This week in the course ‘Russia and the West’ we will be examining the Soviet Union between the Revolution and the Second World War, including the question of whether communism should be seen as a sharp break in Russian history, with the imposition of a Western ideology (Marxism), or whether communism is better seen as a continuation, or even accentuation, of traditional Russian ways of government.
To this end we will read parts of Nikolai Berdyaev’s 1937 book The Origin of Russian Communism, which is what I want to discuss here.
Berdyaev (1874-1948) is one of Russia’s best known philosophers. Originally a Marxist, he later became something of an Orthodox mystic, while still retaining some links to socialism. In this regard, he was part of a complex Russian liberal-conservative tradition which defies easy categorization. In The Origin of Russian Communism, he had this to say:
Russian communism is difficult to understand on account of its twofold nature. On the one hand, it is international and a world phenomenon; on the other hand it is national and Russian. … it was Russian history which determined its limits and shaped its character. A knowledge of Marxism will not help in this.
Communism, Berdyaev maintained, was built on the foundations of Orthodox ‘messianism’ and the tradition of Russian autocracy. Thus, he concluded, ‘Russian communism is more traditional than is commonly thought and is a transformation and deformation of the old Russian messianic idea.’
Is he right? For sure, one can see features of continuity between Imperial and Soviet Russia: state-led modernization, the ideology of collectivism, not to mention much of communist iconography (such as the ubiquitous portraits of Lenin and Stalin which replaced the saints of yore). But Berdyaev ignores, I think, all the decisive differences between pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. The totalitarian nature of Soviet communism, which sought to infiltrate itself into every aspect of social life, was quite new and extraordinary. The modernizing drive was more than just a larger scale version of state-led modernization under leaders such as Peter the Great. It was allied to an altogether different ideology.
So to go back to the original question – Was communism a uniquely Russian phenomenon? I am open to being swayed either way in this debate.