There’s nothing new about the Russian conservatism Putin stands for, and it is something worth understanding, even if it makes us weep with frustration at the heavy-handed seizing of Crimea and the evident will of most Ukrainians not to be subject to Russian rule.
Just as many liberal Western democracies trace their histories of tolerance and a sharp separation of church and state back to the Enlightenment, so Russia still seems to be fighting the French Revolution, the political climax of that period. Russian conservativism has its roots in resistance to the modern momentum of individualistic liberation. There was never a Russian Edmund Burke to make a sophisticated plea for the powers of tradition and community over rationality as a guide to how to live. But there was always the Orthodox Church to bluntly dismiss reason as anathema. And for three and half centuries there was a tsar to rule by divine authority.
Whenever I try to understand the authoritarian Russian way anew I have to think of a man who 50 years before Lenin and 150 before Putin spelt out the classic Russian formula: Orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality. Count Sergei Uvarov’s tripartite slogan of 1833 was conservative Russia’s answer to liberté, egalité, fraternité. It meant, in something closer to today’s terms, autocracy, religious authority and managed democracy. Many Russians seem to find that acceptable.
Uvarov was Tsar Nicholas I’s Minister for National Enlightenment when he formulated his slogan. At the time it was already the national awareness movements in neighbouring Poland and across the Austro-Hungarian empire that were the biggest threat to the total tsarist grip on power. Rather than suppress Romantic national awareness entirely, which was part of a new kind of intellectual freedom, and the beginnings of civic life for Russia, Uvarov proposed that Nicholas’s reign be hallmarked with a special kind of “official nationality” that the state would manage. Cue censorship and restricted access to higher education, for a start. Western historians have mostly passed Uvarov by because the apparent illiberalism he was encouraging looks so unattractive. But it is his dilemma and the solutions he came up with that make him interesting, for as long as Russia remains in its conservative mould. I owe my sense of his importance to a very gifted historian of early-19th-century Russia who first wrote about him in the 1920s, Alexandre Koyre. The Russian-born Koyre would make a distinguished career as a philosopher of science in the United States after figuring out just what was at stake with the Russian Leviathan.
Uvarov’s immediate opponents were the handful of liberals comprising the freer society, striving after open discussion and reform, that first sprang to life in the Marvellous Decade of 1938-48. They have since become well-known in the West, thanks to essays by Isaiah Berlin and Tom Stoppard’s vivid Russian trilogy The Coast of Utopia. The literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, whom Stoppard put on the stage of London’s National Theatre in 2002, decried Uvarov as the Minister of Darkness, dedicated to the “extinction of Enlightenment”. The suave writer, publicist and political campaigner Alexander Herzen, brilliantly captured by Stoppard as the liberal hero of his Russian trilogy, found Uvarov a pompous fool.
The enigma of Uvarov, however, was that he was highly educated, and had spent time in Europe as a young diplomat (where Madame de Stael failed to seduce him). He knew his country couldn’t become liberal overnight, but as a young man he closely followed the ideas of the German educational reformers in the first two decades of the 19th century, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Freiherr vom Stein, which suggests he had some eventual hope. If you look up Uvarov’s one positive achievement, you’ll find that he’s often called the father of modern education. He was the founder of St Petersburg university and the first to organise an effective national schools system. A more liberal Russia ahead then, only slowly, slowly.
No Romantic nationalist, Uvarov didn’t like his country very much. (He wrote a flowery 18th-century French, as if Russian was beneath him). But in his younger years he was ambivalent. The arch-conservative Joseph de Maistre, in St Petersburg as Sardinian ambassador, advised him to get out of that weakness or he’d never succeed, but for a decade he hung on. He would be a gradual moderniser. Everything changed when Alexander I’s relative openness to the West (as the architect of the Holy Alliance of 1815) collapsed into an era of repression fomented by revolutionary fears, in Europe and in Russia itself. Uvarov saw his first achievements (including founding the country’s first academic departments of philosophy) undone while he was transferred to a backroom job at the Ministry of Finance. After the Decembrist insurrection of 1825, Alexander’s abdication and the succession of his more severe brother Nicholas I, Uvarov, perhaps remembering de Maistre’s advice, turned realist. He crawled his way back to power, finally getting back to the Ministry of Enlightenment, yet where, un-Maistre-like, he had some small window on the West and still a small chance to make a difference.
Until 1917 the French Revolution was the biggest shock to the Russian status quo since the westernising reforms of Peter the Great. Uvarov worked out a way of dealing with that fear. After 1917 Lenin, who ought to have been Uvarov’s exact opposite, followed the same prescription in different words. He too never intended the Soviet Union to be “free” in a Western sense. Russia’s path to 20th-century industrialisation and mass literacy had to be managed. Where autocracy was once the instrument, now it was the Communist Party was.
I often thought about Uvarov when I was a Reuters reporter in Soviet Russia in the late 1970s, when the people from the Foreign Ministry we got to talk to were neither fools nor ignorant of the Western freedoms and pleasures they were missing. They would have been unfamiliar with Uvarov’s story, because the pretence then was that Soviet Russia had nothing in common with the tsarist past. Western historians tended to agree.
But in fact the two regimes were continuous in so many ways. Substitute for Uvarov’s Orthodoxy, Marxist-Leninism; for autocracy, the Communist Party; and for official nationality, Soviet pride and you get a very workable summary of how that totalitarian society worked, and of what many of its loyal citizens actually felt allegiance to. The Russia I lived in back in 1978 even fulfilled Uvarov’s highest ambition, to see his country held back 50 years, compared with the post-1789 West.
Whenever I think of the end of Uvarov’s career, too, the Soviet Union comes to mind, although my Minister of Darkness was lucky to have been born a century earlier. In 1848, when once again revolutions broke out across Europe, and young nationalisms threatened old empires, Uvarov was simply not conservative enough, with his plea to keep the university in Kiev open, and the following year he lost his job.
He retired to his estate and died a natural death a few years later, much mourned in the bureaucratic circles he frequented and even visited by Balzac, although with a black mark beside his name in any history of Russian liberalism waiting to be written.
You can see how an Uvarovian formula still underpins Moscow conservatism today – state authoritarianism, coupled with the authority of a church that is far from unpopular, and managed ways of individual self-expression. But it’s also the reason why tens of millions of western-looking Ukrainians don’t want to be Russian – and who can blame them?