Heart over Mind
No. 3 2017 July/September
Dmitriy Andreyev

PhD in History, is Deputy Dean of the Department of History  of Moscow State University.

Russian Conservatism and Statehood in the 19th Century and Later

Are the values of Western liberalism familiar or foreign to us Russians in the second decade of the twenty-first century? To what degree do all of us depend on the current state of affairs, even those who position themselves as cosmopolitans and who are conservatively-minded—ontologically, by virtue of being born in Russia or situationally? Such debates could continue indefinitely with opponents foaming at the mouth, but each time such a ping-pong game will leave a lasting sense of dissatisfaction. This feeling may be stronger or weaker, but it invariably entails a war of words in the media and social networks, regardless of its outcome (The outcome, though, is quite predictable: as a rule, the opponents stick to their original opinions, while neutral onlookers have to state once again that society remains hopelessly split).

The reason is simple. From time immemorial in Russia such ideological duels have been driven not by the power of reason, but by the power of the heart and soul, i.e. by feeling and taste, if you wish. This is true not only of conservatives, whose arguments have been traditionally weak and who preferred to rely not on logic, but on their own vision of the world that rests entirely on their subjective likes and dislikes and personal experience. The same equally applies to liberals, whose common sense and ostensibly unshakable objectivism is confined to the stubborn pointing towards the West and the argument that leaves no room for objections: “There it works!”

Indeed, for about two centuries the polemics have continued outside the realm of verifiable scientific knowledge. This is a clash of two different creeds, which explains why the value of both academic debate and ordinary exchanges of opinion—however constructive opponents may try to sound —tends to zero. Above all, being a conservative or a liberal reformer means having a certain identity, a complex yet at the same time easily interpreted individual behavioral code that allows one to intuitively sniff out “friends” and “foes” among compatriots and to team up with the former and confront the latter. Partisanship (naturally to be understood not as an affiliation with any pre-revolutionary or post-Soviet organizations, created in both cases exclusively to woo the electorate) has been the Russian intellectual’s alter ego at least since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It has been the core quality of personal identity that intellectuals are keen to demonstrate to everybody, urbi et orbi, and, more importantly, to Russian society, which is never seen as something integral, but always as a battlefield and a place for competition between “our right way” and “their wrong way.”

The problem is that at a certain point this very specific politicization began to mutate right before our eyes. It turned out that Russians are not unique and easily fit into the general world trend of the past decades as they have succumbed to the totalitarian diktat of evaluative relativism. As a result, Russian partisanship has gone through a devaluation. Once a symbol of creed, it has turned into a banal stylistic peculiarity—no more than an attribute of media casting. The borderline between conservatism and liberalism has become extremely permeable. A large population of ideological mutants have emerged made up of conservative liberals and liberal conservatives, while firm commitment to and ardent zeal in defending ideological purity were declared qualities pertaining only to despised pariahs. This explains why any competent onlooker inevitably begins to feel dissatisfied and even annoyed with imitations of inter-party differences.

However bitterly one may regret the extinction of good old political naturalism, we will apparently have to reconcile ourselves to this new reality. Moreover, an analysis of current political surrogates—well-dosed in “flavoring,” “sweeteners,” “acidifiers,” and “colorants” of meanings—will help us better understand what the originals were like. Respectively, such an analysis will determine which of their qualities are exaggerated in today’s replicas and, consequently, are in the greatest demand, albeit in disproportionate amounts. Yet a reverse move, matching well Michel Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge, would be quite fair to make as well. Such a move would drive tunnels from the disproportions found in contemporary fakes to the texts that were reinterpreted for many decades to acquire different, sometimes conflicting, shades of meaning. Yet at the same time those texts kept living independent lives and, after being cleared of more recent sediments, may regain their original meaning.


With this line in mind, it is worth first scrutinizing Russian conservatism.

Firstly, in contrast to liberalism (homegrown and having very little in common with its Western counterpart, but still possessing a formulated program confined to fundamentally reformatting Russia in accordance with the Western model, although understood in a very peculiar way), conservatism is inexplicit when it comes to concrete proposals. Conservative advocates know very well what should never be done in Russia under any circumstances, but their ideas become far more confused when the question arises about what should be done (By no means does this circumstance make it harder to clearly spot the advocates of conservatism. Rather it is enough to hear them utter a couple of words).

