Putin's Precursors

By Murawiec, Laurent | The National Interest, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Putin's Precursors


Murawiec, Laurent, The National Interest


HISTORIANS explain that for several centuries Russia's elites have been divided between "Westernizers" and "Slavophiles." The former advocate the adoption of Western ways, the latter seek to keep Russia isolated from Europe's decadent and alien traditions. Peter the Great is often depicted as the father figure of the Westernizers, while Ivan the Terrible is credited with inaugurating the long succession of tyrants that fought to safeguard Russia's "soul" against alien encroachment.

But such analysis is inadequate. It fails to account for what has been called "Peter the Great's dilemma": Is it possible to bring an end to Russian barbarism by using barbaric means? Should Peter-- "the awful Emperor", as Pushkin dubbed him--be considered a Westernizer simply because he created "a window on Europe", or a Slavophile, on account of his frightful brutality?

If Russia has always failed to modernize, if it remains encamped on the outskirts of Europe, it may be that most of its supposed Westernizers were not, and are not, so Western-oriented after all. There are, indeed, modernizers in Russia. A strong tradition in Russian statecraft and in the intelligentsia has espoused modernization--developing science, technology, industry and education--but has done so strictly on Russia's terms. According to this tradition, the West's religious and cultural values must not be allowed to contaminate the unchanging essence of Mother Russia, whose hallmarks are Russian Orthodoxy and a powerful, centralized state. In the modern era, the humiliating defeat suffered by Russia in the Crimean War compelled Russian elites to adopt Western hardware in order to build up Russia's infrastructure and her military might, as reflected in Dostoyevsky's elaboration about the need to do so in his Diary of a Writer. But while Western railways, capital and machinery were needed, Western mores an d institutions were unwelcome.

It is an article of faith among such modernizers that the Russian state, the standard-bearer of the "Russian Idea", must never allow either Russia's civil society or its economy to develop an autonomous existence. Citizens must be constrained, prevented from organizing themselves spontaneously outside church and state-sanctioned lines. Selfish economic interests will not concern themselves with Russia's destiny, and dominion by the state is essential.

This outlook is partly congruent with the thinking of extreme Slavophiles. Modernizing Russia is not their concern. They are prepared to slow down and even halt altogether Russia's industrial and urban development, lest that development breed Western pestilence. The similarity with Islamic fears of the West is striking: the pure essence of Russia is so fragile that, for all its divine strength, it could easily be contaminated. These ideologues are prepared to go to absurd lengths, and to implement highly counterproductive measures, in order to maintain "purity." Nicholas I in the first half of the nineteenth century, Alexander III in the last quarter of that century, and, in their own ways, Lenin and Stalin embody this current. The Bolshevik leaders slaughtered all the educated classes, preferring the abysmal sloth, incompetence and unproductivity of muzhik graduates of Soviet schools to "bourgeois" engineers: the coarse Bolshevik cadres were bad technicians, but at least they were nashi (ours).

THE modernization and Slavophile camps are in many respects distinct and identifiable, but they are not rigidly separated. Countless threads connect them. Dostoyevsky, advocate of modernization though he was, was also a very close collaborator of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, for decades the Procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church and probably the most reactionary figure in modern Russian history. Before he had them slaughtered, Lenin found Menshevik experts useful for performing skilled administrative tasks for which illiterate Bolsheviks were unsuited.

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