It’s a truism that America is a liberal place. Americans emphasize the importance of the individual and tend to reject notions of hierarchy and authority. Russia by contrast is known to be a more conservative society, one where the interests of the group come ahead of those of the individual; and where, for centuries, respect for hierarchy and authority has usually been the norm.

All the same, the “news” of Russia’s return to conservatism has hit many observers in the West like the proverbial ton of bricks. The typical response has been to blame the Russian president for steering Russia away from the liberal path, the path of becoming a “normal country” with “Western values.”

Others have sought to understand Russian political culture on its own terms. A recent analysis (“The New Eurasians,” Times Literary Supplement, May 13, 2015) stands out from the crowd by making a serious effort to read present-day Russian conservatism in its historical context. Lesley Chamberlain dismisses the glib reduction of Russia to its present-day leader. Russia, she writes, is not ruled by Vladimir Putin: to the contrary, “the power that rules Russia is tradition.” Far from it being the case that a benighted Russian public is being led to conservatism artificially by its government, the reverse is the case: the vast majority of Russians, perhaps eighty percent “are intensely conservative.”

Like most in the commentariat, Chamberlain finds cause for alarm in Russia’s return to type. She worries about a Russia seeking to create “an alternative version of the contemporary Christian, or post-Christian, world, contiguous with but distinct from the West.”

Chamberlain reduces today’s incarnation of Russian conservatism to the more or less vague bundle of geographic and neo-imperial notions that goes by the name Eurasianism, often linked with the name of Alexander Dugin.

To be sure, anti-Western Eurasianism is part of contemporary Russian conservatism. But it is only one part. Excessive focus on this angle has created the impression that Dugin-esque Eurasianism is the only game in town when it comes to Russian conservatism. It isn’t. It’s not even the only version of what might be called the ‘Russian national greatness’ school of conservatism.

If we wish to understand Russia in something like its true complexity, we have to take the trouble to listen to it, to let it speak in its own voice instead of constantly projecting onto it all our own worst fears. Precisely because Eurasianism has already hogged all the attention, I won’t deal with it here.

Instead, it’s time to take a look at the varieties of Russian conservatism. This April, I got the opportunity to do so at a conference held in Kaliningrad: “Berdyaev Readings”, a three-day gathering of academics and writers in Russia’s most westerly province sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, devoted to “the dialogue on values between Russia and the West.”

Talking to the Conservatives

I was initially nervous about accepting the invitation. A long-time student of Russian political and religious thought, I was naturally attracted to a gathering named in honor of the great Russian existentialist and personalist philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev. The conference’s ethical theme was at once vague and alluring. Were Russian writers and academics truly interested in reading the likes of Berdyaev, I wondered, or might Berdyaev merely serve as the cover for a repugnant reactionary ideology expediently cooked up by the Kremlin?

What if the so-called “conservatism” at this conference turned out to be—as critics have alleged such gatherings in Russia always are—nothing but an anti-Western hate fest tinged with racism and bigotry? Well, I figured, that would also be something worth learning.

The third in the “Berdyaev Readings” series, the conference is just one part of a larger project funded by the Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research (ISEPR), a Moscow think tank linked with the United Russia party and allied with several leading Russian universities and philosophy departments. As already suggested by the name of its flagship publication (The Russian Idea, “Русская idea”), the project’s overarching goal appears to be putting conservative flesh on the bones of what Chamberlain charily described as “the true Russian way in all things … social, political and religious.”

Though I definitely continue to have misgivings about aspects of the Russian conservative movement, I found the conference entirely worthwhile and at times even inspiring.

Commonalities

Despite important differences among the Russian participants, there was a unity of perspective in at least one respect: all accepted the value for today of the inheritance of pre-1917 Russia. This held true even for the most liberal-oriented participants, such as Boris Makarenko, a professor at the Higher School of Economics. No less than his more conservative colleagues, he saw strong family values, and traditional morality and sexual ethics as one of Russia’s strengths. Indeed, Mararenko warned that the relative strength of these values today in Russia is by no means a guarantee of their stability, and the same goes for the current continuing growth of the Orthodox Church. The danger to traditional Russian values, he warned, comes not from the West but from the pressures of modernization itself.

Also common to all participants was a readiness to learn from the experience and thought of the West, albeit on their own terms. Makarenko compared Russian conservatism with Western mainstream conservatism (such as that in the Republican Party in the U.S.), and generally found the Russian version the less impressive of the two. Western thinkers cited approvingly by participants included Tocqueville, Hans Gadamer, Max Weber, Martin Heidegger, Isaiah Berlin, and James Billington, among many others.