Secondly, after the disaster of the 1990s, which its architects and perpetrators for some reason presented as the triumph of liberalism, the latter is doomed to remain persona non-grata for the Russian national mentality for a very long time, if not forever.

Thirdly, conservatism these days is obviously in vogue, and not only in Russia, but also in the West, whose opinion keeps Russia so emotional. In reality, phenomena that are called by the same names here and there have very little in common, but the very charisma of the word makes the difference between the content of both varieties of conservatism not insurmountable. At least, if one looks not from there, but from here.

One glaring distinction of Russian conservatism is its ability to take the shape of an integral outlook, but not within an orderly arranged space of logic or written word, but through emotions, for which words are important not by virtue of their meaning, but because of the feelings they evoke. This specific trait of conservatism manifests itself most graphically in its interpretation of domestic affairs.

Take, for instance, such a classical example of the Russian conservative perception of the world as Nikolai Gogol’s Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. Russian conservatives moan about how “empty, sorrowful and unpeopled” Russia’s spaces are, how everything in Russia is “homeless and unfriendly,” like a cold snow-clad post station where the postmaster, indifferent to everything, has only one heartless reply to offer: “No horses!” Most importantly, when one reads this, everything becomes clear about bribery, arbitrary bureaucrats, and all of Russia’s other eternal ills. All of this stems from the two euphemisms “homeless and unfriendly.”

In the same generalizing and mostly touching way, without curbing their emotions, but rather succumbing to them, Russian conservatives preferred to describe their political ideals. For instance, Nikolai Karamzin regarded autocracy as “Russia’s palladium” and was certain that the country needed, first of all, “good governors” and “good priests,” because “without all the rest it will do and will not ever envy anybody in Europe.”

Importantly, such extremely blurred and amorphous ideas of a cherished future were not a sophisticated trick to fool the censors or skirt contentious issues while pondering internal disorders. In fact, such views are a specific trait of the conservative mentality, the result of an obvious reluctance to delve into details and avoid mundane routine problems, focusing instead on eschatology by using a special mode of expression and imagery.


In this context, foreign policy views, rated as conservative, have traditionally seemed far clearer in Russia. Apparently, Russian mentality is in dire need of a negative identity, or in other words of shaping its identity by contrasting it with something fundamentally different, with its antagonist. In a word, anti-Westernism is crucial to a conservative mindset not because of some persistent desire to distance oneself from the “wrong” West, but merely due to the elementary and easily understandable desire to sort oneself out, at least in the basic and most general way.

Take away anti-Westernism, deprive the Russian conservative of this cornerstone of his mentality, and he will become motivationally disorientated in virtually no time. That is why a conservative Westernizer in Russian culture is an oxymoron and sheer nonsense. Anti-Westernism for the Russian conservative is not some extravagant concept, but a focal and indispensable condition, as well as the meaning of his existence.

At this point it would be appropriate to touch upon the most remarkable trait of Russian conservatism that manifests itself each time the focus is not on Russia’s domestic problems—utterly uninteresting for the conservative for the aforementioned reasons—but on the outside world. First and foremost, on the West, on the perception of oneself and one’s own country against the Western background, and all other parts of the world. In that case the meditating and absent-minded conservative instantly becomes concentrated and sensible. What is more important, suspicions towards the West and its accomplices inside Russia—whether real or imaginary—are instantly blown out of proportion. The conservative begins to zealously protect national identity from any external influences. The worst suspicions that the Russian conservatives feel are those towards… the powers that be.


Many in Russia think by default that a conservative a priori is the pillar of the regime, including its personified embodiment and the elite that constitutes his retinue. In reality, things are not that unambiguous, if not the other way around. Like all people who rely not on the power of reason, but on emotions, conservatives are very sensitive people. From the early days of the nineteenth century they began to sense that something was going wrong in their home country, that the authorities and their inner circle behaved in a very strange way, as if they were eager to be liked by the West. That problem was first formulated by Alexander Pushkin in very simple and clear terms, and very accurately, as usual. In a letter to Pyotr Chaadayev, Pushkin described the authorities (in the original “the government”) as “Russia’s still only European.” In other words, the Russian government is the only power capable of resisting the chthonic obscurantism of the rest of the country, including its educated society. Incidentally, Nikolai Gogol would express approximately the same thought in the above quoted extract from the Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. Gogol wrote that Peter the Great “cleared our eyes by the purgatory of European enlightenment” and “put in our hands all the means and instruments of action,” yet he achieved nothing. In a word, the authorities in Russia, alongside their many other features, are also a kulturtrager, because they profess European principles.

