Materials set out in this section reflect authors' points of view and do not necessarily coincide with official Russian positions.

Russian Conservatism: Managing Change under Permanent Revolution, Glenn Diesen, Rowman & Littlefield. All Rights Reserved.  


This book aims to explain the evolution of Russian conservatism. First, con- servatism is theorised to identify the universal assumptions, and why conser- vative policies evolve in different directions. This approach is important to compare Russian conservative ideas and policies across different periods and even compare Russian conservatism with the Western counterparts.

Without precise theoretical assumptions about conservatism, the analysis of the evolution of Russian conservatism is vulnerable to bias. A key weakness in the literature on Russian conservatism is the tendency in the

West to view Russia as the “other” and thus exaggerate the differences and downplay the similarities. Contemporary Western conservatives commonly depict Russian conservatism as a thin veil for self-serving power interests, corruption, imperial ambitions and rationalising anti-Western sentiments. Conservative thinkers in the West often reveal ignorance about Russian his- tory and its conservative traditions to fit within outdated Cold War narratives. After outlining the analytical framework in the first chapter, the book explores the continuity and change in Russian conservatism. The history of Russian conservatism encompasses central issues in sociology, philosophy, political economy and international relations. While the key principle of connecting the past with the future has remained constant, the Russian past and

its future challenges have undergone radical change.

1.       Theorising Russian Conservatism

The first chapter outlines the theoretical assumptions of conservatism to explain the distinctiveness of Russian conservatism. Conservatism is an ideology about managing change. While the fundamental assumptions of conservatism are constant across time and space, it culminates in different strands of conservative policies depending on the unique geography and historical development of states. The fundamental assumption is that change towards the rational and the modern must consider the primordial compulsions in mankind that evolved over tens of thousands of years. Conservatism therefore stresses that change must be organic and is averse to revolutionary change, as the new must build on the past. What are these instincts? Human beings are instinctively a social animal, and modernity is primarily limited by the primordial need to maintain the collective and reproduce social member- ship. The paradox of conservatism is the universal need in human nature for social memberships in distinctive groups, which results in different conservative policies. Parallels are drawn between Western and Russian conservative thinkers and the contradictions they seek to address in human nature  and society. However, the West has always been sceptical to the distinctive strand of Russian conservatism – characterised by autocracy, empire, and a

safeguarding cultural autonomy from the West.

2.       The Eurasian Schism in Russian Conservatism

The second chapter explores the Eurasian schism in Russian conservatism. Russia’s origin is commonly traced back to Kievan Rus and the prevalent role of the Orthodox Church. The fragmentation of Kievan Rus and the invasion by the Mongols in the thirteenth century began two and a half centuries of

occupation by an Asiatic power. This became the first revolutionary change in Russia, which positioned Russia between Europe and Asia in terms of both national identity and the political economy. Following independence from the Golden Horde in the late fifteenth century, the Russians had a few decades on independence before conquering the Tatar kingdoms along the Volga. Russia thereby became a multi-ethnic empire that would continue to expand into economically backward regions away from the international trade corridors where traditions and spirituality were preserved. While conservatism entailed seeking refuge in a distinctive eastern identity not corrupted by modern eco- nomics, while the need to modernise incentivised a European identity and to reconnect with international maritime corridors.

In the early seventeenth century, Peter the Great interpreted the Enlightenment in terms of geography by transforming Russia into a modern European state. Russian culture and traditions were deemed to be backwards, and Peter the Great sought to turn Russia away from its Muscovite past. The Cultural Revolution deepened the schism in society between Europeanised elites and the peasantry that identified by traditional values. The bourgeois could subsequently not fulfil their social responsibility of producing Russian- language literature as a cultural foundation. Without a distinctive and organic culture that underpinned the morality of Russian society, conservatives cautioned Russia could not remain a sovereign state.

3.       The Rise of Conservatism from the Early Nineteenth Century

The romantic era of the late eighteenth century made its way to Russia and laid the early foundation for cultural conservatism. Much like the Enlightenment had been interpreted as the Europeanisation of Russia, romanticism became a movement to reassert Russia’s cultural autonomy from Europe. The French

Revolution also gave birth to political conservatism to preserve sovereign

monarchies. Russian conservatives in the first half of the nineteenth century were largely devoted to managing the liberal political influences from Europe as a result of the French Revolution, and to resolve the problems caused by serfdom. Initially, Alexander I pursued several liberal reforms, and on his behalf, Mikhail Speransky sought to move Russia towards a constitutional monarchy. Albeit, the disruptive changes and the invasion by Napoleon prompted Alexander to halt reforms. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825, an indirect result of the French invasion of 1812, instilled revolutionary myth and spirit in Russia.

