Awaiting the Real Day: An Excerpt from Yuri Slezkine’s “The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution”

By Yuri SlezkineAugust 16, 2017

Awaiting the Real Day: An Excerpt from Yuri Slezkine’s “The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution”
The following is an excerpt from Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, published this month by Princeton University Press.


MOST PROPHETS of the Real Day were either Christians or socialists. The majority of Christians continued to think of “the Second Coming” as a metaphor for endless postponement, but a growing minority, including a few decadent intellectuals and the rapidly multiplying Evangelical Protestants, expected the Last Judgment in their lifetimes. This belief was shared by those who associated Babylon with capitalism and looked forward to a violent revolution followed by a reign of social justice.

The two groups had a great deal in common. Some people believed that revolutionary socialism was a form of Christianity; others believed that Christianity was a form of revolutionary socialism. Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdyaev proposed to incorporate political apocalypticism into Christianity; Anatoly Lunacharsky and Maxim Gorky considered Marxism a religion of earthly salvation; Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich referred to Baptists and Flagellants as natural “transmission points” of Bolshevik propaganda; and the Bolshevik propagandist (and priest’s son) Aleksandr Voronsky claimed to have met a revolutionary terrorist who was using the Gospels as a guide to “the violent overthrow of the tsarist regime.”

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. One crucial difference was that most preachers of a Christian apocalypse were workers and peasants, while most theorists of workers’ and peasants’ revolutions were students and “eternal students.” The students were usually the children of clerks, clergymen, teachers, doctors, Jews, and other “proletarians of mental labor”: professional intellectuals as metaphorical Jews (chosen, learned, and alienated) and Jews as honorary intellectuals irrespective of what they did for a living. They all grew up as perennial prodigies, as heirs to a lost sacred mission, as strangers among people they called “the people.” They were, for the most part, hereditary members of the intelligentsia.

The Vilno Bolshevik Aron Solts believed that the source of his “opposition to the powers that be” was his Jewishness, which he associated with legal inequality, “relative intellectualism,” and sympathy for revolutionary terrorists. Nikolai Bukharin claimed that his father, a teacher and sometime tax inspector, did not believe in God, “enjoyed saying something radical every once in a while,” and often asked Nikolai, who had learned to read at the age of four, to recite poetry for family friends. Bukharin’s friend and Swamp “agitator” Valerian Obolensky (whose job in the winter of 1907–’08 was to write leaflets for the Gustav List workers) grew up in the family of a veterinarian of “radical convictions and high culture” who taught his children French and German and encouraged them to read Belinsky and Dobroliubov (“not to mention the great fiction writers”). Another early convert to Bolshevism, Aleksei Stankevich, attributed his awakening to the feeling “that Mother and Father were much better educated, more intelligent, and more honest than their milieu.” (His father, a teacher in Kostroma and Kologriv, was “driven to drink” by the idiocy of provincial life.) “All this led our youthful minds deeper and deeper into doubt and confusion.”

To be a true intelligent meant being religious about being secular; asking “the accursed questions” over lunch and dinner; falling deeper and deeper into doubt and confusion as a matter of principle; and feeling both chosen and damned for being better educated, more intelligent, and more honest than one’s milieu. Whether a member of the intelligentsia could find the answers to the accursed questions and still be a member of the intelligentsia was open to question. Lenin thought not (and did not consider himself one). The authors of the antiradical manifesto Signposts believed there were no non-doctrinaire intelligentsia members left (and considered themselves an exception). Most people used the term to refer to both the confused and the confident — as long as they remained self-conscious about being better educated, more intelligent, and more honest than their milieu. The proportion of those who had overcome doubt kept growing. Most believed in the coming revolution; more and more knew that it would be followed by socialism.

