When I first heard about Yuri Slezkine’s new book, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, I was excited at the idea of telling the story of the builders of Soviet communism using the framework of the massive apartment block erected in 1931 across the Moscow River from the Kremlin to house the Bolshevik elite. I did not realize it would constitute the latest and most thoroughly elaborated contribution to the long tradition of regarding Bolshevism as a religion. Yet, at the center of this sweeping cultural and social history of the initial inhabitants of the House of Government is the proposition that the early Bolsheviks were a sect—voluntary, exclusive, belief-driven, and world-denying—and that their story is best analyzed through historians’ and sociologists’ insights into the phenomenon of millenarian religious sectarianism.

Studying the early Bolsheviks and their families at home in the House of Government—through their diaries, letters, memoirs, fiction writing, and oral histories gathered over many years—allows Slezkine to investigate how (and if) revolutionary belief played out in daily life. Here is how Slezkine memorably describes the objectives of the builders of the House of Government: “The challenge was to create a true-believing, hardworking, coeducational monastery that permitted procreation and incorporated a day-care center.” His conclusion, in brief, is that they failed. Whereas any religious sect has a vision of the family and pastoral strategies to supervise its followers’ personal lives, Marxism taught the Bolsheviks that salvation occurred in the workplace (or school) and the “superstructure” would then fall into place; as a result, they largely left family life private. According to Slezkine, “The problem with Bolshevism was that it was not totalitarian enough.”

The use of religion as a category for analyzing politics has a long tradition, one intimately tied to studies of Russian communism and to theories of totalitarianism. In the late 1930s, a series of “witness-theorists” drew on the notion of political religion to describe the common features of communism, fascism, and Nazism, as they laid the foundations of a theory of totalitarianism. One of the most influential of these writers was the Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdiaev. In his 1937 work, The Origin of Russian Communism (still assigned to me in my very first Russian history survey course in 1987), Berdiaev argued that the Bolsheviks had replaced “the old consecrated Russian empire” with a new “consecrated empire, an inverted theocracy.” Indeed, he contended, communism, in its totalitarian ambition, sought “to be a religion itself.” And he found the sources of Bolshevism’s totalitarian, messianic, and religious characteristics not so much in Marxism as in Russian history— the alleged Russian tradition of state absolutism, and the “religious-dogmatic” and thus apocalyptic character of the “Russian spirit.” The Russian intelligentsia, of whose ethos the Bolsheviks were the ultimate expression, “assumed the sectarian character which is so natural to all Russians,” he wrote.

Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s the totalitarian thesis was subjected to considerable criticism by the social historians who studied Stalinism or Nazism “from below,” it has enjoyed a revival in the past twenty years. One aspect of this rethinking has been renewed interest in the concept of “political religion” to analyze the ritualistic and symbolic qualities, as well as the millennial expectations and sense of world-historical mission that Italian fascism, German Nazism, and Soviet communism shared.1 “Political religion” as an analytical tool can be used in two ways. On the one hand, from a functional point of view, historians have pointed to the parallels between Bolshevik practices and Christian ones. (The “Octobering” of babies instead of baptism or the embalming and veneration of Lenin’s corpse similar to the Orthodox tradition of venerating uncorrupted saint’s bodies are cases in point.) These explanations are largely instrumental, implying a somewhat cynical substitution of one set of rituals for another in order to respond to the “needs” of the people. On the other hand, the concept has also been used to get at the content of a movement—to take seriously belief and meaning for its members, to unpack their historical consciousness, and to thereby explain both the appeal and workings of the regime. (Take, for example, the rituals of conversion and confession in the Bolshevik party’s management of its members.)

Slezkine’s work falls into the latter camp. Comparisons with both the social and the intellectual patterns of millenarian sectarianism allow Slezkine to uncover the spiritual quest of the Old Bolsheviks, explain the evolution of their movement from a fraternal, faith-based group to a priesthood in an ideocratic state, and to explain their failure to pass that faith on to later generations. In all of these ways, the perspective is quite fruitful.

