Why Russia?

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, December 15, 2008 ,

As promised in that editorial, the discussion about conservatism in other countries is about to start. Tory Historian is hoping for many learned contributions. There will be more said about Richard Pipes’s “Russian Conservatism and Its Critics” but this post concentrates on Professor Pipes’s chapter in which he defines and elucidates Russian autocracy and its historic development.

To the frequently asked question “why does it keep going wrong in Russia” there is a partial answer in that chapter.

Russian autocracy grew out of the understanding patrimony or votchina. Under the Tatar rule, the various appanage princes had to plead for the right to rule from the Tatar Khan but, once allowed, owned the realm in the same way as they owned their own private possessions and homes. The idea that even the most absolute ruler had limits to his power and that was private property simply did not exist in Russia. [It did develop subsequently but very slowly and imperfectly.]

There were other factors absent. On pp. 16 – 17 Professor Pipes says:

The Muscovite state administration evolved from the administration of the appanage, the principal task of which had been exploitation. The prikazy, Moscow’s principal executive offices, similarly evolved from the administration of the prince’s household.

As indicated above, such a mentality had also existed in the early mediaeval Europe – for instance, among the Merovingian kings of France, who also treated their kingdom as property. But there an evolution occurred which superimposed the public on the private and produced a notion of the state as a partnership between rulers and ruled. In Russia such an evolution did not occur because of the absence of the factors that had moulded European political theory and practice, such as the influence of Roman law and Catholic theology, feudalism and the commercial culture of the cities.
Out of it grew the idea that all in Russia were slaves (kholopy) of the prince, later the tsar. They owed him everything and he owed them nothing. Indeed, any suggestion that they had the right to ask for anything or suggest certain changes in public policy was met with righteous anger as late as the nineteenth century even from the most liberal and reformist of the tsars, Alexander II.

Tory Historian has the temerity to add one more detail to Professor Pipes’s succinct analysis. Not only was the Russian Orthodox Church less helpful in the development of a society that was separate from the state, it was positively harmful in its insistence that nothing good could be done on earth, anyway. Therefore, there could be no such thing as a good commonwealth or such a person as a good ruler and the possibility of referring to theological ideas in support of certain rights and privileges was not there.

One can compare Alexander Pushkin’s “Boris Godunov”, written in conscious imitation of Shakespeare’s histories, and the latter’s two plays about Henry IV. There are many parallels: both rulers came to their thrones by dubious means, having, at the very least, acquiesced in the murder of the rightful king or (in Godunov’s case) heir; both worry about their sons for different reasons; and both find that desired crown heavy to wear.

There the parallels stop. Even, Pushkin, the most westernized of all nineteenth century writer (though he was never allowed to leave Russia), could not encompass the idea of Tsar Boris Godunov attempting to assuage his conscience by good deeds on earth and by ruling well and wisely. Whether Henry IV succeeds in any of these aims is not as important as the fact that he sees the possibility of good deeds on earth and of being a good king (to quote “1066 And All That”).

The absence of religious teaching about earthly goodness and achievements had a doleful influence on Russian history.


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