There were two kinds of socialists: Marxists and nationalists. Or rather, there was a wide range of possible definitions of collective martyrdom — from the Mensheviks’ reliance on the timely self-realization of the sociologically correct proletarians; to the Bolsheviks’ expectation that Russian workers and peasants might start a revolution out of turn, by way of exception; to the Populists’ faith in the Russian peasant as a universal redeemer by virtue of his uniquely Russian communalism; to the Bundists’ insistence on the need for a Jewish specificity within Marxist cosmopolitanism; to the uncompromising tribal millenarianism of the Armenian Dashnaks, socialist Zionists, and Polish nationalists. Even at the extremes, the distinction was not always clear: the Marxists talked of “hereditary proletarians” as a caste with its own culture and genealogy; the most radical Russian nationalists were known as Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), not Russian nationalists; and the most radical non-Russian nationalists represented their nations as the world’s original proletarians. Everyone spoke the biblical language of tribal chosenness and suffering for humanity.

One of the oldest Bolsheviks, Feliks Kon, grew up in Warsaw, in a Jewish family of Polish nationalists. “Patriotism was a substitute for religion,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Of the latter, only the formal, ritualistic side remained.” Once, on Passover, as his grandfather “was presiding over the table and leading the prayers,” an uncle returned from foreign exile, where he had been hiding from “the Muscovites”:

The prayers were forgotten. Everyone, from the little ones to my old grandfather, sat listening to his stories with rapt attention. “Rather than talking about the flight of the Jews from Egypt,” said Uncle to Grandfather, “let’s talk about the martyrdom of Poland.” Grandfather readily agreed.

At 17, Kon learned of the heroism of the Muscovite revolutionary terrorists and stopped talking about the martyrdom of Poland. The exodus came to represent universal liberation.

It was a change of faith, of cult. […] A dead, ossified faith had been replaced by a living, vibrant one. […] I was ready to do battle with the whole world of lies, hypocrisy, humiliation, and falsehood, the world of grief and servitude. […] It was clear as day to me that I must go to other seventeen- and eighteen-year-old ardent young men and share with them my faith and my truth, for us to unite, come together, “do more studying” — I vaguely understood the necessity of that — and then, all of us together, leave behind “the gloaters, idle blabberers, and blood-stained executioners” for “the camp of the dying,” to reveal to them the reasons for their grinding slavery, open their eyes to the force living within them, awaken that force, and then … then … then … the great deed would be done: the world of slavery and untruth would sink into the abyss, and the bright sun of liberty would shine over the earth.

Serial conversions involving a variety of national and cosmopolitan options were common on the Russian Empire’s western periphery. Another ardent young man, Karl Sobelson, moved from the cult of Heinrich Heine and Nathan the Wise (which he described as typical of Galician Jews), to Polish patriotism “complete with its Catholic shell” (at which point he became “Radek”), to socialism “understood as a quest for Polish independence,” to radical Marxism in a variety of national guises. Closer to the imperial center, spiritual awakening tended to be represented as a generic revelation of the misery of the surrounding world, with the finer distinctions regarding the nature of the last days becoming apparent later, as a result of sober reflection.

Some well-off socialists remembered having been impressionable or rebellious children sensitive to injustice and subject to “feelings of discomfort and shame” on account of their unearned privilege. Elena Stasova — the granddaughter of a prominent architect, daughter of an even more prominent lawyer, and niece of a famous art critic — suffered from a growing “feeling of indebtedness” to the people “who made it possible for us, the intelligentsia, to live the way we did.”

But most, like Feliks Kon, were changed forever by reading, and even Stasova’s feelings of guilt “were partly derived from books.” The officer’s son and cadet corps student, Sergei Mitskevich, lived in the dark until the age of 14: “I read Turgenev’s The Virgin Soil, and my eyes were opened: I understood that revolutionaries were not the evil men our officials said they were, but people struggling for freedom, for the people. This realization led to a complete revolution in my thinking. I began to read a lot.” New reading led to new insights and the eventual “discovery of the key to the understanding of reality,” but it was the first youthful epiphany that separated life without “sense or meaning” from a purposeful quest for true knowledge.

