Book review: New Conservatives in Russia and East Central Europe

By Alicja Curanović

Katharina Bluhm and Mihai Varga, New Conservatives in Russia and East Central Europe (London, New York: Routledge, 2019)

Conservatism seems to be the new black among experts on East Central Europe. However, despite the abundance of publications dealing with this particular issue, it is not so easy to find one that goes beyond the empirical descriptions of what one of the usual suspects, i.e. Vladimir Putin (the president of the Russian Federation), Jaroslaw Kaczynski (the leader of the Law and Justice Party – the ruling party in Poland) or Viktor Orban (the prime minister of Hungary), recently did. What should we therefore read if we want to understand the change which is taking place in some post-communist countries? The collaborative work “New Conservatives in Russia and East Central Europe”, edited by Katharina Bluhm and Mihai Varga, just published by Routledge, is definitely worth recommending.

Katharina Bluhm and Mihai Varga, New Conservatives in Russia and East Central Europe (London, New York: Routledge, 2019)

This excellent study has a few strong points. First of all, it focuses on three cases which are rarely combined, i.e. Russia, Poland and Hungary. Comparing them not only allows us to spot their differences and similarities (vide: the great conclusion chapter by the editors) but also enables a deeper understanding of conservatism in the realities of the post-communist East Central Europe. Secondly, in the twelve chapters the authors analyse a very broad spectrum of manifestations of conservatism, which is, as the authors rightly argue, a multifaceted, multilayer and multilevel phenomenon. Readers get to know about the political landscape, moral aspects, economic factors, legal regulations, and gender and LGBT questions. This panoramic overview of different dimensions of conservatism is accompanied by a variety of methods used by particular authors. And so readers learn about conservatism through the analysis of rhetoric, legal acts, economic data, ethnographic studies, and sociological polls. This multi-method approach is the third strong point of the book.

As its fourth merit, I would name the clear, convincing and consequent manner in which the authors show that conservatism in Russia, Poland and Hungary is not about the political leaders – Vladimir Putin, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, or Viktor Orban. Mihai Varga and Aron Buzogany, Ewa Dąbrowska, Jochen Roose and Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski in their chapters prove that there is a complex “conservative infrastructure”, or a conservative “knowledge network”, which has been being carefully developed in these countries since the 1990s. This “conservative infrastructure” is a result of the agency of academic scholars and intellectuals (e.g. István Stumpf, Alexandr Dugin, Andrzej Zybertowicz), businessmen acting as lobbyists (e.g. Konstantin Malofeev), opinion-forming journals (e.g. “Teologia Polityczna”), and think-tanks (e.g. Századvég, Izborski Club, Jagiellonski Club). Political parties come only to the top of this dense network and, in a sense, they act like “consumers” of the “conservative frame” created by other, often non-political, agents. This is an important contribution of this book because it reveals that conservatism in East-Central Europe is not merely a top-down project, nor is it propaganda from the ruling elites. The current conservative agenda promoted by the ruling parties is a result of wider processes taking place within the societies. What’s more, as the authors show, all three parties, i.e. the social groups promoting the conservative agenda, the political establishment and the general public, have each been mutually influential. This places questions of agency and the causal relationship of conservative entrepreneurs in a new light. As the study of Tobias Köllner shows, even in Russia, where the local autonomy is most limited, it is impossible to talk about a centrally-directed conservative project. Grass-root activists and local elites might have their own take on conservative values.

The authors commendably make effort to avoid reductionism and, in doing so, they pay much attention to uncovering the flow of ideas. Especially worth praising are the authors’ remarks on the dynamics of the diffusion of ideas and political learning. Ewa Dąbrowska, Aron Buzogany and Mihai Varga provide readers with an excellent study of the case of Polish conservatives who, in a critical and selective way, learn from their Hungarian colleagues. Additionally, this Central-European case is combined with examples from the post-Soviet region, namely Russia, Kirgizstan and Kazakhstan (chapter by Sebastian Schiek and Azam Isabaev).

To add another strong point, the authors refer to the rich empirical data that provides readers with the necessary context. In the book there are plenty of overlooked, yet telling, details from this data, such as that it was Russian liberals who were the first to use the conservative narrative of Russia’s unique path of development in the 1990s (chapter by Irina Busygina and Mihail Filippov), or that Vladimir Putin’s administration referred to conservative slogans only from as early as 2003 (chapter by Katharina Bluhm).

Above all, it is remarkable that the book avoids explaining the current phenomenon of conservatism in Russia, Poland and Hungary with the “thin” tradition of democracy, or in accordance with path-dependence. Instead, the authors approach East-Central European conservatism as a reaction to the disappointment of the local elites and as a significant part of society in transition under the ideological aegis of neoliberalism. In my opinion, this is a very accurate diagnosis. What’s more, using these particular optics provides a common conceptual framework for Russia, Hungary and Poland. It also allows us to notice not only the reappearance of old motifs characteristic to Russian and Polish conservatism (like the messianic motifs mentioned in the chapters by Paul Robinson and Ewa Dąbrowska), but also the appearance of quite new ones – such as the neo-colonial arguments in the chapters by Katharina Bluhm and Ewa Dąbrowska.

