Bolshevism’s New Believers

Russian State Library, Moscow/©Estate of Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg/RAO Moscow/VAGA, New York
A poster for Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s 1928 film October, about the Russian Revolution of 1917, designed by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg with Yakov Ruklevsky; from Susan Pack’s Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde, just published by Taschen

Over the past one hundred years, some 20,000 books on the Russian Revolution have been published, roughly six thousand of them in English. It’s as if, starting on October 25, 1917—or November 7, according to the Western calendar the Bolsheviks adopted soon after seizing power—a new book on that topic appeared without fail every weekday (with summers off). It could be worse: there are now over 70,000 books on the French Revolution. Which one are you going to read?

The Russian Revolution reshaped global time and space. The replacement of the House of Romanov by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics inaugurated what came to be known as the “short twentieth century”; the USSR’s disintegration in 1991 signaled its finale, in all likelihood the last time events in Europe will serve as a century’s bookends. The Soviet project precipitated the partition of the planet into first (capitalist), second (socialist), and third (developing) worlds. For much of its existence, the USSR haunted the West and beckoned developing societies to replicate Russia’s leap into industrial and fully sovereign socialism.

The Russian Revolution, to borrow a phrase from Gershom Scholem, the historian of Jewish messianism, was one of history’s “plastic hours,” when inherited institutions melt away, clearing a path for possibility. Having embarked on that path, the Bolsheviks set about turning capitalism into the world’s ancien régime. Instead, at the centenary of its birth, the Soviet Union is an increasingly distant memory, a bizarre country that once had the audacity to try to abolish private property, markets, and, for a brief time, money itself.

Where did the USSR come from? Was it the offspring of Russia’s peculiar development under the tsars, or did it arise from the inner contradictions of capitalism? Were its ambitions scripted by Marx and Engels, or did they emerge from broader currents of the Enlightenment—the same currents that, under different conditions, propelled the United States, France, and other countries to take their leave of monarchy? Throughout the many studies devoted to these questions runs an abiding tension between those that cast the USSR as an outlier in modern history and those that place it within a family of European or even universal phenomena. One of the first attempts at the latter approach focused on the fact that, notwithstanding their radically different political habits, in the end the Soviets and their capitalist rivals produced roughly the same kind of society: urban, industrial, educated, secular, consumerist, and science-friendly. A more recent version of the modernization-as-convergence argument, shaped by thinkers as diverse as Michel Foucault and Alexander Solzhenitsyn,…

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