«A Common Story»: the masterpiece of the Russian old school Сonservatism

One of the myths the Soviet propaganda was fervently pushing was about how impossible life was under the Tsar. It was not life at all, the proletarian-dictators professed, but rather a meager existence, nay, a survival game for anyone unfortunate enough to have been born in those dark times. The darkest of totalitarianisms composed equally of illiteracy, low standards of living, police brutality and all-pervasive freedom-crushing censorship. It mattered little to the inventors of these tales that they themselves gave birth to a true totalitarian regime, turning one of the leading European nations into a Third world state.

Communist leaders, attracted as all unsophisticated people are to the simple and direct methods of solving their problems, wanted to erase all of Russia’s history and write it anew, this time based on the correct and proper Marxist-Leninist basis. They revised, too, the Russian culture for “misrepresenting” the life in the Russian Empire and didn’t share the Bolshevik point of view that all of Russian history up to the October Revolution was comprised of nothing but backwardness and oppression.
It was a great loss for the Russian culture in general and for literature, which contained a few veritable nuggets of the rightist classical liberal wisdom, capable of opening the reader’s eyes to the causes of the revolutionary atmosphere in the pre-revolution era, in particular. It is about one such book I would like to tell you today.


As is the case with most true classics, Ivan Goncharov’s “Common Story” remains actual to this day – both in its plot, its conflicts and the social philosophy it propounds. The story revolves around a young hick, considered wealthy and sophisticated by his village standards and so thinking quite highly of himself, comes to Saint Petersburg chasing his dreams and ambitions, which he deems grand and justified. Much to his disappointment, he finds little or no demand or adoration for his lofty dreams, and thus turns to all kinds of romantic nonsense.

Before we go on, it is important to understand something about romanticism. When the novel was written the leftist ideas were neither well-developed nor popular; romanticism served the same purpose, however, as the populism of today, and so it no surprise that the young Alexander Aduev falls back on that particular brand of time-wastage. Were he to visit today’s Europe, for instance, he would surely have joined some leftist organization where his dubious poetic gift and impractical aspirations for fast recognition and easy wealth would have been a guarantee to him being praised as unique and gifted.

Let’s review the above proposition – my claim that romanticism and sentimentalism as its extreme are a sort of pre-socialist leftism. The main idea of the romanticists and the sentimentalists is the primacy of feelings and emotions over the intellect, of impetuosity over the cold calculation, of impulsive over the systematic. This idea can be expressed in many different ways: “The society has grown old and useless,” being one; “the impetuosity of the young is more important than the calculation of the experienced”, being another; and more: “the hierarchies will be destroyed, justice will prevail,” “rationality is a cage in which a real man – living, feeling, spontaneous – can never be truly locked,” and so on and so forth.

The young Aduev holds many a discussion on this topic with his uncle:
“And why a reckless fool, uncle? You should have said only that he is a man of strong passions, that a man who feels so is capable of everything generous and noble, and incapable”
“Incapable of reckoning, that is, reflection. He is a grand figure — your man of strong passions, of titanic emotions! How much of it pray is merely physical temperament? Transports, exultations indeed, the man is below the dignity of a man in all that, and has nothing to pride himself upon. We must ask whether he knows how to control his feelings ; if he knows how to do that, then he is a man.”
“According to you, feeling has to be controlled like steam,» observed Alexander, «now a little let off, then suddenly stopped, opening a valve and shutting it.”
“Yes, nature has given man such a valve — and not for nothing — it is reason, and you don’t always make use of it – which is a pity! you’re a good sort of fellow!”

Discourse of this par may sound good but it is its only virtue. The main drawback is that it fails to take reality into account. Human society functions if and only if it is based on law of logic and economy. Each aspect of its development is inseparably bound to economy and through it to such boring areas as math, history, psychology, logistics, strategic planning and so on. The romantics of this world dream of everything working “somehow”, without the boring numbers and facts which make it impossible for everyone to have higher education without actually learning, govern a state without education, curing everyone without developing medicine and so on.

