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October 14, 2004 by AK

Skidelsky on Overcoming Russia’s History

This link will send you to an article on Russian political history by Lord Skidelsky, but alas, The Moscow Times‘ links expire, more often than not, within a day or two of publication.

Recommending the piece, I’m going to dwell on two–no, three–short excerpts.

The great Russian rulers have been the most terrible ones: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Stalin.

Peter’s greatness I do not doubt, although his reforms were no less consequences of his father’s and older brother’s policies than a whimsical revolution. Stalin’s claim to greatness apparently lies in the fact that the Soviet Union transformed itself into a major industrial power within a decade and a half, defeated Germany and, eight years after the dictator’s death, launched the first manned sputnik.

How about the costs and expenses? Looking at Stalin’s record, we may want to separate his actions as a tyrant from those as the nation’s leader. Within the first role, we could also try to ascribe some of his behavior to his position as head of a totalitarian state, and the others to the evil that possessed him personally. Now if we only look at the systemic component of his leadership, we’ll still find the human cost of Russia’s modernization was vast, and hecatombs of his victims express Stalin’s greatness more convincingly than the Sputnik.

But Ivan the Terrible, Ivan Grozny–what did he achieve to designate him a “great ruler?” He annexed Kazan and Astrakhan, removing the nuisance these Tatar khandoms were for Russian lands–but with Muscovy having been on the ascent and the khandoms on the descent for a century or more, the outcome now seems all but inevitable. The truth is Ivan IV was ultimately a loser: he lost the war he cared the most about, the Livonian war. But once he literally waged a war against his subjects (the Oprichnina), Ivan could no longer expect a military victory over anybody else.

One searches in vain for a similarly well-established philosophy of restraint in Russian history. The revolt of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century against tsarist absolutism failed[.]

It’s more complicated. Ivan the Terrible’s rule began with a few important sobors–meetings of representative bodies drawn from different estates–and promises of reform. It all changed when Ivan descended into a frenzy of total suspiciousness but he did start out as a reformer. The czar’s self-justification, as well as his opponents’ arguments, can be found in his correspondence with prince Kurbsky, once Ivan’s companion in arms, then a defector to Poland-Lithuania. Right in the Kremlin, metropolitan Philip (Filipp Kolychov) raised his voice against the czar’s bloody excesses–to be deposed and later killed in prison. But Philip’s sermons and the Grozny-Kurbsky letters are early sprouts of Russian political philosophy, dealing, among other things, with the problem of the autocrat’s self-restraint.

The martyrdom of St. Philip reminds us that some time during or before Ivan IV’s reign, Muscovy not only finally took over Ancient Ruthenia, but vanquished and destroyed its precious tradition of limited but tangible political freedom. (Ivan’s physical destruction of Novgorod was another symbolic manifestation.) It was only in the 15th century that the Russian church received autonomy from Constantinople; earlier, Russian metropolitans were appointed from Greece. Once Moscow princes could nominate Moscow metropolitans (later Patriarchs), it wasn’t long before they would abuse the privilege. To re-marry–which he did six times–Ivan the Terrible, unlike Henry VIII, did not have to wrest the Russian church away from its supreme hierarch: the czar had the power to replace the metropolitan. Nikon’s Papist aspirations were quashed, but his ritualistic reform had provoked, paradoxically perhaps, a long overdue response to the state capture of the Church: the dissent known as Raskol, the Schizm (see Old Believers).

According to the historian Geoffrey Hosking, the Russian empire (“Rossia”) has always prevented the political development of the Russian nation (“Rus”).

Agreed, except for what’s in the brackets–but the crucial thesis deserves a few more entries.

A thoughtful and moving essay on St. Philip is Saint Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow by Georgy Fedotov.


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