Staunton, March 30 – Unlike other post-communist countries, Russia faces a dilemma because it can’t blame communism on foreign forces, Yuri Slezkine of the University of California, Berkeley, says. Instead, it must face up to the domestic roots of the Soviet tragedy and especially now understand its “sectarian” nature.
Slezkine makes those comments in interview with Mikhail Sokolov of Radio Svoboda on the occasion of the release of the Russian edition of his book, The House of Government (originally in English at Princeton UP, 2017), about the residents of the Moscow apartment complex that Yuri Lyubimov immortalized in his novel (svoboda.org/a/29847345.html).
Bolshevism, Slezkine says, “cannot be tossed out of Russian history;” instead, it must be understood as a millenarian sect consisting initially of people who believed in an apocalyptic transformation of the world and then degenerated for various reasons into a ruling group with all the problems that ultimately led to their overthrow.
Some see the regime of Vladimir Putin as seeking to return Russia to the Soviet past, but Slezkine argues there is one major difference: the Bolsheviks acted in the name of a goal; Putin doesn’t. “Putinism, of course, is a very interesting phenomenon,” the historian says; “but this is authoritarianism without a goal.”
There are a large number of authoritarian regimes, he continues; there are even a large number which have a special role for an authoritarian leader. “But there are not very many regimes of the Bolshevik or Stalinist type,” regimes based on a kind of theocratic faith that existed among the Old Bolsheviks but does not exist now.
That distinction means, Slezkine argues, that despite the trappings of Stalinism, despite the revival of the security organs, the Putin regime is not Stalinist or Bolshevik in the most fundamental sense. It is authoritarian; it does commit crimes against the population and Russia’s neighbors. But that isn’t enough to call it Bolshevik or Stalinist.
“It does not seem to me,” the historian says, “that Russia can fail to reject the heavy inheritance of force from the past, but at the same time, “it does seem to me that It cannot denounce it as absolute evil. One can’t take communists out of the history of the Great Fatherland war, for example.”
“This war,” he continues, “will remain one of the most important events in Russian history and will remain such in Russia for a long time to come.”