In other words romanticism and sentimentalism draw from the same source as the modern-age populist ideologies, except, lacking the latters’ pseudoscientific structure, they expressed themselves in art – mainly in literature. Their time was gone as soon as the leftist doctrines – Marxism, fascism, anarchism, etc. – started to take form. Populism, relying for support on the inadequately educated, the immature, the deniers of the rational approach, found a more ideologically stringent outlet. But it was the romanticism that gave actual birth to fascism and communism both. They have many superficial things in common but the main thing is their child-like grievance against the unfair world in which some have a lot and he, the prodigy, has nothing. Another common trait is in the methodology: basically, take from the bad wealthy people what their wealth and give (redistribute) it to whoever needs it most. Benito Mussolini, who until the last considered himself a socialist, used to tell of his hatred toward the rich which had all the things he wanted for himself. He actually lived to achieve his goal, after a fashion: Italian fascists nationalized and redistributed wealth, strengthened the state structures and brought about Italy’s demise in the war. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia and Hungary, the Spanish revolution and the other radical-left “experiments” with redistribution had even better results – civil wars, genocide, internal desolation and international isolation.

We can see a similar situation in Putin’s Russia today. The government is mainly comprised of the people who failed to make a career in the USSR before it broke down, and failed to be included in the big business or the big politics of the 1990s. The systematic destruction of each and every businessman daring to act or even talk against the government, the nationalization of the property, the hysterical reaction of the authorities against the opposition, all these are nothing but a child’s tantrum against those who interfere with his getting his wants here and now. A child cannot understand the concepts of right and wrong, the importance of civic duties, the nuances of legality, and so he acts as straightforwardly as can be expected: he robs and kills. Children always fight for things they want; they bite and kick and scream, and if they are not educated properly they keep doing this all their lives. They do not grow up romantics, but they do remain infantile and immature, in that they want to get everything and they want it now.

Goncharov’s “Common Story” demonstrates the core essence of the infantile romantic as a seed from which a populist will grow. While annoyed with the irony directed by the “grown-ups” at his “honest emotions,” “spiritual anguish” and “scorn of all things material,” he is not annoyed at himself; he fails to realize that to people who know life his ideas seem either funny or plain irritating, and his honest belief in the shiny ideal world is a belief of a child, not a grown man. He takes offense at the callous, unworthy people surrounding him. He shirks the job his uncle helps him find, writes poems and waxes eloquent on romantic issues, honestly considering them to be morally superior to doing something with his life. He mocks people by comparing them to fable animals, throws tantrums, threatens his adversaries with doom and destruction – in short, behaves like a spoiled, egocentric child. Finally, after eight long years in Petersburg Alexander returns to his village. Much later and a grown up man, he realizes that he was actually in the wrong. It is unclear whether he would have been able to come to this point without a guiding hand, and influence which also stops him, even during his worst paroxysms of anger and misanthropy, from becoming an open socialist. Despite his hatred of the unfeeling, civic capitalist society, he is not actively looking for ways to destroy it.

This guiding hand belongs to Alexander’s uncle – Piotr Ivanovich Aduev. He is a classic Russian conservative classical liberal, a kind that, thanks to the Bolsheviks’ extermination, belongs in a museum now. He is a “self-made man,” a capitalist who puts rationality and private life above all else, a man of wealth and good taste. In Piotr Aduev, Goncharov was partly describing himself: coming from Simbirsk to Petersburg, he worked his way up to becoming a recognized writer. Like his character, Goncharov was a conservative, opposed to socialism and nihilism (which was the mask the leftism wore in pre-revolutionary Russia).

The elder Aduev is described as follows: “In Petersburg he passed for a wealthy man, and perhaps not without good grounds; he had an appointment under a certain influential personage, a secretary of special commissions, and had ribbons to wear in his buttonhole ; he had a fine suite of rooms in a good street, kept three men and as many horses. He was not old, but what is called ‘a man in the prime of life’ – between thirty-five and forty. He did not care to talk of his age, not from petty vanity, but from a sort of deliberate calculation, as though with an idea of insuring his life on the easiest terms. Anyway there was no sign in his manner of concealing his age, of any frivolous pretensions to pleasing the fair sex.