What were Russian conservatives to do after realizing that truth? First, they had to reconcile themselves to the thought that the authorities and the elite were culturally and naturally linked with the West. They tried to turn a blind eye to the Western nature of the autocrats and attack high-ranking members of the establishment to accuse them of cosmopolitism, flattery towards the West, neglect of national interests, and other vices unforgivable for a conservative mind. Fyodor Tyutchev’s harsh criticism of the top of the Russian bureaucracy is quite telling in that respect: “How come these mediocre good-for-nothing, the worst and the most backward students in the whole class, these people who are way below even our general and, incidentally, not very high level, how come these degenerates have made their way to the top and stay at the helm of the country? […] Parasitic elements are innate to Holy Russia… they are like something inside the human body that exists at its expense, but at the same time lives its own life, logic and steady and, so to say, normal from the standpoint of its harmful, destructive effects.”

This was said not about some nihilists, but about very respectable people, such as interior ministers Pyotr Valuyev and Alexander Timashev, and Chief of the Gendarmes Pyotr Shuvalov, whom his contemporaries and, later, several generations of historians without hesitation branded conservatives, pillars of the regime, firm and consistent opponents of the liberal bureaucracy that had made preparations for and carried out the Great Reforms. In other words, labels were attached in accordance with a very primitive logic: if you are not a liberal, you are a conservative. Indeed, for Tyutchev, a genuine, consistent, and committed conservative himself, they were the worst ideological foes, “the down-and-outs of Russian society,” and “anti-Russian bastards,” who committed “deliberate treason,” because “those who stop being Russian in a bid to go cosmopolitan” “inevitably, fatally become Poles instead” (For Tyutchev, after the Polish uprising of 1863-1864, the Poles embodied an extremely hostile foreign force).

Any Westernizer, so loathsome to the Russian conservative mind, was invariably seen as a liberal—and not in the European sense, but in our own. In other words, as a primitive frondeur, dreaming of being welcomed by the West as a liberal and for that reason waging a frenzied crusade against everything that disagreed with his homegrown ideas of what European liberalism is. When a public figure manifested himself as a Westernizer, the conservatives felt no alarm. But they found worrisome the rapid proliferation of liberalism as a fashion inside the ruling elite. In other words, the people that directly influenced Russia’s future.

The Russian elite underwent an impressive ideological mutation in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The loyal, internally sterile, and idealess bureaucrats of the Nicholas I era—the elite during the Great Reforms—gradually turned into a force objectively opposed to traditional autocracy. Of course, its oppositional attitude remained largely latent, confined to thumbing the nose behind the back. Cynical double-dealing became standard and natural, with ostensible loyalty and exchanges of meaningful and knowing looks and smiles among the select few. Those rare individuals who found this type of behavior unacceptable were labeled pariahs. Mikhail Loris-Melikov addressed one such “inflexible” person, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, in these words: “You are an originally honest person and demand the impossible.” Another phrase, which still better illustrates the cynicism of the ruling circles, was pronounced by Loris-Melikov after his resignation: “All of the Romanovs aren’t worth a penny, but they are necessary to Russia.” Of course, Loris-Melikov, on the one hand, and Pobedonostsev, on the other, were the extremes, while the majority professed the views that could be best described as latent constitutionalism. In other words, the transformation of the autocracy into something more acceptable from the standpoint of European ideas of what a monarchy should be is inevitable. Not necessarily right away, but in the distant future. Fyodor Tyutchev castigated such an elite in these words:

 To reason liberals is a useless chore,

 Their stance is trite and fatuous to endure.

 Civilization is the idol they adore,

 But its true meaning for them is obscure.


However low you bend before her, sirs,

Vain are your strains to win her recognition 

For in the eyes of Europe you’ll be ever cursed

To the state of villeins; that’s your true position!

A lasting stereotype exists in that Russian conservatism is allegedly anti-egalitarian, that it cannot imagine the existence of a classless society. Its idea is a vertical with a clearly outlined elite circle and everybody else, who are also different and ranged. Konstantin Leontiev was one of the most consistent ideologists of such elitism. He advocated a “benevolent (or enlightened) despotism,” and one of his greatest fears was primitive and vulgar egalitarianism. Leontiev believed that it was necessary to propel the elite to heights inaccessible to all other classes and social groups (importantly, he did not mean the bourgeois-like, Western-minded elite, against which he was ready to wage a merciless war in order to protect the crown). For this purpose, Leontiev was hatching a plan for creating a covert organization—a “Jesuit Order,” as he meaningfully called it.


