20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by well-known historian Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. This essay begins a new cycle of the series: the history of the Russian idea in the Soviet Union. The author discusses what happened with the Russian idea in the first decade after the Russian Revolution, both in Russia and abroad.



Return of the Russian idea

It was assumed that the Bolshevik-internationalists’ crushing victory in the Russian Civil War would kill the Russian idea. But it didn’t. No sooner had newly elected Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin realized that world revolution, in the vein of 1848, would not occur, and the isolationist, Stalinist interpretation of Russia’s future won out amid Russia’s intraparty strife, than there were few who doubted that the Russian idea was destined to determine the fate of post-revolutionary Russia.

Therefore it is not surprising that the Russian idea very quickly conquered the Bolsheviks, nor that the Slavophile ideology (which we covered in the previous cycle of our series) captivated Westerners. But since internationalism remained, along with communism, one of the two formal pillars on which the Bolshevik ideology rested, the hegemonic idea of Soviet Russia turned out to be a monster that we will call imperial national-communism.

Like a rotting fruit, the Communist “red devils” turned evil, and this metamorphosis reached a peak in the final years of the communist Caesar (Stalin). The theory of “Socialism in One Country” was initially intended as the opposition of proletarian Russia to bourgeois Europe, with all the ensuing consequences: imperial expansionism; an economy incapable of self-development; trampled-down political modernization; the triumph of arbitrary rule; and, of course, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Russian nationalists were not repelled by the blackness of the Soviet evil spirit; they were repelled by something else: the absence of an Orthodox foundation in the empire created by the “red-and-black” demons, and, as an inevitable consequence, the stagnation that set in after the fall of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. In other words, they missed the lack of a spiritual core, or “spiritual bonds,” as we would say today. It was in the 1960s, after Khrushchev, that the phenomenon called the “Russian Party” began to take shape—first secretly, then semi-legally. The party was offering, like the Slavophiles in pre-Revolutionary Russia, an alternative to the status quo. Just as the Slavophiles offered Pan-Slavism and the “great Slavic empire” under Russia’s leadership, the post-Stalinist Russian Party offered the “autarchy” empire and the “Russian world” to be raised to the rank of the special Orthodox civilization.

The new ideology of the Russian idea formed conclusively in the post-Soviet era, but its most important aspects (notions of the West as a modern Sodom, of Orthodoxy as the only true Christianity, and of Russia’s fate to be exclusive in the world) were born in the Soviet Union. For several decades of rotting post-Stalinist “socialism,” the Russian Party was preparing to seize power. But just as befell the Slavophiles in 1917, the party happened to be bankrupt at the decisive moment. We will explore how this happened in the Soviet cycle of our history of the Russian idea.


“New Judea”

The reason why, initially, the nationalists’ activities unfolded exclusively abroad, via Russian emigration, is understandable. During Lenin’s life, the “Great Russian chauvinism,” a term used to describe the ideology according to which Russia is viewed as superior over other nations within the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union, became a very risky business. No need to remind the reader that prewar nationalism, like a hapless tenor, hit a high note before World War I, lost its voice, and left the stage, booed by the audience. After its landmark defeat, Russian nationalism got its revenge in exile. And it was furious.

We remember the nationalists’ prewar plans, their premonition of the approaching final victory of Russia—that it would emerge as the “new light of the world” shining over the “decrepit West.” We remember that the key to this victory was supposed to be the “neutralization” of Germany, a nation that was inspired, in their opinion, only by “ideals borrowed from Jews.” And we remember how their appeal sounded on the eve of the death of Peter’s semi-European empire: “Russia against Jewry.” And also the fact that Jewish Germany seemed to them the last obstacle on the road to Russia’s revenge—to the restoration of its rightful status as “the first world power.”

The temptation of dictatorship was in the air during this epoch. How else to explain the easy and unexpected victory of Mussolini in Italy—so soon after Lenin’s victory in Russia—that has fascinated many serious European thinkers? Even outstanding Russian minds, namely Nikolai Berdyaev, did not escape the epidemic.

But they were left, as an old woman in one of Pushkin’s poems, with nothing. They lost the imperial battle, shamefully, hopelessly. They could not agree to accept this deafening and bitter defeat as anything other than a triumph of their deadly enemy. That’s why the very first book (authored by Vassily Mikhailov) that set the tone for all Russia’s subsequent reactions in 1921, bore the title The New Judea or Ravage Russia.

