A Historian's Response to Rich Lowery's The Curse of Russian Exceptionalism, part 2

Russian political and literary debates from the 16th century to Lenin were an equal to any other in the world. To hold that there was “no society” in Russia comes from an ideological, not a historical, view.

The monarch did not “own the entire state”. The Tsar did not have this power, nor, if he did, could it ever be enforced. The size of Russia was prohibitive of any kind of centralized authority. This resulted in the inability of Tsars to enforce domestic law.

In home affairs, the Russian Tsar was quite powerless. By the late 19th century, merely symbolic as the bureaucracy ran the affairs of the state. Tsars had their alleged “whims” carried out by an often hostile bureaucracy, weak local governors and a nobility that never listened. The volost and commune authorities, as well as the later zemstvo politicians later, were all elected and served in a sophisticated system of checks and balances.

Unlike the British empire, Russia’s was local, contiguous to herself, and massively expensive to run. These were buffers of defense, not colonies. Georgia and Armenia asked to be taken under the Tsar’s protection. The 13th Dalai Lama, fearful of the British, asked Tsar Nicholas II to take Tibet under his protection. Poland and Finland had some of the most liberal constitutions in the world, given to them by Russia.

Britain’s financial exceptionalism sought to create a global empire subservient to London’s bankers. The empire was for profit. Russia never sought to pump any country full of opium, nor did she try to impose sitcoms and People Magazine on the world.

Using Peter Chaadaev, who Mr. Lowery seems to have never read, is absurd. A Roman Catholic and westerner, Chaadaev is a poor, albeit convenient choice for one who is betting that no Russian specialists will be reading his work. Mr. Lowery is innocent of the fact that Chaadaev’s work led to an avalanche of writers (from the non-existent “society”) attacking his work, with Dostoevsky among them, and Solzhenitsyn a century later. Few took him seriously with the exception of the small but powerful group of westernizers that had long taken over the state. Much of what Mr. Lowery thinks is “Russian” is in fact, the precise opposite: the clumsy importation of western concepts into Russian space.

Finally, his statement: “American exceptionalism is a centuries-old phenomenon growing out of organic roots: the nuclear family, the common law, representative government, constitutional limits on the state and private ownership of land”.

He cannot be serious. Russia too was ruled by customary law. Present America has nothing remotely close to representation, and, even if it did, the courts, major banks and the bureaucracy run things regardless. Russian peasant land ownership was one of the highest in the world, at a time when few peasants controlled much land in Europe. Colonial America was based on the extended family, not the nuclear, as was Russia right up to the revolution. Nor did revolutionary America have omnipotent banks, a tightly controlled media, a Federal Reserve or Justin Bieber.

A Constitution need not be written, and the Russian one throughout her history placed substantial limits on the crown. Instead, it was the nobles and oligarchs who needed controlling. The US is an oligarchy , a fact which is undeniable as the banks received billions in bailout funds while the hoi polloi had their homes foreclosed.

Mr. Lowery opinion is stylized, ideological and based on a myth that cannot withstand criticism. Today, the US sees the enveloping world, including Russia and Ukraine, as a source of cheap labor and raw materials. The US exports, among more useful objects, CNN, Marilyn Manson, condoms and pornography. The “free market” makes certain the youth get their hands on these things, with all the wonderful results that National Review has written about elsewhere.

But don’t take my word for it, read back issues of National Review, where Solzhenitsyn made nearly identical arguments. Apparently things have changed.

Matthew Johnson, Ph.D.

Harrisburg, PA