“He was a tall, well-made man, with large regular features and a swarthy complexion, a smooth graceful carriage, and dignified but agreeable manners – one of those men who are generally described by the term ‘bel homme’.
“His face, too, showed dignity — that is, the power of controlling himself and not allowing his face to be the reflection of his feelings. He was of the opinion that this was improper both for his own sake, and for other people’s, and behaved himself in public accordingly. Yet one could not call his face wooden; no, it was only tranquil. Sometimes he showed the traces of fatigue – doubtless from overwork. He was known to be both a man of business and a busy man. He always dressed carefully, even stylishly, but only within the limits of good taste ; his linen was unexceptionable; his hands were plump and white, with long transparent fingernails.”

The uncle aids his nephew in finding a job and tries time and again to explain to him the interlocking of social mechanisms and the importance of proper behavior. Their talks touch on various subjects – from social structure and capitalism to career, family, relationships, not neglecting such issues as education, love, friendship, competition, success, social strategy and tactics and professionalism. Every discourse ends with the younger Aduev running away with his tail between his legs; in every dispute the rightist-conservative point of view triumphs. His uncle holds an upper hand on each and every point – be it Alexander’s narcissism, his irritation at the world at general or his failing career.

The other force influencing the bringing up of the young man it that of Piotr’s spouse, Lisaveta Alexandrovna. Much younger than her husband, closer in age, in fact, to Aduev the younger, she is well equipped to understand his state of mind. At first glance it would seem this aunt does a lot to alleviate her nephew’s suffering: she mitigates traumatic experiences brought about by the arguments with his uncle, comforts him, coaches him out of his depressions. However, by the time we finish the novel, it becomes obvious the aunt’s “assistance” was actually detrimental. She prevented him from fully escaping his protective shell in which he was hiding from the real world, encourages him in his literary exercises despite his obvious lack of talent – in short, she inhibits his ability to break away from the past and start a new life. He turns melancholic and depressed and finally leaves Petersburg for his village. When he comes back an grown-up man, we cannot but wonder whether without the aunt’s alleviation of the uncle’s schooling this leave of absence would still be necessary. Or, put differently, whether Alexander, whose cure in the novel had taken 10 years, might not have gotten better much faster without Lisaveta’s interference.

Russian liberal conservatism, according to the elder Aduev consists of the primacy of intelligence and calculation over the emotion and neurotic choices, and of authentic, fundamental classical liberalism. Aduev would never infringe on another man’s freedom, would never visit moral violence or pressure on his neighbor, his subordinate or his better. While he does exert control over many people, he does so thanks to his own achievements, he uses his rational mind, not bullying or brute force. He is never despotic, never jealous. When he talks with his nephew, he talks to him, not at him, he always reminds him that his advice is just that, and that it is always Alexander’s choice whether to accept the advice or ignore it. Another important point is that Piotr’s way is the way of evolution, not revolution. A revolution, an attempt to solve problems with feelings and speed, is always an evil. A healthy society develops via an evolutionary process. This is likewise true of a career and social acceptance: one works at both, develops his skills and connections. Thus, the three whales upon which the Russian conservative liberalism stands are: calculation, self-possession and professionalism.

In fact, these same virtues apply equally to any conservative liberalism, not necessarily of a Russian origin. The basis of all the rightist ideas is the concept of evolution, slow development, competition, private property and denial of all and any social revolutions. The rightists, liberals and conservatives alike, limit the revolutions to the world of technical and scientific. The infantile “revolutionaries” of the society are best served by sending them to learn and grow up, or, if they are prevented from doing so by their lacking the essential brainpower, by sending them back to the village: to pick up flowers and gush on about their feelings.

Kitty Sanders, 2014