Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture

Unless one buys into historical determinism or believes autocracy to be a genetic Russian trait, nothing says that Russia cannot escape its past. Yet, as Vladimir Putin's Russia again flirts with authoritarian shortcuts, the resonance of that past grows louder. No contemporary historian has thought longer or harder about the intellectual and political roots of Russian absolutism than Pipes, and in this taut, elegant essay, he compresses five centuries of "conservative ideology" into a deft portrait of adherents from Joseph of Volokolamsk (1439-1515) to the liberal conservatives at the end of the nineteenth century. The tradition, he argues, originated in the Muscovite notion of the country and all within it as literally the private patrimony of the ruler. This in turn denied Russia the two institutions that eventually tamed kings in the West: an "independent nobility and middle class, and private property in land." But so too did the fear of losing control of an ungainly, piebald empire sustain faith in autocracy as Russia's natural and necessary form of government.

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