Editor’s Note: For our centennial issue, our reviewers each selected a set of books essential to understanding the past century and another set essential for imagining the century ahead.
The Russian state collapsed twice in the twentieth century: in 1917, the fall of the 300-year-old Russian empire was followed by fratricidal carnage and an attempt by the victorious Bolsheviks to build a futuristic kingdom of material abundance and universal justice. Compared with the Bolshevik Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was undramatic, albeit surprising.
Slezkine’s magnificent and strikingly original work of Soviet history tells the story of the thunderous rise of Russian communism and charts its decline. In his view, the early Bolsheviks—a closed group of compulsive readers, prolific writers, and utopian thinkers—were an apocalyptic sect, fervent and coercive proselytizers Slezkine likens to various millenarians, such as Münster Anabaptists or Branch Davidians. The Bolsheviks believed that they would manage to destroy everyday order and usher in eternal harmony in their lifetimes. When this small sect improbably took charge of the vast Russian empire, its leaders vigorously preached to its new subjects about the imminent arrival of a communist paradise. The Bolsheviks’ vision of that paradise remained vague, and so did their guidance on how to be a virtuous communist. Their own private lives, their households and the way they brought up their children were traditional, rather than futuristic—at great odds with their own utopian creed. In 1936, the Soviet regime unleashed the Great Terror, an orgy of mass executions that many historians have struggled to explain. In just over a year, hundreds of thousands were killed, beginning with the leading Bolsheviks themselves. According to Slezkine, the Great Terror, an act of self-destruction by sect founders, was caused by what he calls the Great Disappointment, when they realized that their prophecy would not be fulfilled.
The communist state outlasted the Bolshevik sectarians by several decades. It grew less violent and eventually began to stagnate. Soviet citizens might have lost their sense of purpose and faith in communism, but pledging allegiance to communist beliefs remained mandatory for people almost to the very end of the Soviet Union. Yurchak’s groundbreaking anthropological study looks at daily life in the late Soviet Union, when communist indoctrination, its rituals, and its practices were ubiquitous but no longer coercive. Many Soviet citizens developed tastes and habits that appeared incompatible with the communist doctrine, first and foremost a fascination with the West, its pop culture and proverbial blue jeans. Yet they did not consider themselves dissidents, and they readily engaged in Soviet practices and rituals as well, even if they interpreted them somewhat differently. They lived, Yurchak asserts, at once within the system and outside it, and this arrangement appeared unconflicted and immutable. The Soviet Union, too, seemed as if it would be there forever. But this ambiguous position of what Yurchak called “inside-outside-ness” inevitably eroded a system built on rigorous dogma. The Soviet system disintegrated suddenly in the late 1980s, its collapse neither desired by the Soviet people nor anticipated by scholars of Russia.
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
As the world plunges into ever-deepening disorder, political forecasting looks increasingly like fortune telling. After the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s future has become even more inscrutable. Doomsday scenarios abound, from Russia’s disintegration to an impending nuclear war. Such premonitions of doom have long been an inspiration for prophecy. In his provocative 1970 article, Amalrik, a Soviet dissident, asserted that the Soviet empire had entered the last decade of its existence and was headed irrevocably toward death. Amalrik’s conviction was astounding given that at the time—and for two more decades—few people inside or outside the Soviet Union expected it to crumble any time soon. But his notion of exactly how and why the Soviet Union would perish was far off the mark: he predicted that between 1975 and 1980, the Soviet Union would be destroyed by an expansionist and belligerent China.
The communist regime positioned itself as an artificially constructed civilization with no precedent in either the history of Russia or the world. The withering away of the goal of building communism made Russia unsure of its direction and national identity. Did Russia belong to the West, an overarching Christendom, a broad Eurasian identity, or a civilization of its own? In his most famous work, the political scientist Huntington argued that the post–Cold War world was taking an illiberal turn, thanks to the resurgence of non-Western countries and the rise of China. He insightfully emphasized the “cleft” quality of Ukraine and warned that the civilizational “fault line running through its heart” portended serious security risks. When it came to Russia, however, Huntington described the country as belonging to a “distinct Eurasian Orthodox civilization,” but he also recognized Russia’s perennial oscillations between the West and “Russianness” that make predicting its future development difficult.
But whereas an oscillating Russia confounds the forecasting power of political thinkers, a fiction writer can ignore such constraints and imagine a Russia that has finally made its civilizational choice. Sorokin’s dystopian novel, published in Russian in 2006, portrays a Russia in 2028 that is eerily similar to Russia today. Isolated from Western influence, the Russia of the novel has radically rejected both its communist past and any attempts at Westernization. All Western supermarkets are gone. All Russians have burned the passports that would let them travel abroad. In some respects, Russia of 2028 has reverted to the way it was in the sixteenth century, before it had turned to the West in pursuit of modernization. This Russia is ruled by a worshiped monarch, whose power rests on the oprichniki, a kind of Praetorian Guard engaged in brutal purges. Censorship is rigorous. Russia has gone back to its traditional roots: the universal Orthodox faith, medieval clothes, and authentic Russian food. But despite the professed autarky of this Russian state, Russians look up to technologically superior China: they use extra sophisticated Chinese gadgets, fly Chinese-made planes, get high on drugs smuggled from China, and intersperse their archaic Russian with Chinese words. From Amalrik’s possible conqueror of Russia to Sorokin’s admired big brother, China looms ever larger in the Russian imagination.