Russia launched its nationalist alternative to French nationalism that sought to defend the autocracy. Sergei Uvarov’s concept of Official Nationality became the foundation for Russia’s state conservatism until the Bolshevik Revolution. Building on Russian traditions, the triad of Uvarov’s

conservatism was “orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality” to counter the French revolutionary slogans of “liberty, egalitarianism, and fraternity”. The political landscape began to fragment between conservative Slavophile and liberal Westernisers.

4.       After the Crimean War: The Great Reforms and Revolutions

During the second half of the nineteenth century, conservatism became more preoccupied with managing the Great Reforms. The humiliating defeat in  the Crimean War in 1856 made it clear that Russia had to catch up as modernisation was a necessity to survive among the Western European powers. The Great Reforms were enacted. Emancipation of the serfs reorganised the socio-economic foundations of Russian society, although the weak bureaucracy was ill-prepared to manage the drastic changes. Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation similarly disrupted the traditional way of life. With subsequent disorder opened a political vacuum caused by economic inequality and poor conditions for workers was partly filled by the nascent socialists. Much like the conservative Slavophiles, the socialists also claimed to represent the interests of the peasantry. However, unlike the Slavophiles, the socialists desired a revolution to overthrow and destroy the monarchy, the nobility, capitalism, and the Orthodox Church. In 1905, the Tsar accepted deep democratic reforms with the October Manifesto in response to social upheavals. For the socialists, this was merely a practice for the Bolshevik Revolution that would come in 1917.

5.       Reforming the Concept of a Conservative Political Economy

The industrial revolution required reforms to the concept of a conservative political economy. Early conservatism was inclined towards resisting change as opposed to managing change. Industrial society was correctly accused of undermining traditional communities and atomising the individual. Much like Thomas Jefferson endeavoured to preserve the morality of agrarian com- munities, Russian conservatives idealised the spirituality found in traditional communes. Yet, the failure to industrialise creates asymmetrical dependence and core-periphery relationships with Britain, which undermined political and cultural sovereignty. Conservatives subsequently had to develop a conservative approach to industrialisation.

The state requires a central role in a modern conservative political economy. Besides protecting institutions and communities to ensure the repro- duction of traditional values and social membership, the state must ensure sovereign control over the economy. Alexander Hamilton, Friedrich List and Sergei Witte all recognised that industrialisation was a central component for nation-building. Managing change required sovereign control over three main pillars of the economy: strategic industries, physical transportations corridors and financial instruments. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, Russia was developing its strategic industries and constructed a pioneering transportation corridor that connected the Eurasian continent as a challenge to the dominance of maritime powers. However, insufficient fiscal sovereignty became a key weakness.

6.       Conservatism under Communism and the Advent of Eurasianism

Marxism, as a radical revolutionary movement, sought to liberate Russia from its past to give way to Communist Man. The Bolshevik revolutionaries sought to uproot all institutions that were sacred to the conservatives

– the monarchy, the nation, the Orthodox Church, and even the family.  Even Russian conservatism diminished from the historical memory in both the Soviet Union and the West due to the binary ideological rivalry of the

Cold War of communism versus liberalism/capitalism. Social failures and instability compelled the Soviet Union to revive several conservative ideas by, for example, restoring the status of the family. Similarly, the Orthodox Church and national sentiments proved necessary to mobilise the people. Russian émigré who had left communist Russia continued to preserve and modify conservatism. Eurasianism emerged as a new strand of conservatism in response to the fundamental changes imposed by the Soviet Union. The Eurasianists from the 1920s argued that Russia should not consider the Slavic as the sole component of Russia’s ethno-cultural core as Russia had

also absorbed Turkic and Ugro-Finnic characteristics as it expanded into the

Eurasian steppe.

