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Russian conservative mindRussell Kirk did more than any American in the twentieth century to revive and refine British conservative thought and make it relevent to the political challenges facing both the United States of America and the world. Dr. Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot is the foundational work for contemporary conservative thought in the Western world. Andrzej Walicki, born in Warsaw, Poland and professor emeritus at Notre Dame, ought to share an equally prominent place in the history of conservative thought for his unmatched In the Circles of Conservative Utopia: The Structure and Metamorphisis of Russian Slavophilism, published in Warsaw in 1964.* The book is the best Polish work of political science on the subject of Russian conservative thought written in the twentieth century. Dr. Walicki researched the book at Harvard University and in the Soviet Union. It remains unrivaled in both scope and beauty. It could be called the Russian Conservative Mind. It is the indispensable book for any conservative thinker; a book without which conservatives in the West will remain forever in the dark about the nature of the largest Christian nation-state in the world. Any conservatism that does not take account of this book is incomplete.

Russian conservative thought, like Russian liberal thought, began as a frame of reference imported from the West but soon became something altogether new and uniquely Russian, namely, Slavophilism. This should not come as a surprise. The conservative tendency to focus on the organic, the local, and the historical necessarily means that the Western conservative worldview, when planted on non-Western ground, will metamorphose into something uniquely non-Western. Otherwise, it would not be conservatism, but rather a base ideology tailored for abstractions—not real men and real places. In the Russian experience, even something as seemingly universal as modern philosophy, following the initial adulation it received in St. Petersburg, was eventually cleansed of its French connotations and restored to its Platonic roots in the form of a distinctly Russian Muscovite lubomodrovism.**

Russian conservatism, like British conservatism, grew out of a reaction on the part of thoughtful men to the French Revolution. Yet insofar as the pillars of British conservative thought were built upon the organic ethos of the British experience from at least the times of the Magna Carta, Russian conservatism began as a rather unhealthy gag reflex experienced by Russian liberalism as it made the attempt to swallow and digest European culture. Liberalism and conservatism are themselves products of a certain time in the history of man’s development, generally referred to as “modernity.” For Russia, a conscious modernity commenced with Peter the Great; albeit, it was a modernity unrecognizable to Westerners because of its peculiarly Russian character. Within this peculiar implementation of modernity in Russia, the Russian conservative mind was born.


Peter the Great

It was under Peter the Great that Russia was forced to love Europe and become modern. We tend to regard the implementation of universal notions of European liberalism as a liberating experience. We think of men and women becoming emancipated from compulsions that had kept them in bondage. If this were truly so, then it would have been enough for Peter the Great to abolish laws, not pass them. Instead, Peter the Great instituted a Table of Ranks to supplant honors rooted in hereditary aristocracy; he compelled humble Christian women, who entered cities, to cut their long skirts so that they were knee-length; and he taxed beards to compel men to shave them. All his compulsions were aimed at forcing the Russians to look and act European, to transform the ancient into the modern by way of fiat. At their height, Peter’s reforms spawned a Russia whose upper class spoke French even in private so as to escape any suspicion of being provincial.

Peter’s reforms elicited a certain level of anxiety amongst thinkers like Mikhail Shcherbatov, who defended the ancient ways of old Russia, where moral virtue was the fruit of a world of boredom in which there was nothing to do except read the Holy Bible and pray. Still, Peter’s critics, the first Russian conservatives, did not so much deride the Tsar’s aims as some of his methods. Russian conservatism at the time was as yet a voice of cautious liberalism. The admiration of Russia’s elite for liberalism and the enlightenment came to a crashing end when the French revolution took a turn for the worst. Nicholas Karamzin, whom we might say was one of Russia’s first self-conscious conservative thinkers, expressed this sentiment well: “A bolt of lightning had struck France…we saw the horror of its fire from afar and each of us returned home to thank Heaven for the totality of our lot and to become reasonable.”[1]

