Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

Classical Liberalism in Russia

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Abstract

Russia has a long tradition of liberal thinking dating from the late eighteenth century. As in all counties, the history of ‘liberalism’ in Russia spans small-government classical liberalism as well as big-government social liberalism, though in all cases with features peculiar to Russian circumstances. Liberals have often deeply disliked the Russian government of their time, regarding it as oppressive. But the reality has been that in Russia it has been the state that has historically been the primary driver of reform and Westernization. While distrusting the government, liberals have also generally supported the Russian model of a highly centralized system of authority, with power concentrated in the hands of the executive branch of government. Notable classical-liberal figures include Semyon Desnitsky, Alexander Kunitsyn, Konstantin Kavelin, Boris Chicherin, and Boris Brutzkus. Classical liberalism has tended not to do very well. The social base of Russian liberalism has been narrow and intellectual. Liberalism in Russia has been as much a cultural sensibility as a political or policy orientation. It has looked and pointed westward to Europe and later the United States. Liberals of one sort or another have held power on only two brief occasions, in 1917 and the early 1990s. On both occasions, liberals and liberalism came to be largely discredited in the eyes of the Russian public.