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Saint Augustine
Conservatism, Christianity, and the Revitalization of Europe - What We Can Learn from Contemporary Russian Conservatives
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Article Index
Conservatism, Christianity, and the Revitalization of Europe
The Path to Western Secularism
The Arguments of the Secular Conservatives
Fundamental Flaws in These Arguments
What We Can Learn from Contemporary Russian Conservatives
All Pages

The reactionaries are not likely to reverse things, secularism being the reigning civil religion. They can, however, let in light from the East—from Russia. Russian conservatives warned, early on, against following the secular path taken by the West and against the spread of Western decadence (stamped with the export label “democracy”) around the world. They have always been closely tied to an Orthodox Church that is resistant to change and to compromise with modernity— hence the savage persecution of it by the Soviet regime. One of Lenin’s greatest achievements, according to Christopher Hitchens, was “to create a secular Russia. The power of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was an absolute warren of backwardness and evil and superstition, is probably never going to recover from what he did to it.”21

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who, unlike Hitchens, lived in a secular Russia, has described Lenin’s “achievement” with greater precision: “tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns, pressured by the Chekists to renounce the word of God, were tortured, shot in cellars, sent to camps, exiled to the desolate tundra of the far north, or turned out into the streets in their old age without food or shelter. All these Christian martyrs went unswervingly to their deaths for the faith; instances of apostasy were few and far between.”22

While it would be wrong to say that Orthodox Russians go in search of suffering, they do recognize the possibility of spiritual benefit. George Kennan, who identified closely with the Russian people, called attention to the fact that they had been “purged by hardship of so much that is vulgar and inane in the softer civilizations.”23 We know too that Dostoevsky’s four years of penal servitude in Siberia were decisive in what he called “the regeneration of my convictions,” by which he meant his Christian faith and reactionary beliefs that happiness is not the goal of life, that reason has its limits, and that hidden beneath radical social and political activity lie disorders of the soul.

As Dostoevsky’s twentieth-century heir, Solzhenitsyn is Russia’s leading reactionary. He too found God in a forced labor camp and has confronted “the destructive spirit of secularism.”24 Concerning the latter he had much to say in the commencement address he delivered at Harvard University in 1978. To the dismay of those gathered, he made it clear that he did not regard the West as a model for a post-communist Russia because “through deep suffering, people in our country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.”25 Having lived in the United States for two years, he was appalled by what he witnessed—the mindless consumerism, the stupefying effect of television, the moral and aesthetic nihilism of popular music, the ubiquity of pornography, and the pandemic (and increasingly nihilistic) crime.

In attendance on that rainy summer afternoon was Richard Pipes, Harvard professor of history and a conservative who, if not secular in outlook—he describes himself as a “nonobservant Orthodox Jew”26—has, like the secular conservatives, concerned himself almost exclusively with political and social questions. In a written response to the address, he stated his objections to Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of the West and to his charge that modern man had “placed too much hope in politics and social reforms.”27 “The central postulate of Solzhenitsyn’s case—the corrupt nature of man and, its corollary, the futility of manipulating his social and political environment—is axiomatic for all Russian conservatives.”28

It would be more accurate to say that Russian conservatives believe that social and political reform, while not futile, cannot provide answers to the most profound and enduring questions of human existence. Pipes was, however, in no mood to make distinctions because he disliked Solzhenitsyn for personal reasons. As he reported in his memoirs, he had, in 1975, sent the Russian a copy of one of his books, Russia under the Old Regime—along with a letter and personal dedication. A year later, in the course of an address at the Hoover Institution, Solzhenitsyn “delivered a blistering attack on me and my book” because it linked tsarism with communism. From that moment on, Pipes regarded him as a “fanatic” and a “false prophet.”29

This bitter experience reawakened Pipes’s long-standing interest in Russian conservatism, but because of other projects and a period of government service in Washington, he published Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture only in 2005, making it clear that he sided with the “critics.” The quintessence of Russian conservatism, he wrote in his introduction, was its defense of autocracy. Pipes belongs to that school of historians of Russia which holds that the period of Mongol occupation (1240-1480) left a legacy of “oriental despotism” that was far worse than Western absolutism.

Critics of autocracy first appeared in the eighteenth century, but they failed to mount a serious challenge to the reigning conservatism. The only good thing that Pipes could find to say about the conservatives was that they did not preach antiwesternism—at least until Tsar Alexander II liberated the serfs in 1861. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century they embraced nationalism and “antiwesternism became something of an obsession.”30 In this connection, Pipes reserved his harshest criticism for Dostoevsky, though he conceded that the great writer was not primarily a political or social thinker. But that is precisely the point. Dostoevsky’s concerns were of a higher order; in the words of the critic Konstantin Mochulsky (as quoted by Pipes), he “alone spoke of the crisis of culture and of the approach in the world of unprecedented catastrophes.”31 He foresaw, in short, the coming of nihilism and totalitarianism. No matter—he was critical of Western secularism and therefore linked in Pipes’s mind with Solzhenitsyn, who, one should note, has never expressed sympathy for autocracy.

Prior to his address, Solzhenitsyn had enjoyed favorable press in the West, but his criticism of secularism’s emptiness produced anger and resentment—and not only from Pipes. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the National Review published indignant editorials and quickly moved to adopt a dissident more congenial to the secular mind: the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. Sakharov was a courageous man who mastered the language of Western liberalism (“human rights” and such) and declared his irreligion. Not surprisingly then, the European Parliament awards an annual Sakharov Prize, and Washington, DC, renamed a street “Andrei Sakharov Place.”

None of this disturbed or distracted Solzhenitsyn, who continued with the work to which he has dedicated his life. In 1994, he returned to Russia, only to find, as he had feared he might, many of the social pathologies that he had left behind in the United States—crime, corruption, hedonism, narcotics, the disintegration of the family. “Today,” he has said, “when we say the West we are already referring both to the West and Russia…. We should not use the word ‘the West’ but the word ‘modernity.’”32

Despite his continued efforts, these problems, and others, remain, but as a recent reviewer for The University Bookman wrote, “today conservatism (particularly religious conservatism) as an intellectual movement is perhaps stronger in Russia than in almost any other European country.” Aleksandr Panarin, one of the conservative revival’s leaders, declared that “in history, written in the language of morality, our ancestors do not appear backward at all; on the contrary, they can serve as an inspiring example for us.”33 And so they do.

Lee Congdon is Professor Emeritus of History at James Madison University and author of George F. Kennan: A Writing Life (ISI Books, 2008). He is a scholar, author and lecturer on Twentieth Century Intellectual History who has published or edited six other books and numerous papers, in addition to being invited to present lectures at a wide variety of academic and governmental institutions.

Last Updated on Thursday, 12 January 2012 20:49