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History, to the modern mind, has a goal and follows the path of progress, so that new becomes identified with better. It was on this basis that, a century ago in Russia, communist belief seized the moment. Typically for the progressive tradition, the word “new” acquired a magical influence. Novy began appearing in the names of institutions and publications, and entered into the telling of history. Everything related to the prerevolutionary past was cursed. Left-leaning poets proposed tossing Russian classics from the ship of modernity.
Worship of the new was most consistently expressed in the idea of the bright future that victorious Bolshevism now advanced. Indeed, the future negated the present as well as the past. At no stage during the existence of Soviet power did the present offer humane living conditions to the country’s citizens. The rough life of the Soviet people was justified as a sacrifice in the name of the bright future.
I was reminded of this in June 2021, when I presented my new novel Justification of the Island at the Red Square Book Festival. The pavilion where I spoke stood just a few dozen meters from Lenin’s Mausoleum, where the country’s chief corpse rests. The mummy and the pyramid that had been constructed over it imparted a slightly Egyptian accent to Red Square. Lenin may not have belonged to the ranks of the pharaohs but, like them, he has been deified.
My novel tells the story of a fictional island and spans the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century. I have been asked whether the book is a metaphor for Russian history. I would rather call it a metaphor for European history, of which Russian history is one part. And I begin the story with the era when Russian historical consciousness itself was formed, on a very different basis from the progressive version.
The national idea of history was derived, in the first place, from the Christian East. After the Christianization of Rus’ in 988, Eastern Slavs were able to read translations of the Holy Scriptures and of Byzantine historical writings, such as The Chronographia of John Malalas, dating from the sixth century, and The Chronicle of George Hamartolos, from the ninth. The early Russian writings on national history—annals—took these Byzantine chronicles as a model.
True, there were differences. Whereas the chroniclers had written world history, the annals limited their focus to the history of the nation. Only after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when Rus’ saw itself as the sole Orthodox power, would historians begin to integrate the two.
Yet from the beginning, the annals took a universal—and specifically Christian—view of events. For instance, the first annal, the early twelfth-century Tale of Bygone Years, describes an attack on Constantinople in 860 by Russians who were not yet Christianized. The annal follows The Chronicle of George Hamartolos in condemning the attackers as pagans who targeted Christian Byzantines. The annalists had the same criteria as the Byzantine chroniclers for evaluating what had happened. To the Russian mind, world history acted as a mirror in which they could see the reflection of their own times.
This is clear from The Tale of Bygone Years, which tells the reader that every people has its own character and its own customs, and those customs are not necessarily good: They just represent the way things have been. This conclusion seems so substantive to the annal writer that he confirms it with a large portion of The Chronicle of George Hamartolos, which recounts the customs of various peoples. By finding a precedent for what is essentially an obvious fact, the annal places it within history: It is as though the event only acquires the “right to exist” by taking its place in a long historical series of comparable events.
Byzantine world history, then, taught the early Russian historians a particular perspective on the flow of time. Modern historical consciousness takes for granted the idea of progress, whereby the present supersedes the past. In the Middle Ages, the present was seen as existing alongside the past: Both were under the eye of God, and so what really mattered was the link each event had with the heavens above, not with the immediate past or present. Medieval history was, to a great extent, theology: At that time, after all, God stood at the center of the human consciousness and the monastery was one of the most important centers of the social fabric.
If anything, whereas the Modern Age looks forward eagerly, the Middle Ages looked back. The high point of history—the incarnation of Jesus Christ—had already taken place, so the future involved a gradual waning, which would be reversed only in the Second Coming. The Christian sought to imitate Christ, returning to him and becoming his spiritual contemporary. Nothing, perhaps, was more alien to the Middle Ages than the idea of evolutionary development, in the sense of moving away from an original state which we are glad to have left behind. In fact, it was the opposite in the Middle Ages: Proximity to the origin seemed so important theologically that even Church reforms carried out toward the end of and after the Middle Ages were predicated on a return to the past. One might recall here the calendar reforms of Pope Gregory XIII, who stated his case for his innovations by arguing there was a danger of Easter transforming into a summer holiday, against the Gospels’ specification of springtime. The pope strove not for the future but for the past. By contrast, forward motion is the preoccupation of the Modern Age; its quintessence, as the communists were to demonstrate, is utopia.
If progress meant anything in the Middle Ages, it meant moral and religious progress, achieved during individual lifetimes. The accent was on the significance of particular lives or events: Thus, a description of a king’s reign might consist of a story about how justice was restored in the life of ordinary people, while omitting details about political changes which any modern historian would include.
Given this focus on morality, it’s no coincidence that fragments of historical writings became independent compositions, exempla, which examined each event as holding a lesson for humankind and confirmed a divine world order. In the absence of visible, mutual historical goals, each person’s work in the name of salvation became the primary basis for history. Historical time was described less as an entity with a defined movement than in units of time: good or bad moral actions, holy or unholy human lives. To a modern reader, it can seem as though history has been split up into separate stories.
