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Romantics, Reformers, Reactionaries: Russian Conservative Thought and Politics in the Reign of Alexander I.

Alexander M. Martin: (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997. Pp. 294. $35.00.)

Alexander Martin's ambition in this fine book is to analyze the three principal conservative currents of early nineteenth-century Russia: Romantic nationalism, gentry conservatism, and religious conservatism. At stake is more than scholarly understanding of tsarism, for, as Martin observes in his introduction, some contemporary Russians "have discovered in the early conservatives food for thought about their country's present-day concerns" (p. 13). Befittingly for a major study, the book rests on wide reading of published sources and on assiduous archival research in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Paris and Basel.

The book begins with a discussion of Admiral Aleksandr Shishkov, an early Counter-Enlightenment thinker who promoted "Russian values" as an antidote to eighteenth-century cosmopolitanism. He located these values in the Russian Orthodox Church, in Russian folk culture, and in the treasury of Russian religious and literary language - all of which he traced to divine origins. With a few allies, such as the Moscow conservative Sergei Glinka, Shishkov managed to stir up a "culture war" against Western notions of liberty and equality and against Western cultural influence generally. In contrast to Shishkov's Romantic nationalism, the Moscow conservatives, led by Fedor Rostopchin and Nikolai Karamzin, articulated a social conservatism that pinned Russia's survival on strong government. Unlike Shishkov, Rostopchin found little admirable in the Russian character: he once tartly observed that "although we [Russians] are dressed like Europeans, we are still far from civilized" (p. 63). The evidence of Russians' defective national character prompted Rostopchin to advocate centralized government and iron-fisted social control as essential conditions for the empire's continuance. Karamzin for his part defended autocracy as perhaps the only remedy for social chaos in Russia. Although Karamzin opposed Shishkov's exceptionalism, he shared the admiral's hostility to the application of Western political models in Russia, an argument he made most vigorously in his 1811 Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia.

Both the Romantic and social conservatives played large roles in Russian political life during the Napoleonic wars. Shishkov and Glinka mobilized the educated public against the French - Shishkov through court and literary circles and Glinka through his journal, The Russian Messenger. Rostopchin, acting as military governor of Moscow, published a series of pamphlets hurling crude epithets a! the French armies and reminding common people of their duty unquestioningly to obey the throne. He also denounced his domestic political rivals as traitors to the fatherland. In September 1812 he turned over a merchant's son, Mikhail Vereshchagin, to a lynch mob - an act that infuriated the emperor and merited Lev Tolstoi's censure in War and Peace. Meanwhile, Karamzin, having been appointed court historian, wrote his History of the Russian State, a book that, according to the poet Aleksandr Pushkin, taught Russia's ruling elites "to admire the knout."

The last and most original chapters of Martin's book deal with religious conservatism after 1812. He shows how exotic currents in religious life the mysticism of Baroness von Krudener and Johann Jung Stilling, the "awakened Christianity" of Roksana Sturdza and the emperor, the evangelism of the Russian Bible Society, the gloomy findumondisme of Dmitrii Runich and Vasilii Popov - coalesced with resurgent Orthodoxy in the "mentality" of the Holy Alliance. The alliance itself was an "ecumenical" venture meant to atone for the religious apostasies of the eighteenth century and for blood shed by revolutionaries throughout Europe; it strove to set international relations on the foundation of Christian "brotherly love" rather than on the secular gospel of liberty. Whatever its international prospects, Martin implies, the alliance was bound to unravel from the Russian side, since its sponsors' expectations differed so sharply one from another. Martin thinks that by 1823 the Holy Alliance was already dead, and that Alexandrine conservatism as a whole had largely run its course.

At every point Martin's book is shrewdly argued and well written. The central point - the variety of conservative thought, its consequent intellectual incoherence and even eccentricity - seems amply justified. Those who must confront the (re)appearance of Russian conservatism in the late twentieth century should attend to Martin's main idea. Of course, disturbing contemporary currents are not far to seek: in Yeltsin's Russia we witness a popular romanticization of the (tsarist and/or Soviet) past, social conservatism deployed to shore up the moneyed and politically connected elites, and a religious conservatism tinged by mysticism and by the worst kinds of chauvinism and anti-Westernism. Still, the prospects for post-Soviet conservatism are not good, for it must overcome not only its (partly inherited) incoherence but also the profound historical discontinuities of the twentieth century, and nobody, including the great conservative moralist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has proved up to that task. (pp. 207-208).

- G. M. Hamburg

G. M. HAMBURG is Professor of History and Fellow of the Kellogg Institute in the University of Notre Dame.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hamburg, G. M.
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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