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Liberalism, Russian

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-E048-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 14, 2024, from

Article Summary

Unlike early English liberalism which stressed individual freedom from state control and from the ‘tyranny of the majority’, Russian liberalism generally emphasized the importance of legality in government, the state’s positive role as guarantor of civil liberty, and the gradual achievement of social justice through reform. In the century between Peter the Great’s death in 1725 and the Decembrist uprising of 1825 various politicians and thinkers proposed the introduction of representative institutions into the Russian government and recommended that serfdom be abolished in the Empire. These proposals reflected admiration for Western European models of government and the impact of the Enlightenment on Russia’s ruling elite. Because the autocracy ultimately rejected these proposals and made public discussion of them all but impossible, liberalism did not take root in this period. The genesis of Russian liberalism as a philosophically elaborated, politically coherent movement occurred after the death of Tsar Nicholas I in 1855, when the government eased censorship and announced its commitment to peasant emancipation. Mid-nineteenth-century Russian liberalism owed its intellectual inspiration to Hegelianism and French juste-milieu liberalism. Russian liberals argued that social progress in the empire had almost always come about at the state’s initiative; they could scarcely imagine building a just society without the cooperation of a strong state.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Russian liberals confronted what proved to be an insuperable challenge: how to establish a viable constitutional order in an empire riven by social and ethnic strife where neither government nor the powerful socialist movement favoured a rule-of-law state. Wrestling with this difficulty, the liberals split into two factions: a ‘left’ or ‘radical’ wing that valued social justice over the sanctity of property rights; and a ‘right’ or ‘conservative’ wing that valued legal equality over social equality, and therefore interpreted socialism as a species of utopianism. Between 1905 and 1917 the liberal movement reached its political zenith, as liberal politicians exercised their influence in the State Duma and opposition movement. Following the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution liberalism was banned in the Soviet Union. It re-emerged, albeit in altered form, during communism’s collapse when neo-liberals claimed for liberalism a prominent position in the ‘normal’ constellation of Russian political forces. The main goals of post-Soviet liberalism are the defence of civil and political rights, the establishment of the rule of law, the assertion of individual property rights and the gradual construction of a market economy.

Citing this article:
Hamburg, G.M.. Liberalism, Russian, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E048-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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