13 September 2017

Sobornost’ against ethno-nationalism

Konstantin Pobedonostsev

From Dr Denis Vovchenko’s Containing Balkan Nationalism, a glimpse of the arch-reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev’s view of that little Church matter of 1872. Sobornost’ power at work, comrades:
… Ponomarev’s pro-Bulgarian views did not find support in the new leadership of the Russian Church—Over-Procurator of the Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev. He attempted to decisively solve the Bulgarian Church question… Pobedonostsev put the burden of responsibility squarely on the Bulgarian Exarchate and made friends with Filippov and other Russian supporters of the [Œcumenical] Patriarchate.

He condemned the policy of the Bulgarian prelates aimed at establishing a Bulgarian ‘ethnic’ hierarchy parallel to the existing network of the Patriarchate. He explained to the like-minded ambassador [Evgeniy Novikov] in Constantinople: ‘the regulation of the Œcumenical Councils banning the existence of two coreligionist bishops in the same city was not supposed to help maintain outward administrative unity only but had a much deeper meaning touching on the dogma of church unity’…

As a pressure tactic, Over-Procurator Pobedonostsev refused to help the Bulgarian Church assert a greater
rôle vis-à-vis the government of the autonomous Bulgarian Principality unless there was some progress in the Greek-Bulgarian reconciliation. He took issue with the fact that the statute of the Bulgarian Church had been drawn up solely by the Bulgarian government and, more fundamentally, that ‘the Bulgarian Church does not have canonical communion (obshcheniya) with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Pobedonostsev wrote to the acting Foreign Minister Nikolai Girs that Russian representatives had to make it clear to the Bulgarian Exarch that he needed to restore ‘the union and communion with the Œcumenical Patriarch’.

The normalisation of the canonical standing would give the Bulgarian Exarchate ‘that firm moral foundation’ needed to resist the attack of the government on church prerogatives in newly autonomous Bulgaria. Pobedonostsev saw the moment for reconciliation particularly appropriate because of the initiatives of Patriarch Joachim III and Russian Ambassador Evgeniy Novikov in that direction. The Bulgarian Exarchate was clearly on the wrong side and needed to follow their suggestions. Specifically, all members of the Holy Synod of the Russian Church unanimously believed that the uncanonical stay of the Bulgarian Exarch in the city under the undisputable
[sic] jurisdiction of the Patriarch was a major irritant. The Exarch’s move out of Constantinople would be the first step to reconciliation.
Note well: this is the Over-Procurator of the Holy Synod, the éminence grise behind the reactionary rule of Tsar Aleksandr III, acting according to positions against Bulgarian ethno-nationalism in Church affairs, in staunch support of the 1872 Council of Constantinople and, by extension, against ethno-nationalism in the rest of Europe.

Pobedonostsev here represents the voice of classical conservatism, of true tradition. Pobedonostsev was, to the hilt, a supporter of his Tsar and his Empire – but not an ethno-nationalist. Even though he did adopt wholeheartedly the formula of Count Uvarov, there was a clear hierarchy in his views of how to interpret the doctrine. The idea that loyalty to Orthodoxy, loyalty to the Tsar and loyalty to the narod are in essence three different things, each necessary and each working dynamically with the others to maintain stability and order within the Russian Empire, but each not to be conflated with the others, is key to understanding why he would take such a position. It’s also worthy of note (and ironic, too, considering that the younger brother Aksakov was the most nationalistic and pan-Slavist of the original Slavophils) that he uses the language of the Slavophils, that of sobornost’, of inner unity and of Aksakov’s obshchestvo specifically, to defend the 1872 Council against the claims of the Bulgarian Exarchate.

The classical conservatives of older generations deserve to be read on their own terms. They still have a great deal to teach us. Pobedonostsev in particular!


  1. Excellent and informative article.

  2. Thank you for this very informative and good article! Pobedonostsev and other classical conservatives like him should be read more !

  3. Thank you, Gavin!

    IronTsar1994 - yes, indeed. Pobedonostsev is a brilliant author, sadly underappreciated! I've found he's in something of a class with Metternich and Castlereagh.