The problem of power and personality is one that has fascinated people from the beginning of history. We are going to through our own particular version of it right now in America. Everyone seems to be at war with the President and Congress. Then we have a strange, sometimes morbid, obsession with Vladimir Putin in Russia.
I am fascinated by individuals in history who manage to reach an apex of power where he (or she) directly affect the domestic and foreign policy of entire nations. It’s not so much the politics that fascinate me, though. More interesting is the effect of that power of the individual, the interior conflicts and reality of someone who can dispose of the fates of thousands with a wave of his hand. Where does concern for one’s country begin and self-interest end? How can the personal strengths and shortcomings of such individuals help or hinder their work? Can their mistakes destroy nations?
As I started to research books 4 and 5 of my epic fantasy series, I read a fascinating character study of a man some people believed to be the real power behind the throne of Alexander III and Nicholas II. A man whose political and personal demise coincided with the demise of one of the greatest empires this world has ever seen. The rest of this post is my translation of an article from the Russian magazine Foma (here is the original Russian).
The “Grey Cardinal”
Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev is a significant figure in Russian history and culture. Even so, he remains a bit of a mystery, both to his contemporaries and to us. Many myths have been created around his incredible energy and activity. Some consider that he was the power behind the throne of Alexander III and Nicholas II. Others consider him to be the head of a conservative reactionary movement that championed censorship. Some say outright that he dreamed to plunge the country back into the Middle Ages. The liberal intelligentsia hated him, but plenty of conservatives couldn’t stand him either.
Pobedonostsev was born in 1827 in Moscow. His grandfather was a priest, and his father was a professor of literature in Moscow University. In 1846, he finished his study of law at the Imperial College of Law. He prepared for a political career and soon became a senator and a member of the National Council. From 1880, he became the Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod and a member of the Committee of Ministers, one of the highest political positions in the land.
Other than being the political administrator of the Church, he influenced national politics and education policy, as well as international affairs. From 1884, he energetically promoted a national program of parochial schooling for children of all social classes. By the end of the 20th century, nearly half of all children in Russia were taught at such schools. He was also personal friends with Dostoyevsky.
“With Wings like an Owl”
Most Russian people know Pobedonostsev best from a poem by Alexander Blok.
In those distant, deaf years
Dream and dark ruled over hearts
With owl-like wings, Pobedonostsev
Flew over the skies of Russia.
And there was neither day, nor night,
Only the shadow of those wings.
He drew a magic circle around Russia,
Staring her in the eyes
With a glassy wizard’s stare.
And to that music of the magic story,
The beauty fell asleep with ease,
Enveloped in his magic mist,
And all her thoughts and hopes and passions slept…”
Blok understood that Pobedonostsev was something extraordinary. He never met him, but he knew people who had regular meetings with him or even were his friends. We see from the poem that Blok himself doesn’t quite know what to make of him.
Pobedonostsev was remarkably unattractive, reminiscent of Koschei the Deathless, a popular figure from fairy tales. But when he started to speak, all such comparisons faded away. He was a fabulous orator, managing to almost hypnotize people by his speech, even if they were his enemies. So this image of the wizard, sometimes frightening, but always intelligent and hypnotic, is not accidental in Blok’s poem.
Conservative vs Liberal
Everything Pobedonostsev did, as indeed everything in Russia at that time, must be measured by the monumental events of the 1860’s, in particular the abolishment of serfdom. Culturally and politically speaking, everything in Russia was a response to that event. For example, there was the liberal answer to those early reforms. Liberals clamored for Russia to follow the path of European industrial development. Then there was the revolutionary response that considered all the reforms insufficient. Finally, there was the conservative response.
One of the conservatives was Konstantin Pobedonostsev. He and many others of his ilk considered the liberal and the revolutionary responses as two sides of the same coin. In fact, Pobedonostsev considered the liberals even more dangerous than the revolutionaries, because they paved the path to revolution.
The conservative response was to come up with a complete and very attractive political and cultural program. In part, it was centered on a conception of the so-called “common folk” of Russia and an attempt to save the traditional values that they believed were being preserved in the sphere of the “folk.”
However, the “folk” is always a kind of huge, mute animal that no one really understands. What is he thinking, what is she feeling? Everyone had their own ideas, and no one really bothered to ask the folk themselves. The revolutionaries believed the folk to be the natural soil in which the revolution would be cultivated. But the conservatives saw something completely different in the “common man.”
Pobedonostsev was effectively cutting the ground from under the revolutionaries’ feet when declared that he spoke for the people, not for the narrow-minded elite that was more interested in foreign reforms than the true good of the Russian people. He said that the “common people” were nothing like the revolutionaries imagined. The Russian folk are patriarchal, he said, devoted to the Tsar, monarchist to the core, profoundly religious, seeing no possible life outside the Church.
Pobedonostsev’s grand and unprecedented political and cultural program to develop parochial schools came out of such views concerning the nature of the Russian people. As strange as it may sound, it was actually a very democratic project. He tried to give the people the opportunity to take the initiative themselves to create something that both he and they would be proud of.
This was a course of study centered of the study of religious texts first and foremost, of church chant and the Slavonic language. In this case, the school was intimately connected with the church, and education went hand in hand with active participation in the daily life of the local church. As Pobedonostsev said, “This is what the people want. I am merely expressing their will.”
People, not Institutions.
Some people even go so far as to call Pobodonostsev the “ideologue of the reactionary policies of Alexander III,” when all the reforms of the 1860’s were slowly scaled back. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The conservatism of Alexander III’s time had many different aspects. It was not a single, unified political ideology. Pobedonostsev represented only one of these aspects. And he was very skeptical of the reactionary policies designed to scale back the reforms of the 1860’s.
