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, an attack on certain dominant stereotypes used both in Russia and the West to interpret past and present. Yanov argues that two inappropriate models are used to interpret the form of government that emerged in Russia in the century after Mongol rule. For Soviet historians what developed was a form of European absolutism, while their Western counterparts tend to define it as a variety of Asiatic despotism.

Yanov illustrates the deficiencies of the first approach by pointing out the absurd predicament of the Soviet historians who are forced to use it: if they echo Lenin’s pronouncement that Russian autocracy was indistinguishable from absolutism (and therefore, in Marxist terms, that Russia was progressing like the rest of Europe from feudalism to a bourgeois state), they must ignore the major economic development of the first two centuries after the establishment of autocracy in the mid-sixteenth century, when the peasants lost their freedom of movement and were gradually enserfed. Or they must contradict their Marxist premises by intimating that the political superstructure and the economic base of Russian society were moving in opposite directions.

Yanov’s account of the efforts of Soviet historians to steer a course between ideological deviation and the distortion of history makes dismal reading. But he is no less critical of the Western “despotic” school (principally represented in his view by Karl Wittfogel, Richard Pipes, and Arnold Toynbee), who present the Russian autocracy as a “patrimonial state,” a variety of Eastern despotism derived from the practices of the Mongol rulers. Yanov argues persuasively that the patrimonial model—which describes a society with patriarchal values, economic stagnation, and hostility to the formation of elites—does not fit the Russian system. Under the Russian autocracy, long periods of stagnation alternated with spurts of feverish modernization. Elites emerged that had no counterpart in the practices of patriarchal Mongol despotism.


According to the “despotist” historians these deviations were only on the surface, the result of the Westernizing efforts of individual autocrats, and did not affect the fundamental structure of Russian society. But this position rests on a myth, exploded long ago, that pre-autocratic Russia was a barbaric and benighted land. As the Russian historian Klyuchevsky demonstrated a century ago, there were distinctive “European” elements in Russia’s culture and institutions, which coexisted with its Byzantine heritage after the end of Mongol rule. This European heritage had its roots in the period before the thirteenth century when Russia was ruled from Kiev. It was the early autocracy of the sixteenth century, not the Mongols, that almost destroyed this European remnant of Russia’s Kievan period. Yanov sets out to demonstrate that this event in a historically remote period is of fundamental importance if we are to understand the relations between government and society in czarist and Soviet Russia. Before he does so, however, he tries to explain the persistence of the obsolete stereotype of the “civilizing autocrat.”

He finds its origins in the attempt on the part of the “state school” (which dominated Russian historiography in the nineteenth century) to fit Russia into a Hegelian pattern of development. It held that the modern state was born in Russia toward the end of the sixteenth century, when Ivan IV—the Terrible—destroyed the power of the ancient boyar and princely families and founded the Russian autocracy. Since in Hegel’s schema the institutions of the modern state represent the summit of mankind’s development, it was necessary to demonstrate that the autocracy replaced a more primitive stage of development: hence the heavy emphasis by these historians on the Tatar and Byzantine elements in pre-autocratic Russian culture. According to the state school, the oprichnina—a combination of private army, political party, and political police—which Ivan used to exterminate all opposition to his total power, was regrettable but historically necessary. Ivan’s regime of terror, which has been equalled in Russia only by Stalin, is presented as the only way in which a backward, semi-Oriental Muscovite society based on primitive ties of kinship could have been transformed into a strong and centralized state. Progress—the demiurge of the Hegelian vision of history—is held to justify all the sacrifices made in its name.

The classic histories of the state school (which included most of Russia’s most eminent academic historians) have had a distinctive influence on Western writing on Russian history. Yanov notes that “despotist” historians such as Richard Pipes share, if not their enthusiasm for autocracy, at least their contempt for Russia’s “Tatar-Byzantine heritage” and their view that a strong centralized state was essential to counter the anarchic tendencies of the Russian people. More remarkable is the influence of these conservative Russian Hegelians on their Marxist successors. While substituting the concepts of economic progress and class struggle for the “idea of the state” as the justification of Ivan’s terror, Soviet historians freely acknowledge their debt to those who first perceived its “historical necessity.”

