Pre-Soviet Russian Concepts of Civil Society and Their Legacy

Alan Kimball
University of Oregon, Eugene OR 97403 USA <>
Text of presentation at the Fourth International Conference on
Hierarchy and Power in the History of Civilization
hosted by the Russian Academy of Sciences
Moscow, June, 2006

Many who lived in the late Russian Empire sought to understand and build what they called grazhdanskoe obshchestvo. That phrase and others -- obshchestvennost', publika, and even the generic word obshchestvo -- worked in their time to label an idea that must be translated as 'civil society'.

Of course, Russians, like all European peoples, followed the debates on the question of bűrgerliche Gesellschaft [Hegel's famous German term for civil society]. Vladimir Bezobrazov wrote at length about Wilhelm Riehl. Not long after the Russian translation of Riehl's Die bűrgerlichen Gesellschaft appeared in 1883, socialist theorist Petr Lavrov published the first translation from the German of Marx's critique of Hegel's Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts. In these same years, 'Conservative' legal/political theorists Aleksandr Alekseev introduced the powerfully political Machiavelli to many Russian thinkers and activists. Equally powerful was Alekseev's 1887 study of Rousseau, Etiudy o Zh. Zh. Russo. In 1901, neo-Kantian rationalist Pavel Novgorodtsev took up the problems of understanding the fate of Kantian political ideas as they evolved in the time of Hegel. Prince Evgenyi Trubetskoi, a founder of the Constitutional Democratic Party [KDs] in 1905 took up that topic as well. John Locke's Two Treatises were translated into Russian on the eve of the 1905 Revolution. In our own time, Boris Yeltsin had a Russian translation of American revolutionary Federalist Papers on his desk in the early months of his presidency. In our own time, Russian thought about civil society shows the influence of contemporary theorist Jűrgen Habermas.

But Russians then and now find good reason to refine, adjust and go well beyond those famous thinkers. Like everyone else, Russians have to define and solve their own problems. Much of the Pre-Soviet effort to do so represents a lost legacy in our own time.

Here we will focus on the political experiences and ideas of a cross-section of representative pre-Soviet Russian thinkers/activists. This native-born legacy was overshadowed by massive 20th-century events. But it was dominant in the time of the 1905 Revolution and might be as relevant in Russia and the wider world today as it was then.

Representative Pre-Soviet Russian Publications about Civil Society
sorted alphabetically by authors' last names



Alekseev,Aleksandr S

*1887:|Etiudy o Zh. Zh. Russo

Andreevskii,Ivan E

*1880:RSt#27:403-422| 'Khod rasprostraneniia politicheskikh znanii v Rossii...'

Eliseev,Grigorii Z

*1863:Ocherki [newspaper]

Gessen,Vladimir M

*1916:NES#24:161-168(columns)| 'Obshchestva i soiuzy'|

Gol'tsev,Viktor A

*1893:|Voprosy dnia i zhizni

Gradovskii,Aleksandr D

*1868:SPB|Istoriia mestnogo upravleniia v Rossii| v1 only

Karnovich,Evgenii P

*1873|Ocherki nashikh poriadkov admin-ykh, sudebnykh i obshchestvennykh

Khlebnikov,Nikolai I

*1869:SPB|O vliianii obshchestva na organizatsiiu gosudarstva...

Kizevetter,Aleksandr A

*1910:MVA|Mestnoe samoupravlenie v Rossii IX-XIX st.: Istoricheskii ocherk

Kliuchevskii,Vasilii O

*1905:Unfinished revision of volume 5,  in *1958:Sochineniia,7:461

Korkunov,Nikolai M

*1892:1893; SPB|Russkoe gosudarstennoe pravo| 2vv

Kornilov,Aleksandr A

*1909:MVA|Obshchestvennoe dvizhenie pri Aleksandre II (1855-1881)...

Koshelev,Aleksandr I

*1862:LPZ|Konstitutsiia,samoderzhaviia i Zemskaia Duma

Koshelev,Aleksandr I

*1881jy24:BRL|Gde my? Kuda i kak idti?

Kotliarevskii,Sergei A

*1913:MVA|>Sushchnost' parliamentarizma|

Kovalevskii,Maksim M

*1902:Chicago|Russian political institutions ... from the beginnings...