Oleg Matveichev, a professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics, spoke mainly on the subject of Berdyaev, whom he deemed a “liberal” conservative, because Berdyaev gives so much importance to the individual person (as opposed to the group). In a separate collection of essays which he shared with me, Matveichev makes very clear that Russia itself is simply a subset of Europe; it is a country that can only define itself in terms of its relationship with Europe. Despite the supposed popularity of a Eurasianist discourse, most other participants agreed that Russia is a European nation. However, several (but not Matveichev) also believed that Europe, having recently abandoned its Christian heritage, had abandoned its own essence.

The Russian thinkers most frequently cited included, unsurprisingly, Berdyaev, but also the pro-Catholic (and rather Kantian) Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (see my recent essay for a brief overview of their thought).

Liberal Conservatism

Some participants straddled several categories of conservatism at once. In other cases, for example that of the above-mentioned Makarenko, their thought fit neatly within a single category—in his case, that of liberal conservatism.

For Makarenko, modern Russian political practice has far too utilitarian an attitude toward rule of law and democracy. If it can be demonstrated that the latter support state sovereignty, then all is well and good; but whenever either are perceived as a threat to the state—then democracy and rule of law are always the ones that have to suffer. From his perspective, Russia would do better to learn from Burke, who looked not so much to the sovereignty of the state as to the sovereignty of the parliament.

Matveichev, no doubt the most eclectic thinker in the group, on certain subjects occupied the liberal end of the spectrum. For example, in an essay on corruption and the state, he approvingly cites the work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto to make the point that rule of law—as it is practiced, nota bene, in the United States—is the sine qua non of economic prosperity. What I found fascinating about Matveichev’s position is that he then takes his argument in a Hegelian and Platonic direction.

It is the state—not the market on its own—that provides these all important forms, and bad as the corruption of state institutions may be, a bad form is nonetheless better than no form at all—including for business. The common good “cannot be reduced to the goods of individual private parties, and cannot be deduced from them. Just as the sum of the parts does not make up the whole, in the same way the sum of private interests may sometimes work even against itself … it is the state that represents the common good.” Isn’t this something we can learn from in the West today?

Left Conservatism

The “left conservatives” at the conference—represented most prominently by Dr. Alexander Schipkov, an expert on Church-state relations—are critical of liberal capitalism and indeed are also critical of the current Russian state to the extent that its “conservatism” is reducible merely to “family values” without including the all-important component of economic fairness. His views are close to that of Catholic Distributists as well as to those of “radical orthodox” theologians like William Cavanaugh and John Milbank.

According to Schipkov, Russians of various backgrounds (left and right, secular and religious, red and white) need to forge a common ethic. But in truth, Russia already has such an ethic, one that unifies all the disparate phases in its often tragic and contradictory history. Consciously playing off of Weber, Schipkov refers to Russia’s “[Christian] Orthodox spirit and the ethic of solidarity.” In a fascinating essay on this same subject, Schipkov makes clear that his concept of solidarity owes much to the writings of the early 20th century German philosopher Max Scheler, who likewise had such a big impact on the thought of Pope John Paul II.

Though the Russian Church continues to play a defining role in the ethical formation of the nation—no other pre-1917 institution, after all, still exists—over time it will be replaced by other institutions, according to Schipkov. Like the Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Church has recently forged its own Social Concept of the ROC, which fleshes out this call for fairness as an aspect of human dignity.

Creative Conservatism

Because it tends to evoke the disastrous social and economic effects of “liberalisation” during the 1990s, the term “liberal” has become something of a swear word in today’s Russia. But what, exactly, does this much reviled “liberalism” consist in? In my own presentation (English translation forthcoming at SolidarityHall.org) I suggested that Russians need to define liberalism—and conservatism—more carefully, while distinguishing both from their ideological perversions.

To his credit, Oleg Matveichev has taken the trouble to craft a precise definition of the liberal doctrine of human nature in terms worthy of a Pierre Manent (The City of Man). According to Matveichev, liberalism reconceives the very essence of man as freedom, self-sufficiency, and self-definition. Seen through this liberal prism, the goal of our existence becomes self-emancipation from the chains of the past and the dead weight of tradition.

Having redefined the meaning of history, Matveichev continues, the “liberals” then set about condemning those who would thwart its “progress,” dismissing them as “conservatives” and “reactionaries.” Is it not time, Matveichev asks, to throw off the chains of this label invented for us by our adversaries? Why define ourselves as mere “conservatives”? Why not creatively reimagine an alternative ‘meaning of history” ourselves?