Nevertheless, I have long been uncomfortable with comparisons between Bolshevism and religion as explanations for either the success or the functioning of communism in Russia, for two main reasons. The first is the implied attitude toward Russians, whose allegedly collectivist, dogmatic, religious, and ascetic national character made them fall prey to Bolshevism. My second objection is connected to the first: the way in which Orthodox Christianity, the religion of the Russians historically, is usually portrayed as the source of this inadequate national character, as a faith that emphasized form over content and that preached a world-denying passivity. All of this usually adds up to an argument that Russia was insufficiently secularized—and thus insufficiently modern—on the eve of the revolution. In the process, this approach unnecessarily exoticizes and essentializes Russia.

Slezkine does not advance an argument based on national character—indeed, national identity seems of little interest to his (multi-ethnic) Bolsheviks—and Orthodox Christianity as an explanatory factor is virtually absent from his analysis. On the contrary, although he is careful to draw on the lively research of the last two decades on late imperial Russian religion in order to place Bolshevism within a broader atmosphere of religious ferment, his model of religion in general, and of sectarianism in particular, is overwhelmingly based on Western Christianity and, indeed, on the radical Reformation. (An interesting side question is how the researcher sets up the model of “religion” against which to compare the political regime in a “political religion” approach; Slezkine, for instance, uses a rather tendentious reading of the New Testament and of the history of Christianity to portray Christianity as a totalitarian sect, then compares Bolshevism to that version of Christianity.)

Yet in his conclusion, Slezkine suddenly points to “Russia” and Russian Orthodoxy as reasons why committed Bolshevism, unlike Christianity or Islam, was a one-generation phenomenon. Here he falls back on a sort of universal Western European-based model of the modernization process, and the concomitant secularization thesis. In his seminal study of the emergence of modernity, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber suggested that Calvinist asceticism produced—and was ultimately secularized in—the rationalized and disenchanted modern world. Because Russian Orthodoxy did not experience a Reformation, according to Slezkine, Russians allegedly “missed” a crucial phase in this process: the transformation of the population into self-monitoring, morally vigilant modern subjects. Bolshevism, he writes, “was Russia’s Reformation.” But it failed to become the popular movement that generated what has been called the “disciplinary revolution” in the West. Ironically, Orthodoxy’s purported inadequacies now explain not totalitarianism’s success but its failure in Russia.

In fact, in the last quarter century scholars such as José Casanova and Talal Asad have challenged the secularization thesis and demonstrated its Eurocentric basis. Still, comparison is a necessary component of all analysis. So is model-building to enable that comparison. But we need to continually refine these models. This involves asking new questions and doing careful empirical work to unpack the assumptions within the models. Influenced by such criticism of the secularization thesis, a generation of scholars interested in religion and modernity has researched Eastern Christianity anew, asking not what Russia was “missing” but instead interrogating how religion was lived and how it mattered in late imperial and early Soviet Russia. They have been showing the way in which Orthodoxy served as a means for believers to engage with rather than hide from the modern world and how, for example, it encouraged precisely the kind of “working on the self” that facilitated the emergence of the modern subject.2 In doing so, they reveal how the questions and categories in the scholarly study of religion have been structured not just by Christian assumptions but by Western Christian ones. And they are restoring historical agency to ordinary Russians and assessing more precisely in what ways Russia’s development resembled or differed from Western European patterns.

  1. Useful surveys include: David D. Roberts, “’Political Religion’ and the Totalitarian Departures of Inter-war Europe: On the Uses and Disadvantages of an Analytical Category,” Contemporary European History 18, 4 (2009): 381-414; Gearóid Barry, “Political Religion: A User’s Guide,” Contemporary European History 24, no. 4 (2015): 623-638.

  2. See: Holy Fathers, Secular Sons, Spiritual Elders, Orthodox Christianity in Imperial Russia, and Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia