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Russian-American Samizdat
December 15, 2010

A New Conservative Manifesto for Russia
by W. George Krasnow
fitzgerald griffin foundation

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “The Manifesto of Enlightened Conservatism,” published by the Oscar-winning Russian filmmaker and actor Nikita Mikhalkov on October 26, provoked quite a stir in Russia. It revived the old debate between the Westernizers and Slavophiles on Russia’s role in the world. The liberal Moscow Times found it “disturbing.” But outside of Russia, it has not received the attention it deserves, especially in light of the differing political leanings of President Dmitry Medvedev, a presumed Westernizer, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a Russian nationalist.

Mikhalkov’s quest for a stronger government, his appeal to the Orthodox Church, and his pro-monarchist leaning differ markedly from the values commonly espoused by conservatives in the U.S. Yet, on the whole, his “enlightened conservatism” is more genuine than the “regime change” screed of U.S. neocons who should be called pseudo-conservatives.

Mikhalkov squarely sides with the Slavophiles, or rather, their modern “neo-Eurasian” offshoot whose ideas are best articulated by Aleksandr Dugin. Russia, says Mikhalkov, is “neither Europe nor Asia. Nor is it a “mechanical combination” of both. Rather it is “an autonomous cultural-historical continent, organic national entity, geopolitical and sacral center of the world.” He warns, “Unless Russia’s place in the world is properly understood, the Orthodox Christian civilization, the Russian nation, and the Russian State will perish.”

“Ours is a supra-national, imperial mentality, rooted in Russia’s existence on a special Eurasian scale,” says Mikhalkov. However, while claiming an affinity with the Byzantine and Anglo-Saxon empire builders, he evinces no desire for an empire, much less for the ideological expansion and global domination to which the U.S.S.R. had aspired. Leave Russia alone, he seems to be saying. His Manifesto is certainly less imperialist than the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and A Clean Break, which the neoconservatives here have used to influence U.S. foreign policy.

Mikhalkov bases his conservatism on a “wholesome enlightened nationalism, multiethnic and multicultural,” which has nothing to do with any aggressive chauvinism. His definition of the Russian nation is liberal in that it includes all peoples, all ethnic cultures, and all languages that comprise the Russian Federation.

He calls for the strengthening of the Russian state, but not at the cost of suppressing the individual. “A person is not a means, but a goal of social and state development.” He explains, “For us a person is an organic unity of I, You, and We. We see it through a lens of social relations in the light of Divine Providence.”

Speaking on behalf of an unnamed conservative movement, he presents the Manifesto as a challenge for a national debate in which, he hopes, “the state and civil society will reach a consensus, jointly formulate All-National Mission, and work out a Program for Russia’s development in 21st century.” He sees the movement as an incubator for future national leaders.

To become a truly modern nation, he argues, Russia must look for inspiration in its own past. There he sees two preeminent traditions: a spiritual one of “Holy Russ,” with the capitals in Kiev, Vladimir, and early Moscow; and, since Peter the Great, the imperial tradition of St. Petersburg. In Holy Russ, the power of the rulers was limited by the Patriarch as well as by Christian way of life. In Great Russia, a tsar’s authority eclipsed that of the Orthodox Church, even though Holy Russ stayed alive in memory of its people.

After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the U.S.S.R. morphed into a sort of “Great Russia but without Holy Russ in it.” Communist ideology suppressed all religion, subjecting all citizens to the dictates of the Party. By late 1960s, Soviet people were exhausted with the Bolshevik experiment, and Soviet value system began to disintegrate.

When perestroika came, “we had no idea that we participated in events of global significance,” admits Mikhalkov. Soon, not only the Soviet Union fell apart, but a “political and economic division of the world” occurred that amounted to a geopolitical revolution. “As a result, at the outset of the 21st century, we find ourselves living neither in Holy Russ nor Great Russia, but in the Russian Federation” whose borders are reduced to 75 percent and population to 51 percent of those of the U.S.S.R. while 20 million Russians reside outside Russian borders.

Worse still, economic reforms of the 1990s, undertaken in the guise of Western aid, greatly reduced Russia’s technological, scientific, and industrial bases. Mikhalkov promises to “restore what was destroyed, return what was plundered, and recreate what was lost” during the misbegotten neoliberal reforms. He affirms the necessity and value of the market reforms of the centralized economy, but he maintains, “they should not be exclusively focused on privatization of state property for the sake of profit and increased consumption.” He calls for “an organic combination of free-market and state planning.”

