Steven Marks, How Russia Shaped the Modern World:
From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism
From the autocracy of the Tsars to the totalitarianism of Stalinist communism, and on to the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin, over the last two centuries, Russia (and the Soviet Union, when it existed), have charted a path politically well removed from that of the democracies of Western Europe and North America. But if Russia has been depressingly resistant to the democratizing currents of the West, I have always assumed and never doubted for a moment that Russia was a indispensable part of European culture, a huge contributor to its every aspect, literature and art, music and dance and more. Steven Marks’ “How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism,” which first appeared in 2003, did not dispel that assumption but added a new twist to my understanding of Russia’s contribution to both European and world culture.
Marks, a Russian history specialist at Clemson University, argues that since the late 19th century, Russians have shaped the modern world by leading the reaction to it. Throughout this period, Russian art and literature, as well as its politics, have had the common characteristic of being in opposition to the liberal, individualistic, capitalist ethos of the West. Marks characterizes these tendencies across diverse areas as “rejectionism,” frequently encapsulating them in an elusive notion termed the “soul of Russia.” There was, he writes, a “perception of tsarist Russian and Soviet thought as Eastern and exotic, which made it especially appealing beyond the empire’s borders. This was the strain of ‘Orientalism’ that was embraced as an antidote to modern civilization” (p.4). This theme runs through his analyses of Russian anarchistic 19th century political thought, literature – especially the giants Dostoevsky and Tolstoy – anti-Semitism, dance, visual arts and music. He finishes with the Leninist Bolshevik project. On each topic, Marks shows Russian influence throughout the world; he does not limit his study to Western Europe and North America.
Marks writes for the general reader. His scope is breathtakingly broad, with a dizzying series of short portraits of Russian luminaries in each of the areas he treats. Experts may contend that he overstates or oversimplifies the extent and nature of Russian influence in some of these areas. But readers wishing to consider a different perspective on the soul of Russia and the Russian contribution to world thinking and artistic expression should find the book highly engaging.
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Marks starts with the Russian anarchists of the late 19th century and finishes with those pesky Bolsheviks who took the reins of power in 1917 and set Russia off on a nearly 75-year experiment known as the Soviet Union. The opening chapters on Russian anarchism were for me the book’s most captivating. Anarchism was a branch of socialism that arose in Western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century as a “combined legacy of the Enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of humankind and the Romantic fervor for noble savages and stormy rebelliousness” (p.7), Marks writes.
By the 1860s, Russia had become the acknowledged international leader of the anarchist movement and its opposition to state power and bourgeois industrialism, the “ills of which were often . . . more apparent than the benefits” (p.7). Anarchism was the “first Russian intellectual movement to have a significant international impact. Its glorious promises for society’s future electrified followers around the world, and the organizational and killing methods developed by Russian revolutionary adherents to fight the tsarist regime marked the birth of modern terrorism” (p.7).
The most prominent of the anarchists were Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. Although Bakunin and his followers were atheists, Bakunin “worshipped the peasant masses as the vessels of the Absolute” (p.10). Bakunin thus tapped into the soul of Russia cult, infusing his ideas with “spiritual yearning and secular ideological substitutes for religiosity . . . Religious messianism was transferred to the revolutionary movement, a process Bakunin embodied” (p.8). Freedom for Bakunin was a “mystical notion” derived from Russian Orthodox metaphysics which “required not the preservation of individualism bur rather its total dissolution in a collective form of unity that would free humankind from the suffering brought on by the selfish competitiveness of the capitalist bourgeoisie” (p.11).
Bakuninst anarchism went on to become an important rejectionist force in Italian politics from the 1870s to the 1920s. Gavrilo Princep and his fellow Serbian ultra-nationalists fed on Russian conspiratorial-revolutionary-anarchist literature. Poles, Armenians, Macedonians and Serbs formed the earliest organized terrorist movements outside Russia to serve the cause of national liberation. Political terrorism came to be known as the “Russian method.” Although anarchism sought to shield the individual from the depredations of state power, Bakunin was a “closet authoritarian who thought a dictatorship was necessary to organize the future communal society” (p.11).
Although less well known than Bakunin, Kropotkin was more eccentric and offered a far softer version of anarchism. Kropotkin challenged the understanding of Thomas Malthus and Charles Darwin of competitive relations between and among species. For Kropotkin, nature is not a struggle between individuals, but a “struggle between individuals and the environment.” The fittest are not the strongest, but “those who have learned to live cooperatively” (p.41). Kropotkin’s utopian solution relied on the Russian peasant commune as the “prototype of the ideal form for the future organization of humanity” (p.42). Kropotkin’s slogan was “to every man according to his needs,” and he called his program “anarchist communist” because of its emphasis upon cooperative organization.
Kropotkin’s communitarian vision gave rise to certain strains of Western urban planning in the 1920s, such as creation of garden cities and back-to-the-land alternatives to city life, and foreshadowed the contemporary ecological movement. Kropotkin’s radical ideas even account “partially” for the “ancestry of certain features of the modern American suburban landscape” (p.48), Marks asserts. When Kropotkin died, his funeral was the occasion for the “last mass demonstration against Bolshevism” (p.53).
