Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who lived from 1827 to 1907, was probably the most powerful and influential of all Russian Conservatives during the final decades of tsarist rule. From 1880 to 1905, he served as Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod, and in this position he was the layman in charge of administering the entire Russian Orthodox Church.
The Influence of Pobedonostsev’s Power
This meant he had power over education, since the church controlled many of the schools in the country and set rules for others. It also meant he had a certain amount of control over the church’s effort to spread ideas and over culture as well. In addition he had very direct influence over the thinking of Russia’s last two rulers. He was chosen to be the tutor of both Alexander III and then his son, Nicholas II, before they inherited the thrones, and he remained a close personal advisor to both rulers until his death.
Learn More: Nicholas II, the Last Tsar
Pobedonostsev was enormously influential. For example, in 1881, he almost single-handedly convinced Alexander III to reject the reforms of Loris-Melikov. Initially Alexander III was unsure—his father had signed it after all—but Pobedonostsev convinced him how dangerous this would be. And in 1895, when the new tsar, Nicholas II, came to the throne, he would similarly convince the tsar to make his first public statement one that declared his rejection of any form of representative government, even consultative.
His thinking about politics was fairly straightforward, blunt, and harsh. He opposed any constitutional or legal limitation on the power of the monarch whatsoever. He saw these as counter to Russian traditions, and most importantly, counter to the true nature of the Russian people.
The tone with which he condemned constitutionalism is as revealing as the fact itself. Quite early in 1879, Pobedonostsev wrote to his student, Alexander III, the following about people who spoke about the usefulness of liberal reform in Russia: “What I hear from highly placed people of different stations and ranks makes me sick. It’s as if I were in the company of half-wits, or perverted apes. Everywhere I hear that trite, deceitful, accursed word constitution.”
Remarkably, he concluded that “A Russian revolution, an ugly upheaval, is preferable to a constitution, because the former, a revolution, could be suppressed, order restored throughout the land, but the latter is poison to the entire organism.”
Learn More: The Reign of Alexander III
Pobedonostsev’s conservatism was not only shrill in tone, it was very extreme in content. For example, in 1881 when Alexander III first came to power, he shocked many ministers when he made a speech before the whole gathered cabinet, in the Winter Palace, in which he condemned almost all the reforms of Alexander II. He blamed courts and lawyers for crime and murder.
He said there wouldn’t be so much if it weren’t for the courts and the lawyers. He denounced all forms of representative local governments, zemstvos, city government. He even denounced what little bit of freedom of the press was left at the end of the reign of Alexander II.
Most ministers were aghast. Even the war minister, a man named Dmitrii Miliutin declared that Pobedonostsev’s talk before them at that moment was, in his words, “a negation of all that is the foundation of European civilization.” And it’s worth saying he was not entirely off-base. Philosophically Pobedonostsev did reject the very central ideas of the European Enlightenment, namely, faith in human reason. For Pobedonostsev, like European conservatives as well, the most dangerous idea in the world was the idea that human beings, and by extension society, was perfectible, and that human beings were endowed with reason, and with which they could improve the world.
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For Pobedonostsev, Russia must not rely on artificial reason, but only on sacred and unquestioned forms of authority rooted in tradition. More than philosophy was behind these conservative ideas. There was a visible and increasingly common conservative thought in Russia toward the end of the old regime and a deep fear of modernity, a fear of people, a fear about where the world was heading.
Partly for Pobedonostsev, this was a matter of personality. People who knew Pobedonostsev were struck by his deep pessimism, his misanthropy in looking at life. In his diary entries from New Year’s of 1875, he wrote: “Why rejoice when another drop has disappeared from the cup of life and one can hear a deep echo from the dark chasm in which it fell?”
He did have some pleasures as a person. He liked to write very gloomy verses about twilight and dusk. He adored the Orthodox Liturgy above all, he would tell people, because of its majestic and moving evocations of Christ’s suffering. He particularly liked funerals, and wrote enthusiastically in his diary about how beautiful and moving they were.
In some ways he wanted others to feel and live the way he did. He suggested at one point that dances, balls, and fancy banquets ought to be banned from Russia. This misanthropy wasn’t just personal, it was also philosophical. Like most 19th-century conservatives, though one might suggest with a particular Russian intensity, he had an extremely dismal view of humanity. This was more than just a simple denial of the primacy of reason.
He considered people to be, by nature, in his words, “weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious.” At one point, he expressed absolute amazement that human beings had managed to even survive as long as they had, given how terrible they were—the complete opposite of Tolstoy’s view. In fact it was Pobedonostsev, as head of the Orthodox Church, who had Tolstoy excommunicated.
Learn More: Lev Tolstoy
In addition to these general flaws that all human beings shared, he noticed that Russians had some extra flaws. They were inert, lazy, dishonest, greedy, power-hungry, and, of course, drunken—though he admitted they were also very friendly and good-natured.
In the face of these convictions about human nature, he looked to the future and saw only misery and error. In his words, elaborating on the famous phrase from Ecclesiastes, a book he loved, he wrote, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, all fades, all vanishes, all disintegrates, all deceives.” And against this background, Pobedonostsev saw only three institutions that could save Russia—the family, the Orthodox Church, and the state.
The family for Pobedonostsev had the job of repressing evil instincts in the child, just the opposite of Tolstoy’s idea of education. The family must teach obedience, and he had the church instruct parents to do just that. Stifle children’s imaginations, a very dangerous thing, he said. Stifle their love of learning; it leads them in dangerous ways. What you need were skills, not critical ways of thinking. He was head of the church, and the church had to teach all of its parishioners obedience. It also was to provide that spiritual and ideological cement that would hold society together, that would hold these weak people together and create some stability.
But of greatest importance for Pobedonostsev, especially in Russia, was that men, not laws, must rule. Ideally, this was to be a rule of a patriarchal nature. The tsar should be not only be absolute but wise, and moral, and loving, and of course, advised by wise men like himself. The people, of course, were expected to respond like ideal children—with love and unquestioning obedience.
Now, Pobedonostsev was a very smart man. He admitted that as a result of all these human frailties the autocratic system was never as perfect as he wished it were, but every other conceivable political system, he argued, was worse.
Most of all he feared democracy because democracy would give free reign to men’s worst instincts, to their reason. His ideology emerged from a faith in tradition—it had gotten Russia so far after all—but it also emerged from a sort of emotional and philosophical fear and loathing about a modern future, with greater freedom and liberty for individuals, and of course, a loathing for human nature itself.
In many ways these were the ideas and sentiments that, in the hands of powerful people like Pobedonostsev and rulers like Alexander III and Nicholas II, would inspire the autocracy to its very end. They would also bring that end closer.
From the Lecture Series: A History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev
Taught by Professor Mark Sternberg, Ph.D.