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Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture [Hardcover]

Richard Pipes
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

2 Dec 2005
Russian Conservatism and Its Critics provides the first history of Russia's immemorial commitment to the theory and practice of autocracy, the most formative and powerful idea in Russia's political history. Richard Pipes considers why Russian thinkers, statesman, and publicists have historically always argued that Russia could prosper only under an autocratic regime. Beginning with an insightful study of the origins of Russian statehood in the Middle Ages, when the state grew out of the princely domain but was not distinguished from it, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics includes a masterful survey of Russia's major conservative thinkers and demonstrates how conservatism is the dominant intellectual legacy of Russia. Pipes examines the geographical, historical, political, military and social realities of the Russian empire - fundamentally unchanged by the Revolution of 1917 - that have traditionally convinced its rulers and opinion leaders that decentralising political authority would inevitably result in the country's disintegration. Pipes has written a brilliant thesis and analysis of a hitherto overlooked aspect of the Russian intellectual tradition that continues to have significance to this day.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (2 Dec 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300112882
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300112887
  • Product Dimensions: 2.2 x 16.1 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 465,390 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'...Pipes has done us a service...' -- Philip Longworth, The Spectator, March 18 2006

'...a disturbing lesson in the ineradicable nature of tyranny.' -- Donald Rayfield, Literary Review, February 2006

'...flawlessly written...full of penetrating insights and
brilliant analysis. It will be a standard work for future generations.'
-- Daniel Salbstein, East-West Review, August 2006

'Pipes operates within a liberal interpretive framework [which] is in fact one of his strengths.' -- Philip Boobbyer, Reviews in History, 11th July 2006

'[Pipes's] insightful study reminds us that Russian intellectual history is by no means merely a playground for left-wingers.' -- John Keep, Times Literary Supplement, May 19th, 2006

About the Author

Richard Pipes is Baird Professor of History Emeritus, Harvard University. He is the author of 22 books, including The Degaev Affair and The Unknown Lenin, both published by Yale University Press.

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The dominant strain in Russian political thought throughout history has been a conservatism that insisted on strong, centralized authority, unrestrained either by law or parliament. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars russian political thinking 24 July 2007
An extended essay on the form of indigenous Russian political thought as it developed before Communism. Very valuable for anyone trying to understand Russia yesterday and today.
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Continuity of Authoritarian Government in Russia 30 April 2007
By Leonard J. Wilson - Published on Amazon.com
Russian Conservatism and Its Critics, by Professor Richard Pipes, traces the intellectual history of Russian political thought from the late middle ages through the twentieth century. As Pipes observes early in the book, one must be careful to define what one means when using the terms such as "conservative" or "liberal". In his context, Russian conservatism connotes the pattern of strong, centralized, authoritarian government that has dominated Russia's history from early Muscovy to Vladimir Putin, with brief respites in period between the 1905 and 1917 revolutions and under Boris Yeltsin. Pipes demonstrates the strong degree of continuity in Russian political thought and practice across 500 years. Both the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime and Putin's increasingly centralized and authoritarian rule can be better understood as directly descended from centuries old Russian political patterns. A few key points from Russian Conservatism include:

* Early Muscovite Tsars did not differentiate between the state and their personal property - they literally "owned" Russia, including both the land and it people. As late as the early 19th century, political thinkers wrote that the nobles were the slaves of the tsar and the serfs were the slaves of the nobles.
* Peter the Great westernized Russia by opening it to western ideas, but he and subsequent "liberal" rulers neither accepted nor tolerated even the most limited concepts of popular sovereignty. Western concepts such as Natural Law were actually used to justify the Tsar's absolute power.
* Peter also created the Table of Orders which established the hierarchy of the state bureaucracy. Under this scheme, the highest levels automatically became nobles, regardless of their prior social status, thereby diluting the exclusiveness of the old nobility. This process created a split in the nobility which effectively prevented it from presenting an effective challenge to the Tsar's absolute authority. Perhaps it also set the precedent for the bureaucracy's dominance in the Soviet era.
* In the west, the Catholic Church acted as a brake on the power of the monarchies by insisting that kings should rule (at least in part) in the interest of their subjects. In Russia, the church was co-opted into supporting tsarist autocracy. In the debate between the non-possessors and the possessors over whether monasteries should possess property, the tsar sided with the possessors, allowing them to retain their landed estates. In return, the church supported unlimited tsarist power.
* Western feudalism was a two-way street: the feudal lord could expect service from his retainers but was also obligated to provide them with protection - failure by either party could be grounds for termination of the feudal obligations of the other party. In Russia, feudalism was a strictly on-way street: Everyone owed service to the Tsar, who owed nothing to his subjects.

Russian Conservatism touches on themes that Pipes presented in his previous books, Russia Under the Old Regime and Property and Freedom. His newer book presents these themes in the context of the history of Russian political philosophy and its main contributors. I found it to be a useful addition to his prior works and a framework for understanding current political trends in Russia.

