“Nothing Is Inevitable”
No. 4 2017 October/December
Yuri Slezkine

Professor of History, Director of the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of the recently published book The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.

In this interview Yuri Slezkine shares his ideas about why the events of 1917 are not the best material for building a national idea; what was accidental and predetermined in the Russian Revolution; what makes a revolution great and why it never ends; and, also, about the special nature of the Great Revolution currently underway in the West.

– The Russian Revolution has turned 100. That is quite a date in history and a good occasion for a profound analysis of the events of 1917. Yet many have the impression that marketing specialists are the only ones to have paid due attention to it; at least they offered a greater amount of publications to the mass readership specially timed for this date. The centenary has not brought about any intellectual outburst, has it?

– No, it has not. There has been—predictably—a certain surge in public and academic activity, a number of workshops and conferences. But, overall, the rhetoric has been rather inconsistent. That is not surprising. In the self-presentation of today’s Russian state, the role of the revolution remains unclear. There is no certainty about the winner; the myth has not taken shape; most people are unsure about how to interpret the centenary. Moreover, the main political forces and intellectual trends in modern Russia are not directly connected to what happened in 1917 and over the next two decades. There is no obvious ideological continuity. In terms of public interest, the 1917 revolution trails far behind Stalinism and Stalinist terror. Here the conflict is relatively straightforward: some associate Stalinism with terror, others, with the strong state and victory in the Great Patriotic War.

The Russian Revolution is too vast and complex to work well as a rallying cry. Sometimes it is hard to understand what people are talking about. One could limit the discussion to what happened in 1917 (as suggested by the logic of commemoration), but that would be a highly unorthodox view of that revolution, particularly outside of Russia, where most histories of the revolution end in the 1920s, 1938, 1953 or 1991. In the case of Stalinism, it is easier to set up binary opposites and connect them to today’s interests and requirements. Those who identify with the Bolsheviks and their victory are relatively few. The same is true of the champions of the White cause. The “lessons of October,” to use Lenin’s expression, are not directly relevant to either government policies or variously defined social forces.


– Was the 1917 revolution inevitable, predetermined by the course of history, or in fact a plot or a string of plots?

– Nothing is inevitable. In retrospect some things look more predictable than others. This is one reason why the Russian Revolution is so difficult to “instrumentalize”—it consists of so many questions and possible answers that their combinations may produce any number of elegant but incompatible chronologies. What is customarily referred to as the Civil War was in fact a combination of several wars, conflicts, uprisings and revolutions. Some of those events now look less unexpected than others. The fall of the Russian monarchy looks if not inevitable, then at least highly probable, a matter of time. The Bolsheviks’ rise to power, on the other hand, may appear as a series of accidents… It all depends on the chronological depth and the length of the cause-and-effect chain. Who could imagine in March 1917 that the Bolsheviks would gain the upper hand? In August 1917, this outcome looked far less surprising.


– We can follow this line further back into the past and look for the point of no return, the moment when Russia was doomed to a revolution. And the range of opinions will be very wide then—from assertions that there was no such point but just a string of casual conspiracies in combination with high treason to rather cohesive ideas that it became inevitable already in the middle of Alexander III’s rule. That is when an ultra-conservative system of government established itself, a system that turned out to be so inflexible that it left no chance for timely response to the snowballing problems.

– Both viewpoints are defensible, but such questions have no definitive answers. Or rather, they are possible, but not interesting. The regime’s inflexibility, the steady radicalization of the intellectual elite, and the growth of nationalism in the borderlands were all there, of course. But what if Stolypin had not been assassinated? Or whatever…. History is not only about what happened, for more or less obvious reasons. It is also about all those things that could have happened but never did (for more or less obvious reasons). A historical narrative is always a combination of the two, in different proportions.


– Some argue that the revolution was a purely Western project, fundamentally alien to Russians, which in the final count became the root cause of the Soviet Union’s eventual demise. In other words, this set of ideas failed to take root on Russian soil…

– I don’t find this idea very convincing. Even if Marxism is regarded as a product of Western culture, there is little doubt that the Bolsheviks adapted it to Russian conditions and reinterpreted its eschatology with Russia in mind. Bolshevism did contain certain elements associated with the cult of industrial, urban, technocratic and unmistakably Western civilization. But few historians would dispute the fact that Bolshevism was connected to the tradition of Russian radicalism and incorporated some elements of Narodnichestvo (Populism), which was a reaction to the real or imagined gap separating Russia from Europe. I would not identify the Bolsheviks with either the Western or Russian tradition. The Bolsheviks were one of many millenarian, apocalyptic sects, common in Russia and, to a far greater extent, outside it.


– Some argue that the Bolsheviks and Soviet government reproduced—intentionally or unintentionally—many features of the Russian Empire, although adjusting them, of course, to their ideological model. This applies to a rigid bureaucratic structure, a system of personalist subordination, the ability to mobilize the nation for the solution of global tasks (millenarian, as you say). To what degree can the Soviet state be regarded as the legal successor of the Russian Empire?

