What Was the ‘Soviet Century’?
A new book takes stock of the mundane features and ephemera of life in the USSR, but neglects one of the most complicated aspects of the country’s legacy.
IN SEPTEMBER 2019, SHORTLY AFTER arriving in Russia, I found myself tramping through the woods outside a small village on the edge of the Mari Taiga. My wife and I were visiting a friend at his country house, and he had offered to take us to a deposit of green clay nearby that was supposedly good for exfoliation. My wife is keen on exfoliation, and keen on nature in general, so we set off on a path that took us around the village’s small but very deep lake. When we came to the place where it drained into a river, we found a large concrete pillar rising from the slough. I asked our friend what it was. He told me, rather drily, that it was “Soviethenge.”
I would see quite a few examples of Soviethenge during the course of the following year, most of which I spent living in the Mari capital of Yoshkar-Ola and travelling through the republics of the Middle Volga. There were the obvious things—Lenin busts in old toolsheds, abandoned factories with red-star gates rotting quietly in the fields, palaces of culture named after people and dates that had lost all meaning—but the USSR also lived on in the fabric of the cities, the dams on the Volga, the fact that when you turned on the boiler there was gas, and when you flipped a switch a light went on. In that part of the country, modernity had arrived with the Bolsheviks. It was impossible to go about one’s daily life without interacting with Soviet infrastructure in one form or another.
The legacy of the USSR was also present in more ephemeral and surprising ways. I had gone to Yoshkar-Ola because I wanted to get to know my wife’s family, which meant immersing myself in the world of the Mari. The Mari have inhabited the Middle Volga lands since long before the arrival of the Tatars and the Slavs, and the language they speak exists in the form that it does today because of the Soviet Union’s complex and ambivalent policy toward minority cultures. Two of the Mari dialects, Meadow and Hill Mari, were given official status as national languages, meaning that they, alongside Russian, were a medium in which newspapers, school curricula, and literature were produced during the Soviet period. The most prominent of Yoshkar-Ola’s many Soviet-era statues is not of Lenin, but of the Mari writer Sergei Chavain, executed during Stalin’s Great Purge and rehabilitated during the Khrushchev thaw. A murdered poet cast in bronze, a concrete pillar in a swamp: Soviethenge comes in many different forms.
A civilization that has passed away continues to exist in the scraps of ideology and infrastructure it has left behind, in the habits and manners and dreams of the survivors and their descendants, and in the physical remains of its material culture. It is from these traces that a historian can map the contours of the past. This is what the German historian Karl Schlögel attempts to do in The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World, an ambitious and somewhat eccentric book that provides an account of Soviet civilization as a “form of life with its own history, maturity, decline and fall.” Drawing on the philosophical concept of the “lifeworld” (lebenswelt), a general structure of objects, ideas, and meaning that provides a historically unique background against which people in a given moment relate and interact, he tells the story of the USSR through its architecture, records, and ephemera. It’s an approach that other Princeton University Press authors have used in recent years—see Yuri Slezkine’s magisterial The House of Government, which uses Moscow’s House on the Embankment to recount the history of the Old Bolsheviks, and Katherine Zubovich’s Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital. Given that a great many comprehensive histories of the Soviet Union have already been written (one of them, Moshe Lewin’s, also bears the title The Soviet Century), this is a refreshing perspective—though it does mean that readers not already familiar with the broad sweep of Soviet history may find themselves at sea.
The book is organized into sixty chapters under eighteen broad headings (“Bodies,” for example, or “The Noise of Time”), each of which takes up a facet of Soviet life. This approach allows Schlögel to enter grand narratives through side doors and windows. An appraisal of the magazine USSR in Construction, published monthly between 1930 and 1941, leads to a discussion of modernization, exemplified by the DniproHES project that electrified the Donbas, the founding of the steel city of Magnitogorsk, and the building of the White Sea Canal. The Soviet Encyclopedia is his departure point for talking about the Great Terror, which wiped out most of the Old Bolsheviks (and a great many other people) and necessitated a frantic re-writing of Soviet history in real time. When Schlögel focuses in on an individual, it is usually someone whose life illustrates a surprising or under-appreciated subject—for example, the fascinating story of Nadezhda Lamanova, who was born into a family of impoverished aristocrats, rose to become the favored dress-maker of the Imperial court, and ended her long career as the Soviet Union’s pre-eminent fashion designer.
