What Were They Thinking? Russian intellectuals interpret the revolution, 1917-1922

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On Wednesday, October 18, 2017 the Jordan Center hosted a talk entitled, “What Were They Thinking? Russian intellectuals interpret the revolution, 1917-1922”, delivered by Jane Burbank, Professor of History and Russian & Slavic Studies at NYU and introduced by Joshua Tucker, Director of the Jordan Center. This was the second event in the lecture series entitled “100 Year Anniversary of the 1917 Revolution”, hosted by the NYU Jordan Center and co-sponsored by the NYU Department of History.

Burbank opened with the questions: How was the Revolution viewed by people who lived through the uncertainties and hardships of the first years of Bolshevik power? In particular, what were Russian intellectuals thinking? As Burbank noted, today the Revolution and the regime it instituted is often conceptualized around the most prominent figures in Soviet history, i.e. Lenin and Stalin. Burbank, however, decided that it would be useful to consider individuals from a wider political spectrum, including theorists, social scientists and all-around politically active figures from non-Bolshevik parties. For her talk, she selected prominent figures from four categories: anarchists, Marxists, Eurasianists and the political movement “Changing Landmarks.”

Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin was one of the most prominent advocates for anarchism during the Revolution. Overall, Kropotkin supported the Russian revolution and returned from exile to take part in building federalism after the abdication of the emperor. But he did not see the Bolshevik government formed after the October revolution as moving the country forward toward equality in practice. He strove to inform Lenin about the rampant starvation, “bossist communism” and use of state terror that resulted in increased state power rather than people’s liberation. Kropotkin drew a strong contrast between anarchist communism and the Bolsheviks’ “state communism.” Kropotkin, who died in Russia in 1921, rejected Marxism and materialism in favor of a “moral foundation for Communism.”

Julius Martov became the official leader of the Menshevik Party after 1917. Following the Revolution, he was torn between his commitment to supporting the revolution against its opponents and his criticism of the Bolshevik government. Both Martov and Kropotkin turned to the French Revolution in their analyses of the situation in Russia. Martov predicted that the Bolsheviks would turn to “Bonapartism.” He was asked why Bolshevism was supported by socialists in Western Europe and explained that the Bolsheviks appealed to a “native social optimism” that imagines that ultimate social goals can be achieved at any time regardless of “objective conditions.” This psychology ignored the requirement of production and focused instead on the needs of the user. According to Martov, the development of socialism within the Soviet context would transpire in one of two ways: either reason would prevail over spontaneity or a cultural and economic regression would set in for a long time. Martov’s pessimism over the future of the Soviet state led him to view “Bolshevism as the spoiler of socialism.”

Burbank’s analysis also investigated the views of intellectuals who became known as “Eurasianists,” particularly Nikolai Sergeevich Trubetskoi. Originally a professor at Moscow State University, Trubetskoi was a strong critic of Eurocentrism, which he discussed in his book, Europe and Humanity (1920). He denounced the idea of European universalism, advocating instead for a “multiplicity of civilizations”, equivalent to our modern-day definition of “cultural relativism.” In other words, no culture could be the same as another, as any “borrowing” culture would always have to make enormous efforts to catch up with the West.

Trubetskoi and other Eurasianists transferred the focus of the Bolshevik revolution to the East with their 1921 manifesto, Exodus to the East. This publication proposed that culture was moving eastward and that Russians would maintain a special place within the new order. Russians were neither European nor Asian, but rather Eurasian. Trubetskoi predicted the uprising of “real humanity – the people colonized by Europeans. Bolshevism was associated with the notion of “national liberation,” thereby creating a model for other colonial nations.

The last category of Burbank’s analysis was a political movement called, Changing Landmarks”, most notably represented by Nikolai Vasilievich Ustrialov. Ustrialov believed that the Bolshevik Revolution would succeed in reclaiming territories along the borders of the former Russian Empire and beyond. As Burbank noted, “Ustrialov offered no ideological foundation for the great Russian state.” Instead, the ultimate goal for him was expansion of territory, and he considered the Bolsheviks to be the only group capable of instituting a “national imperial revival” in Russia.

Burbank ended the talk by reflecting on how the picture of Russia looks 100 years later. Possibly Ustrialov’s vision most closely resembles contemporary political attitudes. What the Russian Revolution did succeed in doing was to signal a shift to the East in the balance of world power as well as to mobilize people against the hegemony of European cultural and economic power. As Burbank concluded, “Intellectuals did succeed in their own observations and analysis even if their own dreams were destroyed.”

Betty Banks, a Ph.D. candidate in the NYU Department of History, asked whether or not it was possible to separate the idea of socialism from the context of the Soviet Union. Burbank responded that such a task was challenging, as on some level, the Russian Revolution gave socialism a state form; it materialized the concept of socialism. After 1917, there no longer existed a clean slate for a socialist model. Another questioner asked, Did Burbank consider the role of figures on the right? Burbank noted several examples, such as individuals who strongly defended the monarchy as well as anti-Semitic activists who supported conspiracy theories that Jews had started the Revolution. These ideas, too, emerged from the first years of Bolshevik rule.