The Genesis of Republicanism in Russia in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries

Many existing narratives of Russian political history depicts it in terms of a dichotomy: arbitrariness / rule of Law, despotism / constitutionalism , and monarchism / parlamentarism. In such a dichotomy, the first is typically bad and inherent, while the second is good but must be developed. Thus, they are juxtaposed both as good / bad and as tradition / innovation.

Republicanism (or civic humanism, as J. G. A. Pocock puts it) is a political language, which bases the legitimacy of a political regime upon the civic virtue of its citizens. Among those who contributed to the intellectual heritage of republicanism, Iseult Honohan identifies Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, the seventeenth-century English republicans, Montesquieu and Rousseau, and the American Founding Fathers. Republicanism might be described as a secular and civic vision of the polity, preoccupied with the 'virtue / time' dilemma. Republican virtue, according to Machiavelli, is the love to one's patria and is only possible under certain, specific political conditions – namely, in a free republic. Thus, it is only possible to be truly virtuous in a republic where virtue, in combination with equality and ancient freedom, allows citizens to live as political body. This conceptual glossary is of considerable significance for eighteenth-century Russia, where it was introduced through a growing admiration for Greco-Roman history.

Russia's political culture was dominated by providential monarchism – a style of political thinking generated by the literary genre of panegyric / ode / sermon, which celebrated Providence and compared the monarch with God. Since the political context lacked bodies or institutions that could assert themselves as representatives of the people (in the way other than Vox populi, vox dei formula), only the monarch could claim the right to speak on behalf of 'the people' itself. In addition, the imported intellectual traditions regarding the ideal forms of government was used to support the argument that only monarchy was suitable for a vast country like Russia. Republics were considered weak by comparison (as argued in David Griffith's classic article 'Catherine II: A Republican Empress') and so they were considered an unsuitable form of government for Russia.

The genre (understood here in a Bakhtinian sense, as a relationship between addresser and addressee) is of crucial importance here. We might draw a line between the communicative context of the Court, which was focused on the person of the Russian monarch, and the public (in the Habermasian sense) context, which was aimed at a broad (potentially infinite) circle of readers. The former generated and supported the genres of panegyric / ode / report, while the latter produced the genres of treatise / pamphlet / journal. But, because of the political architecture of the Russian Empire, it was the Court context that dominated political speech.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, another vision of monarchical power emerged in Russia, related to the gradual development of the public context and the ongoing, intense intellectual engagement with foreign ideas. One might call it 'moralist monarchism', as distinct from the 'providential monarchism' of Court panegyrics and sermons. According to its tenets, the monarch is still compared to God in the sense that they ought to pursue (the common) good, reward the virtuous, and punish the malicious; yet, at the same time, they remain essentially human and therefore prone to failure. As Denis I. Fonzivin put it in his Рассуждение о непременных государственных законах, 'прямое самовластие тогда только вступает в истинное свое величество, когда само у себя отъемлет возможность к соделанию какого-либо зла.'

In Russian political culture, it was common to consider virtue as an objective moral truth, serving as a guide in the stormy sea of social life: «Что есть сия вселюбезная и великоименитая Добродетель? Она есть Навык воли нашея, по силе коего, разумною кто возбужденный Любовию, должности преднаписанные в Законе исполняет. <…> Добродетель отнюдь никому и ни себе вредительна быть не может: тем бы самым лишилась природнаго своего Существа, ежелиб в злое уклонилась. Но острый Разум есть как обоюдный меч, и держащаго повредить, и нападающему живот может исторгнуть» (Vasilii K. Trediakovskii, Слово о мудрости, благоразумии и добродетели, 1752). But within 'moralist monarchism', an alternate approach was developed, drawing on the influence of François Fénélon. The virtue of the citizen is not a result of God's grace for those who perform their duties with diligence; rather, it is socially generated, and a wise monarch is able, by means of policy, to create conditions under which such virtue could be generated. Following the conceptual models of Fénélon, a wise monarch could use their personal example to transform society.

Fénélon, in turn, had drawn heavily on republican tradition while depicting this type of socially-dependent virtue. Virtue is naturally opposed to luxury which, being stimulated by commerce, provokes greed, passion, and corruption. In addition, passion prevents the monarch from rewarding the virtuous and punishing the malicious. Therefore, virtue could be generated by removing luxury and its corruption (as stated in the political novels of Fénélon, Jean-François Marmontel, and their Russian imitators, like Mikhail M. Kheraskov and Fëdor A. Emin). And, as Aleksandr P. Sumarokov stated, 'должно жити мещанину пышняе поселянина, дворянину мещанина, Государю дворянина; но можно и крестьянину такую же есть курицу, какую вельможа; ибо от вельможи больше разсудка требуется, а не прожорливости' (О домостроительстве, 1759)

This conceptual movement was of great importance. Should a monarch fail to provide reward / punishment, then how should one behave politically? This problem was opening the way for critical views and the growth of desire to be recognized personally, as reflected in the emergence of personal odes and personal biographies, such as Fonvizin's Житие графа Никиты Ивановича Панина. Personal reputation was a means to achieve recognition (and potentially reward) from the public, rather than the monarch. Thus, some form of public opinion started to emerge in this period, yet this public opinion did not yet govern itself, as it only existed to encourage the monarch to be virtuous.