Becoming reasonable meant accepting the Tsar as a necessary good and reconsidering the extent to which Russia had really bettered itself by adopting enlightened European modes and orders which appeared to lead to Terror and Tyranny. Karamzin was a Republican at heart, a Platonic utopian who recognized the practical limitations to Platonic republicanism as set forth by Machiavelli’s teachings. For many Russian conservatives of the time Montesquieu was the perfect combination of Platonic idealism and Machiavellian realism. Yet the Terror of the French revolution and the prospect of political reform coming to Russia at the point of Napoleon’s bayonets convinced Karamzin not only to accept the Tsar, but also to reconsider the desirability of European liberalism for Russia. What had been obvious signs of barbarism and regression inherent in old Russian ways requiring reform under Peter began to be seen in a new light. If the modern European virtues of Enlightenment carried the face of Robespierre, then perhaps the vices of ancient Russia were not vices at all? As Shcherbatov had noted under Peter: Cleansing the peasantry of superstition was a virtue, but what if it also cleansed them of a true and earnest love of God?

In its infancy, Russian conservative thought became preoccupied by the dreaded vice of “slastolubiye.” Andrzej Walicki defines slastolubiye as “the unlimited drive towards the satisfaction of the desires of all of the senses, the steady growth of sophisticated, artificial needs combined with sick ambition, with the desire to make an impression, to flout oneself even.” Slastolubiye is sometimes erroneously translated into English as hedonism,[2] but as Andrzej Walicki argues, it is more properly to be understood as the equivalent to Tocqueville’s concept of American individualism. Tocqueville argued that individualism was something new and ought not be confused with egoism. Likewise, the Russian conservative preoccupation with slastolubiye was not necessarily a derisive approach to hedonism, which was a vice natural to certain social classes and age categories. Slastolubiye was something which seemed to arise alongside of liberal enlightenment. It began innocently enough, like with Peter’s reform making it socially acceptable for a man and woman who were betrothed to see one another before their wedding, but as with all enlightenment, the impulse to make better was predicated on the assumption that the reasonable faculties of mankind were up to the task. Russian conservatives, apprehensive, yet still accepting a slow progression in the process of Russian liberalization, were struck by the horrors of the French revolution and the brutality of Napoleonic aggression to such an extent that a concerted effort was undertaken to cease progress and make way for a return.

Part of this return was rooted in re-opening the question of Russia’s origins as a state. What exactly was this old Russia from which it was supposedly necessary to progress away from? The matter was embarrassing insofar as the first real studies on the origins of the Russian state were conducted by the German AL Schlözer. Russian conservatives came up with a number of different theories regarding the origins of Russia. Andrzej Walicki summarizes the idea which came to dominate Slavophile thought best:

Slavic tribes had their own knyaz (князь), governors and zupans (tenders of estates)—these princes submitted to the rule of the great prince: the common ideal accepted by all was the mir, a word which connotes not only community, but actually means ‘universe’ and ‘order’ (as in the Greek kosmos), a unity, harmony and peace…Slavic states were not created on account of outside force, they grew organically… [3]

The most difficult feature to grasp about this world, particularly for the Western mind, is its total inversion of everything that the Western heritage of the Enlightenment takes for granted. Perhaps no better example exists than the Western idea of the rule of law as understood in the Russian world. The idea of the rule of law, limited government, the government of laws and not men; all this is utter anathema to the Ruski mir. It is anathema not on account of some primitive barbarism, nor on account of tyranny, but rather on account of the Russian Christian heritage that placed the burden of responsibility and duty squarely on the shoulders of men. Men rule, not laws, and to be ruled by laws is to be an unworthy man. Only a man who cannot rule himself requires laws to rule him. The best men, the nobility, are ruled by the laws that make them great. The best man, the Tsar, is ruled by the best law, which is within himself. What Westerners call self-government is understood to mean the people governing themselves through representatives who pass laws. In Russia, however, self-government literally means government of the self and the Tsar is the supreme self; this is the self who governs. This principle was illustrated by Karamzin, who, in his youthful heart, saw politics above all not as the creation of systems or regimes, but an endeavor at moral self-mastery:

