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Dawn and decline: Two eschatological visions in turn-of-the-century Russia

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IMAGE: 19th-century Russian
premonitions of a new “Mongolism”

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“People who witness the beginning of great and momentous events, who can obtain only very incomplete, inexact, and third-hand information of what is taking place, will not, of course, hazard a definite opinion until a timelier moment comes.  The bourgeois papers, which continue as of old to speak of revolt, rioting, and disturbances, cannot help seeing the truly national, nay, international, significance of these events.  Yet it is this significance which invests events with the character of revolution.  And those who have been writing of the last days of the rioting find themselves involuntarily referring to them as the first days of the revolution.  A turning-point in Russia’s history has been reached.”

Lenin, “What is Happening in Russia?” From Revolutionary Days, January 1905

It has often been noted by historians of the period that a distinctly apocalyptic mood prevailed throughout large sections of the Russian intelligentsia from the last decade of the nineteenth century up through the 1917 Revolution.  Even ideological tendencies that lay in great tension with one another (if not in direct antithesis) found a common outlook in this respect.  This observation certainly finds support in the writings of the major representatives of these movements.  Intellectual currents as far apart as Marxist materialism and religio-philosophical idealism at this time both shared the sense that one age was coming to an end and another was now appearing on the horizon.  This common understanding served as the lens through which the major events of the day were interpreted, events which in turn then helped to modify the structure of these discourses.

In a strange way, many parallels existed between these two major schools of thought, Marxist materialism and religio-philosophical idealism.  These movements, which stood in starker contrast to one another than perhaps any other pair to be found amongst the Russian intelligentsia, possessed a number of similar concerns.  Each struggled to ascertain Russia’s national character, and thus grappled with questions of the country’s unique historical development and its possible role in shaping world history.  Radical political theorists like Lenin and Trotskii and religious philosophers like Vladimir Solov’ev and Sergei Bulgakov were both interested in Russia’s relation to European modernity and to its own barbaric, “Asiatic” past.  Moreover, members from these rival camps each held that Russia was to play an important part in an impending world crisis — either as the savior of European civilization from its own spiritual degeneracy or as a gateway through which revolution would spread to the most advanced industrial nations of the West.

It is crucial, however, when investigating these parallels, not to fall into the cliché of viewing materialist revolutionary movements as essentially crypto-idealist, of repeating “the well-worn charge that Bolshevism is itself a substitute religion” (Engelstein, 377).  Though these two strains within the Russian intelligentsia often seem to mirror one another, it would be a mistake to regard Bolshevik revolutionary doctrine as simply a materialist translation of idealist-philosophical demands.  Their fundamental differences must always be borne in mind.  For the opposing premises of Marxist materialism and religio-philosophical idealism indicated not merely a formal distinction in terms of approach, but came to bear substantially on the different conclusions at which each group arrived.  That this is the case will be demonstrated in the course of the following.

Nor should these ideologies be viewed as a simple repetition of the old split within the Russian intelligentsia between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers.  True, they both emerged out of a discourse whose intellectual roots can be seen to trace back to that great controversy.  But to frame these tendencies in terms of the Slavophilic and Westernizing modes of thought runs the risk of turning two sides of an historical debate into transhistorical categories of the Russian mind.  By the time the Marxist and religio-philosophical movements emerged in the last decade of the 19th century, this discourse had already undergone a number of mutations.  In situating these particular discursive formations, it will be useful to show where they stood in relation to the political and intellectual ideologies that preceded them.  Once this is accomplished, their relation to one another can be explained.

Marxism was imported to Russia in the early 1890s, primarily through the efforts of Georgii Plekhanov.  Though from the beginning it appealed to members of the radical intelligentsia, it first gained popularity for its criticism of the anarcho-nihilist and populist projects that had previously dominated the Russian Left.  Against these earlier groups, the Russian Social-Democrats stressed the revolutionary potential of the urban proletariat that was forming in cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow over the peasant population.  Besides Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotskii, and all the other major Bolsheviks adhered to this theoretical approach.