Yanov stresses that his polemics with the “despotists” and “absolutists” are not an academic exercise. He argues vigorously that these heirs of the state school are helping the present tyrants to justify slavery by legitimizing the tradition of slavery—and that the Soviet regime takes full advantage of the services of the historians. Stalin ensured that his own “oprichnina” revolution in the 1930s was accompanied by a proliferation of historical writing in praise of the political wisdom and statesmanship of Ivan the Terrible. In Yanov’s view there are disturbing signs that Soviet historians may soon be called upon to justify a new Stalinism. It is time, he insists, to demand a halt. Soviet historians should cease their intellectual collaboration with tyranny, and their Western colleagues should cease their dependence on an obsolete stereotype which prevents their seeing the pattern of events unfolding before their eyes. The aim of Yanov’s book is to propose a new model of the Russian autocracy—as a product neither of historical determinism nor of Russia’s Mongol inheritance, but of a political alliance between the Russian ruler and forces on the right of society. This alliance, he argues, is an inherently unstable structure, able to survive only by recourse to the mystical power of a “myth of the state.”

Yanov’s account of the origins of autocracy, which occupies most of his book, is not original. Much material on which he draws, as well as many of his conclusions, can be found in the classic histories of Russia by Klyuchevsky and George Vernadsky (neither of whom was a partisan of the state school); but Yanov (who takes issue with Klyuchevsky on some points) does not acknowledge this; and the absence of reference to the many monographs and articles in English whose conclusions are close to his own leaves a distorted impression of Western writing on Russian history. Still, it remains true that some of the most influential interpretations of Russian history, which have molded the popular view of Russia, tend to follow models Yanov attacks.


Yanov bases his interpretation on the evidence of a fundamental dualism in the Muscovite state. The patriarchal tradition in which the land and the people belonged to the ruler had been strengthened by Mongol rule. But the contractual relationship of the grand princes of Moscow to their boyar council was equally ancient, stretching back to the Kievan period when Russia had been part of Europe. Both traditions survived side by side in the Muscovite governmental system at the end of the fifteenth century. The boyars, a governmental class of aristocrats recognized by the ruler, coexisted as legislators with an executive apparatus consisting of state secretaries who owed loyalty to the ruler alone.

By the mid-sixteenth century patriarchy was steadily losing ground to the concept of legal limitations on royal power. The reign of Ivan III (1462-1505), who presided over the unification of post-Mongol Russia, saw the beginnings of widespread administrative, social, and judicial reforms, which expanded local self-government, put an end to feudal immunities, protected private property, increased peasant freedom of movement, and accelerated economic expansion and urbanization. These processes were consolidated in the reforms of the Government of Compromise under Ivan IV in the mid-sixteenth century, which attempted to reconcile the demands of growing social forces with a broad plan for administrative, fiscal, and political modernization, and the creation of an Assembly of the Land. This was a proto-parliament which seemed about to transform the essentially feudal limits on royal power, represented by the boyar council, into a modern, judicial one.

In other words, a survey of political developments in Russia during the century before Ivan IV’s revolution disposes of the view that pre-autocratic Russia was a primitive society based on kinship ties. Yanov echoes Vernadsky in asserting that by the early years of Ivan IV’s reign, the conflict between the despotic tradition and tendencies leading to a European-style “absolutism” (defined by Yanov as a system in which limitations on royal power gradually accumulate) seemed to be resolved in favor of a European solution.

This situation was dramatically reversed when the reforming ruler turned almost overnight into a bloodthirsty monster, establishing tyranny through his murderous oprichnina. The personality of Ivan the Terrible has produced a vast literature, which tries to distinguish the contributions of paranoia, raison d’état, political genius, and historical necessity in establishing the Russian autocracy. Yanov argues that the crucial factor in the transformation of the Russian state was not, as is commonly held, Ivan the Terrible, but rather a right-wing ideological offensive on the part of the Russian Church against the Europeanizing forces in Russian society. The factor that determined whether Russia should become part of Europe or set itself apart from Europe was an issue that is normally regarded as a transient episode in Russian history—the battle over secularizing Church lands.

Yanov emphasizes that this secularization in sixteenth-century Europe was part of the transition from feudalism to “absolutism”—the attack on immunity and privilege, the development of towns, the strengthening of the aristocracy and centralized authority, and the growth of secularizing movements. Sixteenth-century Russia possessed its own reform movement—the sect of the “non-acquirers,” who opposed the material wealth and political power of the Church and called for rationality, tolerance, and popular participation in government. Had Russia secularized most Church lands in the early sixteenth century, this development would have favored the existing tendency toward an “absolutist” compromise between conflicting elements of society (all united in their opposition to the privileges of the Church). But the Russian Church was more than a match for successive alliances of monarchs, boyars, and nonacquirers: it combined a ferocious attachment to its worldly wealth with a political ruthlessness acquired in the school of the Mongols, who, in return for its collaboration, had granted it immunities and privileges unparalleled elsewhere in Europe. Led by the brilliant ideologist Joseph of Volokolamsk, the Church sought to reproduce this alliance with the new rulers of Muscovy by providing them with a concept of theocratic power designed for their mutual benefit.