Certainly, the medieval histories are less concerned with cause-and-effect relationships. In my novel, one of the annal writers says that such relationships between events don’t explain history’s course, because we know only some causes and they are usually the ones on the surface. Another character, Parfeny, addresses the same point with the experience of his 347 years (it is a novel, after all):
Nobody knows underlying reasons. We only grope for them, vaguely sensing a rhythm of convergence and repulsion. As yet, alas, we study waves while forgetting that tides ebb and flow. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. If desired, we could state that this person gathers good stones and casts away the bad, yet that explains nothing about this unusual pursuit. The person does this, but out of love for the rhythm rather than love for the stones. Some things cease to exist not because they are bad but simply because their time has expired. And they begin their existence not because they are good: their time, to the contrary, has arrived. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. Perhaps time is the answer? Time and rhythm.
In keeping with their wariness about cause and effect, medieval historical writings almost never speak of the future, which is perceived as a phantom within the imagination. The future arrives in the form of the present and, as a rule, it isn’t at all how people expected it. In fact, peering into the future was considered a dubious pursuit, and the divination common in paganism, not least Russian paganism, was a crime. Mystery was not to be approached through some back door. In situations when divine tasks demanded it, a person was granted a revelation.
It’s probably impossible to find a culture where soothsayers don’t play some sort of role. But prophecy in the biblical sense differs qualitatively from other forms of prediction. People don’t strive to avoid the prophet’s pronouncements (as, for example, Oedipus tried to escape the Oracle’s prediction), because it isn’t a matter of individual fate. Biblical prophecy leaves a choice open to the listener, as in Christ’s words, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
As in every Christian society, Rus’ had to contend with heresies and elements of other religious systems. The entry for the year 1071 in The Tale of Bygone Years tells of an uprising of pagan priests in Novgorod. When the bishop asked people to separate into those believing in the cross and those believing in the pagan priest, only Prince Gleb and his troops remained with the bishop, while ordinary people went to the pagan side. Gleb hid an ax underneath his cloak and asked the pagan priest if he knew what would happen tomorrow. After receiving an affirmative answer, the prince asked an even more specific question: “But do you know what will happen today?” The priest boasted that he would work great wonders. Upon hearing those words, Prince Gleb took out the ax and chopped him in two, after which the people dispersed.
The prince’s method of argument may have been brutal, but his logic points to a broader truth about early medieval culture: It was based on the principle that there exists one God, one and only one. Hence the existence of additional gods was out of the question. Strictly speaking, Christian culture dismissed even the existence of any specific pagan world; it was merely the periphery of the Christian world. The only role that could be given for the pagan gods as metaphysical beings was the role of demons. As the psalmist puts it, “For all the gods of heathen men be fiends” (Ps. 96:5).
You could say that the October Revolution in 1917 was a repetition of the 1071 pagan uprising—the difference being that now the authorities were no longer holding an ax in their hands: Their power was weak, and people didn’t disperse and go home. What resulted was a new social structure that was anti-Christian to its core, though in another sense it was deeply religious. In 1917, the old and the new confronted each other: On one side was a religious consciousness formed during the Middle Ages, and on the other was the idea of the bright future, the religion which has defined the Modern Age.
Naturally, then, the Bolsheviks saw Christianity as their primary rival. The Red Terror specifically targeted the Orthodox clergy. After taking leadership of the Land of the Soviets, Lenin called for using hunger to destroy as many priests as possible without risking uprisings. Church valuables were requisitioned to finance food aid—but not for the starving priests. Lenin’s crimes are part of the logic of his overall mentality: The goals of revolution take precedent over merely “bourgeois” moral norms. It is far more difficult to grasp how ordinary people stood against the priests who had christened them and given them Communion for many years. When watching documentary films from the first revolutionary years, you cannot help but feel astonishment at the expressions of joy on the faces of those burning icons and knocking down crosses. They were moved by the idea of the new and understood the Bolshevik coup as the coming of a new religion and a new sacredness. It is symbolic that the first Soviet prison camp—Solovki—was established in a ravaged monastery.
The system of communist teachings was dynamic and developing, and the evidence suggests that the regime saw Christianity as something to be imitated, even as it was being destroyed. The communist era both reversed, and in strange ways echoed, the Christianization of Rus’.
Stalin had studied at a theological seminary and thus knew about Orthodoxy firsthand. It would be an exaggeration to say that he deliberately modeled the new religion (which, of course, he was not alone in creating) after Christianity, but Christianity undoubtedly served the Bolsheviks as a productive pattern to imitate. This was evident in the astonishing reaction to the 1917 coup from figures who were the pride of Russian culture at the time. Alexander Blok’s famous poem “The Twelve,” for example, sees the coming of Christ in the revolution’s elemental power. Blok views twelve Red Army soldiers walking through a blizzard as the new embodiment of the twelve apostles.