Can conservatism be “creative?” And if so, how? Mikhail Remizov, president of the National Strategy Institute, answered, in effect, “how can it be anything else?” Critics on the left sometimes attack conservatism by saying, that conservatives do not preserve tradition, they invent it. Remizov dismisses the implied insult, because it demonstrates a misunderstanding of how traditions work: (re)invention “ … is the normal, creative approach to tradition.” Remizov agrees with Hans-Georg Gadamer that sharply contrasting tradition and modernity is a silly and flat-footed way of looking at tradition, because the latter is always in any case a complex creative task of making adjustments and dialectical zig-zags. Such an understanding of culture and tradition as creativity fits, of course, quite nicely with the philosophy of Nicholas Berdyaev. It is hard to think of another thinker for whom creativity plays a more central role.

Alexei Kozyrev, associate dean of the philosophy department at Moscow State University, illustrated the same creative conservative principle when he spoke of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Social Concept. The task of modern man, according to that document, is to find creative ways to retrieve the thought of the Church Fathers, for example that of Gregory of Nyssa, who counseled demonstrating our human dignity “not by domination of the natural world … but by caring for and preserving it.” The Social Concept likewise calls for defending the dignity of the unborn embryo and of the mentally ill. Here, in an unexpected twist, the Western environmental movement meets the pro-Life movement, challenging perhaps our own ideological boundaries.

Ambiguities

Although in this essay I am making no attempt at comprehensiveness, it would be misleading to completely ignore that different spirits dwell in the heart of Russian conservatism. Above I have emphasized the ones easiest to sympathize with. Among the least sympathetic trends is a recent one to willfully close one’s eyes to Hannah Arendt’s thesis that there is something in common between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s version of communism. Recently, Zhirinovsky’s nationalist LDPR party has even put forward a bill that would make illegal drawing such parallels. This is not good.

But even this subject turns out to be more complex than it at first appears. Schipkov, for example, readily concedes that Stalin was a “tyrant,” but he also believes (and here he strongly overlaps with Arendt) that the imperialist project had from the beginning a quasi-totalitarian bent. Echoing Simone Weil, Schipkov finds in all forms of modernity some variation on the idea that ‘strength and power’ (including when ‘power’ takes the form of hard cash) should always rule. What is needed, for Schipkov, is a new modernity based on a Christian politics.

Matveichev, in his book Russia: What is to be Done?, occasionally makes excuses for Stalin as being, supposedly, the right man for his particular time and circumstance, though not for today. This is a rather mild assessment, it would seem. Matveichev’s overriding concern in this book is to find some means of rescuing Russia from its current path of decline. Toward this end, he brainstorms a plethora of huge national projects: a nation-wide humanities ‘Manhattan Project;’ affordable housing and Green Revolution programs; even, at one point (resurrecting an idea of 19th-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov) a project for pursuing human immortality. But then Matveichev does an about face:

… [M]aybe I am mistaken … Perhaps the time has come for small tasks, and we should take as our hero someone like Amelie in the film Amelie. Perhaps all of us together – but only together!!! – should renounce our big projects and get busy with the task that is the most difficult one of all: love of our neighbor.

Might as well be Pope Francis.

Dialogue with Russia?

Lesley Chamberlain claimed that Russia is not a puzzle. In fact that is precisely what it is. As should be clear even from the above very partial survey, Russian conservatism, like Russia itself, embraces a contradictory collection of flaws and virtues. Both the flaws and the virtues are large.

Among Russia’s virtues, it must be emphasized, is a far greater freedom of speech than it is typically given credit for. Russian participants in the Kaliningrad conference demonstrated a boldness of imagination, a variety and depth of thought on alternate futures for their country that is by no means always evident in political speech even in the United States.

For Western liberals, it is tempting to present Russian conservatism as always intrinsically dangerous. But I believe the loss is ours. Russian conservatism—or at any rate important elements of it—contains something potentially valuable to the West as it seeks to forge a strategy for dealing with the growing disorder in the world. What justifies engagement with Russia is before all else its ability to contribute to solving the problem that all of us face: how to devise a softer version of western modernity, one which allows for the preservation of tradition while simultaneously retaining what is most valuable in the liberal tradition.

The author would like to thank Dr. Adrian Walker, Matthew Cooper and especially Dr. Matthew Dal Santo for their valuable suggestions and comments on an earlier draft.

Paul Grenier is an essayist and translator who writes regularly on political-philosophical issues.