The Russian tsar was not the master of slaves. Rather, the language of mastery and servitude was a habitual part of everyday Muscovite political expression, a means of polite interaction. Finally, the foreigners misunderstood the meaning of this discourse by imposing an idealized concept of slavery on it. To them the master was all-powerful and the slave powerless. Yet for the Muscovites the language of servitude implied mutual obligations: the "master" protected the "slave" and the latter served the former.Arguments like this one are becoming increasingly common in Russian--and presumably other non-Western--historiography. Confronted with the awkward necessity of choosing between a politically untenable determinism (Russians will always be slaves!) and its factually indefensible denial (Russians have always had a functioning civil society!), historians in these fields have understandably found the "functionalist" line of thought particularly appealing. The antinormative pluralism characteristic of the twentieth-century humanities in general combines here with a vaguely Rortyan pragmatism, yielding something nearly anyone can agree with without compromising herself.
The underpinnings of Muscovite autocracy, then, are to be found not in natural slavery but rather in the deep structure of the Muscovite worldview and the practical utility of a patrimonial state. Unlike the Europeans, who believed government should be limited so that men could perfect themselves, Muscovites held that the rule of the tsar had to be nearly untrammeled if the sinful ways of men were to be checked. But the fit of this model to the Muscovite worldview was not the only anchor of Russian political culture. The patrimonial state also provided the Muscovite elite with an effective means of maintaining and expanding their realm. It allowed the Russian court to avoid dangerous political infighting, to extract fiscal resources from the tsar's subjects, to mobilize the manpower necessary to staff the administration and army, and to resolve conflicts involved in state-building. In the end, Muscovite rule was not, as the foreigners thought, a faulty, deviant, or illegitimate form of government imposed by a ruthless king, but rather a logical adaptive strategy that permitted the Muscovite elite to build an empire under the most trying of conditions.
- Marshall Poe, A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476-1748
Or at least that's how it's supposed to go. Unfortunately, functionalism is satisfying neither from a historical-empirical perspective nor from a political one. On the one hand, it is a convenient way of telling factually-irrefutable just-so stories, since the very survival of the Muscovite state is held to constitute prima facie evidence that autocracy "worked." Given the impossibility of true historical counterfactuals, there can be no question of arguing that it could have worked "better" if things had been otherwise. (Implicit here is a contrast with Poland, where it "didn't work"--but where the standard of living today is probably much higher.) This means that as an engine of explanation, functionalism is as useless as narrowly-conceived homo oeconomicism.
On the other hand, from a political point of view functionalism is more, not less, problematic than either of the alternatives it was supposed to escape. Both Cold Warriorism and ideological "revisionism" at least acknowledge that autocracy is in some way a problematic or contestable condition. Functionalists, regardless of their intentions, end up appropriating the view of the Empire as it is conceived, defined, and imagined by the state. In effect, the claim that autocracy worked because it permitted the effective administration and control of internal conflict as well as external expansion is identical to the claim that the Great Terror worked because it drove the Trotskyite-Zinovyevite counterrevolutionaries out of the Party. It is the crudest and most naive possible conflation of justification and results.
Perhaps one explanation for the popularity of functionalism is the so-called "state school" and its hypnotic repetition of arguments about "challenges facing the state," "gathering of the Horde lands," and so on. State-school historians have been particularly influential in the West, where they were never rejected for ideological reasons. Due to the early exposure of Western historians of Russia to their work, some sort of identification may have taken place between the voice of Solovyev and that of "the Russian people" as a whole. That's all speculation--but it seems important to ask where such an obviously flawed explanatory technique could have possibly come from.
In attacking the functionalist argument I am, of course, simply continuing my fairly rudimentary critique of prevailing trends in the field. (Admittedly they are less prevailing than they were ten or fifteen years ago.) What brings functionalism together with the other themes I've written about, though, is its implicit endorsement of a kind of irredentism about the Russia whose history we are writing. More than almost any other field, Russian history is plagued by confusion about its object of study: the whole landmass of northern Eurasia? The Russian state, in its various imperial incarnations? The culture and religion produced by people who identify with either of these? (Such confusion of course stretches back to the concept of Rus' itself.) Most historians, I think, think of it as an amorphous combination of all three, so that it becomes possible to construct a narrative in which Russia is both the subject and the object, the hero and the quest. This alone makes functionalism appealing, for it serves to define the joint between the three concepts. And that is why it must be abandoned if any reevaluation of the field is to take place.