- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006



By Richard Pipes

Yale, $30, 240 pages


In January 1917, Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador to Russia, urged Nicholas II to “break down the barrier that separates you from your people and … regain their confidence.” The czar retorted, “Am I to regain the confidence of my people, or are they to regain my confidence?”

The conversation was private, but the Russian nation had taken Nicholas’s measure shortly after he assumed the throne in 1894. Dismissing a petition from the provincial gentry for a voice in governing, Nicholas ordered the supplicants to abandon their “senseless dreams” and pledged to “safeguard the principle of autocracy as firmly and steadfastly as did my unforgettable late father [Alexander III].”

That, Richard Pipes observes in “Russian Conservatism and its Critics,” constituted the greatest mistake czarism made in the late 19th century: “[B]y repelling the moderates it pushed them into the arms of the radicals.”

How did autocracy manage to survive in Russia long after it had vanished in Europe? Struck by the “resemblance between Communist Russia and Muscovite tsardom,” Mr. Pipes conceived the idea for this study early in the Cold War, and he has brought it to fruition at an opportune moment:

“The Russian people,” he writes, “having gotten rid of the most extreme form of autocratic rule ever known and seemingly ready to embrace democracy, have once again … sought safety in submission to a ‘strong hand.’”

Something in the Russian psychological and political DNA appears to make the nation “committed to authoritarian government.” Russian conservatives have always insisted on bestowing more power, not less, on their leaders.

History and geography dictated that the first East Slav state, Kiev Rus, draw political inspiration from the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire, where the concepts of “emperor” and “populace” deviated sharply from the Roman prototype.

As Mr. Pipes observes, “jurists in both Republican and Imperial Rome proceeded on the principle that all public authority emanated from the people and its end was justice.” The idea of a “partnership” between rulers and ruled, a “sense of common destiny,” shaped modern Europe, but “never even appeared” in Russia, or in Byzantium.

The Byzantine concept of the ruler as autocrat rather than partner had little influence on Kiev Rus, where the free population at large played an important role in peacetime civic affairs. The first significant contact with despotism came early in the 13th century with the Tatar (Mongol) invasion.

Seeking protection, the East Slavs?ancestors of today’s Russians?migrated from Kiev to the forests of the northeast and entrusted great power to the local princes. In 1547 the young Muscovite grand prince, Ivan IV (“The Terrible”), was crowned czar, or “caesar.”

The church that crowned him rejoiced. Eastern Orthodox Christianity faithfully rendered unto Caesar that which was his because it had no mandate to look after the material world. Except for the souls of believers, everything was Caesar’s. Russian czars came to be regarded by both church and people as “vicars of God … beyond the reach of human judgment … accountable only to God.” The road to absolute monarchy, and serfdom, beckoned.

God’s will thus provided one justification of autocracy, the sheer size of the territory another. Citing Montesquieu (1689-1755) and other political theorists, Mr. Pipes writes that, in most instances, the “stability and liberty of a country stand in inverse relation to its size and external security … the larger a country and the more insecure its borders, the less it can afford the luxury of popular sovereignty and civil rights.”

Russia came to occupy a sixth of the earth. And Mr. Pipes notes that the country lacked the “two institutions that in the West served to limit the power of kings: an independent nobility and middle class, and private property in land.”

A constitutional project that came along in the reign of Catherine II “The Great” went nowhere, largely, the historian Nikolai Karamzin wrote, because autocracy had “founded and resuscitated Russia. Any change in her political constitution has led in the past and must lead in the future to her perdition.” Conservatives believed Russian institutions sound; it remained only to find good men to staff them.

Mr. Pipes points out that the peaceful emancipation of the serfs in 1861 by a stroke of the autocrat’s pen, and the Great Reforms in general, “enhanced the prestige of the autocracy in liberal circles.” For a brief moment it seemed that Alexander II might also bring Russia’s political institutions into the modern age. But when the nobles of Tver province protested that “unjust order of things that makes the poor man pay a ruble and the rich man not a penny,” the czar sent their chief spokesman into exile.

The czar-liberator fell victim to a terrorist bomb in 1881. Konstantin Pobedonostsev, last of the great conservative advisors to the crown, urged his successor to pursue a course of “uncompromising reaction,” and Alexander III instituted a savage crackdown that sent hundreds of terrorists to the gallows and thousands more into Siberian exile.

But he could not cauterize every excision on the Hydra’s head. Moreover, by this time the autocracy had lost both the confidence of huge sectors of the public and whatever efficiency it had once had. Exhausted, the old regime fell. The relatively moderate politicians who had given it the final shove into the abyss in February 1917 were superseded in October by murderous extremists who would hold power in Russia for more than 70 years.

Mr. Pipes’s outstanding history of conservative thought in Russia calls into question some of the assumptions of the last half-century of Russian studies in the West. When the call went out for graduate students in the 1950s, students flocked to the field. Political scientists and historians were naturally eager to study the Bolsheviks and their presumed ideological ancestors among the Russian radicals.

Their professors, most of them also quite young, obligingly supervised hundreds of dissertations, few of which revealed much about what George Kennan called the “sources of Soviet conduct.” That conduct owed less to Marx and Engels than to the autocrats and their advisers and the conservative ideologues of the old regime.

Once more we are indebted to Mr. Pipes for setting the record straight.

Woodford McClellan, emeritus professor at the University of Virginia, is working on a book about the Communist International (Comintern) 1919-1943.

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