We all know the story of the man who observes, looking backward at some failed experiment, “Well, you know, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” He may have been a scientist, a political theorist, or a repentant fanatic. He may also well have been a Russian, for practically everything that has happened in Russia since the time of Peter the Great has happened because some man of power once thought it a good idea. And an idea in Russia exists to be implemented by the means of power, even though it may have been conceived in abstraction, barren argument, apparent helplessness.
Which is why ever since the self-creation of its intelligentsia in the eighteenth century, Russia has always presented itself as a perfect paradise for the historian of ideas. What rich and varied contradictions! What follies and what paradoxes! The morals of the dogmatist depend on the certainty of solution, so that every idea in Russia moves blindly and ominously toward action, like the bronze hooves of Peter the Great’s horse in Pushkin’s poem, echoing over the stone pavements of Peter’s city.
When John Stuart Mill said the foundation of liberal democracy was “a question of time, place, and circumstance,” he did not have the Russian experience specifically in mind, but had he done so he might well have doubted whether such a favorable combination was ever likely to occur there. In the tyranny of ideas in Russia, could democracy take natural root? Democracy is a sound instinct which tends to bumble along without needing to ask itself whether it was born of a good idea or a bad, or any coherent idea at all: its own history obscures its conception, and, as Churchill once remarked, the best thing about it is that other forms of government are worse. But in Russian historical politics the correct idea itself must be both beginning and end.
In her excellent book on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian thinkers, Aileen Kelly vividly makes this point in two quotations, not deliberately contrasted but speaking with eloquence for themselves. The first is from a letter by the anarchist Kropotkin, written shortly before his death in 1921, bitterly accusing the Bolshevik chief of unacceptable methods: “How can you, Vladimir Ilich, you who want to be the apostle of new truths and the builder of a new State, give your consent to the use of such…unacceptable methods? Such a measure is tantamount to declaring publicly that you adhere to the ideas of yesterday” (my italics).
After Lenin’s triumph the artist Vladimir Tatlin was commissioned to design a monument, far exceeding the Eiffel Tower in height and straddling the broad river Neva in Petrograd. It would symbolize humanity’s ascent to freedom. An awestruck commentator wrote that “you will be carried up and down by mechanical methods…while before you there will flash a propagandist’s forceful, laconic phrase….The latest news, resolution or decree, the latest invention, all delivered in bursts …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.