– To a very large degree, of course. The Soviet state had nearly the same territory, a similar national mythology, and a comparably large state. Starting in the 1930s and particularly during World War II, it made deliberate efforts to attach the Soviet state and society to the Russian imperial tradition. Add to that multiethnicity, multi-confessionalism, bureaucratic centralization, and the common assumption that the state was a frightening external force and, at the same time, something absolutely essential to Russian life and identity. Finally, think of the cultural mythology—all those things that were introduced into the school curriculum, official rhetoric and urban routine in the second half of the 1930s, foremost among them the Russian literary canon, which several generations grew up on. Over the years there emerged an entire system of themes, plots, metaphors and images that linked the Soviet Union to the Russian Empire. It is a crucially important link that grew stronger over time.


– It turns out that the Soviet Union was forced to preserve and enhance that tradition to ensure its existence and development?

– I am not sure this is the best way to put it… The fact that it happened and that it was important does not mean that somebody was forced to do it. There was no special decree, no official decision, and no pressure from some powerful forces. Of course, one can always say that any revolution in Russia will be Russian and that some aspects of Russian life will come back and triumph sooner or later. I am not sure which ones. When I look at today’s Russia, I get the impression that some traditions—certain understandings of authority, legitimacy, power, freedom and the state—have turned out to be extremely strong and durable. But the Bolsheviks could have attempted to reshape the state much more radically. Why they did not do so is a question for historians to answer.


– Since we’ve touched upon the current state of affairs, it may be the right moment to talk a little bit about Mrs. Poklonskaya, modern Orthodox rigorists and radicals. Some media even speak of an “Orthodox caliphate.” What is it, a logical result of attempts to find an ideological basis for the existing state order? At some point a state turns to religion, and the Russian state to Orthodoxy in particular, in search of ideological support, which, in turn, activates originally small and marginal-looking groups. These groups are very persistent and active in pushing forward their agenda precisely because they are so small and marginal. Apparently, nobody expected something like this would happen…

– The way I see it, a lot depends on the authorities’ attitude to this agenda and these activists. Historically, Orthodoxy has deep ties to the Russian state and Russian life. This makes perfect sense, and it is not hard to understand why some circles choose to reinforce and celebrate this tradition. The question is: How much of it is too much? Is it wise for the state to seek legitimacy in the Orthodox Church? I do not think so. Orthodoxy is not the only option, and building it up seems dangerous because a lot of Russian citizens are not Orthodox Christians. The Russian national mythology has many roots and components.


– What tradition is better to turn to then?

– The 19th-century cultural canon we have mentioned does not have much to do with Orthodoxy. It secularized the world, marginalized Orthodoxy in the life of Russia’s cultural elite, and sacralized Russia itself, its people and landscape. This is clearly reflected in the history of Russian literature, architecture, painting, and music of the 19th and 20th centuries. Orthodoxy is not the most important element of this tradition. As far as the 20th century is concerned, it seems to me that, when it comes to “spiritual bonds,” nothing can compare to the cult of the Great Patriotic War. Many national mythologies have legends similar to that of Gog and Magog—an invasion by a terrible, dark force and its ultimate defeat. In most cases such stories remain prophecies or metaphors. In Russia it happened.  You couldn’t wish for a better national myth.


– What is the special strength of that myth?

– It ties most citizens to the state and to each other. It ensures there are practically no losers (at least, inside today’s Russia). It links instrumental government initiatives to family memory and personal experience. In this sense the Immortal Regiment, for instance, is a terrific idea: the same connection from the bottom up. This was, by the way, one of the greatest weaknesses of Bolshevism—its utter inability, in contrast to Christianity, Islam and other movements of the same scale, to connect its global chronology to the life of the family and domestic rites of passage. One of the main reasons why Bolshevism remained a one-generation faith is that, in contrast to the Great Patriotic War, it failed to enter our homes and our sacred calendar.


– That is true. The revolutionary mythology regarded family life as something bourgeois and philistine. At least that was so in the beginning.

– All radical attempts to reform human life, all so-called great revolutions that aimed to rearrange the world and destroy Babylon once and for all attempted to reform or abolish the family (and were, in the end, defeated by it). The family is an inexhaustible source of corruption, discrimination and inequality. After the revolution the Bolsheviks—predictably and understandably—attacked the family as a non-transparent, bourgeois and philistine institution. But that is not the point. The point is that they failed to reconcile the family with their ideology. Jesus of Nazareth addressed his disciples in these words: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” The sect that he led, like most such sects, consisted of men only. But eventually, the tradition that grew out of that sect turned into a bureaucratic institution and turned the family into the foundation of spiritual life. Marriage became one of the main sacraments of the Christian Church. The Bolsheviks never figured out how to do this. When they began to think in earnest about how to link childbirth, marriage and death (in other words, the most important things in life) to their picture of the world and their prophecy, it was already too late. Faith in Communism was dead.