I suspect that another key to understanding modern Russia may lie in the concept of nationalities. In Western Europe, the multinational empires largely gave way to nation states in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union into its 15 constituent republics might be viewed as the latest manifestation of this trend. Even in its currently reduced form, which resembles Russia's borders circa 1600, Russia appears to contain a diverse collection on nationalities, characterized by differing ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious affiliations. Conflict between nationalities is most apparent in the Chechen war, but may exist in less violent forms among other groups within today's Russia. Perhaps Professor Pipes will be able to contribute our understanding of this issue as well.
13 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars How Can You Understand Russia if you Don't Understand Orthodoxy 28 July 2007
By Ex Lib - Published on Amazon.com
Like so many other Western scholars, Pipes sees monarchy and autocracy as retrograde, a "system" that impeded Russia's transition to an enlightened, modern state. This has resulted in an ongoing dynamic between those forces that sought to integrate Russia into a broader European culture and those that saw Western Europe as anti-Christian. Unfortunately, to understand this dynamic properly, one has to first understand Orthodoxy and how it differs metaphysically and ontologically from what would eventually become Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Many of the ideas credited to the Enlightenment and initiated by the Renaissance by men like Ficino, Pico, and Bruno were esoteric in nature, having their roots in Gnostic and Christian Kabbalism. The degree to which Orthodoxy took root in Russia meant that it was immune from these ideas and their apotheosis in the Englightenment. While Peter and Catherine were sympathetic to the Philosophes, the peasants and Church resisted them because they introduced distortions into what can only be called a Christian, Trinitian anthropology of Man. This is reflected in the reviewer below who quotes the Declaration of Independence -- that all Men are created equal. For the Orthodox, the first most basic truth is that all Men are created in the image and likeness of God. A specific Trinitian anthropology follows this, one involving ancestral sin, the nous, the soul, and what is possible in a fallen world - not a specifically ordered political reality geared towards what the "pure practical rules of Reason" determine to be just. Orthdoxy is not interested in creating Rawlsville but in creating a Christian society. The ideal for Orthodoxy is theosis -- not a "this worldly" ideal of social justice and the like. I would argue that one can't properly understand the Slavophiles' critique of the West or the writings of Dostoyevsky and Pobedonostsev without undestanding why they prefer monarchy to democracy. Since monarchy ideally represents the Law of God and the Law of God provides for the salvation of Man, social inequalities are simply not as relevant. Of course it is worth pointing out that while the Founding Fathers penned the Declaration of Independence, it didn't necessarily translate into a more just system that what was in place in Russia at the time. The federal government slaughtered the Indians, gave them the Trail of Tears, enslaved blacks, and embraced a doctrine of Manifest Destiny that was as jingoistic as anything that ever came out of Russia. In fact, Russia introduced more meaningful reforms for its peasants and disenfranchised than the US or Britain in the 19th century. Had the world revolutionary forces not assassinated Stolypin, who knows how the 20th century would have turned out. But one thing is clear: after the kings of Europe, Asia, and Russia had been sacrificed on the altar of freedom, equality and liberty, the world would become drenched in blood thereafter. Stick that in your "Pipes" and smoke it --
9 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scratch a Russian and find a Tatar 15 Feb 2006
By N. Ravitch - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Pipes' view of Russian history is the classical one which finds everything Russian non-European, barbaric, autocratic, and incorrigible. There is plenty of evidence supporting this view. Many Russian thinkers have concurred. Yet objective observers have to call this view of Russia "Polonophile," that is to say pro-Polish. This is what the Poles always said about the Russians, often with justification but not always. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the exact opposite of Russia: it had powerful nobles and gentry, a Catholic as opposed to a Byzantine Church, political institutions, an openness to the West and its intellectual and religious diversity. But with all these advantages the Poles could not maintain their world, they treated the peasantry no better than the Russians did theirs, and the Poles never achieved the cultural heights of Russian literature and music. The Germans who also had all the cultural advantages of the West fell into a despotism even more degenerate and evil than the Russians. So one has to agree with Pipes that Russia is not good liberal material, but then neither are many other nations with more advantages than the Russian ever had.

In sum, one does learn much about the Russian proclivity towards authoritarianism but the book does not prove that the Russians cannot change. We may yet be surprised by Russia.

Pipes is also known for his belief that Soviet Communism simply replayed the traditional Russian proclivity for autocracy. This ignores the real achievements, the positive achievements of the Soviets: education, science, culture, literacy, modernity. Tsarist Russia was making progress by 1914 but it is hard to know what it would have achieved without the Bolsheviks.
4 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars NOT EVERYTHING SHOULD BE CONSERVED 16 Jan 2006
By Orrin C. Judd - Published on Amazon.com
It is perhaps sufficiently self-evident by now that we will not stand accused of mere jingoism when we say that most of the ideas necessary to the End of History were encapsulated in less than a paragraph some two hundred and thirty years ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Indeed, that's such idea-rich terrain that we're unlikely to be able to address them all, but let's pluck out just a few of the key ones:

(1) Human dignity comes from our Creation by God.

(2) As a result of that Creation, all Men begin life as moral equals.

(3) God grants us Rights that precede any human institutions and can not be justly compromised by any such.

(4) Governments are, in fact, created by Men in order to safeguard human dignity and vindicate those Rights.

(5) Legitimate government, then, can be said to serve God's ends and to require the consent of the governed. Any government that does not do both is by its very nature illegitimate.

So pervasive are these ideas that, for instance, I just happened to be reading a book, The Case for Goliath, by a rather non-partisan/non-ideological foreign policy wonk, Michael Mandelbaum, wherein he states as a fact:

Government is not the essence of social life. In human affairs it is secondary, emerging from, and playing a supporting role for, what is primary: the social relations and the norms they embody that make up society.

Thereby he dismisses, quite correctly, all of the competing ideologies of government to our own ideal of liberal/parliamentary/republican democracy.

The recent competitors--well worth dismissing--have been Nazism, communism/socialism, and Islamicism. But the original competitors were autocracies, which not only viewed government as primary but located that government in the person of one ruler. The longest lived of these despotisms, at least in the West, was the tsardom of Russia and it is this tragic phenomenon that Mr. Pipes explores here.
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