A few months after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, senior Soviet leader Anastan Mikoyan flew down to Havana. Fidel Castro struck the veteran Bolshevik as “a genuine revolutionary, completely like us. I felt as though I had returned to my childhood." Mikoyan’s remarks captured the extent to which old Bolsheviks were aware of the gulf between the heydays of the Russian Revolution and the reality of the Soviet Union in 1960. Six decades on, as we approach its centenary, the Bolshevik revolution seems nothing but a grotesque fantasy. The collapse of the Soviet Union has removed any imperative to understand what critics as well as sympathizers once regarded as the seminal event of the 20th century.
Few books published ahead of the anniversary offer many fresh insights into the causes, course and consequences of the revolution. The pattern of arguments and interpretations prevalent during the Cold War seems well in place. Those sympathetic to the revolution tended to argue that the collapse of the Tsarist regime was inevitable and that the Bolshevik seizure of power was legitimate. These scholars typically also held that the Stalinist regime was a deformation of the original revolution—an outcome contingent on Stalin’s capture of power. By contrast, scholars critical of the revolution contend that there was nothing inevitable about the collapse of the Romanov autocracy and that the Bolshevik “revolution" was nothing but a coup. But they would go on to argue that Stalinism followed inevitably from Lenin’s seizure of power. Although shorn of Cold War era polemics, these old arguments about inevitability and contingency continue to play out in much of the new work.
A striking exception to this trend is the historian Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government. It belongs to the category of books that Vikram Seth said would “strain your purse and sprain your wrists". But it is a remarkable work of imaginative historical reconstruction and craftsmanship. Reviewers have already compared its epic style to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Vasilly Grossman’s Life and Fate, though the more direct inspiration is surely George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Like Perec’s novel about a Parisian apartment building, Slezkine uses the House of Government built by the Soviet regime to peel fascinating layers of the Bolshevik experience up until the onset of the Second World War.
This is not the place to discuss the wealth of archival and other primary materials that he deploys to paint this magnificent group portrait. But it would be useful to ask what it adds to our historical understanding of the Russian Revolution. Undergirding this massive historical edifice is an argument about the nature of the Bolshevik enterprise. Slezkine argues the Bolsheviks were not a modern political party that aims to seize power in a society. Rather, they were a faith-based group “radically opposed to a corrupt world, dedicated to the ‘abandoned and the persecuted’, and composed of voluntary members who had undergone a personal conversion and shared a strong sense of chosenness, exclusiveness, ethical austerity and social egalitarianism". Like other religious sects, “their purpose was to await and, to a greater or lesser degree, bring about, that society’s replacement by a ‘kingdom of freedom’ understood as life without politics". Understanding the Bolsheviks as a sect is apparently the key to understanding the Russian Revolution.
The argument that communism was akin to a form of religion is an old one. The ex-communist (and anti-communist) writer Boris Souvarine underscored the religious character of the Bolshevik regime as far back as 1939. Even thoughtful Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm conceded the quasi-religious character of 20th century communism. The most decisive demonstration of this similarity was Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism, which argued that “Marxism performs the function of a religion, and its efficacy is of a religious character." Kolakowski, a historian of early modern Christian sects, was also careful to add that Marxism was “a bogus form of religion, since it presents its temporal eschatology as a scientific system".
Whatever the affinities at the level of ideational structures, the claim that Bolsheviks were akin to sect was always difficult to demonstrate. Slezkine takes a better stab at it than any previous historian by focusing on the inner worlds of the first-generation Bolsheviks. But it remains a one sided-portrait and an unconvincing explanation of the Russian Revolution. After all, the Leninist Party was a central innovation of the Bolsheviks—one that enabled their experience to be replicated in many countries. The core of the Leninist Party, as Hobsbawm observed, could be summed up in two phrases: “decisions must be verified" and “party discipline". This utterly practical character of the communist experience is obscured by the emphasis on sectarian behaviour. More implausible is Slezkine’s attempt to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union by the cooling of doctrinaire fires among the descendants of the Bolsheviks.
The regime’s inability to intrusively control the family was supposedly its signal failure: “The problem with Bolshevism was that it was not totalitarian enough." The argument is plainly contrived. Is there any example of a totalitarian regime whose ability to control the family contributed to its longevity? Where in this story of the ebbing of ideological commitment is space for the material realities: the painful inability of the Soviet Union to compete economically or geopolitically with the US?
Excessive emphasis on the sectarian argument also obscures the most important political legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution: the persistence of the Leninist Party in the 21st century. Historical verdicts on the October Revolution may well turn on how the Communist Party of China fares in the years ahead.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.