Kon (born 1864), Stasova (1873), and Mitskevich (1869) were among the oldest Bolsheviks. The vast majority — those born in the 1880s and 1890s — had their eyes opened in school, alongside their classmates. In Nikolai Bukharin’s Moscow Gymnasium No. 1 (on Volkhonka across from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior), some boys “went on living aimlessly — reading whatever was assigned and horsing around in the hallways,” but “the class elite” consisted of two groups of self-conscious apocalyptics: the decadents and the revolutionaries. According to Bukharin’s partisan account,

the aristocratic group — the loners, the sons of the nobility and the upper bourgeoisie (rich merchants, bankers, stock exchange speculators, and Jewish moneybags, who were trying desperately to make their way into the most refined spheres) — aped their older brothers, playing earnestly at beings snobs and dandies. They wore jodhpurs, pointy English dress shoes, expensive narrow-waisted, light-colored jackets made by well-known Moscow tailors, and wide, fancy leather sashes. Their collars were starched and their hair neatly combed, with impeccably straight parts and not a hair out of place. They acted as if they were doing the gymnasium a great favor by attending classes. They kept to themselves and often brought French books, from Baudelaire to Maeterlinck and Rodenbach, which they read with melancholy miens, to make clear that they lived in a world of altogether different dimensions. They were loose-limbed, pointedly polite, fond of exchanging remarks in French or English and conversing about art, and seemed to regard normal life as something to be held squeamishly between two fingers, pinkie extended. They dropped the names of Nietzsche and Solovyov but did not read them; carried around reproductions of the exquisitely depraved, elegant graphic masterpieces by Aubrey Beardsley and Félicien Rops; and talked in church whispers of Oscar Wilde. Of the new Russian poets, they only recognized the Symbolists, showing off by sharing the latest news of their literary and personal lives, which bordered on refined gossip.

The rival group consisted mainly of children from intelligentsia families. They wore Tolstoy shirts under their jackets and kept their hair deliberately shaggy and often uncombed; some older boys were beginning to grow beards. In class they secretly read Pisarev, Dobroliubov, and Shchedrin. […] They worshiped Gorky, despised everything official, scorned all kinds of “pomp and circumstance,” and ridiculed “the white satin lining crowd,” their ideals, and the way they walked, giving them cutting and rather accurate nicknames, such as “the heavenly wagtail,” and occasionally entering into lively arguments with them, often on literary subjects. They sensed vaguely that the unstoppable stream of life would soon answer the question “When will the real day finally come?” They were impressed by every manifestation of open protest, every word of condemnation, every act of heroic resistance to established order. Even routine pranks had a certain value in their eyes: they were instinctively attracted to “undermining the foundations,” even in little things. They were impertinent, sharp-tongued, and prone to mocking their sheeplike neighbors.

According to his classmate Ilya Ehrenburg, Bukharin was less morbidly earnest than most of his fellow underminers (especially his best friend, the unsmiling Grigory Brilliant), but he was just as cutting. He laughed a lot and “constantly interrupted the conversation with jokes and made-up or absurd words,” but “it was dangerous to argue with him: he tenderly ridiculed his opponents.”

Yakov Sverdlov’s (Y’s) biographers describe him as boisterously argumentative. One of six children in the family of a Jewish engraver in Nizhnii Novgorod, he excelled in elementary school and was sent to a gymnasium, where he fought with the children of noblemen and “baffled” his teachers with unexpected questions.

Bored in his classes, he figured out a way to read regular books instead of textbooks while sitting at his desk. Once, when he had been caught in the act and heard the teacher’s threatening “What are you doing?”, he answered calmly: “Reading an interesting book.” “What kind of book?” roared the teacher even more threateningly. “An ordinary, paper one,” answered the student even more calmly.

True or not, this story is an accurate representation of a young rebel’s ideal (“quick-tempered,” “talkative,” and “contemplative”) disposition. After four years, Sverdlov left the gymnasium to become a pharmacist’s apprentice and a “professional revolutionary.” Sverdlov’s father cheered him on: all of Yakov’s five siblings were, in one way or another, waiting for the coming of the real day.

