Magazine article The Spectator

A Strange Reluctance to Be Free

Magazine article The Spectator

A Strange Reluctance to Be Free

Article excerpt

RUSSIAN CONSERVATISM AND ITS CRITICS : A STUDY IN POLITICAL CULTURE by Richard Pipes Yale, £17.95, pp. 216, ISBN 9780300112882 . £14.36 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 there was widespread talk of Russia soon becoming an open, democratic polity with a thriving civil society. Under President Putin such hopes have faded. The state has seized back much of the power it lost under Yeltsin, devolution has yielded to centralisation, and the prevailing tone is authoritarian rather than libertarian. Yet all this has been popular. Why should the Russian people prefer authority to liberty? The American historian Richard Pipes sets out to answer this question in his latest book.

Montesquieu thought that autocracy was a function of Russia's immensity.

Controlling so vast a space with so low a population density encouraged centralised, authoritarian government. Another factor was that land was plentiful, creating little pressure to establish property rights, the usual foundation of a free, democratic society. The short growing season and the savage climate, so conducive to natural disasters, also promoted authoritarianism, though Pipes pays scant attention to environmental factors. For him the nub of the problem is ideological -- Russian constitutional practice may have derived from the Roman imperial tradition but in a distorted form.

Russians could not distinguish between tsar and state. Moreover they conflated state and church and retained absolutism when the rest of Europe abandoned it. The trouble, according to Pipes, began with over two centuries of Mongol domination. It was compounded by the 'patrimonial' nature of Muscovite Russia which entrenched the notion that the Tsar owned the people. No room was left for liberty or rights. The argument is cogent, though it rests in part on questionable premises.

Contrary to Pipes's assertion, the Mongols did not isolate Russia from Byzantium. Nor is it quite right to suggest that the state showed 'no interest in the well-being of its subjects' or that there was no limit to a tsar's power. The monasteries were supposed to care for the sick and unfortunate; and the government of Boris Godunov, for example, spent large sums on famine relief. The Law Code of 1649 echoed the dictum of the Emperor Leo VI in according justice equally to all and Russia's rulers were aware of their duty to God. In a religious age fear for one's immortal soul could be an effective check on licence.

That said, the literature on Russian political thought is heavily weighted in favour of the radicals and Marxists, so Pipes has done us a service in giving conservative thinkers their due. …

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