Many leftist intellectuals projected their anarchist, pro-peasant soul-of-Russia views onto the Bolshevik Revolution. Few “understood that Lenin and Trotsky were autocratic. Most believed that the Bolshevik leaders were implementing the decentralizing, anarchist agenda that had long been recognized as the hallmark of Russian radicalism” (p.284). With good reason, then, those on the outside often saw little difference between Russian anarchism and Bolshevism. Marks shows how Lenin used ideas drawn from the anarchists when useful to him. Stalin, for his part, added a “theocratic and Russian chauvinist imprint to Soviet official culture” (p.279).
Marks treats the familiar and always fascinating theme of the early Western attraction to the Soviet experiment. Carrying forward prerevolutionary stereotypes of “soulful Russia as a repository of Eastern wisdom and collectivism” (p.282), Western intellectuals were surprisingly “prone to messianic delusions,” with an “astonishing capacity for fooling themselves” (p.285-86). Upon reviewing Stalin’s industrialization efforts, John Dewey commented that he felt, “as if for the first time the moving spirit and force of primitive Christianity” (p.285). British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb lauded the “entirely ‘new civilization’’ which Stalin was in the process of creating, with a “truly democratic system of representation” (p.285), while George Bernard Shaw insisted that Stalin was “simply secretary of the supreme controlling organ of the hierarchy, subject to dismissal at ten minutes’ notice if he does not give satisfaction” (p.286).
Marks finishes with a chapter on the influence of Russian Bolshevism outside the Soviet Union, mostly a discussion of the degree to which lesser developed countries adopted the Russian model of socialism. In the years immediately following the Bolshevik revolution, intellectuals from what came to be known as “Third World,” “reacting to their own countries’ trauma in the throes of modernization or imperialism, were similarly attracted to Russian culture and ideology. They, too, perceived Russia, despite a thin European veneer, as being non-Western, and thus close in spirit to their own experiences” (p.4-5).
The chapter on Russian anti-Semitism is extremely dark. To a surprising degree, Marks argues, 20th century European anti-Semitism was a Russian import. By the end of the 19th century, Russia had the world’s largest Jewish population, and anti-Semitism was stronger in Russia than in the West. Tsarist Russia maintained an apartheid-like regime, buttressed by Jim Crow legislation and recurrently violent anti-Jewish pogroms in the years leading up to the 1917 Revolution. In late 19th century Russia, Jews were perceived as the “quintessentially evil representatives of modernity, whether as financiers, traders or revolutionaries” (p.140). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the basic text in anti-Semitism, was a Russian product. The Protocols, whose precise origins are still uncertain, were “purportedly the secret resolutions of international Jewish leaders, a game plan for the domination of the world and enslavement of the goyim – Yiddish for Gentiles” (p.149). The Protocols were at the foundation of “all Nazi anti-Semitic belief and rhetoric,” helping to “extinguish lingering good will toward the Jews, and . . . to rationalize their annihilation” (p.170).
Militantly anti-capitalist and rabidly anti-Semitic Russian organizations came to be known at the Black Hundreds. Marks characterizes the rise of the Black Hundreds as a “transitional phase in the history of the European right between old-fashioned reactionary movements and dynamic modern fascism” (p.148). The Russian extreme right formulated major strains of Nazism and fascism at least a decade before these phenomena appeared in Western Europe, Marks contends, forging an “alliance of old elites and resentful masses” (p.148). Its “radical rejectionism; its reliance on violence as its chief political tool; and its demagogic anti-Semitism all anticipated the future fascist movements of France, Germany and Romania” (p.148).
Marks’ chapters on Fydor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy provide good comparisons between the two, and demonstrate the enormous influence of each beyond Russia’s borders. Dostoevsky’s focus on the complexity of human psychology and man’s irrationality established him as one of the 19th century’s deepest but darkest thinkers. Dostoevsky’s world view was based on what Marks terms a “holy trinity” of individual freedom, orthodox Christianity, and Russian nationalism. For Dostoevsky, Western rationalism had produced a “cold, unloving kind of devotion to humanity that often concealed an abhorrence of human beings as individuals” (p.62). Freedom for Dostoevsky was an inner, spiritual matter, not a “juridical or constitutional problem,” embracing a “Christ like spirituality that overcomes man’s fractured and wounded personality, through love, brotherhood, and community” (p.65). Dostoevsky transformed the soul-of-Russia sense of uniqueness into a “strident and hostile anti-Western credo — despite his intellectual engagement with European philosophy and literature” (p.65).
Dostoevsky’s work fit well with the late 19th century European interest in individual psychology and the irrational. He had a huge impact upon Sigmund Freud, whose ancestors had migrated to Austria from Russia. Freud found that Dostoevsky had captured the psyche if not the soul of Russians, who, as Freud saw them, were inclined to “ascetic mysticism, chauvinism, fanaticism, violence, and other ‘compromise[s] with morality’” (p.72). In the first decades of the 20th century, Dostoevsky’s popularity in Europe soared, nowhere more than in Germany, where he gained the dubious distinction of being the Nazis’ favorite non-German writer.
