What Holds Russia Together?
Endre Sashalimi. Russian Notions of Power and State in a European Perspectives, 1462-1725: Assessing the Significance of Peter’s Regin. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2022.   With its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has pushed its way into the center of the West’s news cycle. Russian justifications for its war, such as claims of “territorial integrity” and… The post What Holds Russia Together? appeared first on VoegelinView.




Endre Sashalimi. Russian Notions of Power and State in a European Perspectives, 1462-1725: Assessing the Significance of Peter’s Regin. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2022.


With its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has pushed its way into the center of the West’s news cycle. Russian justifications for its war, such as claims of “territorial integrity” and “anti-Nazism,” have been dismissed in the West as merely propaganda at best and ludicrous at worst. And while there have been isolated protests, the Russian people so far have supported the war effort. Yet in the news cycle about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, little time is spent looking at Russia’s justifications for war.
The appeal of “territorial integrity” is particularly interesting since the five regions of eastern Ukraine and the five regions of western Russia have been an issue of dispute since the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. It is also worth noting that in the 1993 Russian Federation Constitution the “integrity of the state” (tselostnost’ gosudarstva) figures prominently and has been a preoccupation of Vladimir Putin since he assumed the presidency. Although Russia has violated international law in seeking to absorb Ukrainian territory, its justification of “territorial integrity” reveals Russian political, cultural, and historical assumptions behind this claim that demands further investigation. In dealing with Russia, we should also seek to enter the Russian mind—not as an apologia for Russian’s actions but to understand Russian motivations and to form a more proper response because of this investigation.
In Russian Notions of Power and State in a European Perspective, 1462-1725, Endre Sashalmi does just that—highlighting the enduring features of Russian political thought concerning the state and how they differ from its European counterparts. A professor of history at the University of Pécs in Hungry, Sashalmi engages both primary and secondary literature in Russia and Europe, showing that the Russians understand the state in a way that is both familiar and unfamiliar to us in the West. The differences are significant to understand.
The Russian word for state is gosudarstvo, which is derived from the word gosudar’, meaning “ruler,” “lord,” or “master.” Thus, the word gosudarstvo has a strong personal monarchial connotation but, unlike in the European tradition, there are no “two bodies” of the king (one natural and the other political). In the Russian context, the natural and political were one and the same. The state has a strong personal, quasi-monarchial element to it, something we see even today in the presidency of Vladimir Putin.
Sashalimi traces this conception of the state to Muscovite Russia (1263-1547) where there was an absence of a counterbalancing force to the grand price. For instance, the concept of the legal person (the corporation) did not exist. As a result, all rights and responsibilities were derived only from the Russian ruler. The only possible institution that could have acted as a countervailing force to the state was the Russian Orthodox Church. However, when the Russian Orthodox Church was granted autocephalous status in 1448, the church—no longer under the jurisdiction of Constantinople—became even more dependent upon Muscovite rulers. Unlike the Catholic Church, which was independent of secular powers, the Russian Orthodox Church had to submit to an arrangement of symphonia to survive. Thus, even the one institution that could rival the Muscovite-cum-Russian ruler was subordinated to the personal monarch/ruler.
In Europe, the modern conception of the state emerged in 1450-1700 when the central government began to regulate various aspects of social life through law, particularly in the realm of economics and religion. To accomplish this, a professionalized bureaucracy, diplomatic corps, and a permanent armed military were created. Underlying these new institutions was the idea of sovereignty, perhaps best formulated during this period by Jean Bodin who claimed the monarch was rex superiorem non recognoscens est in regno suo imperator (“the king who does not recognize a superior is an emperor in his kingdom”).
In this sense, Russian sovereignty was similar to the European conception: the person who rules a territory is independent of other rulers. Autocracy was the guarantee of Russian territorial integrity of the state and eventually the welfare of the Russian people. This linkage of territorial integrity of the country to a strong monarchial power was the cornerstone of Russian statehood.
This view underscores Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin’s (1766-1826) twelve-volume History of the Russian State. The integrity of the state could not exist without the autocratic ruling power:
Two state powers in one empire are like two dreadful lions in one cage, ready to tear each other apart; and yet, law without authority is nothing. Autocracy has founded and resuscitated Russia. Any change in her political constitution has led in the past and must lead in the future to her perdition for she consists of very many and different parts, each of which has its own civic needs. What, save unlimited monarchy, can produce in such a machine that required unity of action?
Sashalimi highlights Feofan Propopovich (1681-1736), Peter the Great’s chief “ideologist” who had set forth a new theory of autocracy by incorporating key concepts of European political thought. In his “The Justice of the Monarch’s Will,” Propopovich defended Peter’s 1722 law on succession which gave the ruler unconstrained right in everything including naming his successor. Because the ruler is from God and works for the common good, the “integrity and welfare of the state” is the same as the ruler’s “own domestic welfare” which includes leaving “his successors strong power and glory.”
The Russian concept of the state, therefore, was not state or government-centered but dynastic and God-centered. As responsible only to God, Russian rulers consequently had a duty to be virtuous, a “shepherd to his Orthodox flock” as Iosif Volotskii (c.1439-1515) urged Muscovite tsars. Like John of Salisbury, Aquinas, and Calvin, Russian thinkers made a distinction between good and bad rulers. But the absence of “natural law reasoning and the notion of bonum commune” as well as “theoretical treatment of the forms of resistance,” Russians lacked a “legal-political perception of tyranny.” Bad rulers were understood by Russians through biblical references. A tyrant was considered by Russians as God’s punishment and part of the Devil’s work, not as someone who was unjust, illegitimate, or needing to be replaced.
In the second half of his book, Sashalimi continues to compare and contrast Russian and European concepts of sovereignty, power, and statehood. Whereas Europe incorporated Roman law and legal theory, resulting in a distinction between rulership and ownership, Russian rulers made no such distinction. The tsar was seen as the owner of all of Russia (or what Sashalimi calls “nominal universal proprietorship”). Just as God was the master of all men, the tsar was master of all of Russia.
By the time of the sixteenth century, the term gosudarstvo “describes either the people or the territory governed by the tsar, sometimes both.’” Unlike Europe there was no “king’s two bodies” in Russia where the king’s corporate office was distinct from the person. But the Law Code of 1649 (Sobornoye Ulozheniye), which codified the Russian classes and their relations among one another, introduced a secular notion of the state for the first time into Russian political thought. Identification of the state was no longer the exclusive domain of the tsar but to the law which existed apart from the sovereign. According to Salshalimi, the emergence of a secular vocabulary of power in Russia after 1660s was not only a result of “Westernization” (the import of western ideas, customs, and practices in Russia) but also due the Law Code’s various references to gosudarstvo to legitimatize the law, apart from the tsar, to rule.
Despite this inroad, it is worth noting that the Russian state primarily and continually was identified with the tsar (who was God’s representative on earth). Although this echoes the West’s divine right of king theory, Russian sovereignty differed in that it lacked a fully developed conception of law and legal theory to account for sovereignty. Instead, Russian rulers relied upon the religious language of Orthodox Christianity to justify their rule.
Russia Notions of Power and State meticulously reconstruct medieval and early modern sources to provide a coherent account of the Russian state and power that is shown to be different from European concepts and unique to Russian civilization. It helps explain why the rule of law is arbitrarily applied in Russia, why territorial integrity is considered so vital to Russian national interests, and why Russian rulers are not just leaders but embody the state itself in the person and actions. For those interested in what makes the Russian state distinctive and different from its western counterparts, Russian Notions of Power and State provides a clear picture why and helps us better understand Russian action and strategy in our increasingly fractured and contentious world.

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