It is small wonder then that amid such fears and suspicions of the Russian conservatives the real Europe was something of secondary importance for them. The conservatives perceived Europe exclusively from the standpoint of their steadfast conviction that Western rules and ways were no good for Russia. For this reason, the “abduction of Europe”—as Vadim Tsimbursky called that process—had very little to do with the Europe that existed in reality. For many decades conservatives perceived Russia as the genuine, true, historic, and Christian Europe. They “abducted” and admired one thing, and were afraid of something very different. It was that genuine Europe, which the opponents of conservatives adored so strongly, that had no right to exist in the eyes of the latter as an integral geopolitical entity, for such an entity would invariably be anti-Russian. Hence the pragmatic inevitability that Tyutchev formulated so clearly: “Russia’s only natural policy towards the Western powers should not be an alliance with any of these powers, but their split and separation. For only when they are separated from each other will they stop being hostile to us—due to powerlessness.” Tyutchev was forced to state: “This harsh truth may hurt some sensitive souls, but in the end this is the law of our being.”

Refined aesthete Leontiev was afraid he might defile Russia’s messianic aspirations for an ideal and mystic Europeanism with true-to-life, day-to-day Europeanism as something ritually impure (In other words, in Tsymbursky’s scheme of things he was plotting “Europe’s abduction”). In 1878, despite being close to Constantinople, Russia did not take over it, and thus failed to translate into reality a centuries-old dream Leontiev interpreted as an act of Providence. Had the Russian military managed to enter Constantinople, it would have done so “wearing the French kepi” and also “with the pan-European egalitarianism in our hearts and minds.” Hence Russia should be ready for the time when it gets another historical chance to erect a cross over Hagia Sofia. In fact, it should be internally prepared for that, and then everything will turn the right way. The Russians will enter Constantinople “wearing the Murmolka hats that had caused our Westernizers to giggle so foolishly” and “with the bloody memory of that terrible day of March 1, when on the streets of our European capital anarchic liberalism so mercilessly put to death the world’s most powerful and therefore most sincere representative of state liberalism.”

The latter remark is particularly important for understanding the degree of internal freedom inherent in Russian conservatism. Leontiev stated openly and without any indirect hints that liberal monarch Alexander II was unworthy of becoming the liberator of Constantinople. This verdict is a clear echo of Tyutchev’s mercilessly derogatory description of Alexander II’s father, Nicholas I, who, in contrast to his son, was not a liberal. A Westerner by nature (the way Peter the Great understood this notion with regard to a sovereign ruler), Tyutchev promoted the emergence of a ruling elite whose values were drifting farther away from those of the Emperor, which, as Tyutchev argues, resulted in the Crimean catastrophe:

You served your vanity – your sole ideal,

And not the Lord or Russian Crown.

All deeds of yours, both kind and evil

Were lies and ghosts. Fleshless, unreal.

You were a Tsar turned fraudful clown.

Against this historical backdrop, today’s attempts to rationalize traditional Russian conservatism and produce some kind of material for a new ideology or—a still bolder task—for using it as a basis to devise some constructive program for the country’s domestic political development and its positioning in the world look more than naïve. And not because of the inconsistency of this system of views, but because of its absolute non-doctrinal nature, which does not allow for logical structuring and, for that reason, for its use as a basis of any fundamental program.

Conservatism is a force field where a significant, if not the overwhelming part of Russian society has existed all along and still exists today. This special feature of the Russian mentality should certainly be remembered and used as a benchmark to regularly check any new government policy conceptions and initiatives.

Konstantin Aksakov said Russians were “non-government people” who “seek no participation in governance.” Of course, that was wishful thinking. Immediately after these words were written, Russians began to demonstrate the opposite. They started to become involved in government. However, in contrast to pro-Western rulers and elites, these people longed for a government that would be not a heartless tool of domination-submission, but a means to realize their deep-rooted dreams, which probably go back to the primeval past. This is a “heart over mind” approach. Russians are emotional even in their thinking, and the entire history of Russian conservatism is convincing proof of that. The same can be said of liberalism, but that is a totally different story.