This is because he was afraid of any and all kinds of change in the administration and political institutions of Russia. He believed that the 1860’s had done enough damage in terms of total societal change. It was better to stay the course than to encourage any more changes, even conservative ones. It’s like zugzwang, a stalemate in chess where every move worsens your general situation.
At the same time, he was a proponent of tight control over anything that had to do with information, culture, and education. And his actions were often severe and uncompromising. Hence his popular image as a “dark wizard” or “grey cardinal.”
Still, he didn’t control the entire apparatus of government, even if he did have influence over the bureaus of censorship, culture, and education. Officially, as Ober-procurator of the Synod, he had limited authority over the politics of censorship, but in fact, he was a kind of tsar in the censorship office, ruling it as he saw fit.
But rather than using this position arbitrarily, Pobedonostsev personally read nearly every single item that was published in official Russian channels. He was an incredibly hardworking man. At that time, if you applied yourself, you could read most of what was published in Russia in any given year. In our own time of the internet, this seems incredible.
As for Pobedonostsev’s answer to the eternal question, “What is to be done?”, he believed that the answer was to be found by influencing people directly. One of the aspects of his program can be defined thus: “People, not institutions.” He believed that everything would get better only if the government took an active interest in forming the inner world of people through social consciousness, schools, and the culture at large.
That’s why he was so active in censorship, not because he was interested in suppressing information, but because he was interested in cultivating minds and hearts. Another aspect of this “cultural formation” was his control over the fine arts. His influence could remove famous paintings from official galleries. For example, he had Ilya Repin’s famous “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan” removed.
At the same time, he supported many artists personally. He also encouraged many famous composers, especially when they turned to composing church music, including Tchaikovskii himself, for whom he managed to get a personal grant from Alexander III himself.
The Church and the Government
As strange as this may seem, Pobedonostsev was one of the first Ober-procurators (government ministers in charge of the administration of the Russian Church) to actually be a pious Christian. Most of his predecessors failed to even appreciate the significance of the Church for the State. Pobedonostsev, on the contrary, saw the Church as giving a moral foundation to the nation that was indispensable, if the government were to accomplish anything at all.
His view of the government was interesting. He considered government to be part of a larger social organism, and that a large part of government’s responsibilities were to take care of the spiritual life of society. He considered that all financial growth, institutional improvement, or political projects were pointless if the spiritual foundation of the society at large has been undermined. And the spiritual foundation of Russia, he believed, was the worldview of the common people, which was founded on the Orthodox faith and Church.
The government, then, should be first of all involved in fulfilling the spiritual requirement of society, even before political ones. Thus, ideological or political goals were subservient to spiritual ones. For example, in the 1860’s, part of the reforms called for the closing of a certain number of parishes and priestly positions (which were government positions at the time) in the interest of fiscal economy. Pobedonostsev considered such an idea to be detrimental not so much to the church, as to the government, and he actively campaigned against it.
For him, the most important job of government was to preserve and uphold the traditional, religious worldview of the common people. If the government were to close parishes and churches, then the government would risk an upheaval in the worldview of the folk. If the government is an Orthodox one, it cannot close churches, because if it does, it ceases to be Orthodox, and it breaks its link with the common people. And if the people realize that the government is effectively no longer Orthodox, that, in Pobedonostsev’s mind, would lead to revolution.
It may seem strange to a Western mind to consider the Church being so subservient to the State. However, at that moment in time, giving the Church more independence in the social space was effectively impossible. The Church and State had become so intertwined that any change in their relationship without a complete shift in the style of government was impossible. It is enough to mention that though the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1905, the relationship with the Church didn’t change one bit.
After the Revolution of 1905, Pobedonostsev famously said, “I did warn you all.” However, he was shocked, destroyed, undone by the chaos of that first revolution. He saw no way out of the situation. He was especially shocked when several church hierarchs, including the effective head of the church, Metropolitan Anthony (Vadkovskii) of St. Petersburg, spoke out against him. After all, he had considered that everything he did, he did first of all for the good of the Church.
The irony, of course, was that he never gave the Church any freedom, keeping all authority to himself. He ruled over the Synod of bishops like an autocrat, cutting off any discussions he didn’t like even before they started. Naturally, the bishops protested. But rather than listen, he simply instituted even more draconian measures to silence them.
Paradoxically, he wanted the Church to be independent of the government, but only under his patronage and favor. He believed that he was the only person in all of Russia who truly understood the needs of the people and the Church. He thought that he alone knew what needed to be done and what direction was best.
What complicates his persona even more is that he was clearly an ambitious man who wanted power. He hated the direction the country took in the 1860’s, taking many of the reforms as a personal offence. He was, it must be said, an expert in Russian law, but his recommendations for the proper administration of reform in the 1860’s were summarily ignored. So his rise to power was at least partially motivated by a desire to show everyone that they had been wrong to underestimate him.
And for all that, he had a creative or even mystical component to his personality. He thought of himself as a kind of prophet, a bearer of the truths of the principles of the common people. And he believed that quiet, efficient local reform would slowly rework the fabric of society to make it eventually a truly “Holy Russia.”
In effect, despite his conservatism, Pobedonostsev was a utopian at heart. His worldview was based on a myth, even though it was a beautiful one. This myth was that the common man was at heart religious, patriarchal, and monarchist. Another aspect of the myth was that quiet work on a local level could effect monumental societal change. It was a belief that if only he could influence the spiritual worldview of the people, he could fix all of Russia’s social problems.
At the heart of this myth was a belief that there is movement in history, that Russia is somehow equal to itself at all times and will remain the same, in some sense, forever. Because he believed that, he abhorred all change as inherently evil. But to be able to contain Russia in this stasis and yet effect small changes on the level of the human heart—this is the work of a superman. And for all his influence, Pobedonostsev was no superman, and he died a broken and disillusioned man.
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