This excerpt captures its essence: “Now Russia is Judea in the full and literal sense of the word, where the ruling people are Jews and where the miserable and humiliating role of a conquered nation has been assigned to Russians. Revenge, cruelty, human sacrifice, blood-flow—this is how Jewish management techniques can be described.... Summarizing all of the above, we can safely say that the Jewish cabala over the Russian people is a fait accompli.”

This book was the first thunder peal from the nationalist camp. More were to come, including a solid two-volume publication by Nicholas Markov, former chief of the Union of Russian People and (later) the Gestapo advisor on Russian affairs, and Gregory Bostunitsch, who rose to the rank of general in the German Schutzstaffel. The general theory behind these volumes was this: “Bolshevism is kikes’ urge to destroy Christian states.”

This theory was developed by a curious writer by the name of Odinzgoev. I say “curious” primarily because virtually nothing is known about him—neither the year or place of publication of his book, titled In the Days of the Antichrist Kingdom, nor even his real name (Odinzgoev clearly means “one of the aliens,” or “goys” in Yiddish). It is only clear that the title of his book is borrowed from the works of Konstantin Leontiev, the Russian religious conservative thinker who once said: “Aren’t we repeating the history of ancient Rome in a new form? The difference is that Christ was born under its allegiance, while the Antichrist is likely to be born under ours.” Odinzgoev tells us that the Antichrist has already been born in Russia, which became the Antichrist’s foothold on the eve of the final assault to the war-torn continent.

In other words, the views of the post-revolutionary Russian nationalists were in complete opposition to those of their Slavophile ancestors. Now they hoped that Aryan Germany would crush Russia and its Jews—and that an anti-Jewish dictatorship would save the world.


The air of the epoch

The temptation of dictatorship was in the air during this epoch. How else to explain the easy and unexpected victory of Mussolini in Italy—so soon after Lenin’s victory in Russia—that has fascinated many serious European thinkers? Even outstanding Russian minds, namely Nikolai Berdyaev, did not escape the epidemic. God forbid, it was not the temptation of an anti-Jewish dictatorship that had taken possession of the “wild” nationalists’ hearts; rather, it was still the temptation of an anti-democratic, fascist dictatorship.

In his book entitled The New Middle Ages, Russian political philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev opposed the representation of corporations to western parliaments “with their fictitious vampire life of growths on the nation’s body, already incapable of performing any organic function.” He did not hide whom he borrowed this “corporate” rhetoric from: “In the future, only men like Mussolini—perhaps the only statesman in Europe—will have value.” More generally he believed that “Fascism is the only creative phenomenon in the political life of Europe,” because “no one else believes in any legal and political forms, no one gives a damn about any constitution.”

Only a Russian national-liberal, however, could come up with such a strange interpretation, according to which Russia won after such a monstrous turn of history. And how could it be otherwise? Because Russia, indeed “never came out of the Middle Ages.” Therefore, Russia held all the cards: “The government will be dictatorial. The public will give the sacred attributes of power to the chosen individuals—caesarism’s features will dominate in it.”

In those troubled times, one didn’t need to be Nostradamus to predict “caesarism” in Italy or Eastern Europe. The tendency towards dictatorship was predicted correctly, but not by Berdyaev. Berdyaev predicted the death of the New Age—with its parliaments and constitutions—and the irrevocable triumph of medievalism. It was the same thing Hitler called a “Thousand-Year Reich,” only led by Russia, not Germany. In this sense, Berdyaev fired into the wrong flock.

Russian philosopher Georgy Fedotov was a much more visionary man. He thought with horror of what would happen to Russia when the Soviet Middle Ages came to an end: when the floodgates would open and a huge wave of émigré nationalism would engulf the country, and the powerful theme of wild xenophobia would again drown the freedom theme in unprepared minds. “Bolshevism will die as National Socialism died,” Fedotov wrote. “But who knows what forms Russian nationalism will take?”


Oncoming wave

Yet the first signs of a resurgence of Russian nationalism, and the “caesarism” associated with it, appeared in the Soviet Union, during Berdiaev’s prophecy period. Initially, these signs were caused by an acute shortage of Russian administrative and managerial personnel, and fierce intraparty strife.

The shortage was due to the revolution, which completely dismantle the “administrative regime” of the three hundred years Petrine’s Russia. To get some idea of ​​the deficit’s scale, it is worth remembering the famous story in which Lev Trotsky, the newly appointed People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, appeared in the former czar’s ministry and demanded the translation of the Decree on Peace into a dozen languages immediately, ​​to be presented to all foreign ambassadors. All four hundred employees of the ministry pointedly refused to follow his order.