Schlögel is particularly interested in the sensory aspects of Soviet lifeworlds. One of the most affecting chapters is the one on church bells, a perennial part of the soundscape of the Russian Empire that was ruthlessly suppressed in the early years of the USSR. Thousands of bells were melted down to provide bronze for, among other things, the reliefs in the façade of the Lenin Library, or sold to foreign buyers to fund Stalin’s Five-Year Plan (such was the fate of the bells that made their way to Harvard University’s Lowell House, though they have since been restored to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow). The decision to include a detailed floor plan in his chapter on living spaces, illustrating how pre-revolutionary apartments were divided up into kommunalkas that housed multiple families, lends his description of the chaotic intimacy of Soviet life a helpful degree of immediacy.
At times, however, Schlögel’s fascination with the ephemera of the USSR leads him to over-indulge his favorite preoccupations, as is the case when he recaps the story of “Red Moscow,” the most beloved perfume in the Soviet Union. “Red Moscow” was based on an earlier perfume, “Bouquet de Catherine II,” created to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Romanov rule in 1913. This same perfume also inspired Chanel No. 5. It’s a good story, and Schlögel told it well in his 2019 book The Scent of Empires, but the fact that it takes up fourteen pages—one fewer than the chapter on Soviet agriculture—speaks to the occasional shortcomings of his approach.
THE SOVIET CENTURY IS AN ECLECTIC BOOK, and its eclecticism is as often a weakness as a strength. But for all its digressions, it is not without a central thesis. Schlögel makes the argument that the Soviet Union is best understood not primarily as the manifestation of rigid Communist ideology, but as an attempt to transform an agrarian peasant society into a fully modern state. “A ‘Marxist theory,’” he writes, “yields very little for an understanding of the processes of change in postrevolutionary Russia. We get somewhat nearer the mark if we explore the scene of a modernization without modernity and of a grandiose civilizing process powered by forces that were anything but civil.” In other words, the interminable debates about whether Lenin was the St. Paul of communism or its Judas Iscariot are beside the point: As a Marxist might put it, the history of the Soviet Union is best explained by material conditions.
At the risk of simplifying Schlögel’s narrative beyond all recognition, the story one pieces together from his chapters goes something like this. In the years between 1917 and 1945, the Russian Empire ceased to be a semi-feudal aristocracy governed by an absolutist monarch whose rule rested on divine right, and became an industrialized state. It dammed rivers, electrified the countryside, built massive factories and refineries, collectivized agriculture, raised literacy rates, set up palaces of culture, created a modern military, and made the Soviet Union one of the most powerful countries in the world. In the course of doing so, it sent some of its best minds into exile, crippled its system of food production, set up a massive network of prison camps, watched millions of its citizens die of hunger, killed hundreds of thousands more through slave labor and forced relocation, and executed a generation of revolutionary leaders. It did all this while surviving one of the most brutal civil wars of the twentieth century and the largest land invasion in history.
Over the next forty-five years, it tried to establish a solid basis for growth and prosperity. It launched an ambitious housing program to create living spaces for its massive and rapidly urbanizing population, and to nurture the growth of a Soviet middle class that had access to amenities and luxury goods. At the same time, it systematically blocked this new middle class from exercising its creative faculties outside a narrow range of approved topics and ideological formulas, and it could not reliably ensure that if someone wanted to buy a winter coat in December, they could find it in the shop. It created a state with the resources and technology to provide for the needs of its citizens, but that was unable to actually deliver the goods. The USSR moved forward under the weight of these contradictions, first sprinting, then staggering, until it was dismantled by another revolution, one that was orchestrated by the very class of party elites the first one had produced. But the states that emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the people who lived in them, had undergone a profound change in the process.