7.       The Liberal Revolution in the 1990s

In 1991, Russia emerged with independence from the Soviet Union. The 1990s was a revolutionary period as Russia gained a new state, ideology, identity, borders and foreign policy. Peter the Great had initiated a cultural revolution to make Russia more European, and Yeltsin similarly initiated a political revolution to model Russia after the political systems of the West   to become a member in the family of European nations. The revolutionary changes were informed by liberal ideals, which were implemented in a shock treatment that would not be based on a gradual change or have root in Russian traditions. The liberal revolution caused havoc as privatisation became a criminal revolution with oligarch seizing control over the political system. Alcoholism and anti-social behaviour tore apart society and life expectancy plummeted. Secessionist movements proliferated, and it appeared that Russia would share the fate of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the West did not share Russia’s ambitions about creating a Greater Europe and preserved the zero-sum structures by constructing a new Europe without Russia through NATO and EU expansionism. With the collapse of Yeltsin’s liberal platform, there only appeared to be revolutionary political alternatives in the form of

a resurgent communist party or the radical nationalists on the right. Yeltsin stepped down early and enabled his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to chart a new path for Russia.

8.       The Return of Russian Conservatism under Putin

Russia’s rejection of communism and the liberal revolution of the 1990s created a demand for rejuvenating conservatism as a third alternative. The

conservative commitment to organic growth presents a challenge in terms of preserving the legacy of a proceeding revolutionary state that sought to eliminate Russia’s distinctiveness. What should conservatives salvage from the Soviet history that eviscerated much of what was sacred for conservatives?

Both the Soviet era and the liberal revolution of the 1990s have to be incor- porated into the national narrative as it laid the foundation for contemporary Russia. Furthermore, conservatism as an ideology had to be rediscovered at a moment when liberal reforms were needed and globalisation could not be ignored. Rather than resisting change or embracing revolutionary change    by denouncing its past, Putin became increasingly conservative to manage change. The troubled and revolutionary history of Russia can be woven into a unifying and coherent identity if it is placed within the context of Russia’s

more than 1,000 years as a civilisation. Contemporary conservatives seek to

address the Soviet legacy in a balanced manner, rehabilitate tsarist history, restore the role of the Orthodox Church in society, embrace traditional family values and restore the historical memory of Russia.

9.       The End of the Occidental Era and Birth of Greater Eurasia

Three centuries of Russia mirroring itself in the West has come to an end. Since the reforms of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, Russia has largely defined itself by its relationship with the West. The liberal international order propagated by the West after the Cold War caused a mutual rejection and ended the occidental era for Russia. First, the liberal international order left no legitimate space for Russia in Europe. Second,   the excesses of the liberal international order convinced Russia that there was nothing left to learn from the West. Concurrently, the rise of China    and the wider East has ended 500 years of Western dominance. The geo- graphical manifestation of a modern West versus an economically backward east has been rendered obsolete, and Eurasianism is reconceptualised as a geoeconomic concept. Greater Europe has been abandoned and replaced by Greater Eurasia. The endeavour to find a distinctive Russian path to mod- ernisation appears to be within grasp, a centuries-long struggle of Russian conservatives. A Eurasianist political economy is established as a multipolar ideology. In cooperation with China and other powers in the East, Russia     is seeking to develop Eurasian strategic industries, transportation corridors and financial instruments that rescinds US geoeconomic dominance of Eurasia from the Rimland. The relationship with Europe is also transformed as geoeconomic revisions convert Europe into the western peninsula of Greater Eurasia.

10.     Russia as an International Conservative Power

From the fall of Constantinople, the French Revolution, to the Napoleonic Wars – Russia’s efforts to immunise itself from the turbulence outside its borders shifted quickly to a universal mission to “save Europe” from itself. As the West undergoes a crisis in liberalism, Russia is yet again taking on a wider role as an international conservative power. Russia’s efforts to reject universalism and restore its Eurasian distinctiveness is paradoxically creating

a common cause with classical conservative movements around the world and thus fuelling Russian soft power. The liberal international order has largely been an international revolutionary movement aiming to reorganise the world around liberal ideals, which had both domestic and international repercussions. The neoliberal consensus prevented the political Left from re-distributing wealth and obstructed the political Right from preserving the community and traditional values. Russia and classical conservatives in both the West and the East are redefining the dividing lines in the world as being national-patriotism versus cosmopolitan-globalism.

The publisher: Rowman & Littlefield