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Russian Conservatism Today Stands for Family Values and Resistance to Globalism

Conservatives in Russia tend to think of it as a distinct civilization with a global mission to assert and protect national sovereignty and family values in the face of globalism and liberalism

I’ve just finished doing the index for my book on Russian conservatism, and in the process I noticed that I had mentioned some names and terms much more often than I thought I had. Peter the Great, for instance, is the second most mentioned person in the book (Nicholas I is the most), and that’s odd because I don’t discuss him or his reign at all. In fact the book starts in the early 1800s, about 100 years after Peter. But it seems that the shadow he cast had such a powerful effect on nineteenth century Russian conservatives (who to a large degree were reacting against the process of Westernization that Peter set in motion) that his name kept cropping up regardless.

That got me thinking. It turns out that the index provides quite a useful tool in determining what persons and subjects my book addresses, and thus determining who and what are really important. So, with that thought in mind, I set about quantifying Russian conservatism by totalling the number of mentions people and ideas get in the book, and then producing some word clouds. The results provide a visual rendition of Russian conservatism past and present.

The first world cloud shows the persons and institutions which were most often mentioned in the book. The first thing which strikes one is the centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church. Beyond that, though, this word cloud is perhaps rather misleading as the most prominent names aren’t those of conservative philosophers but of Russian tsars, e.g. Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Alexander I, I, and III, and of the Communist Party and Vladimir Putin. In short, the dominant figures are Russia’s rulers. Yet, except for Nicholas I and Putin, I say very little about any of them. They get a lot of mentions, but they’re mostly in passing, as a way of providing context.

But that itself reveals something. An ideology like liberalism can be seen as abstract and absolute, that is to say that it embodies certain absolute, abstract ideas which are considered valid regardless of time and place. Conservatism by contrast is relative; it is what is called a ‘positional’ or ‘situational’ ideology – i.e. it depends on the given situation. Another way of looking at it is as a ‘reactive’ ideology – i.e. it’s a reaction to whatever is happening in the time in question. In short, with conservatism, context matters.

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For word cloud number 2, I deleted all of Russia’s rulers, as well as institutions such as the Church and Communist Party. What was left was the names of the political philosophers and politicians who have had the most impact on the development of Russian conservatism. This is what I got:

The word cloud exaggerates very minor differences. Also, this isn’t an objective measure; it just represents who I chose to put in the book. Somebody else might have put in more Danilevsky, let Ilyin, more Panarin, less Dugin, or whatever. But I suspect that whoever did it, the result wouldn’t be too far different. The same gallery of individuals would appear, starting with Shishkov and Karamzin, going through the Slavophiles, the post-Slavophiles (Dostoevsky, Danilevsky, Leontyev etc), the likes of Tikhomirov and Sharapov, and then through the emigration, the later Soviet period, and onto today. The important thing to note is that there isn’t any single figure who stands out as the core person in Russian conservative thought.

The same can be said of the post-Soviet period. This word cloud includes only references from the part of my book dealing with events post-1991:

A number of women make an appearance in this word cloud, Nataliia Narochnitskaia being an example. Russian conservatism remains male-dominated, however.

Instead of people, the next two word clouds show keywords which occur in the book. They illustrate the issues with which conservatives have been concerned, either because they have promoted them (autocracy, Orthodoxy, nationalism, family, stability, etc), or because they’ve been reacting against them (the West, liberalism, etc). The first word cloud covers the entire period from 1800 to today:

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I find that in this word cloud I have reproduced Sergei Uvarov’s definition of Official Nationality: ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality’. It seems that those three things really are the primary concerns of Russian conservatism. That said, there are some surprises here. The most notable is the dominance of the theme of ‘freedom’. This is not something I had expected when starting my research, and yet my studies showed that, despite their support for authoritarian forms of government, Russian conservatives have indeed been very concerned with promoting freedom. This is in part due to the censorship they suffered under both the Imperial and Soviet regimes, which has produced a long-standing interest in freedom of speech. Freedom, though, is often interpreted in a way different from the Western liberal understanding, in terms of what is called ‘inner freedom’. Still, its prominence in this word cloud is striking. Also surprising to me was the importance of education. To many conservatives, the core objective is moral improvement. Education has therefore been considered a matter of great importance.

Post-Soviet concerns somewhat differ, as shown by this word cloud which references only terms used in the part of my book post-1991:

Orthodoxy remains, but autocracy has entirely dropped out of the cloud, to be replaced with discussions of democracy and liberalism. Also important are matters concerning Russia’s relationship with the West, as seen by the prominence of words like ‘the West’, ‘globalization’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘mission’ (i.e. Russia’s mission in the world) and ‘civilizations’. If this word cloud is anything to go by, contemporary Russian conservatism is a combination of Orthodoxy and a reaction to Western liberalism and globalism, which together have created a sense of Russia as a distinct civilization with a global mission (associated with another word on the cloud – diversity). All in all, I think, that’s not a bad definition.

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