The victorious Bolsheviks had their own messiah in Lenin, with his circle of disciples. The bright future was their Promised Land. They had their own prophets, Marx and Engels, who had predicted not just the future but also the path to reach it. Saints and martyrs turned up as well, in those who died during the coup and the civil war that followed. In Trotsky, they even had their own fallen angel. They did not lack for a chosen people, either, since the proletariat fulfilled that role.
Proletarian internationalism was one of the ideas that in some strange way narrowed the distance between Bolshevism and Christianity, since both ideologies invoked the supranational. Just as the annal writers saw Russia as part of a universal Christian world, so the Russian proletariat was supposed to play a key role in international solidarity. The revolution was conceived from the start as necessarily global. When it became clear that it would stop at Russia’s borders, Lenin inserted an amendment into Marxist teaching saying revolution was possible “in one country taken separately.”
Over time, even something akin to ascesis developed. Calls to free love were not infrequent during the first years under the Soviets, but by the 1930s the party was already strictly monitoring its members’ moral standing. The word “amoralka” even appeared, denoting adultery as one of the gravest sins. The only thing worse than infidelity to one’s wife was infidelity to motherland and party.
As a student at Kiev University, I studied a form of sacred history in a course called “History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” Despite the elements of pathos, it was one of the dullest courses at Soviet universities. Still, although I can’t say I loved it with all my heart as a student, I have come to recognize its significance. History played an extraordinarily important role in the sacralization of communist ideology: Stalin personally took part in creating an updated, modified “Brief Course in the History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks).”
Communist historiography portrayed the past as an uninterrupted and tense anticipation of the arrival of the Bolsheviks, a long prelude before the path to the bright future. But historians faced a difficult task: The route from 1917 to the present was tortuous, and their attempts to depict a linear movement required tremendous ingenuity. Internal party intrigues were hardest of all to describe in the panegyrical style the authors were required to use. As the narrative drew closer to the late-Soviet period, the whole thing reminded one more and more of a joke book. The unintended mirth really seems to have been the beginning of the end.
As Soviet history lost its way, the bright future was also slipping away like a ship on an ocean horizon. In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev announced that communism would arrive in the USSR by 1980. (He also promised to show “the last priest” on television in the foreseeable future.) But it became clear that the population believed less and less in utopias.
The competition of two systems—socialist and capitalist—was not developing in favor of socialism. Specifically, it wasn’t developing in favor of Soviet socialism, though the Western version of socialism—in Sweden, for instance—looked quite good. As a popular joke from the time put it: Capitalism is where one person exploits another person, whereas under socialism it’s the opposite.
The second half of the 1980s, as well as the 1990s, served as a time for disclosures about communist ideology, a time for acknowledging that the path had been a wrong turn. Facts about the lives of Lenin and Stalin—facts that Soviet propaganda had preferred not to speak of—began to see the light of day. There was even talk of removing Lenin from his mausoleum and burying him, rather less prominently, in St. Petersburg. It wasn’t the arms race or falling oil prices that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union: The main reason for its demise was that the faith that held it together had ceased to exist.
It is harder for a novelist to make sense of the last three decades. Literature must wait for politics to become history. For now, the only thing that is clear is that the short-lived honeymoon for Russia and the West ended with the unexpected realization that there hadn’t been a marriage after all. By the mid-nineties, it was already clear that the first, euphoric fraternization with the West was drawing to a close. Many people in Russia felt dissension beginning but didn’t understand the reasons for it. We no longer had ideological divergences from the West, so the problem obviously lay elsewhere. But where?
Some people explained it by pointing to economic factors, others by saying that the West, in order to consolidate, needed Russia as an opponent. Yet others said ideology really made no difference and countries with comparable potential (the United States and Russia) would always be polar opposites.
The climate within Russia changed, too. New ideological differences became obvious: The West’s ideology could be identified as liberal and Russia’s as conservative. Needless to say, that division is an overgeneralization. Extensive swaths of liberalism can be observed in Russian traditionalism, and some observers are inclined to see elements of totalitarianism in the way the West enforces its catalogue of liberal values.
Russia feels increasingly isolated. Part of the population has turned back to Lenin and Stalin, those gods whose divine status had been refuted so recently. One has to think that people need symbols of decisiveness and, unfortunately, choose those two. For the most part, however, even people who continue to consider themselves on good terms with that pair would not want to have lived under their rule.
There is a joke about the difference between a pessimist and an optimist. The pessimist says things will get even worse; the optimist objects that it can’t get worse. I’m not a politician, but writerly intuition puts me in an optimistic frame of mind. All of us—both Russians and those in the West—are representatives, as the writers of the medieval annals knew, of one culture. Despite all our differences, we have many centuries of relations as well as a common Christian heritage that shape our moral outlook. That makes us objectively and mutually necessary for one another. I’d like to believe that we will be reunited. As for Lenin, perhaps there will be no need to remove him from his mausoleum. I suspect that one day, he will just stand up and leave.
Eugene Vodolazkin is the author of Justification of the Island. This essay was translated from the Russian by Lisa Hayden.