Liberalism: A Russian Perspective

By Ülvi Gitaliyev

If you study the history of Russia, it will not take long to realize that there has only ever been one peaceful, democratic transfer of power in its centuries-long history. This is not a coincidence and in fact, many Russians look at that fact with great satisfaction.

During the turbulent early modern period in Europe, two things remained constant for Russia; its large population and absolute and autocratic Tsardom. The bureaucracy was weak in cities and virtually non-existent in the countryside, unless for the purpose of tax-collecting. Education was under the control of the church which itself was wholly beholden to the Tsar, the father of all Russians. The vast majority of the population were serfs, de-facto slaves who could not leave their owners’ farms and had no legal means of gaining freedom. In practice, this meant that Russia and its people were left largely underdeveloped while the rest of Europe industrialised and educated its population. By the 19th century, this state of affairs was known as Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.

To the upper class, the oppression and looting of the lower classes are always seen as the natural state of things. What makes Russia unique, though, is how its upper class justified the misery of their subjects. The conservative wing of the Russian intelligentsia strongly believed that autocracy was the only political system that guaranteed Russia’s existence. Writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolay Gogol and historians such as Mikhail Pogodin and Fyodor Tyutchev propagated this view. They argued that republicanism was a foreign and alien concept to Russia. The total power of the Tsar was not to be questioned, and the use of force rested solely on his whims. Education minister Sergey Uvarov explained to the Tsar and the rest of the intelligentsia that the Russian folk was religious and loyal to the empire, but this was only the case because of their “simple nature” or, more accurately, their lack of education. If exposed to western ideals such as freedom of thinking, individualism and rationalism, the simple Russian folk would turn into a band of raving revolutionaries that would send Russia and all of Europe into an abyss, just as the French had in their revolution. Gogol stated it well by saying, “Make the serfs see clearly that in everything that concerns them you are acting in accordance with the will of God and not in accordance with some European or other fancies on your own.”

Russia’s liberal intelligentsia, which picked up steam after the French Revolution, opposed the Tsar’s autocracy and Russia’s backwardness. Alexander Herzen, the father of Russian socialism, and philosopher Pyotr Lavrov, along with other intelligentsia, saw the large population of Russia as its greatest strength. They argued that if the Russian Empire adopted universal education and abolished slavery then it could become the greatest power in Europe, if not the world. To promote this idea, the Narodnik (people) movement was launched. They would go to slums and villages and try to raise class consciousness among the Russian population, while also organizing educational institutions. Due to their high economic status, the Russian state could not directly ban the Narodniks, but they still heavily restricted their activities. Some Narodniks became dismayed at their slow progress and radicalized. In 1881, they assassinated Russian Emperor Alexander II. The ensuing crackdown practically ended the movement and signaled the beginning of a more violent, revolutionary era in Russian history. By the middle of the 20th century, the Orthodox Church was banned, the autocratic Tsar was dead and the Russian nation was just one equal partner in a larger Union of Soviet Republics.

What this period of Russian history can teach us is the relationship between the Russian state and its people. Russia’s Tsars were fearful of their own people and purposefully kept them in perpetual slavery and poverty to avoid the development of a collective, class consciousness. This policy of blissful ignorance is very much still in place in the modern Russian federation with the same goal in mind. When Vladimir Putin uses violence against his own citizens, he does with the legacy of the autocratic Tsars behind him. When Putin suppresses foreign media, he does so in the name of Russian culture and morality. Finally, when Putin praises the Orthodox Church, he does so because of their personal loyalty to him.

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