Kovalevskii,Maksim M

*1912:SPB|Proiskhozhdenie sovremennoi demokratii|2vv

Lavrov,Petr L

*1876:LND|Gosudarstvennyi element v budushchem obshchestve

Leontovich,Viktor V

*1957: FaM|Geschichte des liberalismus in Russland

Maklakov,Vasilii A

*1936:PRS|Vlast' i obshchestevennost' na zakate staroi Rossii|3vv

Mart'ianov,Petr A

*1862:LND|Narod i gosudarstvo

Mel'gunov,Sergei P

*1907:1909; MVA|Tserkov' i gosudarstvo v Rossii|2vv

Miakotin,Venedikt  A

*1902:SPB,Panteleev|Iz istorii russkogo obshchestva: Etiudy...

Miliukov,Pavel N

*1905:Chicago|Russia and Its Crisis

Muromtsev,Sergei A

*1879:1892; Yuridicheskii vestnik| articles and editorial policies

Nikolaev,Petr F

*1888:Sotsial'nyi vopros| 'Ocherk razvitiia sotsial'no-rev-ogo dvizheniia v Rossii'

Novgorodtsev,Pavel I

*1901:MVA|Kant i Gegel' i ikh uchenii o prave i gosudarstve

Ostrogorskii,Moisei Ya

*1897:PRS|La démocratie et l'organisation des partis politiques

Pavlov,Platon V

*1859ja:1960; articles in Otechestvennye zapiski

Petrunkevich,Ivan I

*1934:ARR#21:??| 'Iz zapisok obshchestvennogo deiatelia'

Rodichev,Fedor I

*1923je:Slavonic Review#2:1-13, 249-62| 'The Liberal Movement in Russia'

Serno-Solov'evich,N A

*1862sp:'Proekt Ulozheniia imperatora Aleksandra II'

Shchapov,Afanasii P

*1862:Vek [journal]

Shipov,Sergei P

*1864my07:'Ob ustroistve gosudarstvennogo organizma v Rossii'

Stronin,Oleksandr I

*1885:SPB,tpg.Mtpt|Istoriia obshchestvennosti

Struve,Petr B

*1952:PRS|Sotsial'naia i ekonomicheskaia istoriia Rossii ...

Tikhomirov,Lev A

*1886:PRS?|Le Russie politique et sociale

Trubetskoi,Evgenii N

*1906:MVA, Sytin|>Partiia 'mirnogo obnovleniia'

Vinogradov,Pavel G

*1915:L.ENG|Self-government in Russia

Witte,Sergei Yu

*1899|Samoderzhavie i zemstvo

Zhukovskii,Yulii G

*1859|Vesna:Istoricheskii sbornik:251-88| 'Obshchestvennye otnosheniia...'

Notice the apparent political diversity of these figures. Reactionaries, conservatives, liberals, socialists, and radicals all contributed. One of the first lessons in the understanding of civil society is that the full spectrum of political positions, extreme 'left' to extreme 'right', must be granted their place. For one thing, diversity in the TABLE of persons and publications parallels the idea of civil society itself. Altogether, the thinkers, their thoughts and actions, presume a certain natural factionalization of any body politic and consider government and economy to be a vital and involved component of that larger and complex body politic. 'Civilians' and governmental authorities (e.g., Witte) all played their role, as did princes (e.g., Evgenii Trubetskoi) and peasants (e.g., Petr Mart'ianov).

With all their diversity, an underlying structure of thought and action shows through = Civil society is a complex network of self-organized subjects or citizens striving for mutual, dependent and reciprocal three-way relationships among (between and within) the three main components of public life. These components can be represented simply as three overlapping circles. Each circle represents a distinct but intertwined realm of private, public and institutional life =

[A] social groups and formations (society itself),
[B] political power (the state), and
[C] production & distribution of goods & services (the economy). 

Each circle overlaps with the others to suggest sustained, complex, mutual (multi-directional), dependent and reciprocal relationships among and between them. No circle is whole without this lively internal movement and overlap with the other circles.

Yet the outer edges of each circle suggest certain realms of distinction. We might be tempted to use the exaggeration 'independence'. Possibly the notion of the 'individual person' locates itself in the upper left-hand area of pure 'A'. Here 'civil rights' lodge themselves. Many Russians positioned independent law courts in the upper right hand area of pure 'B'. So-called 'divine monarchy' always located its authority in that area. In the minds of many Russians, state control over the Orthodox Church put that institution in the upper edge of 'B'. Many cultures defend the idea of 'inviolability of property' or 'laissez-faire' [hands off, let it be] free-market economics and would thus locate these values in the lowest area of pure 'C', but there was little of that in the Russian tradition.

In practice, 'independence' among these circles cannot be absolute. Nor can subordination. In the evolving Russian sense of civil society, the independence of 'C' was not sanctified, nor was 'B'. Only the famous Russian anarchists sanctified 'A' and sought to make it transcendent. The Russian state strove always to subordinate 'A' and 'C' to its own 'B'.

