In The House of Government Yuri Slezkine presents with great richness of ideas and details a hugely well-sourced history of Bolshevik “believers” and their individual fates. The book by itself, as a “work of history,” makes a major contribution to the understanding of life in the pre- and post-revolutionary decades up to the Purges and their aftermath.
Slezkine embeds his narrative of the “House of Government” in a wealth of historical and literary sources that offer an intimate view of the residents’ lives. This focus makes the work also a kind of experiment in understanding the connection between individual “faith” and “social being,” recalling Karl Marx’s solution to the basic question of philosophy, so important for the Soviet context: “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” After introducing in Chapter Two a number of Bolshevik protagonists and “preachers,” identifying them as “millenarian sectarians preparing for the apocalypse,” Slezkine in Chapter Three works out his conception of Bolshevism as millenarianism. He reveals what can be seen as the core of his narrative: the “most obvious question about [their] luminous faith is whether it is a religion. The most sensible answer is that it does not matter.” While I cannot nearly do justice here to Slezkine’s ambitious undertaking, I briefly touch upon two points to suggest why it does matter whether we, as scholars (historians, theologians, sociologists, etc.), speak of Bolshevism in terms of “faith” and “religion” or not. In a nutshell, my point is that Slezkine’s conception of millenarianism, which involves the issue of religion, seems to abstract too much from the concrete individual contexts, discourses, and self-understandings that the historical and literary strains in his work so uniquely highlight.
Slezkine departs from two basic scholarly approaches in defining religion, which he summarizes as “the substantive (what religion is) and the functional (what religion does).” For his own take, he cites Émile Durkheim’s functionalist argument that “most human beings for most of human history had no basis for distinguishing between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural.’” Durkheim himself defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.” Slezkine notes, in Durkheimian vein: the “function of the sacred is to unite humans into moral communities.” From this outline he discusses what he defines as millenarian movements from the Axial Age all the way to Bolshevism and beyond, counting Marx among the “prophets.”
The central role of the concept of millenarianism makes it function (so to speak) as an analytical key or at least a heuristic concept in the book to grasp why “the fate of Bolshevism [was] so different from that of Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, and countless other millenarian faiths.” One answer might be: because Bolshevism/Communism was not and has never been “religious” in the sense all these other movements have been. And this precisely has to do with the “substantive” aspect of religion. In any case, the way Slezkine applies the functional concept of millenarianism, describing it in a “broad sense” as belief in “an imminent and violent end of the world followed by a permanent solution to the real-ideal problem understood as a coming together of heaven and earth,” makes it seem as if this perception was substantive or “essential” to all these movements and faiths.
Now Slezkine explicitly develops his concept of millenarianism dissatisfied with the “conventional definition” of religion as implying belief in “the existence of supernatural entities with powers of action.” He raises the question “whether the Marxist drama of universal degradation and salvation (…) is in some sense ‘supernatural.’ The usual answer is no: because the Marxist prediction is meant to be rational and this-worldly; (…) because ‘ordinary people’ don’t think of Marxism as a religion; and because the whole point of using the conventional definition is to exclude Marxism and other beliefs that assume the nonexistence of supernatural (science-defying) entities.” By employing the notion of millenarianism, Slezkine tries to get beyond this “usual answer.”
But the “usual answer” makes sense in that it links to a substantive argument. What happens in Slezkine’s narrative when not paying sufficient attention to the substantive dimension of religion may be briefly demonstrated by his equating two “millennial” expressions: the “Real Day” (a metaphor borrowed from an essay by Nikolai Dobroliubov (1860) to signify the Bolshevik future expectation) and the “Second Coming” from Christian theology. Slezkine applies the metaphors at various places in the book, for example: “Most prophets of the Real Day were either Christians or socialists. (…) But normally they saw each other as opposites. Christians tended to think of socialists as atheists or Antichrists, and socialists tended to agree (while considering Christians backward or hypocritical). In standard socialist autobiographies, the loss of ‘religious’ faith was a prerequisite for spiritual awakening.”
This passage summarizes precisely why the “usual answer” of the difference between religion (mostly Christian in the pre-Soviet case) and socialism/Bolshevism is to the point: it expresses people’s self-understanding on a substantive level of “belief.” It does make a difference, for an individual and for our scholarly understanding of that individual, whether s/he believes in Christ as the second person of the Trinity or in Marx’s theory of class struggle (leaving aside here the Christian Socialists who believed both). By contrast, Slezkine’s notion of a “millenarian” future expectation functions as a formal similarity that would override such differences.
Slezkine’s approach would seem to complement ongoing scholarly debates on communism as a “secular” or “political religion,” which agree that “phenomena similar to those observable in religion emerge in Russian Communism as well as in Italian Fascism and German National Socialism.” One evident Communist example (discussed by Slezkine) is the embalmed Lenin in the Mausoleum as a “relic” and the accompanying Lenin-cult. Critical contemporary observers like the religious philosophers Nikolay Berdyaev and Semen Frank, the writer Andrei Platonov (whom Slezkine quotes on p. 183), and the art historian Alexander Gabrichevsky unmistakenly identified such Communist adaptations as surrogates from Orthodoxy and religious tradition. Gabrichevsky, for example, noted that the Bolshevik Party “is a satanic parody of the Church, party congresses represent Church councils, parades, demonstrations and gatherings represent ritual acts, etc.”
The word “parody” reveals the substantive dimension. It indicates a qualitative shift in these supposedly similar phenomena. Most Bolshevik “believers” and “preachers” occupied a very outspoken philosophical (Marxist) stance toward the “supernatural” and explicitly embraced a materialist and immanent frame. The Bolsheviks/Communists imitated forms from Russian-Orthodox tradition while rejecting the content of belief and the reality of the “supernatural.” This is substitution, not similarity. Indeed, all these imitations and “parodies” of religious phenomena functioned (and were consciously used) as ideology. The nature of this shift toward ideology becomes difficult to grasp when one thinks in terms of “similarity” or “function,” or under an umbrella term such as Durkheim’s “sacred” or Slezkine’s millenarianism. This is another reason why the “usual answer” is to the point.
The actual issue is methodology. Concepts at stake, such as the substantive/functional distinction or theories of political religion, make sense only within a “disenchanted” or secularized framework in the sense described most forcefully by Charles Taylor. That is, generally speaking, within the disenchanted “imaginary”—to use Taylor’s terminology—people are aware of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural in a way people within an enchanted imaginary were not. Strikingly, Slezkine somehow seems to note this very point in a brief remark: “One reason for the trouble with definitions is the desire to apply the same name to two very different belief systems: one that did not know it was a belief system and one that did—and felt very strongly about it.” Applied to our case, whereas Christian tradition did not in this sense know it was a belief system, Marxism very much did. Indeed, the Marxists/Bolsheviks were conscious actors in the specific process of disenchantment and secularization and in its philosophical, scientific, and ideological expressions. Already historically, they belong to a different “imaginary” than most of the “millenarian” parallels Slezkine draws throughout the book.
Functional definitions, or approaches that leave the complex of historical, societal, and “substantive” aspects out of account, risk blurring the boundaries between religion and ideology. This is also where Slezkine’s historical narrative and focus on the individual testimonies and archival documents not only have historical, but also methodological, surplus value. The focus on the individual can help caution the application of terms like religion and ideology and to get a truthful understanding of Bolsheviks’ lives, but also of the nature of the ideological regime they shaped and by which they were shaped.
So rather than suggesting to understand the Bolsheviks’ “luminous faith” in religious or millenarian terms, I take Slezkine’s book as an opportunity for rethinking the connections among the individual, religion, and ideology.