The road to belief began with friendship. Sverdlov had Vladimir Lubotsky (later “Zagorsky,” the man after whom the town of Sergiev-Posad would be renamed); Kon had Ludowik Sawicki (who committed suicide in Paris in 1893); and Bukharin had Grigory Brilliant (the future people’s commissar of finance, Grigory Sokolnikov). The son of a Kazan merchant, Aleksandr Arosev, remembered finding a friend early on in his Realschule career:

At one point I was told there was a strong boy named Skriabin in Grade 3, Section B. I sought him out. One day he was in the hall washing the blackboard sponge under a faucet. He looked rather gloomy (the way he always did, as I found out later). I came up to him and proposed fighting. Skriabin agreed. Having exchanged several preliminary punches, we got into a stranglehold, to the delight of the whole hall. I don’t remember who won, but we became acquainted.

Acquaintance led to conversations, conversations to confessions, and confessions to intimacy. As Arosev wrote in one of his many memoirs, “Friendship begins when one reveals to the other a mystery that has never been revealed before. And when you are young, anything can become a mystery: the way you notice a passing cloud, delight in a thunderstorm, admire a girl, or dream of a faraway land.” For Skriabin, the mystery was music (he was a violinist and played quartets with his three brothers); for Arosev, it was novels. For both of them, it was the search for the true path to revolution. Arosev continues:

One night, […] we were walking through the deserted streets, sprinkled with snow. The silence of the streets gave us a sense of intimacy, and the cold forced us to move closer to one another. We were walking arm in arm. It was well past midnight. From street corners, roadside posts, and porch awnings, shapeless shadows slid over the darkly glistening snow that looked like so many fish scales. Sometimes it seemed to us that those were the shadows of spies following us wherever we went, but there were no spies anywhere. Those shadows — the uncertain silvery flickerings in the night — were listening to our halting speeches, our words that sparkled with one thing only: a desperate eagerness to find a truth that we could give all of ourselves to in the name of struggle.

The truth, they knew, was to be found in larger groups of like-minded believers. After more conversations and confessions, several clusters of friends would come together as a secret reading circle:

Seven or eight fifth-grade Realschule students were sitting on the chairs, bed, and couch of the low attic room lit up by a kerosene lamp with a white glass lampshade. The portraits of Kautsky, Engels, Marx, Mikhailovsky, Uspensky, Korolenko, and Tolstoy looked down sternly and protectively. On the bookshelf in the corner, one could see the names of the same heroes of the age. […]

The air was filled with аn energy that could only be sensed by the nerves, which, like little cobwebs, connected everyone and made them feel related and bound together forever, for many centuries to come. The young men barely knew each other, but each looked at the others with an almost ecstatic affection, proud to be there, next to all those others, who were so mysterious and, just like him, full of fire. Every face seemed to be saying: “Starting today, this very minute, I, so-and-so, have joined the ranks of fighters.”

They would then elect a chairman (on this occasion, Skriabin) and decide on book lists, passwords, and nicknames. Skriabin became “Uncle,” and later “Molotov”; Arosev became “Z”; and, in other rooms in other towns, Sverdlov became “Comrade Andrei”; Brilliant became “Sokolnikov”; Obolensky became “Osinsky”; and Voronsky — “a pale, thin, curly-haired, blue-eyed young man with full, bright red lips” — became “Valentin.”

Voronsky’s circle of Tambov seminarians was born “within the damp, musty walls steeped in the balm and incense of Orthodox Christianity,” but its members — “adolescent runts with prominent collarbones and awkwardly flailing arms” — read the same books as their Kazan and Moscow contemporaries — and held similar meetings:

Imagine a tiny room somewhere on First Dolevaia Street, in the house of a clerk’s widow: faded wallpаper, calico curtains on the windows, three or four chairs with holes in the seats, a table, an iron bed, a bookshelf, a tin lamp with a paper lampshade (with a burnt trace left by the light bulb), fresh faces with downy upper lips, and open double-breasted gray jackets with faded white buttons. Two gymnasium girls in brown dresses are hiding in a dark corner; their hair is pulled back tightly in braids; one of them is so shy she almost never lifts her eyes. We are arguing about the commune, the land strips, and the relationship between the hero and the crowd. We are overconfident and full of peremptory fervor. Someone is plucking the strings of an old guitar or mandolin.

