The Origins of Autocracy: Ivan the Terrible in Russian History
After emigrating from the Soviet Union in 1974, Alexander Yanov, a historian and journalist, published two monographs in which he drew attention to the rise of a Soviet “New Right”: a messianic nationalism which for two decades had been gaining ground not only in the government (where it animated a neo-Stalinist opposition to détente), but also, and more remarkably, in the dissident movement. Yanov concluded that parts of the opposition and establishment right shared an isolationist and messianic nationalism strongly colored by anti-Semitism. Both believed that the fundamental conflict between Russia and the West was neither political nor economic but spiritual in nature. On the one side they saw the bankrupt values of the West, reflected in the hollow freedom of its political democracies; on the other, the unique spiritual qualities of the Russian people which had found their supreme expression in the political tradition of Byzantine-Orthodox authoritarianism.
To fulfill the role of world leadership for which their spiritual qualities equipped them, the “New Right nationalists” have argued, the Russian people must return to this tradition. According to some dissenting groups, it would replace the Soviet system; others believe it would be harmoniously synthesized with it. As Yanov pointed out, even the latter outcome, proposed by the establishment nationalists who write in Molodya Gvardiya, the organ of the Komsomol Central Committee, can hardly be reconciled with the proletarian internationalism of the official ideology. The relative impunity with which Molodya Gvardiya maintained its right-wing criticism of Brezhnevist centrism is, for Yanov, strong evidence that the New Right has powerful support within the highest reaches of the Soviet government.
While this strange alliance finds no place in the sociological models currently used as a basis for predictions about the political development of the Soviet Union, it has some striking precedents in Russian history. Yanov says there is little that is new about the New Right. Its fundamental postulates are rooted in a tradition that stretches back to the end of the fifteenth century when the centralizing Muscovite state (having thrown off the domination of the Mongol Tatars, who had ruled Russia for two and a half centuries) first addressed the question whether the country should follow Europe or pursue a separate path. Yanov argues that in our time, by urging the regime to react to an economic crisis by mobilizing the country in the name of a policy of national regeneration, the messianic right is repeating a pattern established then. He believes that if the West is not to be taken by surprise by future developments in the Soviet Union, it should cease undervaluing the importance of history as a tool of political analysis.
In Yanov’s view there is as yet no adequate historical model of Russian government. In his latest book he sets out to examine the reasons why, and to offer a model of his own as a first step toward understanding the Soviet successor to autocracy. The Origins of Autocracy is a book about historiography rather than history,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.