The dangers of Russian exceptionalism

In his instantly notorious New York Times op-ed, Vladimir Putin was much too modest. At the end, he argued no country is truly exceptional. He, of all people, shouldn’t be so dismissive. Russian exceptionalism is one of the profoundest forces in world history.

Without it, not nearly as many people would have been sunk in tyranny for centuries, casually sacrificed to the whims of their rulers, and immiserated. It has been the basis for the absolute power of czars and of Soviet dictators, and its spirit lives on in the amoral, lawless rule of Russia’s top opinion writer.

If you want to understand the essence of American exceptionalism, you can quote Patrick Henry or the Declaration of Independence. If you want a taste of the Russian version, you can do worse than the anecdote about Czar Nicholas II -- fated to suffer an ugly end at the hands of the communists -- who was asked by a Western diplomat about regaining public confidence. The czar wanted to know whether he was supposed to regain the confidence of the people, or the other way around?

Throughout its history, Russia has labored under what the historian David Satter calls “the quasi-deification of the Russian state,” its special mission overawing picayune considerations of individual liberty or dignity.

In its imagination, Russia was the Third Rome. It picked up where Rome and Byzantium left off, and as the vessel of orthodoxy, took as its mission the defense and the spread of the true faith. The church became an arm of the state, and the state itself became sanctified. Satter quotes a description of how the Czar of Muscovy, circa the 16th century, evoked “resounding incantations, hyperbolic praise, and groveling obeisance.”

Given its geographic vulnerability, with Mongol or Turkish invaders perpetually threatening, the Russian state required a vast military establishment and universal conscription. “Under these conditions,” historian Richard Pipes writes, “there could be no society independent of the state and no corporate spirit uniting its members. The entire Russian nation was enserfed: there was room here neither for a privileged aristocracy, nor for a class of self-governing burghers, nor yet for a rural yeomanry.”

In the West, private property constituted a check on the power of government absolutism. In Russia, the monarch owned the entire realm up until the late 18th century, so there was no need to convene a parliament to exact taxes -- and no leverage for the kind of revolt against the crown that forged the Magna Carta in England.

People did gain political and civil rights in the early 20th century. Almost immediately they were snuffed out again in a violent revolution. It brought to power a mass-murdering dictatorship that sought the utter destruction of every hint of life independent of the state. The special mission of Russia was transformed to serve Marxist instead of Orthodox ends, but the individual still counted as nothing.

It is against this backdrop that Vladimir Putin scorns American exceptionalism and a Russian parliamentarian, upon news of the Navy Yard shooting, identifies it with mass killings. It is true that we have a notably violent culture. We also have a deep-rooted inheritance of liberty. As James Bennett and Michael Lotus demonstrate in their new book, “America 3.0,” American exceptionalism is a centuries-old phenomenon growing out of organic English roots: the nuclear family, the common law, representative government, constitutional limits on the state, and private ownership of land.

It makes for a political culture hostile to autocracy and therefore deeply at odds with Russian exceptionalism. “Speaking of Russia,” the 19th-century Russian philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev wrote, “people always imagine that they are speaking of a country that is like the others. In fact, it is not so at all. Russia is a whole separate world, submissive to the will, caprice, fantasy of one man -- no matter whether he be called Peter or Ivan.”

Or, he must imagine and hope, Vladimir.

Rich Lowry can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com

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