Schlögel argues that over its sixty-eight years of existence, the Soviet Union did succeed in its goal of creating a “new Soviet person” (novy sovetsky chelovek). But, as he puts it,
The new human being was the product not of any faith in a utopia, but of a tumult in which existing lifeworlds were destroyed and new ones born. The “Homo Sovieticus” was no fiction to be casually mocked but a reality with whom we usually only start to engage in earnest when we realize that analyzing the decisions of the Central Committee is less crucial than commonly assumed.
Contrary to the beliefs of the Old Bolsheviks, who were convinced the new Soviet person would be peace-loving, hard-working, intelligent, healthy, and proletarian, or the polemics of Alexander Zinoviev, who believed Homo Sovieticus to be a shiftless and nasty species, given over to drink, larceny, and laziness, many of the new Soviet people ended up being as acquisitive, bourgeois, and small-minded as the citizens of any modernized society. Contra Marx, who believed that communism would arise as a solution to the problems of advanced capitalism, in practice, communism simply proved to be the most effective way for large agrarian countries to catch up with the industrialized states of Western Europe and North America. Once the modernization process was complete, communism lapsed into crisis.
Placing the emphasis on modernization rather than ideology allows Schlögel to delineate oft-ignored parallels and connections between the USSR and the United States. In the 1930s, especially, there was a great deal of cultural and technical collaboration between U.S. citizens and their Soviet counterparts, which led to what Hans Rogger called “Soviet Americanism” (sovetsky amerikanizm). “In many respects,” Schlögel writes, Soviet citizens “felt closer to America; America had left behind the class barriers and snobbery of Old Europe. America was less hierarchical; you could rise socially, something otherwise possible only in postrevolutionary Russia, where class barriers had broken down and equality had been universally imposed by brute force.”
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Thousands of American workers and students, many of them skilled workers, moved to the USSR in search of employment at the onset of the Great Depression, and reportedly got along well with the Soviet managers, many of whom had come from modest backgrounds and had a talent for problem-solving and improvisation. Similarly, many Soviet engineers who travelled to America “felt at home in the USA and experienced a great resonance with the country of the New Deal.” Soviet citizens had a taste for American films and musicals (the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was named after Italian-American film star Rudolph Valentino), and the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (who would himself go on to influence generations of Western auteurs) cited D.W. Griffith as one of his main inspirations.
But Soviet Americanism was about more than cultural affinities. The transformation of the Soviet Union would have been impossible without American expertise. The technology for building the vast Magnitogorsk steelworks was supplied by the McKee firm of Cleveland (the price: 2.5 million gold rubles), and the American contractors who worked on the project were housed in a special district that still stands today. The same man who supervised the building of the Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River, Colonel Hugh Lincoln Cooper, would be awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor for his work on the Dnieper Dam. Stalin himself apparently “spoke enthusiastically of the synthesis of ‘American pragmatism and Bolshevik passion.’”
Pragmatism and passion were certainly present in the development of the USSR, but they were not the only inputs. Perhaps the crucial factor was the almost limitless cheap labor supplied by impoverished peasants driven off their land, petty criminals, and political undesirables who could be press-ganged into service as part of their “reeducation.” This labor served two purposes. The first was to do the actual work of building blast furnaces and digging canals. The second was to produce the gold used to pay for American technology and expertise, either by growing grain sold on global markets, or by entering the mines of the Kolyma gold fields. Between 1932 and 1937, the output of the Dalstroy mine went from 511 kilograms of gold to 51.5 tons. The price of this astonishing growth was paid by the bodies of the prisoners, of whom there were 163,000 by the end of the decade. The writer Varlam Shalamov, Schlögel’s guide through this frozen Malebolge, explains it this way:
To turn a healthy young man, who had begun his career in the clean winter air of the gold mines, into a goner, all that was needed, at a conservative estimate, was a term of twenty to thirty days of sixteen hours of work per day, with no rest days, with systematic starvation, torn clothes, and nights spent in temperatures of minus sixty degrees in a canvas tent with holes in it, and being beaten by the foremen, the criminal gang masters, and the guards.