If Alexander were suddenly inspired by a noble hatred of the excesses of self-government and took a pen with which he signed a law that was contrary to the laws of God and of conscience, then a truly virtuous Russian citizen would boldly grip the Tsar by the hand and proclaim: Caesar! You have exceeded the boundaries of your rule. Russia, having been taught by long suffering and failure, came to the Holy Altar and placed the power of self-government in the hands of your forefather and demanded to be governed by a sovereign, indivisible rule. This heritage is the basis of your power; no other exists. You may do everything Caesar but you cannot limit your power.[4]

Karamzin elaborated the genesis of this worldview in his romantic novel Natalia, which features the tensions of the republican virtues of old Kievian Rus with Muscovite self-rule as understood in the Tsarist sense. Karamzin, who we must remember is a republican at heart, gives Kievian Rus the greatest of honors, but ultimately concludes that the Tsarist idea of self-rule is the only way in which to rescue the Slavic world from the modern vices of slastolubiye. “[Tsarist] self-rule is the palladium of Russia. The inviolability of self-rule is the precondition for her happiness.” Karamzin acknowledges that Kievien Rus was the greatest and most enlightened of medieval kingdoms, but its regional divisions weakened Russia and made Russia susceptible to Tatar invasion. Only centralization under Moscow saved Russia. Thus does Karamzin, republican at heart, admirer of French republicanism, ultimately renounce the Western model in favor of the first authentic expression of self-conscious Russian conservative thought: “Not liberty, through which so much is so often lost, but order, justice and security—these are the pillars of happiness in a society.” Karamzin was not blind to the prospect of the abuse of power by Tsars, but he claimed that such abuses could only be opposed in the moral sense, but never through open rebellion. He blamed Ivan the Terrible’s rule as akin to Nero or Caligula, but he did not hesitate to also blame men like Kurbski for treason.

Karamzin distinguished between the low and the high in politics. In the practical realm, he was an admirer of Machiavelli’s teachings regarding the virtues of the Prince who ruled uno solo. In the higher arts of political life, he nurtured a Platonic republicanism. He ordered these two contrary passions of his through the sage wisdom of Montesquieu’s teaching that “when a ruler wishes to undertake a great reform in his state, he must change through law that which exists by law, but change through mores that which exists through mores: it is a bad politics indeed that attempts to change by law that which can only be changed through mores.”[5] Karamzin was not an advocate of slavery, nor of tyranny. He did not expect the people to be servile, nor docile, but faithful to the Tsar.


Vladimir Odoevsky

Russian conservatism would depart from Karamzin’s Machiavellian realism and from its common roots in British reaction towards the French revolution and embark upon a romantic, anti-Capitalist, and anti-Western, or anti-Modern path in the person of Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoyevsky, whose romantic and passionate prose saw the birth of a truly unique conservatism that could almost no longer be called conservative as it moved in the direction of explicit slavophilism. Odoyevsky did not only reject the French philosophes of the Enlightenment, he rejected British ideas as well. Just as Karamzin came to associate French liberalism with an inevitable downward spiral towards revolutionary Jacobinism, Odoyevsky rejected the idea of British thought because he felt that Great Britain had embarked upon the creation of Benthamite, utilitarian man and this utilitarian man was no less a danger to the Russian soul than the Jacobin. No better example of Odoyevsky’s critique of British political economy exists than his dystopia The City without a Name, which forms a part of his philosophical dialogues contained within Russian Nights. Andrzej Walicki gives an elegant summary of this dystopia:

The story of Benthamia is worth recounting. It is a story about men who emigrate from the ‘old world’, who break all of their bonds to all past traditions and come to inhabit a deserted island. They decide to enact the Benthamite system on the island. Their God is Profit. On the island, the word ‘Profit’ momentarily cures all ills. The Benthamite colony prospers. A giant statue of Jeremy Bentham is built in the center of the capital city with a plaque reading ‘profit.’ Some of the citizens would like to build a church. They are asked ‘what is the usefulness of a church?’ They justify their request by arguing that a church is necessary so it can forever remind the people that profit is the only basis for morality and the only law governing human action. Everyone agrees, and the church is built. Some artists proposed that the colony build a theatre. Others argue that theatres are useless. In the end a theatre is built in order to strengthen the idea that profit is the source of all virtues and acting without any interest is the principle cause of all human sorrows. The description of the economic life of the Benthamites appears to be a hyperbole of Weber’s Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is presented in the spirit of an exploitative economic rationality that subsumes all areas of individual life under the dictate of systematic planning and minute calculation. ‘The colony prospered, economic activity developed everywhere in an unprecedented way. In the early morning, people would pull themselves out of bed, frightened of wasting even a minute of their time. Each person would go to work…they hardly found the time to eat. All social conversations had only one subject: things which bring profit. Many books appeared on this subject…Girls would no longer read novels, preferring instead to read treatises about textile factories. Twelve year old boys would pass their time by creating savings accounts so that one day they might be able to buy and sell on the stock market. All useless jokes and forms of entertainment were abolished from family life. Every single minute was quantified, every activity was weighed and measured; nothing was allowed to go to waste. There was never a moment of peace, never a moment to enjoy the moment. Life went relentlessly forward’…In the end, a prophet came and foretold that the Benthamite colony would collapse and called on the people to repent. He was ignored and shut up in a home for the mentally insane…His prophecy came true. The dictatorship of the money changers was overthrown and thereupon began a time of upheaval, during which different groups on the island fought for power. Each of the classes; whether the farmers or the artisans, would take power and make use of the state for their own profit. Benthamite collapsed in chaos and ruin…The people were pauperized and starved…they would murder one another when it was useful or profitable to do so…[6]

Thus, Andrzej Walicki concludes, in the end there stood only an island and a nameless city with a plaque that read “profit.” Odoyevsky’s work was no longer merely a conservative reaction to Western liberalism, to French philosophy, and enlightenment, it was something uniquely Russian. It was a great question mark posed to Russia: Who are we? Who do we want to be? Odoyevsky’s romantic conservatism was one of the final steps towards the birth of Slavophilism. No better introduction to slavophilism and Russian conservative thought exists beyond Andrzej Walicki’s book. It truly is the Conservative Mind of the East. It will immediately make those who read it understand the vast chasm that separates Russian and European civilization while also demonstrating how Russian civilization, having grown out of a constant confrontation with Western thought, allows us to see ourselves in a completely new light. Above all, to all of those in the West who would endeavor to “enlighten” modern Russia, Andrzej Walicki’s book proves the wisdom of the words of the father of post-war Polish conservatism, Henry Krzeczkowski, who cautioned against such ventures. Henryk Krzeczkowski opined that Western modes and orders were only adopted in Russia to the extent that Russian culture did not find them abhorrent, and then only in ways that Western culture often found odd. The father of modern Polish conservatism warned that while parliamentary democracy was a form of government long rooted in the Polish and European experience, the spiritual heritage of the Russian world finds Western modes and orders alien and by and large either internalizes them in ways that we could little imagine or simply rejects them after a period of rumination which strengthens uniquely Russian modes and orders. For American readers of Andrzej Walicki’s work, it becomes extremely clear that Russia’s greatest thinkers knew the Western soul well. Do we know the Russian soul? Finally, we should consider what American conservatives might gain in wisdom if they expanded their heritage to include not only Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, but the Rome of the East as well?

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


* The English language title is “The Slavophiles Controversy. All quotations are my translations from the original 1964 Polish edition.

** In Russian: Love: любовь (pronounced: lyubov) and Wisdom: мудрость (pronounced: mudrost). In Polish “lubić” means “to enjoy” and “mądrość” (pronounced “modroshch”) means wisdom. In Poland, however, we call “philosophy” ‘filozofia’ – which of course is not French, but Greek.