In the famous formulation made in 1510 by the Josephite monk Filofei, Moscow was the third Rome, the successor to Byzantium as guardian of the true faith. The Orthodox ruler inherited the mantle of the Byzantine autocrator and with it the task of preserving Orthodox Christianity against the heretics and heathens of East and West until the Second Coming. In arguing that the fate of the Russian state was indissolubly bound with the fate of the one true Orthodox faith, the Josephite church offered the ruler an unlimited religious mandate for all acts directed to securing his throne and extending his power and realm. In return for making autocracy ideologically legitimate, the Church expected the ruler’s cooperation in exterminating the non-acquirers and their allies among the boyars.

Russia’s rulers were slow to accept the role urged on them by the Church: for half a century they maneuvered between the Josephites and their opponents. It took the combination of a paranoid personality and a crisis of power (when it seemed no longer possible to reconcile conflicting groups and interests) to establish autocracy in Russia. In 1565, scenting a boyar’s plot behind the alarming instability of the Russian governmental system, Ivan IV created his “oprichnina revolution” and during the next decade eliminated all threats to his total power, including those of the boyar aristocracy and, predictably, the Church, with its dreams of a lucrative alliance with the ruler.

Yanov argues persuasively that the Church was the ideological prime mover of Ivan’s revolution. The early years of his reign coincided with a sharp increase of activity on the Russian right. In the face of a sustained attack on the principle of Church property by the monarch’s main advisers, and the threat of unfavorable legislation by the Government of Compromise, the Church propagandists stressed to Ivan the advantages of autocracy and the danger of placing too much trust in advisers, while Ivan’s ideological tutor, the Metropolitan Makarii, impressed Josephite ideas on him.

In emphasizing the decisive influence of Byzantine-Orthodox messianism on Ivan’s outlook, Yanov is not breaking new ground: an important monograph by the Danish historian B. Na/rretranders made this point nearly twenty years ago.1 As Na/rretranders pointed out, Joseph of Volokolamsk had defended (albeit vaguely) the Church’s right to judge whether individual rulers were fulfilling their mandate. But the next generation of Josephites was only too willing to trade this right in return for the extermination of anyone who threatened the Church’s privileges. The “autocrator’s complex” inculcated in Ivan by his religious mentors found its classic expression in his correspondence with the exiled boyar Kurbsky.2 To Kurbsky’s plea for a form of conciliar government, based on humanitarian principles, Ivan responded that no earthly individual or power could challenge the ruler’s definition of what was good or evil, or could set up criteria for judging his authority. His sole responsibility was to God at the Last Judgment.

Yanov’s conclusion is the same as Na/rretranders’s: that it was the Church’s political opportunism, disguised as an ideology and dedicated to exterminating all independent thought, that showed Ivan how to rule by terror, and ultimately to turn that terror against the Church itself. When Makarii’s successor, the Metropolitan Filip, horrified at the carnage of the oprichnina, sought to claim for the Church the role of the ruler’s conscience, he was deposed and murdered. The Russian Church never succeeded in formulating a coherent theory of resistance. An attempt by the Patriarch Nikon to assert the supra-national character of the Church was crushed by Peter the Great: it was the last of such attempts.

The Church’s doctrine of the Third Rome had an equally large effect on Russia’s relations with Europe. In Ivan’s reign the hostility toward foreign states, which had long been a tendency of Muscovite governments, became a strictly enforced policy, from which deviation was punished as treason. All European peoples were to be regarded as heretics or heathens whose very existence menaced the one true faith and the state which embodied it. They could be converted by war or exploited through imitation of their technology, but all other relations with them were treasonous. Ivan’s subjects were permitted neither to travel abroad nor to correspond with foreigners except on business. The inheritor of the mantle of Byzantium despised the customs of diplomacy. European monarchs who addressed Ivan as “brother” were sharply rebuked for their presumption. Ivan’s desire to force Europe to accept his grandiose image of himself dictated a foreign policy in which ideology overrode more practical considerations and which, Yanov argues, had as determining an influence on the future direction of the Russian autocracy as the oprichnina revolution.

The historic choice, as Yanov puts it, that lay before Ivan was whether to pursue a war against the Crimean Tatars in the south or to turn against his neighbors to the west in an attempt to annex the Livonian port of Narva. Should he, in other words, undertake an offensive war which would secure for Russia the political and economic advantages of a window on Europe, or a battle for self-preservation against an aggressor which, with Turkey looming behind it, threatened Russia’s national existence? The Tatar raids had taken a huge toll of Russian lives and wealth and frequently brought the country to the brink of national crisis. While the question of a European port could be shelved, the Crimean problem could not. As Ivan’s advisers sought to persuade him, the choice was between war on one or on two fronts—if Russia attacked Europe, the Tatars could be counted on to take advantage of the vulnerability of its southern borders.

