If one studies late Romanov Russia, or the Golden Age of Russian thought, poetry and literature, there is one name in statesmanship and political philosophy that, alongside the literary giants Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gorky and Dostoevsky, you probably can’t get away from. Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, the éminence grise of Russian statecraft under Tsar Aleksandr III and Tsar S. Nikolai II, and Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, was probably the most influential figure in Russia’s civic, cultural and political life toward the end of the long 19th century. A close friend to Dostoevsky and a bête noire to Tolstoy, Pobedonostsev is still considered the foremost proponent and representative of an ‘unshakeably’ autocratic Romanov rule. His name is very often synonymous with monarchical absolutism.
Yet, his Reflections of a Russian Statesman, a broad-ranging work of essays and literary sketches that primarily explores questions of political philosophy, education and statesmanship, paints a somewhat more nuanced picture. It would be foolish to deny that Pobedonostsev’s politics are reactionary, but it is a reaction grounded in an instinct which closely resembles that of the Slavophils whom he occasionally critiques. Through each page of his Reflections burns an ardour, what reminds one of an all-consuming erotic lust for truth, as defined by and as borne out in the integrated whole of lived experience. This romantic ardour is matched only by a detestation of those falsehoods which present themselves as thin facsimiles of truth – logical formulae, abstract theories, ideological credos and oversimplifications of complex issues. He rightly points out the hypocrisies of the intellectuals of his time who seek to perform public obsequies for the idols of voluntaristic rationalism, materialism, utilitarianism, modern education, free love, eugenics, the ideology of capital, church-state separation, press freedom and democracy.
It would be a mistake to cast Pobedonostsev as a simple reactionary. His Slavophil intellectual tendencies give his ‘reactionary’ positions a paradoxically radical cast which resembles quite closely Ivan Illich’s diagnoses of modernity. When he attacks the institution of the press, it is not on the grounds that a free press dangerously promotes free expression. Indeed, his entire line of attack turns on his argument that the press in fact stifles free thought and free expression: that the newspapers narrow the scope of vision of their readership; that they substitute simple political formulae and quick, glib explanations for substantive or measured analysis; that they foster scandals and instigate gossip; that they ‘foment irritation into enmity, and [bring] about devastating wars’[i]; and that they police the outer limits of acceptable opinion with every whit of the viciousness that they ascribe to their censors. According to Pobedonostsev, the newspaper ‘offers to each [man] a ready-made judgement upon everything, in such a seductive form that, little by little, by force of habit, the reader loses all wish for, and feels absolved from the duty of, forming his own opinions… The harm that results from this is too visible, especially in our time when powerful currents of thought are everywhere in action, wearing down the corners and distinctions of individual thought, reducing to uniformity the so-called public opinion, and weakening all independent development of thought, of will and of character’[ii]. In our subsequent age of the 24-hour media cycle and the ascendancy of the Roger Ailes model of scandal- and outrage-driven infotainment, it is difficult indeed to deny the justice of his charge.
Pobedonostsev’s critique of education, very similarly, rests on the argument that modern pedagogical methods do not help children to thoughtfully examine their own real lived experiences; but rather, ‘seduced by the fantasy of universal enlightenment, we misname education a certain sum of knowledge acquired by completing the courses of schools, skilfully elaborated in the studies of pedagogues. Having organised our school thus, we isolate it from life, and secure by force the attendance of children whom we subject to a process of intellectual training in accordance with our programme.’[iii] His writing, it should be noted, is peppered throughout with references to Xenophon, Plato, Livy, Cicero, S. Augustine and Rūmī, to name but a few; he does not hold learning in contempt at all, but rather wants to see it pursued to the ends proper to life.