Tolstoy, described as “genius and crank” (p.102) by Ivan Turgenev, another 19th century Russian literary giant, sought to simplify Christianity and reduce it to what he considered its core values. He promulgated a version of Christianity that didn’t have much to do with Russian Orthodoxy or any other institutional form of Christianity. Marks characterizes Tolstoy’s religious outlook as “Christian anarchism,” another strain of Russian rejectionism that attracted a global following at the turn of the century. Tolstoy’s entire body of writing “reeks of contempt for Western capitalism, materialism, parliamentary democracy, law and constitutionalism” (p.105), Marks writes. Through his fictional and theological portrayals of the peasant, Tolstoy “contributed to the international image of the Russian soul as the antipode of the rationalizing, industrializing West” (p.109).
Tolstoy fashioned a lifestyle that foreshadowed 1960s hippies. He became one of the first advocates of vegetarianism. Among those attracted to his views and life style was an obscure Indian lawyer practicing law in Durban, South Africa, Mahatmas Gandhi. Gandhi’s reading of Tolstoy was a critical step in his transformation as liberator of the Indian people. By 1900, Tolstoy was a recognized voice against American racism. He was one of the first international mass-media celebrities, a role he relished, curiously enough, and one that befitted a man who helped usher in the modern world even as he struggled against it.
In his chapters on music, dance and painting, Marks shows how in each domain, the major Russian artists were in some sense reacting to Western modernism. Marks starts with Sergei Diaghilev, publisher of The World of Art, a journal which, with its initial appearance in 1898, marked the beginning of the Russian Modernist movement. Diaghilev and his associates fostered a “discriminating love of music, dance, and painting alongside scorn for what they saw as the stagnant Russian art of the day. They yearned for the revival of Russian art as a bulwark against the dominance of western European, bourgeois culture” (p.177). Diaghilev combined ambivalence toward the West with “massive expectations of Russian culture. He was at bottom a Russian nationalist whose purpose was not to Europeanize domestic art but to remedy its effects through exposure to contemporary trends” (p.179).
Diaghilev created the dance company “Ballets Russes.” Ballet for Diaghilev and his followers was a “non-descriptive and suggestive means of means of expressing pure emotion” (p.180). The essence of Ballets Russes, according to Diaghilev, was its “elemental spontaneity. We wished to find an art through which all the complexity of life, all feelings and passions, could be expressed apart from words and ideas – not rationally but elementally” (p.181). The Ballets Russes “opened the door to the embrace of an array of exotic, lower class and foreign music and dance impulses” (p.200). Ballets Russes never performed in Russia owing to official ostracism of Diaghliev before 1917 and Diaghilev’s hatred of communism afterwards.
Meanwhile, Russian artists “ceaselessly pushed the limits of artistic firmament” (p.228). Vasily Kandinsky was Russia’s primary “practitioner and theorist of abstractionism,” which reflected a common view among avant garde Russian artists that painting could replicate the psychological effect of music or poetry and vice-versa. Russian abstractionism shared with Russian antecedents an “anti-modern sense that Western Civilization had gone tragically awry. Humanity required radical aesthetic and political measures to reduce it, namely their brand of abstract painting plus socialism or anarchism” (p.270).
Marks emphasizes the “global adaptability” of the Russian avant-garde forms of artistic expression. Like Russian anarchists, writers, visionaries and anti-Semites, the Russian avant-garde “appeared as wise men of the East offering access to higher truth” (p.274). Rooted in mysticism, messianism, and anti-Westernism, Russian visual arts, dance and theatre “rejected industrial-bourgeois existence and sought to remake society anew” (p.274). But the obvious irony was that these artists’ legacy was to be found in “realms of mass culture such as Hollywood movies, fascist propaganda, and Western commercial advertising” (p.176), with individualistic and capitalist audiences avidly pursuing their works.
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Marks indicates at the outset of his sweeping and exuberantly written work that Russian intellectual and artistic life has always had a “close and symbiotic relationship with the West” (p.6), with the Russian thinkers and artists he discusses influenced in differing degrees by European counterparts as well as influencing them. Nonetheless, his book could be criticized for its “one way street” effect, the sense that there was little cross-fertilization, little positive absorption of Western lines of thought and artistic expression in Russia – only reaction to decadent capitalist and individualistic Western models. Specialists might also criticize the book for trying to pack too much into the notion of Russian rejectionism and the soul of Russia. The American suburban landscape would likely have taken its present form even had Peter Kropotkin died in early childhood, for example; and Fascism and anti-Semitism hardly needed Russian models to thrive in Germany, France, and Italy. But Marks deserves credit for creative thinking across a wide range, bringing highly diverse subject matters together into an intriguing conceptual framework.
Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
November 22, 2014