- Defenders of the Motherland or Defenders of the Autocracy?
The three works under scrutiny make a valuable contribution to the revisionist discussion of the prerevolutionary Russian elite’s social and ideological adaptability to modernity. While Matthew Rendle’s Defenders of the Motherland conceptualizes the nobility’s responses to the revolution of 1917, the publications of L. A. Tikhomirov’s diary and I. I. Kolyshko’s memoirs, conspicuously titled The Great Disintegration, partially support and partially modify Rendle’s findings by demonstrating that ideological adaptation stood behind social adaptation. As a result, the most influential and eloquent representatives of the regime’s “defenders” gave themselves over to pessimism. The cleavage between the modernization of social and intellectual practices was an important factor in the alienation of the late imperial Russian Right from the tsar.
Soviet historians used to consider the Russian Right of the early 20th century a subsidized political group, organized by the police to secure mass support for the autocracy. According to this viewpoint, after the downfall of [End Page 217] the Romanovs, conservatives aimed at the restoration of the “pre-February” political order, the Third of June system.1 This oversimplified interpretation was a result of the absence of detailed knowledge about the Russian Right, rather than the product of ideological pressure. For decades, Soviet historiography concentrated on the history of the revolutionary movement and ignored the social and political forces situated on the right.
Only from the late 1960s onward did Soviet historians begin to explore Russian conservative politics and ideology of the late imperial period. The works by Valentin Semenovich Diakin and Aron Iakovlevich Avrekh on political struggle in the State Duma and the State Council between 3 June 1907 and the abdication of Nicholas II in February 1917 revealed that the Right was far from a voiceless political instrument manipulated from above. It had a substantial degree of autonomy, tried to influence the government’s decision making, and sometimes even succeeded in doing so.2 These works helped eliminate the most absurd stereotypes and paved the way for the final rejection of the classical Soviet interpretation of late imperial history in the 1990s.
This process was considerably stimulated by Western historiography, which began to analyze the Russian Right earlier than Soviet scholars did. The first specialized work on the genesis of the Russian political Right was written by Hans Rogger;3 the author of the first monograph on the Nationalist Party was Robert Edelman;4 the first study of the electoral practices of the Russian Right was by Rex Rexheuser.5 Heinz-Dietrich Löwe examined antisemitic elements in Russian conservative ideology.6 The last 20 years, however, have [End Page 218] witnessed a radical shift. Contemporary Western historians have seemingly lost all interest in Russian conservatism, while Russian scholars are deeply immersed in studying it.7
Matthew Rendle’s latest book deserves serious attention as an important contribution to “studies of conservatism,” although one undertaken from an unconventional angle. He approaches the right-wing organizations from the field of the social history of the nobility in late imperial Russia.8 From studying the strategies of survival and social networking practiced by the nobility, Rendle switches to how broader layers of “elites” ideologically conceptualized the new political reality created by the revolution of 1917. The author rejects the idea that the Russian elite staunchly defended the autocracy and wanted to restore the old order after its downfall; to use the notorious formula from the Stalin era, they did not simply desire to “return the land to the landlords and the factories to the capitalists.”
In making this argument, Rendle situates his research within the revisionist historiography of the Russian...