What bound them together were the books they read and the omnipresent lampshades — white, brown, or green — which stood for both common reading and shared spaces. Sometimes Arosev’s friends would just sit quietly reading by lamplight, with “cups of hot tea steaming on a little round table.”

The open pages of [Plekhanov, Pisarev, and Belinsky] filled us up so completely and blinded our eyes to such an extent that sometimes, lifting our tired heads, we would be surprised to find ourselves in a room cast into shadows by a green lampshade. The lampshade would veil the sinful, messy world outside, while shedding its bright light on white sheets and black lines — those streams of intricate thought. I don’t know about the others, but I was in awe of the tenacity, durability, and terrible fearlessness of human thought, especially that thought within which — or rather, beneath which — there loomed something larger than thought, something primeval and incomprehensible, something that made it impossible for men not to act in a certain way, not to experience the urge for action so powerful that even death, were it to stand in the way of this urge, would appear powerless.

Joining “the camp of the dying” was a vital ingredient of the urge for action nurtured by collective reading. As Kon put it, from a position of nostalgic immortality, “we were all going to die, of course, this much was clear. In fact, as I saw it at the time, it was even necessary,” especially since death was “a wonderful, beautiful detail,” remote and perhaps fleeting. “My state of mind at the time resembled the mood of a young knight who is determined to wake up a sleeping princess even if he has to undergo severe personal trials. […] Awakened by the miraculous touch of socialism, the working people would wake up, rise, shed the terrible shackles of slavery, and liberate themselves and everyone else.” The capacity for friendship and willingness to die is what separated “the sensitive and young at heart” from those Feliks Kon and his friends called the “Zulus” — or, “in the terminology of the time, the savages who only cared about their future careers and present comforts and had no interest whatsoever in the rest of humanity.” The Zulus were divided into the “naked ones” and the “hypocrites.” The sensitive and young at heart were divided into reading circles.

As students moved into higher grades, the circles became ranked and specialized. The “lower circles” studied basic socialist literature; the “middle” ones organized presentations on particular topics or authors; and the “higher” ones sponsored papers on freely chosen subjects and formal debates with invited participants. Different circles, including those from different schools, formed interlocking networks of common reading, conversation, and belief. In Arosev’s Realschule, all the reading groups were united into a single “Non-Party Revolutionary Organization” with its own statutes (“a kind of teaching plan for a short-term course designed to produce revolutionaries of both kinds: SRs and Marxists.”)

For most people, the choice between the SRs and Marxists happened some time after their separation from the Zulus. Unlike the original election, it is usually remembered as a rational act subject to testing, reconsideration, and public scrutiny. At the age of 16, the veterans of Osinsky’s (Obolensky’s) circle in Moscow Gymnasium No. 7 decided it was time to make up their minds and “self-identify politically.” To that end, they invited a Moscow University student, Platon Lebedev (the future “Kerzhentsev”), and launched a series of presentations on the history of the Russian revolutionary movement. Osinsky spent three months in the Rumiantsev Library reading about the Decembrists.

I have always done my best to resist everything “fashionable,” everything accepted by the intelligentsia in the manner of a psychological contagion. At that time [1904], I considered Marxism, which was spreading rapidly among the intelligentsia, just another fashionable trend (for the intelligentsia, including some of my friends, it did turn out to be only a fashion). So, I tried very hard to give the Decembrist movement a non-Marxist explanation. This explanation contradicted my own evidence and the paper kept sliding into a meaningless liberal rut. It was not difficult for Lebedev-Kerzhentsev, with the obvious support of my own comrades, to rout me utterly. Having given my “defeat” a great deal of serious thought, I arrived at the conclusion that I had chosen the wrong path and that old Marx was right, after all. The revolution of 1905 provided plenty of further — much more tangible — proof.

