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