Magazine article The American Conservative

Putin's Philosophy

Magazine article The American Conservative

Putin's Philosophy

Article excerpt

The Russian leaders paradoxical, strong-state "liberal-conservatism"

Imagine that you were to pick up a textbook on American history and find no mention of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Jefferson. This is pretty much the situation for anyone in the West trying to understand modern Russia. The standard textbooks have almost nothing to say about the conservative ideas currently dominating the political scene. The Soviet Union vigorously suppressed the key thinkers of the right for most of the last century, of course, but even now that it is no longer a crime for Russians to read their books the West has continued to ignore them.

There is a reason for this. Historians tend to have a teleological focus. They have in mind a defining endpoint - the telos - and wish to explain how we got there. Information that does not contribute to this explanation is ignored. In the case of Russia, the telos was, for many decades, communism. Everyone wanted to understand what it was and why it had succeeded in taking power. Studies of Russian inteUectual history therefore quite understandably concentrated on the development of liberal and socialist thought. Russian conservatism, by contrast, was considered a historical dead end and unworthy of study.

As a result, Western commentators nowadays, lacking any knowledge of Russia's conservative heritage, are unable to place contemporary Russian government within the correct intellectual context.

Analyses of Putin tend to emphasize his KGB past and portray him as bent on suppressing democratic freedoms. As the murdered journalist Anna PoUtovksaya put it, Putin "has failed to transcend his origin and stop behaving like a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet KGB. He is stiU busy sorting out his freedom-loving feUow countrymen; he persists in crushing liberty just as he did earlier in his career." For many in the West, mat's the end of story.

In fact, contrary to this view, Putin fits into a long-standing Russian tradition of "liberal-conservatism." Modern Russian author A. V. Vasilenko summed up this school of thought, writing that "A strong state is needed not instead of liberal reform, but for reform. Without a strong state liberal reforms are impossible." This is the basis of what British academic Richard Sakwa calls "a unique synthesis of liberalism and conservatism" embodied in Putins rule.

Boris Chicherin (1828-1904) is perhaps the ideology's founding father. According to historian Richard Pipes, he "espoused Manchester liberalism and civil rights, and, at the same time, supported autocracy." "The Russian liberal," Chicherin wrote, "travels on a few high-sounding words: freedom, openness, public opinion ... which he interprets as having no limits. ... Hence he regards as products of outrageous despotism the most elementary concepts, such as obethence to law or the need for a police and bureaucracy." "The extreme development of liberty, inherent in democracy," he said, "inevitably leads to the breakdown of the state organism. To counter this, it is necessary to have strong authority."

Another major figure was the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900). Solovyov believed that Christian love, embodied in the Church, was the supreme political value, expressed through political and economic arrangements which respected the dignity and rights of individuals. Thus, while supporting a close connection between church and state, Solovyov opposed the death penalty and railed against official anti-Semitism. He was what can only be described as a "liberal theocrat."

Yet another central character in the annals of Russian Uberal-conservatism was Pyotr Struve (1870-1944). OriginaUy a Marxist, Struve authored the first manifesto of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (the forerunner of the Communist Party), but he eventually foreswore Marxism and in exile in the 1920s became a prominent supporter of the senior surviving member of the Russian royal family. …

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