– You use the term ‘great revolutions’ with reference to Western ones, don’t you? If one takes the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 in China as an example, that revolution by no means questioned traditional family values. In China it would have been incredible. Yet it was a great revolution.

– When speaking of great revolutions, most people refer to the French and Russian ones. My own preferred criterion is the degree of radicalism of the proposed transformation. The word “revolution” is often used metaphorically: there are color revolutions, industrial revolutions, and sexual revolutions, among others. But the picture is different if revolution is viewed as an attempt to reorganize human life in such a way as to inaugurate a new civilization, a new era in the history of humanity. The English Revolution of the 17th century and the Iranian Revolution of the 20th century belong in this category. The difference between religions, reformations and revolutions is not always obvious. Early Islamic history—the Prophet’s first triumphs and the rapid expansion of his teaching and his state—can also be considered a revolution. There emerged a new political entity that aimed to reshape the world on the eve of its end. The Russian Revolution was definitely a revolution of this kind. And I would not deny this title to the Chinese or Cambodian revolutions, or the Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century. Their goal was not to supplant the existing political system, but to destroy of the old world “to its very foundations.”


– Do the creeping changes in the modern lifestyles in the West, in Europe and the United States belong here, too? Such as the erosion of the family as an institution, the growing role of sexual minorities and related processes which some in Russia have happily called “the dictatorship of minorities”?

– This is a very good question. If revolution is an attempt to rebuild the foundations of human life, and if we agree that there is no foundation older or more solid than the family (as a formalized and deeply rooted institution designed to discipline and regulate sexual reproduction), then today’s developments in the West can surely be regarded as an attempt at revolutionary change. What is being challenged is the nature, purpose, and legitimacy of the family, humanity’s division into two sexes. What can be more dramatic and revolutionary?

Another fundamental social institution related to the family is the tribe and its heir, the nation. As globalization proceeds, the idea of the nation state and, consequently, citizenship, is being called into question or rejected altogether. Without citizenship there is no democracy, or rather, no demos managing its own affairs. Most states located at the center of the current world order lose their raison d’être. These are certainly revolutionary things. On the face of it, nothing dramatic seems to be happening—the elites are in power and the state is in place… Nothing like the Reformation or the Great October Socialist Revolution is in sight. Yet “the world in its present form,” as Apostle Paul put it, “is passing away.”


– How strong and noticeable is this process?

– Very much so. What is the right word to describe the state of minds in the era of Romanticism or the Enlightenment? We, too, live in such an era, except that it does not have a name yet. It is not simply a political ideology. It is a matter of style, aesthetics, and spiritual taboos. We are witnessing the emergence of a new understanding of human nature and human societies. Some very basic things are being questioned.


– In other words, these are things that are capable of changing the world order?

– Yes, this new system of assumptions and beliefs has gradually become dominant in the West. And it is shared by a greater part of the intellectual elite and a significant proportion of political and economic elites allied with certain social forces. The rise of this system of beliefs has provoked a response. Trump’s election and his current travails are either the last act of resistance on the part of the doomed old world or the beginning of a long and painful conflict. We’ll see.


– What can be said about the revision of the results of the Civil War in the United States?

– It is part of the same process. We are surrounded by countless symbols that we would find unappealing (for ideological and aesthetic reasons) if we were to take a closer look. Usually they are parts of the landscape that nobody ever notices. But one of the distinguishing features of a revolution is iconoclasm, when outdated symbols become meaningful and therefore unacceptable. The demolition of monuments is a sign that we are dealing with something much more important than a routine political competition (if not necessarily a “great revolution”). Iconoclasm is not a spectator sport.


– What should a researcher do in a situation like this—plunge into the thick of things to intercept these emanations of the revolution in the field, or step back, lock himself up in an Ivory Tower and analyze events from there?

– It depends on the researcher’s temperament (laughs) and specialization. Some people go into the field in an attempt to understand what is happening or to change the world; others try their best without ever leaving the Tower. I recently finished a book on the history of the Russian Revolution through the story of the House on the Embankment (The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.) My assumption is that the Russian Revolution, Bolshevism and Communism still have an important presence in our lives.

If that is the case, the revolution is not over. The fact that we are not sure what to do about it means that it is still going on, not that nobody cares about it anymore. French cultural life of the 19th and the 20th centuries rested on the assumption that the revolution was still unfolding. The same is true, to a far greater extent, of the Russian Revolution—not only because you and I are from Russia and cannot imagine our lives—and our parents’ and their parents’ lives—without it. It is so also because it was much more messianic, much more millenarian, and much more radical. And much more successful. Russia’s Jacobins came to power, built a new state and remained in power until the death of the last Communist. We are now trying to figure out what to do with the ruins.

Interviewed by Alexander Solovyov.