Nevertheless, Ivan embarked on a campaign for the conquest not only of Narva, but of all Livonia against the militarily superior forces of Poland and Sweden. The resulting twenty years’ war, during which the Tatars reached the walls of Moscow, plunged Russia into a century-long decline and firmly established the anti-European course of the autocracy.

It says much for the influence of the state school that some historians still present the Livonian war as a product of Ivan’s farseeing political genius, on the grounds that the acquisition of a trading port, together with the destruction of the boyars, furthered the growth of the gentry and with it Russia’s development into a modern state. But the rise of the gentry, promoted by the legal reforms of previous reigns, already was the dominant social process in Russia at Ivan’s accession. No revolution was needed to accomplish it. The extermination of the boyars deprived Russia of the cream of its talents and, together with the effects of the war, resulted in the devastation of the countryside, which could be restored only by enserfing the peasantry. As Vernadsky asserts in his monumental history of Russia, Ivan’s reign was an economic and political disaster for his country.

As a myth maker, however, Ivan was an unqualified success. Yanov argues convincingly that in his interpretation of the theory of the Third Rome, Ivan was the true founder both of the state school of Russian history and of the official ideology of the Russian state. Both share the essentially medieval vision of a consensual society, where to dissent from the suzerain is to declare oneself an enemy of the motherland, whose interests and goals are identical to those of the ruler. To Ivan it was self-evident that those who, like Kurbsky, emigrated to avoid persecution or death were traitors to their country. The article in the Soviet criminal code that defines “flight abroad or refusal to return from abroad” as treason can be seen as evidence of the continuing vitality of Ivan’s heritage.

In the most provocative and original part of his book, Yanov presents other evidence of this heritage. He argues that the Soviet governing elite does not have to rely on force alone to compel adherence to its view of the relation of government to society. Soviet scholars habitually refer to Kurbsky as a traitor for attempting with help from abroad to destroy the political monstrosity created by Ivan. They do so not merely because of external pressure. Like their Hegelian predecessors, they believe in the “myth of the state.” Yanov attributes something of this belief to the large number of Western historians who, however much they might deprecate the excesses of Russia’s autocrats, share the view that (as one of Peter the Great’s contemporaries is held to have said of him) they brought their people “out of nonexistence.” According to these historians, the great luminaries of the “liberal” opposition to autocracy, from Radishchev and Herzen to Sakharov, have based their protest on alien values, imported from the West by the autocracy itself in an attempt to civilize its people.

Yanov puts the contrary case with force and passion. The magnitude of the revolution which Ivan IV had to undertake in order to establish tyranny in Russia, and the opposition of Kurbsky, the non-acquirers, and many lesser figures, demonstrate that the values of tolerance, rationality, and representative government were not, as is often asserted, imported into Russia with the philosophies of the Enlightenment: they were part of a tradition as organic to Russia as tyranny, a tradition that flourished long before the Westernization carried out by Peter the Great and Catherine II, and that has continued unbroken in spite of the attempts of these and other autocrats to stamp it out.

Yanov emphasizes that the question of the origins of dissent in Russia is linked to the evaluation of its contemporary forms, and of the Soviet Union’s prospects of development along European lines. Despite the admiration that the “despotist” historians, like most Western liberals, express for contemporary Soviet movements of dissent, their historical reasoning leads inescapably to the conclusion that in Russia tyranny was and is something of a necessary evil. If left to their native temperament and traditions, the Russian people would sink back into anarchy and barbarism. This conclusion, so embarrassingly close to the official point of view, is naturally seldom expressed; nevertheless the view that the patrimonial tradition is the only tradition in Russian political history legitimizes such matters as Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture, and undermines much Western liberal criticism of the methods used by his successors to enforce their conception of progress.

The central thesis of Yanov’s book is bound to meet with hostility, but he argues it soberly and persuasively: the fetish of progress and of the “strong state” has blinded historians, Western as well as Russian, to the most elementary factual and moral truths about the relation of Russian government to Russian society. This fetish respects no ideological boundaries. Yanov freely admits that he himself is not immune to its “hypnotic and mystical” power.