“The current social structure, founded on a volatile cocktail of efforts to catch up with the West through liberal modernization while tolerating arbitrariness of local bosses and ubiquitous corruption, does not satisfy the majority of Russians,” says Mikhalkov. “Behind the veneer of economic reforms and liberal initiatives there lurk old-fashioned, even archaic social relations.” Modernization is needed but should not become “a substitute for Westernization.”

Asking rhetorically “What needs to be done?” he answers as follows:

1. Establish and maintain law and order.
2. Work for cultural and national security.
3. Secure “economic well-being for all” (the quotation marks allude to Soviet promise; never fulfilled, now it is even more remote).
4. Restore pride and a sense of civic responsibilities.
5. Guarantee social justice for all citizens.

“Above all, we must start believing in our Russia again, strengthen the spirit of our nation, and restore its positive image around the world,” says Mikhalkov. This reminds me of another actor, another country, another era: Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican, trying in 1976 to lift the Americans from the mood of humiliation and defeatism after the debacle in Vietnam.

Just how enlightened is Mikhalkov’s conservatism? He is well aware of Russian conservative thinkers, including the Slavophiles of the mid-19th century and such monarchists as Konstantin Pobedonostsev and Konstantin Leontyev. He also cites a dozen 20th-century thinkers from the White Russian émigré diaspora. Among Russian conservative statesmen he favors the reformer Peter Stolypin.

Conspicuous is the absence of the Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, an admirer of Stolypin and the first to call for an evolutionary, nationalist, and essentially conservative way of getting Russia out from the morass of Communism and returning it back to the fold of humanity. As I described in my 1991 book, Russia Beyond Communism: A Chronicle of National Rebirth, he first proposed a gradual replacement of communist ideology with an enlightened Russian nationalism in his Letter to Soviet Leaders in 1973. In 1990, at the height of perestroika, in an essay Rebuilding Russia, Solzhenitsyn challenged Mikhail Gorbachev’s vain efforts to save communism with a program that emphasized the need to save Russian people.

In his 1998 essay Russia in Collapse, Solzhenitsyn scorned Boris Yeltsin’s reforms much the same way as Mikhalkov does now. Solzhenitsyn’s omission is regrettable because his writings are well known in the West and are authoritative enough to buttress his argument. Solzhenitsyn influenced many Western intellectuals to turn them away from communism and toward conservatism.

Mikhalkov makes no effort to reach out to conservative thinkers outside of Russia, such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre. Burke is especially relevant because his liberal conservatism goes against the grain of the so-called neoconservatives who think that the U.S. has the mission to “spread democracy” around the globe. Not so fast, says Burke. Each country should strive to find a form of government that best suits its tradition and character, foreshadowing the insistence of the Slavophiles on Russia’s own unique way. De Maistre could have provided more support to Mikhalkov’s pro-monarchist leanings. Besides, he wrote his pro-monarchist and pro-Church treatises while serving as an ambassador of the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to Russia, which he regarded as the major bulwark against the spread of the virus of the French Revolution.

Mikhalkov’s Manifesto signifies a perfect 180-degree turn from Karl Marx’s, The Communist Manifesto, which tempted Russia with Westernization but instead mislead her on the 73-year long historical detour of global revolutionary violence so abhorrent to conservative thinking. Mikhalkov’s call for law and order, civil peace, mixed economy, social justice, good will to other nations, and pride in one’s own sounds like common sense.

A reputed monarchist, Mikhalkov does not directly call for a restoration of monarchy. However, his keeps the door open for whoever can best project a stronger central authority, through a referendum and constitutional change. In his film, The Barber of Siberia, he acted as his favorite Tsar Alexander III. One would not be surprised if he opted for the restoration of monarchy.

Does the Manifesto signal a beginning of the politics of personalities in Russia? Mikhalkov’s family certainly embodies the continuity of the Russian history. His father, Sergey Mikhalkov, was a poet whose verse was familiar to millions of Soviet people of several generations. The current national anthem is based on his words, originally approved by Stalin, but later adapted for post-communist era. Sergey’s noble origin should have condemned him to infamy, death, or exile. Yet he managed to thrive under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev, Yeltsyn, Putin, and Medvedev.

The Manifesto was already warmly welcomed for discussion by the ruling United Russia party. Vladimir Zhirinovsky said it borrowed most of what his Liberal-Democratic party has been saying for years. Mikhalkov has appeal to a wide swath of Russian electorate; he has many detractors as well. Regardless of whether he decides to make a political bid, he is a factor to be reckoned with.

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Russian-American Samizdat column is copyright © 2010 by W. George Krasnow and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

W. George Krasnow (also published as Vladislav Krasnov), Ph.D., directs the Washington-based Russia and America Goodwill Associates, a non-profit organization of Americans which promotes friendship with Russia.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns.

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