20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by well-known scholar Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism in the USSR. In this second part of his essay on right-wing dissidents, Yanov examines an article titled “Inevitability” by “Young Guardsman” Victor Chalmaev that sparked heated debates in every ideological circle of the time.


In his much debated article titled "Inevitability" Viktor Chalmayev (left) spoke with enthusiasm about Protopope Avvakum (right) as the “Russian messenger of Christ, of the word not debased by anyone.”


“The fluidity of the Russian spirit”

The article “Enlightened Philistinism” by Mikhail Lobanov, which we examined in detail in the first part of this essay, was met with silence upon its publication. The fact that it challenged the very foundations of the Communist Party’s policy was so obvious that it made it almost impossible to discuss the article in the official press. We cannot know what was being discussed behind the scenes. What we do know is that the arrival of Soviet tanks in Prague in the spring of 1968 was met by the Young Guard with another eruption of the “patriotic” volcano—an eruption in the form of an article by Victor Chalmaev, titled “Inevitability.” The name itself rang symbolic in the context of what was happening.

Unlike Lobanov’s article, Chalmaev’s work met with a storm of angry voices, not because it was less daring, but because it seemed less relevant to contemporary politics. Discussions surrounding it could be called disputes over history, rather than over the political strategy of the regime. But in fact, Chalmaev was only trying to establish historical justification for Lobanov’s concept of “Russification of the Spirit.” His objective was to convince young people of the inevitability of the global clash between the “Americanization of the Spirit,” coming from the West, and the world’s only force capable of standing up to it, i.e. Russia.

Chalmaev’s vision of the forthcoming battle between the two “spirits” looked apocalyptic. Like Lobanov, he told horror stories of the “demise of the many wonders of human civilization in the bourgeois world” and declared that “America is the first country that lives without ideas.” But when he spoke with enthusiasm about Protopope Avvakum as the “Russian messenger of Christ, of the word not debased by anyone” and “the fluidity of the Russian national spirit, often advanced in its development over the external forms of people’s existence”— when, as if that were not enough, he added that the “official power, the canons of the state, do not exhaust Russia in any way,” this was bound to be the last straw for the “official power.”

From Chalmaev’s reasoning, it was not clear whether the “fluid Russian spirit” had already leaked out of those “external forms,” from which it shouldn’t have leaked at that historic moment. Chalmaev became a target of fierce persecution. The “canons of the state” (represented by the mighty clique of Soviet Marxist priests) made ​​it clear to the “national spirit” (represented by Chalmaev) that they would not surrender their secular temple to any “word of Christ.” This was essentially a declaration of war between canonical Marxism and the right wing of the dissident movement. No wonder, since the “Young Guardsman” had really overturned all the conventional notions of the time.


Battles and patriarchs

Let’s start with the fact that Chalmaev completely ignored the gap between the Soviet Union and the tsarist Russia that was so sacred to the priests. For him, no revolution, not even the Great October Socialist Revolution, was a historical milestone. For him, such milestones were the great battles in which the “Russian spirit” hardened and matured in preparation for the final battle: from Lake Peipus, where Prince Alexander defeated the Teutons, to Kulikovo Field, where Prince Dimitri defeated the Tatars; from Poltava, where Peter the Great defeated the Swedes, to Borodino, where Kutuzov trounced the French; and from Stalingrad, where Stalin defeated the Germans, to the yet-unknown, but inevitably upcoming new “Stalingrad.”

“This is the history of the people,” taught Chalmaev, who was moving from certain forms of government and social consciousness to other, more progressive ones. And in this triumphant march from one victory to another, he was led not by class struggle (as he should have been according to the Marxist canons), and not by great revolutionaries, but by some totally different characters. Chalmaev wrote about them in detail: “The modern young man,” he wrote, “would probably be surprised by the fact that in the historical novels of recent years, kings and grand dukes have become so prominent once again, and next to them, but definitely not below them, are the patriarchs and other princes of the Church, dissenters and hermits.”