In me, as in every offspring of Russian culture, two souls coexist exactly as two cultural traditions contend in the consciousness of the nation. Each of these has its own hierarchy of values. The highest value of the one is order (and correspondingly, the lowest is anarchy and chaos). The highest value of the other is freedom (and correspondingly, the lowest is slavery). I fear chaos and hate slavery. I feel the temptation to believe in a “strong regime,” able to…dry all tears and console all griefs. And I am ashamed of this temptation. Sometimes it seems to me that freedom gives birth to chaos, …that slavery gives birth to order.

Yanov argues that it is time for Russians to understand that their two traditions cannot be reconciled; that the basis of order is freedom. Their historians can contribute to this development in public consciousness by demonstrating that autocracy, not dissent, has been the source of the chaos and disorder which destroyed the nation’s integrity in the past. In the West, a better appreciation of the historical roots of Russia’s “European” tradition of dissent would improve our understanding of the conflicting forces in Soviet government and society, and of the possibilities of development open to it. In his earlier monographs Yanov has suggested that Western historians could give moral and practical support to genuine Soviet dissenters by discriminating more carefully than they have done between this group and those forms of opposition that stem from the autocratic tradition.

In Yanov’s view, the greatest tactical error committed by the tradition which stretches from Kurbsky to Sakharov has been to assume that it could collaborate on the basis of shared values with elements in the messianic, isolationist “right”: repeatedly, in times of national crisis, the spiritual values defended by the right have turned out to be reconcilable with the official version of the myth of the state. Historical writing that recognizes this fact could help the real Soviet opposition to cohere, and strengthen its slender prospects of reversing the defeat which it suffered at the hands of Ivan the Terrible.

In this fascinating and important book (which has been elegantly translated), Yanov demythologizes Russian history with rigor and clarity; but his intention is to do much more than that. In conclusion he proposes a new model of autocracy: an unstable compound of absolutist and despotic elements, doomed to a cyclical alternation of “rigid” and “relaxed” phases. His model (to be the subject of a later book?) is barely outlined here, but even so it seems a hastily conceived and poorly argued attempt to justify his belief that the principal villain in the drama of modern Russian history was and is the nationalist right. That the political opposition resurrected in every liberal “thaw” was subsequently crushed in a new rigidification of the regime was owing, he argues, to the right, whose historical function has been to provide Russia’s rulers (in the form of xenophobic messianism) with an ideological justification for halting the process of Europeanization and mobilizing the people in the name of urgent national tasks: hence the spurts of “explosive modernization” which kept (and keep) a barbaric regime afloat.

Yanov’s generalizations are unsupported by fact and full of internal contradictions. After Ivan IV, it was not until the early nineteenth century that Russia’s autocrats made ideological capital out of messianic nationalism, and then not in order to mobilize society, but to freeze it, to preserve the status quo against infection from European ideas. Of course, the proponents of messianic nationalism, such as Dostoevsky and Danilevsky, wished to do much more—to bring together various sections of society in the furtherance of a national and universal mission, but they singularly failed in this regard. Romantic and orthodox variations on the theme of the Third Rome were dismissed by most of educated society as reactionary nonsense, and could not compete with the mass appeal of the ideas of the internationalist left. (Yanov does not tell us how the 1917 revolution fits into his scheme.) Since the reign of Ivan the Terrible, when it undoubtedly helped to change the course of Russian history, the role of the right in times of national crisis has been to assist the autocrat in policing society rather than in mobilizing opposition. If historical precedent is to guide us, we may assume that the Soviet New Right is the herald of a new freeze, not an explosion.

Hostile reviewers (and Yanov has ensured that there will be no shortage of these) will probably argue that the defects in his historical judgment make it difficult to take him seriously as a demythologizer. This is not so. In its unevenness The Origins of Autocracy is a very Russian book, a striking example of both the vices and the virtues of that tradition of dissent which the author sees as the only hope for his country’s future. Their hatred of all forms of slavery made the representatives of that tradition extraordinarily sensitive to the multitude of ideological disguises assumed by oppression and the cult of power. But the moral passion that produced brilliant exposures of hypocrisy, cant, and empty formalism also generated much hasty theorizing, often simplistic to the point of crankishness.

Still, few would argue, for example, that Herzen’s sweeping predictions about the imminent collapse of Western civilization, or his naïve views on the social potential of the Russian peasant commune, detract from the value of his insights into mankind’s tendency to enslave itself to idols of its own making. Yanov’s case study in historical distortion is a much more modest contribution to the same theme. But one would not overestimate its effect if one described it in the same way that Herzen once defended his philosophy of history:

It is not a science, but an indictment, it is a scourge to be used against absurd theories and absurd liberal theorists, it is a fermenting agent and no more than that: but it engrosses and stimulates, it angers people, it makes them think.

This Issue

February 17, 1983