The first signs of a resurgence of Russian nationalism, and the “caesarism” associated with it, appeared in the Soviet Union, during Berdiaev’s prophecy period. Initially, these signs were caused by an acute shortage of Russian administrative and managerial personnel, and fierce intraparty strife.

Anyway, in all areas except the army (where the czar’s generals actively helped the Bolsheviks, “the unifiers of the country,” to win the civil war), the old staff members either emigrated or were not a good fit by origin. The vacuum was filled with “aliens”—Jews, Caucasians (mainly Georgians and Armenians), Latvians, and, of course, internationalists. This situation did not suit the future “caesar,” Joseph Stalin (here we’ll call him “caesar” with a lowercase, as his rise to dictatorship has just started). After Lenin’s death, the so-called “Leninist call-ins” aimed to fix the shortage issue by bringing new members to the Communist Party. Members of the former “peasantry realm,” semi-literate, alien to Leninism, but susceptible to the temptation of power and ready to serve any Caesar who would call them to upper ranks of government, flooded in. Even a quarter of a century later, according to the July 8, 1946, decree “On growth and measures to strengthen the party organizational work,” 70 percent of Communist Party members lacked even a secondary education. Now imagine the literacy level of the 1920s’ party “recruits.”

But in order to expel aliens, the “new party members” had to have a symbolic flag—an ideology. And Stalin provided them with this. It was called “Socialism in One Country.” This meant that from then on, Russia would be closed to the hostile outside world; it would take its own, “separate” path. This is exactly what the Russian Party was trying to achieve—and continues to today.

The Leninists in the party leadership, brought up in the spirit of internationalism, resisted this abuse of the fundamentals of Lenin’s sacred teachings. And so they had to be removed from the path. Hence, a new wave of terror. Stalin’s interests coincided with those of the “new party members.” The country was transformed into a besieged fortress. From a little “caesar,” Stalin turned into a real Caesar (or, in Nikolai Bukharin’s words, into “Genghis Khan with a telephone”), and the new party members became the regime’s nomenklatura. Thus began the return of Russian nationalism to the communist USSR. It was alive and kicking!

Of course, fueling Russian nationalism was easier in the 1930s: within reach was a myth about Jews as Russia’s potential traitors. The myth was rooted in pre-revolutionary times and desperately exploited by émigré circles. The power of this myth was so strong that during World War I, the czarist government forcibly resettled several hundred thousand people from the Pale of Settlement to Central Russia. But if in the 1930s, religion served as the barrier between the Orthodox and Jews, in Soviet times, this myth clearly smelled of racism. And that’s why it morphed into hostility toward all “blacks,” including people from the Caucasus, who were ultimately destined to bear the cross of the “new Jews.”

The famous Russian poet and writer Konstantin Simonov recalled in his memoirs that as early as 1933 (!) a leaflet entitled “And Slavs argued who would rule Russia” was passed around in his factory training school. Depicted on one of the leaflet’s pages were Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev (who were Jews by nationality), sitting on one side, and Dzhugashvili (Stalin), Yenukidze, and Ordzhonikidze (who were nationals of the Northern Caucasus) sitting on the opposite side. In his book titled The Russian Party, to which we will often refer, Russian sociologist Nikolai Mitrokhin describes a similar story, but from the period of 1947–1952. A Russian party member sent out (until he was exposed by the Russian secret service) twenty-nine letters conveying the notion that “a union of executioners of the Northern Caucasus and Jewish background enslaved Russians.” But what does the opinion of an unnamed party member mean when, in 1953, according to his memoirs, even Anastas Mikoyan, who was member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, was suspected of having links to Lavrentiy Beria, chief of Soviet security and the secret police apparatus under Stalin, simply on the basis that they were both nationals of the Northern Caucasus (Mikoyan was Armenian and Beria was Georgian). And Mikoyan himself would openly call another of Stalin’s protégés, Vyacheslav Molotov, a “chauvinist”. As you can see, xenophobia didn’t spare the Olympus.

And if one believes the memoirs of Valery Boldin, assistant general secretary of the Communist Party, even Mikhail Gorbachev could not escape this plague during his time as the party’s general secretary. Gorbachev believed that the foreign media “did not eat Andropov [the previous general secretary] alive because he was ‘half bred’ [half Jewish], and they protect their own.” And Gorbachev requested that “strictly confidential information was not to be sent to Anatolyi Chernyaev,” his other assistant, because “paragraph five” (which identified one’s “nationality” in Soviet passports) “was not right in his family, so secrets can be leaked.”

Nationalism is truly very similar to the plague: it is blind and contagious. And few people were spared by it in Soviet Russia.