If I had to choose one book to read about the Bolsheviks this year it would be The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine.
Writing in the New York Review of Books Benjamin Nathans focuses on the most important theme that runs through this monumental study, Slezkine’s view that Bolshevism was not an assertion of the new, but a reformulation of the old:
[Slezkine] places the Bolsheviks among ancient Zoroastrians and Israelites, early Christians and Muslims, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Puritans, Old Believers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rastafarians, and other millenarian sects. As sworn enemies of religion, the Bolsheviks would have hated this casting decision and demanded to be put in a different play, preferably with Jacobins, Saint-Simonians, Marxists, and Communards in supporting roles. Slezkine, however, has claimed these groups for his story as well, insisting that underneath their secular costumes they too dreamed of hastening the apocalypse and building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Bolsheviks, it seems, were condemned to repeat history—a history driven not by class struggle, as they thought, but by theology.
Slezkine is, of course, by no means the first to detect the religious impulse lurking within Bolshevism. As early as 1920, Bertrand Russell wrote that Bolshevism “is to be reckoned as a religion, not an ordinary political movement.” Nathan notes comments made by the Christian philosopher (a description that doesn’t do justice to the breadth of his writing) Nikolai Berdyaev in July 1917 months before the Bolshevik putsch (my emphasis added):
“Bolsheviks, as often happens, do not know the ultimate truth about themselves, do not grasp what spirit governs them.” By laying claim to “the entire person” and seeking to provide answers to “all of a person’s needs, all of humanity’s sufferings,” Bolshevism drew on “religious energies—if by religious energy we understand not just what is directed to God.”
Remarkably Berdyaev survived imprisonment by the new communist regime and, with many other leading Russian philosophers, was exiled abroad in 1922.
Nathans is not entirely convinced by Slezkine’s arguments, which he clearly finds overly reductionist, not least for this reason:
Wouldn’t one have to posit an epidemic of false consciousness to account for so much religiosity on the part of the militantly antireligious Bolsheviks? Why do some analogies refer to quintessentially Catholic practices and others to quintessentially Protestant or Russian Orthodox ones? How can any of them account for the motives of the many Jewish party members?
But then, as Nathans concedes, Slezkine doesn’t link millenarianism to any one religious tradition, and he’s right not to. In many ways, that’s the point.
By rhetorically collapsing the distinction between Bolsheviks and their biblical predecessors, The House of Government signals its ultimate aim: to grasp the meaning of the Russian Revolution sub specie aeternitatis, to suggest an abiding element in human history, something very old of which we have not freed and may never free ourselves, precisely because we are human.
And if Slezkine is right about this (I think he is) the only conclusion to be drawn is that, rather than being some sort of aberration, communism was merely another expression of ancient millenarian beliefs, beliefs that clearly have appealed to enough people over the generations for us to be confident that they are not going away any time soon.