A Historian's Response to Rich Lowery's The Curse of Russian Exceptionalism

The following is a response to a guest editorial by National Review Editor Rick Lowery in the New York Post, September 17th 2013. While the author of this article, Dr. Matthew Johnson, PHD, wrote his response at that time, we believe that it is timeless.

-the Editors


Part 1

Those who do not specialize in Russian history make a mockery of its tradition and its fairly unique sense of itself. Russia's experience has been violent and traumatic, and hence, will create a different set of institutions and ideas. For Mr. Lowery's article, literally in every paragraph an error or fact, interpretation or history occurs. 
"Russian exceptionalism" has been fair less violent than the sprawling British empire. Ireland along proves that, let alone Africa or Asia. The US has been at war spanning the globe since 1914, picking up a few colonies along the way.

This is just a smattering of errors of Mr. Lowery:

He uses the word "absolute" to refer to the royal power of Russia. In Kievan Rus, the prince had little power. In Moscow, his power extended only to elites, while the commune, fully democratic and popular, ruled at the local level. "Absolute" does not refer to unlimited power, since the Tsar was highly limited in numerous ways: transport was difficult, few bureaucrats ruled in the provinces, and normally, rural areas had no police at all, law enforcement was based on local custom, and the peasant commune elected a few of their members as law enforcement. "Absolute" as a political term refers to something being unified and self sufficient, not unlimited in a legal sense.

By 1900, 60-70% of peasants owned their land, the poll tax was abolished, and the land payments highly reduced. Noble ownership of the land fell rapidly and profoundly. Few other states in the west had this level of land ownership, since the state financed the Peasant Land Bank, which subsidized payments and lent at extremely low rates

By 1907, the Imperial Duma contained 22.5% peasants, 27% workers and 505 landowners of various sizes. Mr. Lowery, how does the US Congress measure up to this? You speak of "representative government", yet today, most of Congress are millionaires. The Tsar was bound by law and effectively wielded far less power than the modern presidency or corporate baron.

This changed as Russia developed a fully western view of itself between Peter I and Alexander I. In the west, in other words, that created the "Russian" state. Prior to that, the state was involved largely in military affairs, quite uninvolved in the affairs of the self-governing peasantry and lower nobility. Tsats were bound by the law codes of their ancestors, including Alexis I and, much later, Nicholas I.

Under Peter III and Catherine II, the nobility were freed from state service, meaning that their property and person were sacrosanct. This is similar to Magna Carta, which did little but permit the nobility to extract more from their peasants with no threat of punishment, The Charter, of course, only referred to nobles.

Alexander I also broadened this personal protection. Tsar Nicholas II introduced a Constitution in 1906, making his power even more limited. The freeing of the nobles by Catherine II and her predecessor was very similar to the oligarchic British "Magne Carta" which of course, only referred to the nobles. In both cases, it permitted the nobility to extract more out of their peasants with no central oversight.

Quoting Patrick Henry shows Mr. Lowery's poor historical sense. Henry was opposed to the Constitution, sought a radically decentralized republic and a rejection of any expansion or empire. He also opposed a standing army and rejected the fact that one Congressman representing (then) 60,000 people could in no way be called representative. Today, its 300,000. It was Alexander Hamilton, extreme even among is Federal Party, who sought a commercial empire. That was radically rare opinion at the time.

"In its imagination, Russia picked up where Byzantium and Rome left off." This reads like a high school sophomore reading a Russian history text for the first time. While it is true that the Byzantine royal family married into the Russian palace under St. Vladimir of Kiev, Vladimir Monomakh and Ivan III, among others, Byzantine influence in Russia was not substantial. Christianity came from Bulgaria, since the Greek speaking bishops were very limited in an unfamiliar country. Church courts were independent and the Assembly fought with the prince.

The "entire Russian nation" was not enserfed. Private serfs accounted for about 30% of the total, most of which were not treated harshly, since the commune continued to protect them and many owned businesses in the towns. In fact, peasant success in the business world was the very creation of the modern entrepreneur and challenged the officially defined merchant class.

Most peasants, with the exception of southern Russia, paid a money rent, which is another way of saying they were free men. It might be noted that the nobility was generally poor and overworked, usually from military duties which are no fault of anyone except geography. If anything, Russia had an excess of democracy, since the bulk of the population lived in communes, where land was guaranteed, redistribution of land was assured, and poverty was non-existent, since the commune guaranteed each member its livelihood

Part 2 will be included in the next edition