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Sergey Uvarov: Moderniser turned reactionary
 
There's nothing new about the Russian conservatism Putin stands for, and it is something worth understanding, even  if it makes us weep with frustration at the heavy-handed seizing of Crimea and the evident will of most Ukrainians not to be subject to Russian rule. 

Just as many liberal Western democracies trace their histories of tolerance and a sharp separation of church and state back to the Enlightenment, so Russia still seems to be fighting the French Revolution, the political climax of that period. Russian conservativism has its roots in resistance to the modern momentum of individualistic liberation. There was never a Russian Edmund Burke to make a sophisticated plea for the powers of tradition and community over rationality as a guide to how to live. But there was always the Orthodox Church to bluntly dismiss reason as anathema. And for three and half centuries there was a tsar to rule by divine authority.

Whenever I try to understand the authoritarian Russian way anew I have to think of a man who 50 years before Lenin and 150 before Putin spelt out the classic Russian formula: Orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality. Count Sergei Uvarov's tripartite slogan of 1833 was conservative Russia's answer to liberté, egalité, fraternité. It meant, in something closer to today's terms, autocracy, religious authority and managed democracy. Many Russians seem to find that acceptable.

Uvarov was Tsar Nicholas I's Minister for National Enlightenment when he formulated his slogan. At the time it was already the national awareness movements in neighbouring Poland and across the Austro-Hungarian empire that were the biggest threat to the total tsarist grip on power. Rather than suppress Romantic national awareness entirely, which was part of a new kind of intellectual freedom, and the beginnings of civic life for Russia, Uvarov proposed that Nicholas's reign be hallmarked with a special kind of "official nationality" that the state would manage. Cue censorship and restricted access to higher education, for a start. Western historians have mostly passed Uvarov by because the apparent illiberalism he was encouraging looks so unattractive. But it is his dilemma and the solutions he came up with that make him interesting, for as long as Russia remains in its conservative mould. I owe my sense of his importance to a very gifted historian of early-19th-century Russia who first wrote about him in the 1920s, Alexandre Koyre. The Russian-born Koyre would make a distinguished career as a philosopher of science in the United States after figuring out just what was at stake with the Russian Leviathan.

Uvarov's immediate opponents were the handful of liberals comprising the freer society, striving after open discussion and reform, that first sprang to life in the Marvellous Decade of 1938-48. They have since become well-known in the West, thanks to essays by Isaiah Berlin and  Tom Stoppard's vivid Russian trilogy The Coast of Utopia. The literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, whom Stoppard put on the stage of London's National Theatre in 2002, decried Uvarov as the Minister of Darkness, dedicated to the "extinction of Enlightenment". The suave writer, publicist and political campaigner Alexander Herzen, brilliantly captured by Stoppard as the liberal hero of his Russian trilogy, found Uvarov a pompous fool.

The enigma of Uvarov, however, was that he was highly educated, and had spent time in Europe as a young diplomat (where Madame de Stael failed to seduce him). He knew his country couldn't become liberal overnight, but as a young man he closely followed the ideas of the German educational reformers in the first two decades of the 19th century, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Freiherr vom Stein, which suggests he had some eventual hope. If you look up Uvarov's one positive achievement, you'll find that he's often called the father of modern education. He was the founder of St Petersburg university and the first to organise an effective national schools system. A more liberal Russia ahead then, only slowly, slowly.

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