Lifetimes of the Soviet Union | Yuri Slezkine | Granta

Lifetimes of the Soviet Union

Yuri Slezkine

The Soviet Union lasted one human lifetime. It was born in 1917 and died in 1991, at the age of seventy-four. The difficult Civil-War childhood was followed by precocious ‘construction-of-socialism’ adolescence, Great-Patriotic-War youth, ‘postwar-reconstruction’ maturity, Khrushchev-Thaw midlife crisis, and ‘period-of-stagnation’ dotage culminating in a series of colds, frenzied CPR attempts, and death ‘after a protracted illness’.

Such an obituary works as a metaphor and a draft of a biography. It seems to make sense because the Bolshevik ‘party of a new type’ was not an organization seeking power within a particular state but a faith-based group radically opposed to a corrupt world, devoted to ‘the abandoned and the persecuted’, composed of voluntary members who had undergone a personal conversion, and dedicated to the total and immediate destruction of the ‘old world’ of suffering and injustice. It was, by most definitions, an apocalyptic sect awaiting an all-consuming revolutionary Armageddon followed by the millennial reign of Communist brotherhood as the overcoming of the futility and contingency of human existence.

Most apocalyptic sects do not survive the failure of the doomsday prophecy. Most sects of any description do not survive the transformation of an exclusive community of fraternal converts into a complex society of hereditary members. Most sects, in other words, never become churches. The Bolsheviks built an enormous Potemkin temple but failed to transcend their sectarian origins and expired along with the last true believer.

This story has a nice shape to it but it doesn’t work as an outline of Soviet history. The ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who built the Soviet state did not live long enough to grow old. The last Bolshevik who died in the top job was not a true believer. The founders’ successors came in two mutually hostile cohorts. The tale of the Soviet state consists of three generations.

The original Bolsheviks were born in the 1880s and 90s and converted to socialist millenarianism as schoolchildren, seminarians, and college students. Their cause was the working class as universal redeemer; their parents were provincial clerks, clergymen, teachers, and doctors. The movement’s center lay at the empire’s periphery: between 1907 and 1917 the share of ethnic Russians among exiled revolutionaries (43.4 percent) was about equal to their share in the population; the proportion of Georgians and Armenians was twice as high; Poles, three times; Jews, four times; and Latvians, eight times (8.2 percent of exiles compared to 1.2 percent of population). The only condition for joining underground revolutionary circles was unconditional faith in the coming Armageddon and a readiness for self-discipline and self-sacrifice. The main activities were reading (socialist texts as well as ‘treasures of world literature’) and, as one gained in revolutionary consciousness, ‘propaganda and agitation’. As in most apocalyptic sects, the core members were young men who abandoned their families in order to form a band of brothers around a charismatic leader (Lenin’s nickname was the Old Man). Women made up a small proportion of the membership and played auxiliary roles as debate audiences, prison liaisons, model martyrs, ‘technical workers’, and writers’ muses. At the turn of the twentieth century, ‘student’ was a synonym for ‘revolutionary’, but, according to most revolutionaries, the real university was the prison. Unfree spaces were filled with free time, and most inmates spent days and months reading books and taking notes. The education of a revolutionary was completed in Siberian exile, which combined banishment to hell with a chance to create a sacred community of true believers. Present-day suffering was a guarantee of future happiness.

One such student revolutionary was Aleksandr Arosev, a prominent Kazan Bolshevik and the son of a merchant, who associated the victory of Bolshevism with the transformation of the world into a fraternal sect. Communism was the kingdom of universal friendship. His closest friend was his high-school classmate, a fellow sectarian and amateur violinist by the name of Scriabin.

The prophecy came true on Easter Monday, 1917, when Lenin rode into Petrograd on a train and declared that the time had come, the prophecy had been fulfilled, and the present generation would not pass away until all these things had happened.

Sects and revolutions are staffed by young people. When Babylon fell, Arosev and his friend Scriabin, who had recently changed his name to ‘Molotov’ (‘hammer’) were twenty-seven. The Old Man was forty-seven. Arosev became one of the leaders of the Bolshevik military insurrection in Moscow and a prominent proletarian writer. Molotov emerged as one of the leading Bolsheviks in the capital. They were almost as young as the world they were ushering in. ‘The great uprising of the human mass in the name of humanity,’ wrote Arosev, ‘began simply and without hesitation – exactly the way the old books describe the creation of the world.’

For the next three years, the top Bolsheviks moved around continuously from one front of Armageddon to another and one assignment to the next. Some were accompanied by their permanent female comrades, most had short-term liaisons with nurses, secretaries, cryptographers, and propaganda department typists. Time flew so fast it was always about to end. According to the era’s most popular song, ‘Our locomotive is rushing full speed ahead, next stop Communism.’

The ‘last and decisive battle’ was won but the new world failed to materialize. War Communism was followed by the New Economic Policy, introduced by Lenin as a temporary retreat, opposed by many Bolsheviks as a betrayal of the revolution, and followed by a period of melancholy analogous to ‘the Great Disappointment’ suffered by American millenarians when the world failed to come to an end on 22 October 1844. Thousands of believers, as one of them put it, ‘wept and wept, until the day dawned’.

The postponement of the Millennium coincided with the death of the Prophet. Trotsky could not attend Lenin’s funeral because of a mysterious nervous illness. A public prosecutor who could not stop weeping for several months was treated for ‘traumatic neurosis’. In 1927, 1,300 Bolshevik functionaries stayed at the Lenin Rest Home No. 1 outside Moscow. Six were found to be healthy; 65 percent of the rest were diagnosed with various forms of emotional distress (described as ‘neurasthenia’, ‘psycho-neurasthenia’, ‘psychosis’, and ‘nervous exhaustion’). The surviving Old Bolsheviks, now top government officials in their thirties and forties, moved into the Kremlin and several downtown-Moscow hotels that had been converted into dormitories known as Houses of Soviets and settled into a self-doubting communal domesticity – visiting each other’s rooms, smoking cheap tobacco, drinking strong tea, arguing about the timing of the second coming, and weeping. And weeping.

Yuri Slezkine

Yuri Slezkine is a professor of the Graduate School at UC Berkeley and a senior research fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. His latest books are The Jewish Century and The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.

More about the author →