In Kazan, Arosev (Z) and Skriabin (Molotov) chose their political affiliations without a great deal of serious thought. In the spring of 1907, at the age of 17, they decided to test their convictions by reading the relevant texts and holding a public debate at the Non-Party Revolutionary Organization’s fall meeting. Arosev’s topic was “The Philosophical Foundations of the Socialist Revolutionary Party”; Skriabin’s, “The Philosophical Foundations of the Social-Democratic Party.” According to Arosev,

Skriabin and I stocked up on the literature, left behind the noise of the city — he, for Viatka Province, I, for the village of Malye Derbyshki — and immersed ourselves in Marx, Mikhailovsky, Engels, Lavrov, Plekhanov, Delevsky [sic]. […] We had agreed to read the same books, so that, during the debate, he would be familiar with my sources and I, with his.

For three months, they read, took notes, and wrote long letters to each other. “Those were not letters, but theoretical position papers and counter-papers, a sort of written exam on material covered.” At the end of the summer, they reassembled in Skriabin’s room.

The soft August twilight came in through the large windows. Out in the courtyard we could see chickens walking around and a cat stretching itself by the water pipe. The room slowly grew dark. A copy of Aivazovsky’s “The Waves of the Surf,” painted by Nikolai Skriabin [Viacheslav’s brother], looked down at us from the wall. On the table, the samovar was wheezing softly. Next to it were cups of unfinished tea and a large tome, open and unread.

Suddenly Arosev announced that his summer reading had convinced him of the superiority of Marxism over populism, and that he could not, in good conscience, defend the SR position (which favored Russian peasants over rootless workers as agents of revolutionary change). After a brief pause, Skriabin said that, in that case, he was not going to speak, either. At the general meeting, the two friends’ declarations “were met with loud applause from one side and a buzz of disapproval, from the other. […] But no one called Z a traitor. They knew that Z had taken a sharp ideological turn, that he had stepped over the threshold separating a spontaneous study of the world from its conscious understanding.”

Not all debates between the SRs and Marxists were this one-sided, even in later retellings by eventual victors. The “decisive battle” Bukharin describes in his memoir involved two teams of earnest boys and girls (reinforced, in the case of the SRs, by one university student) and covered all the usual points of disagreement: the “working class” versus “the people”; “sober calculation” versus “great deeds and self-sacrifice”; “objectivism” versus “subjectivism”; and “universal laws of development” versus “Russia’s uniqueness.” The Marxist charge that the SRs put heroes above the crowd met with the countercharge that Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? amounted to the same thing; to which the Bolsheviks said that their leaders objectively represented the interests of the workers; to which the SRs responded that the Bolsheviks had “turned their party into a barracks, enforced total unanimity, killed all freedom of criticism in their own midst, and were now trying to spread the same thing everywhere”; to which the Bolsheviks responded by quoting from Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?:

We are a tight group walking along a precipitous and difficult path, holding each other firmly by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly under their fire. We have come together, as a result of a decision freely taken, precisely for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not of stumbling into the nearby swamp, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation. And now some among us are beginning to shout: Let’s go into the swamp! And when we begin to shame them, they retort: What backward people you are! Are you not ashamed to deny us the freedom to urge you to take a better road! Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free not only to urge us, but to go yourselves wherever you please, even into the swamp. In fact, we believe that the swamp is just where you belong, and we are prepared to do whatever we can to help you take up residence there. But then let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us, and don’t soil the noble word “freedom,” for we too are “free” to go where we please, free to fight not only against the swamp, but also against those who are turning toward the swamp!

At this point the Bolsheviks proclaimed themselves the winners and ended the debate. Everyone got up and, one at a time (“young ladies excepted!”), walked out of the smoke-filled room with “heavy dark-red curtains” into a back alley off the Arbat, a few blocks north of Bukharin’s gymnasium and the Big Stone Bridge.

It was quiet in the street. […] The sound of footsteps echoed through the alley. […] Large flakes of snow were falling silently, floating out of the darkness, whirling around streetlamps, and covering, like a soft, fluffy eiderdown, the sidewalks, hitching posts, sleds, and the back of a coachman on the corner, half asleep and not fully sober.