Another consequence of the elaboration of a socially-dependent vision of virtue was the new system of arguments in favour of the nobility's privileges, including their status as serf-owners. Serfdom was widely seen as unjust; according to Dmitrii Dolgikh's recent accounts, the overall balance of noble proposals on serfdom was typically split evenly between abolition and retention. So it was essential to postulate the backwardness of at least parts of Russian society if one uses the glossary of Westernization: 'На демократию же и походить не может земля, где народ, пресмыкаясь во мраке глубочайшего невежества, носит безгласно цепи тяжкого рабства' (Denis I. Fonvizin, Рассуждение о непременных государственных законах).

This language of Westernization was combined with the notion of socially-dependent virtue, leading to the following strategy in defence of serfdom: there was no physical difference between master and servant; any difference was determined socially, by Westernisation; the monarch rewarded nobles with privileges because of their virtue and their adoption of the habits of Western civilisation – habits that were then transmitted to their children through education. Thus, virtue was socially conditioned, but also connected with the process of moving from barbarism to civilisation, rather than with any relation to a moral absolute (‘virtues into manners', per Pocock's formulation). The other groups in society still needed to be forced into this process, otherwise they will be distracted by drinking and other vices, not working! Was it possible to break the ‘chains of slavery' if the people were ‘crawling in ignorance'? According to this view, one day the people will see the benefit of 'enlightened' or 'Westernized' virtue; but that day won't come soon…

This view, epitomized by Mikhail M. Shcherbatov's writings, was nevertheless consistently criticized by those who postulated the superiority of the 'simple lives' of the rural population as untouched by the corruptive influence of civilization, influenced by the writings of Fénélon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The simple, poor people lived happy lives of sexual health, while the refined, rich townsmen and nobles suffered from sexual dysfunctions and diseases – see, for example, the anonymous Письмо о равенстве состояний человеческих (1786) and Aleksandr N. Radishchev's Путешествие из Петербурга в Москву (1789):

Все состояния людския суть равны;
Но людям свойства лишь различныя даны.
Нещастлив чем один, другой того желает,
Безумный где падет, там мудрый возрастает.

Even those healthy, happy people still did not constitute a free political republic, however. To accomplish the genesis of republicanism required a deep historical revision. The Novgorodian republic was ‘constructed' in eighteenth-century Russia in the works of Emin, Shcherbatov, and other authors, with the specifically efficient use of Roman imagery in the writings of Iakov B. Kniazhnin and Nikolai M. Karamzin. This rethinking of Russian history was made through historical study and motivated by the tempting Roman analogies; Novgorod was described as Rome, hence the figures of Vadim / Marfa imitated Cato the Younger. The explanatory model for Novgorod's fate mirrored the Roman pattern – that is, as a tale of crisis in the republic and the subsequent emergence of monarchy, rather than a history of princely inheritance, as Vasilii N. Tatishchev and Catherine II tried to frame it).

The communicative logic of the public context drove Russian authors to borrow Roman imagery, since it enabled them to make Russia's history more coherent in the context of the popular accounts of Greco-Roman history. Russian history was ‘prolonged' into the period before Riurik, when there was no monarch and no religion. That allowed the creation of a Russian vision of a republic which existed before the monarchy, and to cultivate a ‘Romanized' version of Russian history, in which monarchy might be interpreted as a degeneration. Thus, Russian liberty was something to be restored, not developed or granted through the process of Westernization under the careful supervision of the monarch. Kondratii Ryleev's verse from 1824 summarizes this perfectly:

Я ль буду в роковое время
Позорить гражданина сан
И подражать тебе, изнеженное племя
Переродившихся славян?

It is important to emphasize that such a republican manner of speech emerged occasionally, not regularly. While many Russian authors used elements of republican glossary and, when the number of these elements became critical, some of these authors produced strikingly republican texts like Kniazhnin's Вадим Новгородский or Radishchev's Путешествие из Петербурга в Москву, the possibilities for the development of a republican manner of speech were limited by the presence of a major dilemma which was haunting Russian republicanism even by 1825. Namely, it was hard to overcome Russia's dependency upon the monarch, either as a moral supreme arbiter (reward / punishment), or as a supreme arbiter of Westernization (civilizer). To establish the capacity of 'the people' as a (republican) sovereign, one had to deal with both the problem of virtue and the problem of the civilizing process. And to celebrate both the Machiavellian virtue (socially-generated love of republican patria) and the ancient tradition of liberty (liberty restored, not developed). The second was more or less present. The first was yet to come.

- Konstantin Bugrov, Institute of History and Archaeology of the Urals Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, Federal University of the Urals

This paper was prepared with the support of a grant from the Russian Ministry of Education and Science 14.А12.31.0004 (26.06.2013): “Return to Europe: Russian Elites and European Innovations, Norms and Patterns (Eighteenth – early Twentieth Centuries)"

Back to the contents page.