[1] As quoted D. Błagoj, A History of XVIII Russian Literature, Warsaw 1955, p.719

[2] Translations from Popular Medieval Russian Compendia by Alexey A. Logvinenko footnote # 1086

[3] Andrzej Walicki, In The Circles of Conservative Utopia

[4] Ibid.

[5] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Book XIX, chapter 14

[6] Andrzej Walicki, In the Circles of Conservative Utopia

* The English language title is “The Slavophiles Controversy. All quotes are my translations from the original 1964 Polish edition

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7 replies to this post
  1. Mister Rieth, you open windows into a world I had never before imagined could exist. A world which those of us saturated with Western thinking would be wise to explore. Many thanks.

  2. Yes, I agree with Mr. Naas’s remark, and continue to be instructed and delighted by your essays here. Although in the U. S., we do know some of the conservative Russians–especially the novelists–the philosophers are much less well-known.

    If you have time, perhaps you could elaborate a bit on one of the points you make. In discussing the vice of “stastolyubiye” you maintain that it is better translated not as hedonism but as individualism in Tocqueville’s sense (not, for example, in the Herbert Hoover sense of “rugged individualism”). It seems to me that this needs to be unfolded more extensively.

    As you well know from your studies of Tocqueville with Dr. Robert Eden, what T. labels as “individualism” is “a reflective and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to islolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.” The danger is that this neglect of political life will evebntually become “absorbed in selfishness”–the “passionate and exaggerated love of self that brings man to relate everything to himself alone and to prefer himself to everything.”

    Is “individualism” what Russian conservatives mean by “stastolyubiye”? Judging from your own paraphrase of and quotes from Walicki, it actually sounds a bit more like selfishness (although not hedonism). On the other hand, I can easily see how a neglect of the “mir” or local community might well begin with individualism and then decline still further into selfishness. This may be part of what’s behind Solzhenitsyn’s well-known admiration for Russian communes, Swiss villages, and New England towns, as noted in Daniel J. Mahoney’s fine new book on A. S.

    On another point, it occurred to me a long time ago that whereas Western Christianity or Catholicism has inclined to reach to Aristotle for philosophic guidance (at least since the Middle Ages), Eastern or Orthodox Christianity inclines much more toward Plato and neo-Platonism. In this the Orthodox theologians more nearly resemble some of the early Church Fathers–Origen, for example. I know that this is a sweeping generalization, and that any competent student of Catholicism could cite a raft of counter-examples, but I only mean it AS a sweeping generalization. At any rate, I seem to notice a bit of this Platonizing tendency in the Russian thinkers you describe. What do you think?

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You’ve got a superb book to write.

  3. Dr. Morrisey,

    I will in future write about the Slavophile writers as such. It should be stressed, however, that Dr. Walicki is the source of many of these insights, and that even where I discover an island, it is thanks to his boat. Or, as Mansfield put it when studying Machiavelli “I kept coming upon sign posts which read ‘Leo Strauss was here’ ” Dr. Walicki’s work is really the bedrock of these reflections.

    I will use this bedrock in further essays to elaborate the questions you pose.I will elaborate on slastolubiya and Orthodoxy in a future essay.

    On this last subject, my wife once put it best: “in the West, we tend to think of Protestantism on one side, Catholicism on the other. Catholicism is actually in the middle. Protestantism and Orthodoxy are on the extremes.” The Slavophiles held Protestantism to be the ultimate corruption of religion by rationality. Catholicism was admirable, but by attempting to meld reason and faith it opened the door to its demise.

    I have also ignored contemplating Karamzin’s views on the politics of his time here, although thankfully for Poland, Tsar Alexander ignored him on certain subjects.

    Thank you to everyone for your continued interest.

  4. Excellent. I look forward to reading more, although I appreciate the fact that writing as you do takes time.

  5. Fascinating article. I do think it is important to for us American conservatives to learn about the Russian conservative mind, so we can defend them against what I call the West’s ‘Democracy Mongering’.

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