Some privileged the state, but Russian theorists and activists generally found it most convenient to imagine an equal and dynamic combination of the three circles. This model of civil society represented a step beyond an ancient Russian 'statist' tradition. Maksim Kovalevskii and Sergei Kotliarevskii were among the most articulate promoters of the anti-statist perspective. Venedikt Miakotin acknowledged that earlier epochs of Russian history were dominated by the state, but outlined how modern social and economic needs demanded an end to all that.

Aleksandr Kizevetter built a political interpretation based on Aleksandr Gradovskii's scholarly historical and juridical analysis of Russian local government. The rise of centralized power weakened local initiative. An artificial service-oriented social structure displaced the more natural and appropriate structures created by the people themselves. Gradovskii himself joined a growing chorus of specialists exploring this question. In the 1860s, three eccentric social critics and historians, Afanasii Shchapov, Platon Pavlov and Ivan Pryzhov, strained to find historical traces of Russian self-governance and social self-reliance and to blame the centralized state for all losses.

What was Wrong?

Many activists concluded that two features of Russian national life combined to jeopardize the possibility of civil society.

(1) Powerfully centralized political authority insulated itself from its subject population. It was institutionally closed (highly bureaucratic) and irresponsible to the population at large.

(2) The state maintained social/service hierarchies which served as foundational support of a closely monitored and narrow window of access to political power and economic security [ID]. This narrow opening can be described as an awkward amalgamation of natal social estate [soslovie] and assigned bureaucratic rank [chin]. Generations of state servitor elites were carefully recruited to serve behind the ramparts of state power. All thinking Russians recognized the serious deficiencies of this arrangement, but the state strenuously defended and protected it until the old regime collapsed.

Political tension arose less from the fact that elite natal social formations held privileged positions within the absolutist bureaucratic state than from the fact that this state and its assigned social/service hierarchies were self-replicating, self-regulating, altogether self-absorbed. Pavel Miliukov summarized it best when he argued that the Russian aristocracy became rich landowners because they were the administrative elite, rather than the other way around. Over a twenty-year period, the great land-owning aristocrat Aleksandr Koshelev condemned the autocratic state and the social/service hierarchies on which it was based. Wealthy gentry entrepreneur Sergei Shipov and Prince Evgenii Trubetskoi assumed much the same position. Famous 'radicals' Aleksandr Serno-Solov'evich and Nikolai Chernyshevskii came to the same conclusions, though they were always more bellicose than their establishmentarian allies. These arguments ran with vigor from the 1860s into the 20th century.

In pursuit of its own institutional interests, political authority floated above but controlled and exploited the energies and productive capacities of its subjects. The hierarchical social structure was designed to meet the needs of that mercantilist state and stifled spontaneous social mobility. It restricted movement and exchange between and among social strata. It shut out rural folk and, for that matter, all provincials beyond the centers of managerial power in the urban capital cities, including 'national minorities'.

Of course, those insiders who thrived had good reason to defend this arrangement, working within the tradition of the old Petrine assumption that only the state was progressive and capable of significant responsibility and accomplishment. Yet this was an era of new and complex perceived interests at all levels of the subject population. The global era of modernization demanded social mobility and careers open to talent. The social/service hierarchies had become unacceptable even to large numbers within elite social formations. Social/service hierarchies had never offered much promise to peasants, workers, and petty burgers. They were generally excluded from opportunities of recruitment into higher positions. Even before the 1860s, it seemed also to offer little to privileged elites -- the clergy, aristocracy and merchantry.

The whole social structure was held at arms length from the levers of political power and thus control over its own social identity and political destiny. Political power in Imperial Russia worked overwhelmingly to the benefit only of those who had their hands on those levers. There was 'class struggle' out there among the various strata of state subjects. But this class struggle was itself a component of the 'political struggle'. The lines of contention ran between a managerial state and nearly all human resources under state authority. A good part of the blame for extreme political violence in the late 1870s could be laid at the feet of inflexible state policy. Ivan Petrunkevich and Fedor Rodichev, future KDs, defined their political missions in these terms. Nikolai Korkunov focused more narrowly on the need for rule of law and independent courts in the name of holding all monarchical subjects together in unity. Legal scholar and Moscow City Duma member, Sergei Muromtsev, led a group of bold progressives in a public statement of Russian disorder in the weeks before the assassination of Alexander II. Even underground revolutionists wrote programmatic statements lamenting state policy that forced them to terroristic acts. Terrorism was a symptom, not a cause of social, political and economic disorder. State policy was the cause.

