monument to the Victims of the Civil War, it commemorates all those who died in the Russian Civil War of 1917-21. At the top is a figure representing Mother Russia. Beneath her are two brothersone an officer in the Bolshevik Red Army and the other an officer in the opposing White Army. The message is one of reconciliationRed and White, communist and anti-communist, are all members of one family. Each of their stories is part of Russia’s communal heritage.

The message is one of reconciliationRed and White, communist and anti-communist, are all members of one family. Each of their stories is part of Russia’s communal heritage.

Monument to the Victims of the Civil War

In contrast with ideologies such as liberalism, which argue for change in accordance with abstract principles, conservatism argues that societies should develop in an organic fashion. In other words, progress shouldn’t imply a break from the past. Rather, one should build upon the past, respecting existing traditions, morals, and institutions.

In Russia’s case, this is problematic. Russian history has been punctuated by a succession of rapid breaks with the pastfor instance, the reforms of Peter the Great, the Russian revolution, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is therefore difficult to determine what it is that conservatives should be conserving. To take the example of the Russian Civil Waris it the legacy of the Reds, or the legacy of the Whites? Or should it be some amalgam of the two?

In contrast with ideologies such as liberalism, which argue for change in accordance with abstract principles, conservatism argues that societies should develop in an organic fashion.

Faced with this problem, for the past 200 years conservative philosophers have been attempting to answer the question “What is Russia?” In the process, they have constructed a succession of myths that have shaped how Russians view their past and their present. Russian conservatism, therefore, is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a political one, with a strong focus on building a national identity that can provide the basis for a stable society. In this way, conservatism is not about standing still, let alone going backward. Rather it is a creative philosophycreating the nation where it did not exist or when its nature was in doubt.

In Russia’s case, this is problematic.

Along the way, conservative philosophers have constructed various models of Russian nationhood. The Slavophiles, for instance, developed the idea that Russia was distinct from Western Europe. Whereas the latter was believed to individualistic and rationalistic, Russia was said to be collectivist and to have retained an integral “wholeness of spirit” combining reason and faith. Later philosophers, such as Nikolai Danilevsky and Konstantin Leontyev, pushed this idea in a new direction. Whereas the Slavophiles considered Russia to be part of a broader Christian world, sharing a common future, Danilevsky and Leontyev developed a theory in which the world was divided up into distinct civilizations each advancing in their own separate directions. Russia, it was argued, should progress separately from the West.

Along the way, conservative philosophers have constructed various models of Russian nationhood.

In the twentieth century, Eurasianist thinkers developed the theory further. In their eyes, the multinational, multi-confessional Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, was a distinct Eurasian civilization, with Russia sharing more in common with certain Asian cultures than Western ones.

The collapse of the Soviet Union created problems for Russian conservatism, as suddenly there were multiple models of nationhood. Some conservatives sought to return to the institutions and values of Imperial Russia, most notably Orthodoxy. Others sought to preserve what they considered the achievements of the Soviet era. As the Monument to the Victims of the Civil War shows, the Russian state has sought a third wayto try to meld all the different parts of Russia’s past into a single whole. In the meantime, the struggle to define the Russian nation continues. As in the past, so too today, conservatives will play a central role in determining the outcome.

This book was published under Cornell University Press’s NIU Press imprint.

*Featured photo: Buildings in Moscow, Russia. Credit: Serge Kutuzov.

Russian Conservatism
Cover image of Russian Conservatism.
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Paul Robinson is Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is author and editor of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Grand Duke Nikolai NikolaevichSupreme Commander of the Russian Army, which won the Society for Military History’s distinguished book award for biography.

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