And he went on to explain that it was the “most poetic” Patriarch Nikon and the “patriot-Patriarch” Hermogenes, and other princes of the Church, who embodied the “spiritual strength” of the Russian people, its “fiery impulses and dreams,” from which it “smelts a basis for heroic deeds.” In other words, they were Slavophiles, albeit a very primitive version, but quite recognizable. Chalmaev also added that “a great country cannot live without deep pathos, without internal enthusiasm, otherwise it is overwhelmed by flaccidity and stupor.” Was this an allusion to the doldrums of Leonid Brezhnev’s reign? Looks like it. But Chalmaev was so fascinated by his discovery of “battles and patriarchs” that he continued to develop it rapidly. And he came to a completely unexpected conclusion. Unexpected for those, of course, who were not familiar with Slavophile Chimeras. But how many people in the USSR were familiar with them?

Chalmaev completely ignored the gap between the Soviet Union and the tsarist Russia that was so sacred to the priests. For him, no revolution was a historical milestone. For him, such milestones were the great battles in which the “Russian spirit” hardened and matured in preparation for the final battle.

He concluded that because the people, as the makers of history, only “once in a hundred years [experience an event like] the Battle of Poltava or the Stalingrad standoff,” in between such battles someone must tend to the people’s “inner enthusiasm.” And Chalmaev saw no better candidates for the preservation of the “deep pathos” of the people than kings and church reformers. Especially because “in the efforts of Peter the Great [and] Ivan the Terrible, as well as in attempts to reform the church, there is something great and inspiring, rather than temporary and transient.” That “something” was this: “the desire to modify, for the benefit of the homeland, the Byzantine idea of renunciation as the main achievement of a human being.”

Then why the battles and the “Russification of the spirit”? For the renunciation of the world? Obviously, the man got confused in this unfamiliar but enticing narrative. Opponents did not buy the otherworldly “Byzantine idea” offered by Chalmaev. They’d had enough of the fact that the Young Guard had suddenly exchanged its peppy Komsomol enthusiasm (so befitting of a governing body of the Komsomol Central Committee) for somber church rhetoric.


And the battle began...

The regime responded to the challenge. Anatoly Nikonov, the Young Guard editor-in-chief, was dismissed from his post. Chalmaev encountered not only a series of indignant articles in response to his, but also harsh actions by the propaganda department of the Party Central Committee. It was rumored that the Secretariat of the Central Committee even held a special session on “Chalmaevshchina” (a new take of the Russophile ideology). General Secretary Brezhnev himself was at that meeting and complained that whenever he turned on the television, there was nothing but the sound of church bells and images of church domes. He allegedly exclaimed in indignation, “What is it, comrades? What time do we live in? Before the revolution, or after?”

But in fact, nothing changed. Nikonov was appointed, as if mockingly, the chief editor of the cosmopolitan magazine Around the World (whose editorial office was located in the same building as Young Guard’s, just one floor up). He was replaced by his former deputy, Anatoly Ivanov, also a patron of Chalmaev. Peal and church domes continued to test Brezhnev’s patience. “Chalmaevshchina” continued to prevail in the pages of Young Guard. Moreover, another “patriotic” magazine emerged: Nash Sovremennik (Our Contemporary). Its chief editor, Sergei Vikulov, did not hide his “Chalmaevite” orientation. Young Guard even dared to mount a counteroffensive against its opponents, using the support of the influential magazines Moscow and Ogonyok. As we shall see, the protection the Young Guardsmen enjoyed proved to be quite formidable.

In other words, something unheard of was going on around “Chalmaevshchina.” The unquestioning and formidable ideological machine that had operated smoothly for decades suddenly stalled: the propaganda department of the Central Committee was powerless to comply with the order of the Secretariat of the Central Committee. Instead of the traditional severe party retribution, there was a sluggish, high-pitched, and protracted brawl between the two departments of the Central Committee. Thus, the entrance of Russian nationalism (or “Russophilia” as it was then called) upon the stage of history revealed unexpected problems for the authorities.


Marxist defeat

One voice that stood out in the chorus of Marxist voices attacking “Chalmaevshchina” was that of the liberal magazine Novy Mir (New World). For over a decade and a half, it had valiantly opposed the orthodox Stalinist magazine October (the same way today’s radio station Echo of Moscow opposes the pro-Kremlin NTV and other channels). But everything got mixed up once the black cloud of Russophilia appeared on the horizon. Rather than continuing the good old squabble, the irreconcilable opponents suddenly found themselves on the same side of a barricade. The seemingly impossible had happened: Novy Mir, under chief editor Alexander Tvardovsky, started to speak the same language as October, under Vsevolod Kochetov (who played a role similar to the one right-wing journalist Dmitry Kiselev publicly plays today).