A stiff and artificial social structure locked Russians in suffocating assigned and hierarchical categories. At all levels of that hierarchy, in villages or country dachas, Russians needed to break cleanly away, to shuck superannuated identities and latch onto identities that more accurately reflected their needs and aspirations. They needed to shed dead skins and grow into new. They needed to discover themselves in their functional complexity and to build horizontal networks, habits of social interaction, and webs of group affiliation among themselves. Kovalevskii championed, the theoretical work of Georg Simmel who acknowledged social 'conflict' and extolled 'webs of group affiliations'. That was the nature of civil society. In a contrary direction, as the nation splintered along every natural fissure in 1905, high state servitor Emmanuil Nol'de drafted encouraging position papers for Emperor Nicholas, based on the old dream of instinctive empire-wide unity under a beloved autocratic tsar-batiushka.

A rapidly modernizing and ramifying social structure was denied adequate access to institutional mechanisms essential to its healthy development. Renegade social categories expanded in numbers and inescapable importance, e.g., freed serfs, factory laborers, intelligentsiia and raznochintsy (the last two largely categories describing people committed to modern professions). And now there were mobilized and self-conscious national minority groups. These maverick but essential groups were forced to function in a never-never land beyond the practiced categories of the rigidly enforced social/service hierarchies. Russian society of 1905 bore no resemblance to Russian society in 1861, yet strictly enforced social policy was the same. Society was denied the possibility to develop and to adjust its own various and changing perceived interests. Strict isolation of government from the initiative of this changing public and similar close-guarded isolation of formal social formations from one another gravely damaged both state and society. Centralized and jealous state control of economic opportunity worked the same way and for the same reason.

Later a leader among KDs and moderate Duma representative, Vasilii Maklakov had a political epiphany as a young man traveling in France. He observed a freely functioning but conflict ridden social, political and economic system within which mobilized factions openly and constantly struggled to rebalance their various interests. He then dedicated his life to the realization of such a thing in his homeland.

Sergei Witte, as Minister of Finance and as first Prime Minister of the stunted constitutional order put in place in the 1905 Revolution, deserves a second look from the perspective of Russian notions of civil society. Witte's seemingly reactionary political tactics, especially his maneuvering around the hulking and obsequious absolutist Goremykin, get in the way of our seeing his complex versions of the two problems enumerated above. His long, rambling, complex memo on autocracy and zemstvos must be read in this light.

At the time of the Russo-Japanese War, Aleksandr Kizevetter complained about the graft-ridden insider military-industrialist adventurers, the so-called Bezobrazov Clique, in much the same terms as Sergei Witte. State-servitor grandee Witte was forced to be more devious, secretive and cunning than angry social critic Kizevetter. Witte was too embedded in and personally dependent on the very system he worked to transform. He exerted himself mightily to change it without toppling it or himself. Many nervous establishment oppositionists felt the same way. Some believed that change, even needed change, threatened utter destruction. Yet some, like Witte and the growing opposition, understood that no change also threatened utter destruction.

The Distinguishing Traits of the Russian Model

The Russian model of civil society was a step beyond the old statist model. And it was also a step beyond familiar bűrgerliche, bourgeois, libertarian or Adam-Smithian theorists and activists. These (and anarchistic models) presumed that the social, political and economic circles lie largely outside the space of the others. The economic or social spheres were presumed to be nearly autonomous. Generally, west European liberals who promoted free interplay in the social and political arenas avoided any spill-over into the economic arena. The progressive advance of liberalism in 'The West' hit a snag when welfare needs arose within industrializing and marketizing civil societies.

But Russians integrated the social and political with the economic. They instantly absorbed the inner edge of that iconic third circle into the body of the original social and political circles. This is what gave so many west European observers (and certain Russians, too, for example, Vasilii Maklakov) the impression that Russian liberalism was sometimes too radical. Pre-Soviet political theorists and activists were in advance of general European political trends when they found themselves often in agreement with the social-democratic insistence that political democracy and social democracy naturally implied a large measure of economic democracy.

In much the same way, ironically, the Russian Imperial state had no qualms about intervention in economic life. The state brought an abrupt end to the serf economy in the 1860s and expropriated with compensation a large part of gentry aristocratic land holdings. Later it not only introduced factory and other welfare legislation against the interests of factory owners, but also became involved in state promoted (and controlled) labor unions, a policy that came to be known as 'police socialism'.

Statist and oppositional attitudes towards social and political incursions into the economy paralleled one another. But differences arose between the activist state and an ambitious civil society when the political opposition emphasized the need for complex, mutual, dependent and reciprocal relations between and among the iconic circles of society, state and economy. Just this multi-directional presumption distinguished leading pre-Soviet trends of oppositional thought from statism.