By contrast, the religio-philosophical idealism that began to take shape around 1899 belonged to the liberal-democratic elements of the intelligentsia.  However, just as the Russian Marxists were critical of earlier leftist politics in Russia, so were the liberal idealists critical of the predominant liberal politics in Russia.  While stressing freedom, moral autonomy, and the inviolability of personal liberties, they rejected the intellectual positivism and secularism espoused by most mainstream Russian liberals.  The religio-philosophical idealists of Russia were also reacting to the rapid spread of Marxism in the mid-1890s, however.  Part of the overlap in the concerns of the Marxists and the idealists can perhaps be explained by the fact that some of the latter’s most prominent advocates (Piotr Struve, Sergei Bulgakov, Semion Frank, and Nikolai Berdiaev) had briefly been Legal Marxists before they drifted toward idealism around 1900.

The other major difference between the revolutionary Marxists and the liberal idealists, of course, lay in their emphasis on different forces as being the most essential factor in determining history and society.  For the Marxists, the most essential factor was always material/economic.  Conversely, for the idealists, the most essential was always spiritual/religious.

This may be seen in the way each side interpreted the influx of bourgeois social and economic forms from Western Europe in the 19th century.  “If we compare social development in Russia with social development in the other European countries,” wrote Trotskii in 1905, “…we can say that the main characteristic of Russian social development is its comparative primitiveness and slowness.”  In the next chapter he continued to explain that “capitalism in Russia did not develop out of the handicraft system.  It conquered Russia with the economic culture of the whole of Europe behind it” (Trotskii, Results and Prospects).  The important part, as far as Trotskii is concerned, is that despite Russia’s historical backwardness, capitalism made its way into the country and exerted a socially progressive influence on its development, despite some of its deleterious effects.  As Lenin had explained already in his 1899 work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, this constituted the “mission” of capitalism:

Recognition of the progressiveness of this role is quite compatible…with the full recognition of the negative and dark sides of capitalism, with the full recognition of the profound and all-round social contradictions which are inevitably inherent in capitalism, and which reveal the historically transient character of this economic regime.  (Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia)

Lenin thus welcomed the spread of capitalism to Russia as facilitating modernization and laying the groundwork for a better society to be realized through political revolution.

Compare this with Sergei Bulgakov’s appraisal of the spread of the capitalist economic system from the West.  In 1902, just a few years after he renounced Marxism, he wrote that “The cultural barbarism produced by contemporary economic life is no better, indeed worse, than primitive barbarism, precisely because of the refinement of the needs of man.”  He added: “Ethical materialism or spiritual bourgeoisness is an undeniable and apparently worsening disease of contemporary European society; this same bourgeoisness once ruined Roman civilization” (Bulgakov, “The Theory of Progress,” Problems of Idealism, 102).  Bulgakov admitted the great material wealth generated by the modern mode of economics and the primitiveness of the old mode, but this was not the important point.  Rather, it was the spiritual poverty that material wealth created.

Finally, let us examine the ways in which the different intellectual premises of the Marxist materialists and the religio-philosophical idealists contributed to the apocalyptic mood mentioned at the outset.  This sensibility, it will be recalled, was something shared by each.  The task will be to show where these ideologies diverge and converge.

In 1900, four years prior to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, the religious philosopher Vladimir Solov’ev penned a brief work of fiction called “A Short Tale of the Antichrist.”  This work is set in an imagined future in which a group of individuals reflect back on the horror of the 20th century.  Solov’ev, who died before the Japanese assault on Port Arthur, cannot help but sound prophetic in his predictions:

The twentieth century was the epoch of the last great wars and revolutions.  The greatest of these wars had its distant cause in the movement of Pan-Mongolism which originated in Japan as far back as the end of the nineteenth century.  The imitative Japanese, who showed such wonderful speed and success in copying the external forms of European culture, also assimilated certain European ideas of the baser sort.  Having learned from newspapers and textbooks on history that there were in the West such movements as Pan-Hellenism, Pan-Germanism, Pan-Slavism, and Pan-Islamism, they proclaimed to the world the great idea of Pan-Mongolism — the unification under their leadership of all the races of Eastern Asia, with the aim of conducting a decisive war against foreign intruders, that is, against the Europeans.