Not long before that, Tvardovsky had published Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novellas One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona’s Place; printed caustic articles by the dissident Andrei Sinyavsky; and adamantly, like a lone rock of liberalism, stood in the midst of a raging ocean of reactionary forces. And yet in April 1969, Novy Mir came out with a super-orthodox article by Alexander Dementiev (Tvardovsky’s deputy), that Kochetov himself would have gladly published in October.

Admittedly, my memories of this incident are stained with personal insult. Back then, I wrote an article that was submitted to (and even approved by) Novy Mir. It was an article against “Chalmaevshchina”—calm, ironic, written in the spirit of the debate on the role of Slavophiles in Russian history (I opened this debate with an essay titled “The Riddle of Slavophile Criticism” and finished it with “The Answer to the Opponents”). The thrust of my article for Novy Mir was the following: Slavophilism had previously “sunk” one Russian empire and, given free rein, it would “sink” another. I didn’t feel particularly sorry for the sunken empire, but I knew it could be replaced by something worse. And in any case, in a nuclear age balancing on the verge of self-destruction, “the Byzantine idea of renunciation as the main achievement of a human being” is not the best way to forge a soldier.

Something unheard of was going on around “Chalmaevshchina.” Instead of the traditional severe party retribution, there was a sluggish, high-pitched, and protracted brawl between the two departments of the Central Committee.

My article could have become a deadly liberal response to “Chalmaevshchina” without getting the magazine in trouble; however, in the end, the management of Novy Mir refused to publish it. Perhaps this was because of the scandal surrounding Andrei Sinyavsky—a favorite author of Novy Mir who served time in Mordovia prisons for anti-Soviet stories published abroad. Or perhaps it was because Dementiev insisted on removing my article. Whatever the reason, Tvardovsky decided to demonstrate his love for the Soviet regime, and instead of my article published the opus by Dementiev, an act he later regretted.

The opus was revelatory. It contained all the necessary Marxist rhetoric, like “Chalmaev speaks of Russia and the West in the language of Slavophile messianism, rather than in the language of our contemporaries... At the heart of the contemporary struggle between ‘Russia’ and the ‘West’ are not national differences, but social and class differences, the clash between the worlds of socialism and capitalism... Chalmaev’s article is just one step away from the idea of ​​ Russian national exclusiveness and the superiority of the Russian nation over the rest, from an ideology that is incompatible with proletarian internationalism... The meaning and purpose of life according to Chalmaev is not in the material, but in the spiritual, which is an impediment on the material and spiritual development of the Soviet people.” And so on, in the same vein.

This cast-iron phraseology sounded trivial, yet invulnerable. But Dementiev made one seemingly insignificant slip. In a huge article full of standard Marxist mantras, Dementiev included a tiny paragraph that doomed him to slaughter—not Chalmaev, not Young Guard, but himself and Novy Mir. Here is that paragraph:

“[Victor] Chalmaev and [Michael] Lobanov point to the danger of alien ideological influences. Will we resist, for example, the temptation of ‘bourgeois prosperity’? In modern ideological struggle, the temptation of ‘Americanism’ cannot be understated, says Chalmaev. That’s correct. But it should also not be overstated. The Soviet society, by its very nature, is not vulnerable to bourgeois influences.”

An unsophisticated modern reader might ask, “So, where is the sedition?” After all, Tvardovsky’s Novy Mir got away with publishing Solzhenitsyn, whom the Soviet media of the time referred to as “Solzhenitser” and as a “literary Vlasovite” (a follower of Andrey Vlasov, a Russian Army general who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II). It also survived the Sinyavsky scandal. It seemed indestructible. And all of a sudden it collapsed. Because of what? Because of an innocent little paragraph in an impeccably Marxist article defending the purity of the party’s ideological vestments?

Tvardovsky was faced with an ultimatum to dismiss all his deputies, but instead he chose to resign himself. That was the end of the old Novy Mir. Ideological passions in the post-Stalin Soviet Union ran perhaps as high as they do today. Can you imagine the fall of Echo of Moscow today? What manner of sedition did the publication’s ruthless opponents find in Dementiev’s paragraph? I’ll tell you in the next essay.