Yet he notes quite rightly, and with no small twinge of irony, that the key heliocentric insight of Copernicus and Galileo has been denied anew by the apostles of the modern social sciences. ‘The system of Ptolemy has long outlived its day, yet in our time its errors obtain in a new sphere of ideas and conceptions. For does not modern philosophy, which deals with man as the centre of the universe, assuming that all existence revolves around him as science once made the sun revolve around the earth, fall into a similar pit?’[iv]
Pobedonostsev is very clearly, and very stridently, not a socialist. But in an age of rapid industrialisation and proletarianisation, very much less is he a friend of capital, or of the ideology of credit (both of which he repeatedly refers to as ‘base’ and ‘vulgar’) which diminishes the knowledge of the labourer of his own work, which hems about the labourer on every side with conditions he doesn’t understand, and utterly demolishes the labourer’s every sense of security in his vocation. More generally, he fears the mechanisation of government itself, of jurisprudence, of justice itself. He dreads the loss of a living spirit in the instruments of the state, to be replaced only with a formalism divorced from all proper human sentiment. ‘We find a machine for the artificial execution of justice,’ he writes, ‘but justice itself is dumb in the triumphant turmoil of mechanical production, its voice stifled in the tumult of the wheels of the great machine.’[v]
And when he comes to the subject of democracy, he directs his outrage at the parliamentary system, on behalf of the people whose interests it is meant to represent. One might be forgiven for thinking his suspicion of democracy is far more populist in flavour than autocratic: ‘To [the parliamentarian], his constituents are a herd, an aggregation of votes… The people loses all importance for its representative, until the time arrives when it is to be played upon again.’[vi]
But underlying all of these trenchant critiques, turning each of the modern shibboleths on their heads in turn, is a deep concern for the whole person in her whole depth; this is a concern he shares with the younger generation of Russian political and moral philosophers, including Berdyaev and Solovyov. ‘Men must not be regarded as intelligent machines to be disposed as the general disposes his troops when he forms a line of battle,’ Pobedonostsev writes. ‘Every man embodies a world of moral and spiritual life, from which proceed the impulses which determine his activity in all the spheres of life; but the chief, the central impulse springs from faith and from the conviction of truth. The theorist only, reasoning independently of actuality, or ignoring it, will be satisfied by [Pilate’s] ironical question: what is truth? In the souls of men this question lives as the gravest question of life; a question, requiring not a negative, but a positive answer.’[vii] Prefiguring in particular Berdyaev’s The Meaning of History (and possibly Lewis’s That Hideous Strength), Pobedonostsev recoils instinctively from the whole edifice of the myth of progress, and particularly when it comes to the ideology of eugenics. The statesman is repulsed by any ideology which can so casually override the person as so much fodder for the future flowering and ‘perfection of the race’ as a whole, which can remove the moral floodgates for the exercise of ‘violence and arbitrary power’, and for which ‘the very idea [of conscience] will be denied’[viii].
One major, unfortunate and ugly flaw in Pobedonostsev’s thinking, and one which raises its head thankfully only twice throughout the whole work, is his anti-Semitism. To be fair to him, it is a flaw which he shares with many other figures of his time: T. S. Eliot, C. H. Douglas, Karl von Vogelsang, even F. M. Dostoevsky himself. In context, it is clear that his animus is not driven by an active race-hatred so much as by a suspicion of intellectuals and journalists as possible subversives (amongst whom many Jews figure prominently), and particularly those who weren’t Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, the anti-Semitic language is there, and it is jarring.
Konstantin Pobedonostsev does not simply use his Reflections to stand athwart history, yelling ‘stop’ – though occasionally he does do this as well. But his instincts are far more creative than that. The archconservatism for which he has been both famed and deplored since the days of the Tsars is in actuality informed by a series of nuanced convictions: by turns prefiguring the radical personalism of Berdyaev, reflecting and possibly critiquing on its own grounds the populism of Herzen, absorbing the organic patriotic romanticism of the Slavophils and declaring the necessity of statecraft to stand upon something other than the naked force either of the strongman or of the mob. His essays, however true they must have rung to a literary audience of the 19th century, have lost none of their potency or value being read in the 21st.
[i] Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev. Reflections of a Russian Statesman, including the Manifesto on Unshakeable Autocracy, trans. Robert Crozier Long (Newark: Newark Press, 2013), location 906. Kindle edition.
[ii] Ibid., location 942.
[iii] Ibid., location 1014.
[iv] Ibid., location 1240.
[v] Ibid., location 1349.
[vi] Ibid., location 544.
[vii] Ibid., location 408.
[viii] Ibid., location 2195.