As student circles and various “non-party revolutionary organizations” established links with each other and joined formal revolutionary parties, they progressed from just reading to reading and writing essays (Osinsky’s first was about the utilitarian theory of ethics); to reading and writing leaflets (Voronsky’s first ran: “All we can hear are the rattling of chains and the screeching of cell locks, but the new day is dawning, and the sun of social independence and equality, the sun of labor and liberty will rise”); to reading and transporting illegal literature, printing proclamations, holding rallies, making bombs, and, in the case of the SR Maximalists, killing state officials. All over the empire, schoolchildren, seminarians, college students, and eternal students were in the grips of a “living, vibrant faith,” eager to fight “not only against the swamp, but also against those who are turning toward the swamp.”

In 1909, the 21-year-old Valerian Kuibyshev — graduate of the Siberian Cadet Corps, student of Tomsk University, and member of the Bolshevik Party since the age of 16 — was arrested for receiving a parcel with illegal books. His father, the military commander of Kainsk, in the Siberian steppe, was promptly summoned to appear before his commanding officer, General Maslennikov. Valerian describes his father as a simple man, honest soldier, and loving parent, in the manner of Pushkin’s fort commander from The Captain’s Daughter. He was a “servitor who never had any property, so we were raised very modestly; patched and threadbare suits were handed down from older brothers and sisters to the younger ones.” He was also, like Sverdlov’s father, understanding and perhaps proud of his son’s rebellion. There were eight children in the Kuibyshev family, and every one of them was listed by the police as politically unreliable. According to a story Valerian told several friends in August 1931,

Father arrived in Omsk in low spirits and presented himself to General Maslennikov.
As soon as he entered, the general started yelling at him:
“You can’t even raise your own children properly, so how are you going to train your soldiers? Your home address is being used for receiving subversive literature. You should be shot.”
General Maslennikov did not stop yelling for half an hour. Father stood at attention, his arms at his sides, not allowed to respond while his commander was speaking.
Having exhausted himself, General Maslennikov fell silent for a while and then said: “I am having you transferred to Tiumen.”
Tiumen was, of course, a much bigger town than Kainsk. This was a promotion. […]
Father was taken aback: “Excuse me, Your Excellency?”
“You are being transferred to Tiumen.” Then, after a short pause: “I have two sons in prison in Kiev myself.”


The young revolutionaries’ main job was “propaganda and agitation.” “Propaganda” consisted in extending school reading circles to “the masses.” Aleksandr Voronsky’s circle used to meet underground.

The basement was dimly lit with a lamp. It smelled of kerosene and cheap tobacco. The curtains were closely drawn. Casting somber, monstrous shadows, the workers would silently sit down at the table covered with dark oilcloth that was torn and stained with ink. It was always cold in the room. Someone would move the iron stove closer, and the smoke would make your throat itch and eyes burn. They felt like meetings of mysterious conspirators, but the faces of those present were always perfectly ordinary. Sternly and possessively, Nikita would examine the members of the circle, as if testing them, tap on the table with his knuckle or a pencil, and say solemnly: “Listen to the Comrade Speaker.”

Nikita was an older worker who “loved ‘learning,’ put on ancient glasses to read books and newspapers, did not tolerate teasing, and never joked himself, or indeed knew how.” The Comrade Speaker’s learning was partly offset by his awkwardness in front of those whose social and intellectual inferiority was offset by their maturity and redemptive mission.

“Agitation” (as opposed to “propaganda”) referred to making speeches at factories or outdoor rallies. The speeches were to be short and more or less to the point. The point, according to the agitators’ instructions, was to make sure that “the flame of hatred […] burned in the listeners’ hearts.” Voronsky delivered his “in one violent burst, without catching his breath, gesticulating volubly.”

Once, I was rhapsodizing at an improvised open-air meeting from the caboose of a freight train. Below me was a crowd of railway workers. I ardently prophesied “the hour of vengeance and retribution” and was passionately urging them “not to give way to provocation” and “to fight to the end,” while piling on the appeals and not sparing the slogans. Transported by my revolutionary fervor, I did not notice the clanking and the jerking of the train as, before the eyes of the amazed workers, I began to float away, first slowly, then faster and faster, farther and farther away, still waving my arms and shouting out fiery words.


Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Jewish Century (Princeton), which won the National Jewish Book Award.

LARB Contributor

Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Jewish Century (Princeton), which won the National Jewish Book Award.


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