This article explores one of the oldest controversies over Slavophile thought: the question of whether it is a form of liberalism or conservatism. The author reassesses understudied neo-Slavophile ideologists through the prism of the debates on the public sphere. The paper focuses on the popular journalist S. F. Sharapov (1855-1911) and his utopias. Sharapov and the plethora of the Slavophile intellectuals, such as N. P. Aksakov, A. A. Kireev, D. A. Khomiakov, I. F. Romanov, A. G. Shcherbatov, and A. V. Vasil'ev, worked out a project of autocracy based upon local self-government. Their project featured such elements of liberalism as humanism, freedom of conscience and the press, and toleration of the non-Russian and non-Orthodox subjects of the Empire. One of the central themes of the neo-Slavophile project was criticism of the bureaucratic imperial regime and offering proposals of comprehensive reforms. At the same time, neo-Slavophilism embraced anti-Semitism and a deep-rooted aversion to the West and Western political practices. The distinctiveness of the neo-Slavophiles consisted of the Messianic belief in Russia's uniqueness and ability to develop a 'truly liberal' political regime, in which rigorously observed Christian morality would be present alongside civil rights and freedoms. The paper argues that Slavophilism is not a repository of ready-made illiberal ideas, but a practice of social criticism, which comes up when attempts at political modernization in Russia are half-hearted or have failed.