In the first introductory chapter, the editors name four main causes for the current “renaissance of conservatism”. These are: (1) the socio-economic costs of transition; (2) the growing activity of the civil society, which have resulted in the activity of citizens with conservative mind-sets; (3) religious institutions’ efforts to establish their position anew in the public sphere after communism; and (4) “transitional justice”, connected to the sense that the former communists “were not punished enough” and in fact were the main beneficiaries of the transition. All four points are correct, but I would also add another one, which can be deduced (but is not explicit named) from many chapters of this publication. Namely, I tend to perceive the new conservatism as a part of the quest for a new post-communist identity. I see this current wave of conservatism in connection to an identity crisis and an eroded ontological security rather than lowered economic security.

I agree with the authors’ diagnosis that the so called “conservative turn” is a reaction to the disappointment with the neoliberalism. I would therefore argue that it is counter-hegemonic, i.e. it is a reaction not only to the domestic issues but also to the external pressure. In the case of Russia – a country with a status of a major power – this dimension can be easily observed. Russia’s conservatism is very much about defining the Russian-Self by juxtaposing itself with the West. However, also in the rhetoric of Hungarian and Polish conservatives, we can find mobilisation against the “dictatorship of Brussels”, the EU, “Germany’s hegemonic project” and “Soros’ schemes”. The arguments for connecting identity with conservatism appear in the conclusion. The editors make an interesting point about the flow of ideas and fruitful cooperation between Hungarian and Polish conservatives, which is contrasted with no substantial cooperation of these two with their Russian counterparts. The lack of cooperation between Central European and Russian conservatives can be explained by the “otherness” of Russia. Warsaw and Budapest aim towards building a model of an alternative (“true to its tradition”) Europe within Europe (EU) and not outside it. Meanwhile Russia, being the Other, is not perceived as a part of the European civilizational space.

Dedicating a separate chapter to the dynamics of the self-identification processes of these three post-communist countries would enrich the scope of the publication. It would be also worth adding a chapter that focuses on comparing the conservative agendas of the main religious institutions in these countries, namely the Catholic Church in Poland and Hungary and the Russian Orthodox Church. All of these institutions had to define their status and roles anew in post-communist states. It would be of utmost interest to see whether they used similar strategies in shaping relations with the government, and whether there was any element of process-learning similar to the case of the states in terms of promoting conservative agenda.

We know we have read a good book if we end up with new questions afterwards. This collaborative work definitely provides food for thought. The thesis about the primal role of disappointment with transition and its effect, namely post-communism, invites questions about the nature of post-communism. In the chapter by Aron Buzogany and Mihai Varga we find the observation that, in Hungary, “post-communism is understood as the continuation of communism”. This sentence indicates the possible problems we might face when pondering about how “post-communism” is today understood by conservative entrepreneurs and ruling elites. Is there any common, shared understating of this phenomenon in Poland or maybe even, more general, in Central Eastern Europe? Another question is triggered from the authors’ thesis that the new conservatives seek not institutional change but rather moral reorientation. But do we know exactly what their moral agenda is? This is an important issue for it is connected to another fundamental question: in the case of Hungary and Poland, what kind of change do these ruling parties want to achieve? Do they want to change the societies or do they want to replace the post-communist elite? Ewa Dąbrowska seems to think that, in the case of Poland, it’s about the latter, but this issue would require further investigation. We also can’t help but ask questions about the “sovereign”, i.e. the society. Regardless of the conservative rhetoric, these are secular, modern societies. To what extent can the conservative agenda therefore be attractive for them in the long term? And finally, if we consider the conservative turn a counter-hegemonic reaction connected to self-identification processes, what would this  mean for the European integration project and the EU?

Reading the book edited by Katharina Bluhm and Mihai Varga definitely helps to think about the questions posed above. I recommend it not only to experts on Central Europe or Russia but to all those who are concerned with the future of Europe. The book is a great contribution to the debate about contemporary European conservatism.

Alicja Curanović is Assistant Professor at the Institute of International Relations at the University of Warsaw. She holds a PhD in political science (PhD thesis: “The Religious Factor in the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation”). Her articles appeared in academic journals, e.g. “Problems of Post-Communism”, “Politics and Religion”, “Nationalities Papers” or “Religion, State and Society”.

Citation: Alicja Curanović, Book Review: New Conservatives in Eastern Europe, in: TRAFO
– Blog for Transregional Research, 27.02.2019,

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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