There is no moral calculus that can justify this suffering. And yet Schlögel lays out the brutal, unassimilable fact about the violence of Soviet modernization in the 1930s: “Without the gold of Kolyma . . . there would have been no build-up of the arms industries before and during the Soviet-German war.” The lives of the workers in Kolyma were the cost of winning the Second World War as surely as those of the soldiers at the front.
Even here, the enormous human toll involved in Soviet modernization should not, Schlögel suggests, be seen in isolation. Of the 250,000 people, most of them prisoners,1 involved in building the 227-kilometer White Sea Canal, around 12,800 are confirmed to have died in the process. Even if the actual number is higher, as it probably is, it is hardly extraordinary when set against the 28,000 people who died in the construction of the 80-kilometer Panama Canal (or the 20,000 who had died in an earlier, failed French attempt to build it), or the tens of thousands killed digging the Suez Canal. Schlögel does not push the point this far, but it is worth noting that slave labor in mines and building projects, forced starvation of millions through food requisitions, and the destruction of traditional lifeworlds were all central features of the colonial projects that underwrote the building of modernity in the U.S. and Western Europe. To see the mass death caused by Soviet policies in the first decades of Communist rule in a global light—alongside the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Africa and the Americas, and the great famines in South Asia—is to see it not as the inevitable consequence of socialist utopianism, but of rapid modernization undertaken without concern for human life. Perhaps what makes the crimes of the Soviet Union so difficult for those of us raised in the West to comprehend is the egalitarianism with which they were carried out. As each rose to a position of global economic, political, and military predominance, the British Empire and the United States divided the world into “white” people, who had certain inalienable rights, and “colored” people who did not. The USSR, rising later and faster, made no such distinctions. An Old Bolshevik who had served the revolution for decades was just as likely to end their life freezing on the taiga as a Russian aristocrat or a Kazakh peasant.
Schlögel ends his section on the “heroic” phase of Soviet industrialization by arguing that post-Stalin, the history of the USSR was “the calming and consolidation of a society exhausted by hypermobilization and war,” in which “the heroic men and women of the mobilized society were transformed into the peacetime consumers who had settled down.” After decades of turmoil and chaos, the passions that had animated generations of revolutionaries were spent. The Soviet people, even many Party members, simply wanted to live in a normal, functional country. By the end, as Gorbachev so memorably put it, they wanted to join the rest of the world. Despite the similarities that existed between American industrialization and Soviet industrialization, the USSR lacked the “institutional brakes” that could have protected its citizens from a disaster like Chernobyl, or translated the expansion of Soviet power into long-term prosperity. Curiously enough, Schlögel seems to credit burnout from the era of hypermobilization for the fall of the USSR:
Whole societies do not collapse because of differences of opinion or true or false guidelines or even the decisions of party bosses. They perish when they are utterly exhausted and human beings can go on living only if they cast off or destroy the conditions that are killing them.
This is an interesting idea (though it would be more interesting if it were provable in one way or another), but it seems far more accurate to say that the USSR collapsed the way it did because of a generational shift. By the 1980s, the heroic generation was passing away, and the new Soviet people born in the post-war era were comparing life in the USSR not to what it had been like in the bad old Tsarist days, but to what it could be like. This is to say that perhaps it was not exhaustion, but the dynamism of a new revolutionary generation that could take the modernization of the Soviet Union for granted. The tragedy of that generation lies in how unequipped they were to survive in the capitalist world they sought to join.
Schlögel may be right that “Pittsburgh is not Magnitogorsk,” and that the U.S. was able to transition out of the heroic period of modernization far more effectively than the USSR. But the problems America is currently facing are eerily similar to those of the Soviet Union in its final years—a sclerotic political system dominated by an aging leadership class, environmental degradation, falling life expectancy, a failed war in Afghanistan, rising tensions between a traditionally dominant ethnic group and freedom-seeking minorities, a population that has been promised a higher standard of living than can be delivered by its economic system. To deny the possibility that the USSR could have responded to the crises of the 1980s less cack-handedly is to ignore the voices in Soviet leadership advocating for workable alternatives. It is also to embrace the very fatalism taking hold in the United States today.