The Public Sphere

A single word, obshchenie, gathered and expressed social-political-economic linkage, mutuality, dependence, personal contact, inter-relationship, and community involvement. Obshchenie functioned in the Russian-language environment much as did Geselligkeit in the German. The same root morpheme ('obshche') forms the Russian word for close cooperative or communal association [obshchina], and obshchina became the simplified and generic 19th-century term gathering together all the complexities of community life in the Russian village. Obshchenie within, between, and among social, political and economic circles helps define and relieve points of inevitable tension and disorder. Obshchenie takes place in a generalized atmosphere of glasnost' [expressed also in that now famous German word, Öffentlichkeit].

The places and arrangements that facilitate obshchenie among, between and within our iconic circles are often packed together in the phrase 'public sphere'. Grigorii Eliseev hammered out a place for himself in the public sphere as outspoken publisher and journalist. Over the years, Ivan Andreevskii surveyed the growth and spread of political knowledge, and thus he sought to guage the expansion of the public sphere within or alongside the official or bureaucratic sphere of discourse. He stressed the importance of mutual interaction within and between social groups, the state and the economy. Obshchenie was the lubrication promoting social-political-economic mobility and change, not without friction and heat, but without destructive friction and heat. His conclusions were guarded, but bleak. Censorship and other obstacles blighted the Russian public sphere where the sinews of a vigorous civil society needed constantly to be exercised and strengthened. Censorship by state and church were the main instrument of one-sided monopoly control of obshchenie, the very opposite of glasnost', and poison to civil society.

Obshchenie, however, implied more than independent media, unfettered by censorship. Obshchenie was guaranteed only within some form of representative government and protections of social, political and economic 'rights'. Obshchenie came to mean an expanded institutional sense of public sphere -- freedom of expression, representative government, and economic justice. Thus, mutual, dependent and reciprocal three-way relationships among (between and within) the three main components of public life might be secured.

Without this sort of obshchenie there is no civil society.


The great theories of civil society have been applied universally (however variously), much as the thought of Marx was applied very broadly and variously in the 20th century, or Anglo-American notions of 'free enterprise' democracy are exported widely in the 21st century. All of these theories, however ambitious in their claim to universal truth, have been shaped by precise local realities and might not always fit elsewhere, might not illuminate problems or solve them.

Hegel, Marx and Habermas, in their very different ways, helped universalize the particular German social category Bürgertum (bourgeoisie in the more widely universalized French expression). These terms drifted around the globe and were adopted as implausible social descriptors in many remote social settings, often without bourgeoisie at all. The 'bourgeoisie question' has often been valorized to such an extent that many powerful movements lost sight of the precise and local social-political-economic actualities in which they worked.

In the 1870s, when Lavrov assumed editorial responsibilities for Vpered! [Forward], a revolutionary socialist journal published abroad, he leveled withering criticism at dominant bourgeois 'liberal' ideas of the state, as if liberal political institutions had lost all progressive potential everywhere. This provoked two significant retorts. Moderate liberal Viktor Gol'tsev submitted a letter to the editor asking if weak constitutional systems found elsewhere might still be strong in Russia. Representative government, however faulty, was a world better than the current absolutist regime. 'The father of Russian Marxism', Georgii Plekhanov warned Lavrov that Russian absolutism had created such a pathological and cowed social structure that class-ridden parliamentary government represented a necessary and immense step forward for the development of a Russian public.

As we all know, Lenin and the Russian Bolshevik Party rejected Plekhanov's views on this matter. After 1917 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union addressed and solved many problems inherited from the old regime, particularly in the realms of education, high culture, economic progress and economic justice, as well as national defense. And we might also justly add that the failure of previous generations of political activists and of the centralized imperial state gave that political party its historical chance to act as it did.

However, Lenin's party badly misdiagnosed and therefore, once in power, seriously mistreated those ailments that were so clearly defined by the thought and political activities of the figures on our TABLE. Notice how Miakotin's obituary for Lenin resonated with keywords familiar to a fledgling Russian civil society: Lenin lived his whole life 'remote from the broad life of the people and its complex, mutually interconnected needs, interests and problems'.

In many respects, the Soviet regime recreated the autocratic, centralized bureaucratic rule of the previous era. It turned old social/service hierarchies on their head, but retained essential features in a new social/service configuration -- workers, peasants and intelligentsia. It dealt harshly with social formations that did not fit this official template. In essence, the constrictive relationship between state and society, and the state domination over the economy, survived 1917 and, some say, continues to shape events after 1991.

Perhaps the future of this on-going process of continuity and change in Russia will to some degree involve recapturing or reconnecting with part of the lost pre-Soviet legacy of civil society.