Solov’ev, reawakening old Russian anxieties about a second Mongol invasion, then proceeded to write a detailed eschatology of Christian Europe’s resistance to Eastern barbarism.  These anxieties were then depicted by Andrei Bely in his Symbolist masterpiece Petersburg (1915), set in 1905 with Russia embroiled in its war with Japan and teetering on the brink of revolution.  In a section entitled “Judgment Day,” the narrator describes what the last days of the world before the final Armageddon will be like:

In those days all the peoples of the earth will rush forth from their dwelling places.  Great will be the strife, strife the likes of which has never been seen in this world.  The yellow hordes of Asians will set forth from their age-old abodes and will encrimson the fields of Europe in oceans of blood.  There will be, oh yes, there will — Tsushima! There will be — a new Kalka!…Kulikovo field, I await you!…And on that day the final Sun will rise in radiance over my native land.  Oh Sun, if you do not rise, then, oh Sun, the shores of Europe will sink beneath the heavy Mongol heel, and foam will curl over those shores.  Earthborn creatures once more will sink to the depths of the oceans, into chaos, primordial and long forgotten.

Though Bely is in part satirizing the apocalyptic fantasies of the religio-philosophical idealists and Symbolist poets, he captures their eschatological tone perfectly.  The defeat of the Russian army in its war with Japan signals the decline of European preeminence, and points, furthermore, to the end of the world.  There is a certain inevitability implied here, but the inevitability of revealed religion, of a religious prophecy.

Marxists like Trotskii wrote of events like the Russo-Japanese War as resulting from a different sort of inevitability.  As Jonathan Frankel relates, Trotskii allowed for some degree of influence for individual personalities and accidental traits belonging to specific persons.  But primarily Trotskii dealt with necessities, the unavoidable collapse of tsarism resulting from its structural weaknesses.  Agentic action is only preserved as a choice between different paths towards one’s doom (Frankel, “The War and the Fate of the Tsarist Autocracy”).  Trotskii furthermore highlights the significance of the war in terms of the possibility it opens up for a still greater cataclysm, a cataclysm that could open up the possibility for world revolution:

The armed peace which arose in Europe after the Franco-Prussian War was based on a European balance of power which presupposed not only the inviolability of Turkey, the partition of Poland and the preservation of Austria, that ethnographical harlequin’s cloak, but also the maintenance of Russian despotism, armed to the teeth, as the gendarme of European reaction.  The Russo-Japanese war, however, delivered a severe blow to this artificially maintained system in which the autocracy occupied a foremost position.  Russia for a time fell out of the so-called concert of powers. The balance of power was destroyed.  On the other hand, Japan’s successes aroused the aggressive instincts of the capitalist bourgeoisie, especially the stock exchanges, which play a very big part in contemporary politics.  The possibility of a war on European territory grew to a very high degree.  Conflicts are ripening everywhere, and if up till now they have been allayed by diplomatic means, there is no guarantee, however, that these means can be successful for long.  But a European war inevitably means a European revolution.  (Trotskii, Results and Prospects)

Both eschatologies, it will be seen, predict a coming catastrophe.  The religio-philosophical saw the utter destruction of the old world and perhaps some sort of spiritual rebirth rising from the ashes.  The Marxist materialists saw the collapse of the capitalist mode of production, but not some sort of reversion to a prior mode of production, but rather the overcoming of capitalism in building a more perfect society.

One thought on “Dawn and decline: Two eschatological visions in turn-of-the-century Russia

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