IN THE INTRODUCTION, SCHLÖGEL ACKNOWLEDGES that his gallery of topics cannot achieve “encyclopedic completeness,” and perhaps it would be uncharitable to condemn an 820-page book for what it doesn’t contain. But given where things stand in the post-Soviet world of 2023, the gaps tell an important story. The most significant one is around ethnic policy, or what the Soviet Union referred to as “nation-building” (natsional‘noe stroitel‘stvo).
Starting in the fifteenth century, the Russian Empire had expanded to become a vast multi-ethnic state that included millions of non-Russian and non-Slavic peoples. As Yuri Slezkine has argued, Lenin and Stalin, like many of their Bolshevik comrades, took for granted that, at least in theory, these nations existed and had a right to some measure of self-determination. A Bolshevik state would not be one in which all national differences were erased, but in which these national communities would be encouraged to maintain their distinctiveness. To this end, the Soviet Union did away with the old regional divisions of the Russian Empire and sought to establish new federal republics whose borders would coincide with the national identities of the people living within them.
This immediately raised the question of where these borders were to be drawn on the map. The Mari and the Tatars had been living in close contact with each other since the thirteenth century—in what corner of the forest did Mari El turn into Tatarstan? Where in the Eurasian steppe did Ukraine end and Russia begin? In the more remote parts of the USSR, where national consciousness was still in the process of developing, it raised the more profound question of which groups counted as nations. When did a dialect become a language? If a nation was tied to a clearly demarcated national territory, how should the state deal with nomadic peoples? If a national community like the Nenets were defined by a shared way of life—herding reindeer—could the Nenets adopt a modern, sedentary existence and still remain Nenets?
The Bolsheviks dealt with this last problem by ignoring it. Lenin believed that “nationality” was basically a matter of language, and language was simply a medium for communication. The Soviet nationality policy grew out of the simple dictum: Things should be “national in form, socialist in content,” as Stalin famously put it. Tatar schools would teach Tatar children about Marx and Engels in Tatar, and a Kyrgyz novelist like Chinghiz Aitmatov could write socialist realist novels in Kyrgyz. Unity would be preserved by having each nationality pursue a common goal in their own tongue. This was the reason Lenin did not believe that establishing ethno-territorial republics would lead to fragmentation of the Soviet state—once national communities were free to build communism in their own languages, he believed, the old ethnic hatreds would melt away. As for the other thorny questions about how to carve the Empire into representative units, this was a task pursued with great vigor by the Commissariat for Nationalities (Narkomnats) between 1917 and 1924.
Despite these high and earnest ideals, the USSR’s nationalities policy was as filled with tragedy as the rest of Soviet history. Large numbers of intellectuals from minority nations were executed during the Great Purge for “bourgeois nationalism,” and entire populations were subject to forced relocation on a massive scale. In practice, Soviet treatment of national minorities was driven not by a commitment to self-determination, but by the interests (often cynical, sometimes paranoid) of whoever happened to be in the Kremlin. The list of nationalities singled out for persecution as nationalities is long, and includes peoples from every corner of the USSR: Crimean Tatars, Jews, Koreans, Ukrainians, Chechens, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Karelian Finns—among many others. The Russian Empire did not cease to be a “prison house of nations” when it became the Soviet Union, and the inconsistency of its policies toward national minorities has had a complex legacy. Even (or perhaps especially) at its most repressive, Soviet policy codified the nation as an important unit of belonging. In some parts of the country, this meant the preservation of languages that might have been lost had the USSR adopted a more aggressive policy of Russification. In others, most notably the Baltic, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Ukraine, it made dissolution of the Union along national lines almost inevitable.
The ethnic diversity of the USSR was a fundamental aspect of the lifeworlds of millions of Soviet citizens, and yet Schlögel barely mentions it. Nor does he provide much of an account of the USSR’s policy toward religions beyond Christianity. It is hard to gain precise figures, but some estimates suggest that by the time of the 1979 census, as many as one in six Soviet citizens was Muslim, and yet The Soviet Century mentions the words “Muslim” and “Islam” a combined total of six times. His chapter on “the country beyond the big cities” is about the depopulation of the villages and the categorical failure of Soviet agriculture—a central topic in Soviet history, and one that deserves more space than he gives it—but it does not mention that the countryside in many parts of the USSR was also overwhelmingly non-Russian. As is often the case with books about the Soviet Union, it takes life in Moscow and Leningrad to be representative of the whole. But as my friends in Mari El used to say, “Moscow is another country.”
