The only history class I took in college (aside from economic history classes, which don’t count) was one in “Early Modern Russian History,” which ended with Catherine the Great’s reign in 1796. Other than that, all my knowledge of Russia comes from reading fiction: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, all the way up to Solzhenitsyn and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya.
Novels are not a very good way of learning history. Well, except for War and Peace, which is actually pretty decent at teaching you about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. And if you try to read a novel without knowing anything about the time period in which it’s set, you can sort of do it, but you also sort of can’t. I realized this after I finally read a book on Chinese history and was like, “Wow, I read entire books where I literally had no idea where the characters were or what form of government they lived under.”
Recently, I was listening to these oral histories of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I was like, I’ve read so many Russian novels, but I know nothing about this country. So I picked up a book about the Russian Revolution. It was called The Russian Revolution.
And I learned some shit. Like…did you know there were two revolutions? The February Revolution, in which the Tsar was deposed, and the October Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks took power. Mind. Blown.
Also I’d always been confused by the distinction made between the Communist Party and the Government of Russia. Like, why did they bother having the pretense of civil administrators when it was really the communist party making the distinctions? Turns out there’s a fabulous path-dependence behind this: the workers of Petrograd took power in February and formed their own government, the Petrograd Commune, that coexisted uneasily with the civil government that was left in place after the Tsar left office.
The book didn’t begin and end with 1918; it posited that the Russian Revolution was a continual process, which carried through the Russian Civil War, the early thaw of the twenties, and into the Stalinist era.
This whole business of left-wing revolution was not very advanced back in 1918. The only real example that they had was the French Revolution, and they were largely concerned with avoiding the mistakes of that time. It was fascinating to get a feel for the newness of this business of revolt. They knew that with this, the world’s first successful Marxist revolution, they were doing something entirely new within human history, and they were primarily concerned with making sure that they actually did it.
What’s fascinating is how ideological it all was. They were terrible men who cared about power, but they also really believed in communism. If they simply wanted to remain in power, they could’ve left the rudiments of market capitalism in place. Certainly, there was no need to collectivize the farmers or the small businesses. But there was definitely this sense that something needed to be done. They needed to hurry through the dialectic and achieve true socialism.
We aren’t like this today. Nowadays we’re not about systems and about evolution. All we want is to hold onto what we have (and maybe find a way to get a bit more). Russia seems, both from this book and from the novels I’ve read, to always have been a place that was brimming with big ideas. Every writer is so political. And every hero is an anarchist or a collectivist or a pacifist or some other sort of -ist. I don’t think America has ever been like that. I mean it’s not even our self-image. When we had our revolution, we built a government from scratch, but that government wasn’t about remaking society: it was just about letting people do what they wanted to do. And today, whether you’re conservative or liberal, I think that’s still how we view our government. The idea of a revolution that totally remakes our individual relations, the way that individual Americans interact with each other both on a personal level and within the marketplace, seems foreign to us.
Of course now somebody is gonna bust down my comment wall and be like, “You’re wrong! I am a revolutionary!” Well…okay. But I don’t know if you are. The Russia of 1933 was completely different from the Russia of 1917. In twenty years, divorce was legalized, women entered the workforce, private property was banned, peasants were collectivized, and almost every human being found him or herself (assuming they hadn’t starved to death or been sent to the gulag) operating in some totally different role than they had been. If you were an independent barber in 1917, for instance, then by 1933 your whole way of earning a living had become criminal. You could no longer work for yourself; instead you needed to work for a state-owned hair-cutting venture of some sort. Which is pretty wild! Your fundamental relationship to your community and to the state had been realigned!
Obviously the idea of a planned economy is a bad one, but even that level of societal change seems, to me, to be inherently unstable and unattractive.