None of this would matter much if it weren’t for the fact that the thirty years since the dismantling of the USSR have been defined in large part by conflicts between and within the successor states over the very questions of nationality and territory raised during the founding of the Soviet Union. When I was growing up in the nineties, I was often told that the end of the Cold War had been miraculously peaceful; while this may have been true of the Eastern Bloc more generally, in the former lands of the USSR, barely a year has gone since 1991 without a civil war, insurgency, or invasion fought over control of territory or control of the government of that territory in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe. The multinational nature of the Soviet lifeworld, and the paradoxes it was unable to solve, stand alongside modernization as one of the most durable aspects of the USSR’s legacy.
THE SOVIET CENTURY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in German in 2018, and in the preface Schlögel says he was inspired to write it by Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the following war in the Donbas. This means the book was already a historical document by the time it came out in English earlier this year. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 euthanized any remaining hopes that globalization and integration of trade would establish a lasting peace in Eastern Europe. The sense of possibility that animates Schlögel’s meditations on post-Soviet life—the feeling that the lifeworld of kommunalkas and queues had given way to a more vivacious, more dynamic, more forward-looking society that was bound to sort itself out eventually—now belongs definitively to the past. Something has been broken that cannot be fixed.
There are two short chapters, however, where Schlögel offers valuable, if veiled, insight into why post-Soviet Russia evolved as it did. They come early in the book, during his discussion of the symbols and words that created uniquely Soviet “sign-worlds.” The first deals with the official honors system of decorations and medals that signaled hierarchy and status among workers and soldiers. The second describes the language of prison tattoos developed by the “‘legitimate’ thieves” (vory v zakone). The tattoos, Schlögel writes, “resemble the epaulettes, rings, chains and crosses found on uniforms. These tattoos do indeed contain the complete ‘professional actions’ of a criminal, his entire career.” Taken together, the medals and the tattoos create a unified picture of Soviet society: the official world of heroic veterans and high-achieving workers and its inalienable shadow, the underworld of smugglers, drug-dealers, and other criminalized elements essential to the thriving black market created by economic inefficiency. It is worth noting (Schlögel does not) that of the institutions that survived the dismantling of the Soviet state, the military and intelligence services and the criminal syndicates were the most powerful, in large part because they were so interconnected. In a kind of Hegelian shit-synthesis, the man who established a brutal kind of order after the mayhem of the nineteen-nineties, Vladimir Putin, has deep ties to both. The parts of Soviet communism that ensured a basic standard of living were, for the most part, destroyed in the hideously bungled transition to a market economy. Militarism, chauvinism, and gangster capitalism thrived, as they still do today.
Perhaps it is now possible to see the Soviet century as an anomaly in world history, an interregnum during which two power blocks, each a distorted reflection of the other, marshaled the energies of a modernizing planet in a great conflict over the future. The United States and the USSR both preached a universal doctrine, both claimed they were marching toward the promised land. Such a worldview seems increasingly alien. The unipolar moment lasted barely a decade, and we have now fallen through the rotten floor of American hegemony to find ourselves once again in the fraught nineteenth century. The wars of today are not between “smelly little orthodoxies,” but between empires and nations, the powerful states that can create their own morality and the small countries that have to find powerful friends. Maybe it was ever thus. But the key difference between 2023 and 1900 is that the process of modernization is, in large parts of the world, complete. What this means for great-power politics in the twenty-first century, we are only beginning to understand.
One of these prisoners was my wife’s great-grandfather, who was arrested for spitting on his hands while applauding a commissar’s speech. This was a common village custom; wet hands make a louder sound. It is not clear, based on family stories, whether the commissar failed to understand this, or whether the need for a vast army of unfree labor outweighed any scruples about who was or was not an honest Communist.