Review: The Soviet Century by Karl Schlögel
From hydroelectric dams to prison tattoos and Stalinist cookery books, this compendious volume touches on nearly every area of Russian history and the Soviet experience
One might feel particularly put off – in view of Vladmir Putin’s (and thus Russia’s) abominable war on Ukraine raging since February 2022 – having to read a book on the erstwhile Soviet Union, that scours the ghostly traces of a lost civilisation, the “Soviet lifeworld” even though the Soviet Union is gone. But as we don’t stop reading about America even though it bombed Japan and Afghanistan, or about Japan despite the Nanking Massacre of 1937-38, cultural historian Karl Schlögel informs us that he was triggered to write the book (which first appeared in German in 2017, incidentally the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution) by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and undeclared war on Ukraine in 2014. That those events exposed Russia’s “postimperial phantom pains” was clear to him and he felt an urgent need to stitch the connections between past and present, the outcome of which is this 906-page tome.
To say that Schlögel’s compendious volume is a “total” history of the “form of life” (that Schlögel terms as “Soviet civilisation”) is an understatement. There is hardly an area of the Soviet experience as well as Russian history that remains untouched. The hallmark of this book lies in its seamless consistency and comprehensiveness of research. One might be tempted to read a book on India of such sweeping measure and abiding readability. And Schlögel is no pop historian. He is professor emeritus of Eastern European history at the European University Viadrina, and one of the world’s leading historians of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The author first visited the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1966. He travelled through it extensively and remained “endlessly fascinated” by its landscapes, rivers and people, which made him a historian “socialised through the study of the Russian language and history”. His many books include histories of Moscow, Berlin, and Petersburg, and also books on the sociology of luxury as encapsulated by fragrance. “Revolutions and wars are olfactory events,” he says. While his book Moscow, 1937 was an attempt “to clarify what happened during the ‘Great Purges’ of the Stalin era”, portraits of Eastern European cities written from the 1980s on enabled him to gain access to the Soviet lifeworld and the cultural landscape of Eastern Europe: “If there was one topic I avoided, it was the war of annihilation that Hitler inflicted on the nations of the Soviet Union. I shrank from this, afraid that I would not be able to do it justice.”
Much of the book’s beauty emerges from the delectable arbitrariness of its chapters and topic heads which can be ascribed to Schlögel being a casual wanderer. Like Baudelaire’s flâneur, he wanders the streets and arcades of cities of Russia looking at and listening to the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the life around them conforming, as it were, to Walter Benjamin’s dictum: ‘To write history means giving dates their physiognomy.’
Schlögel’s book departs from the stereotypes of staid historians who saw the Soviet century through the prism of the Cold War. As a result, the signposts course through a wild trajectory – right from the Gulag, the planned economy, the railway system, and the steel city of Magnitogorsk to the Lenin mausoleum and finally to the pervasive terror symbolised by the Lubyanka. It takes in everything from prison-camp tattoos, hydroelectric dams, china elephants (ubiquitous in Soviet homes) and waste disposal to palm trees, the massive prefab housing blocks of the 1970s, the ubiquitous perfume Red Moscow, Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographs, the charts and statistics of the Five-Year Plans, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia and the voice of Radio Moscow. And then there are the toilets, graffiti, cramped communal apartments, parades, and the long queues outside shops. Nothing that defines the Soviet way of life such as the role of the human body in Soviet society (gymnastics or fizkultura, fashion, ballet), its love for music, fragrance and cleanliness escapes his meticulous gaze. Not for a moment does his narrative slacken or lose focus. From the banal to the hilarious, and from utopian fantasies to dystopian nightmares (the Lubyanka), the book has it all.
The first chapter, Barakholka in Izmailovsky Park, Bazaar in Petrograd, starts with a picture of the barakholka, as the flea market used to be called in Russia, even before the Revolution, the market where second-hand articles are bought and sold. There are large numbers of collectors of memorabilia from the Soviet-German War – belt buckles, pay books and service records, helmets with bullet holes, the labour records of former “eastern workers” as well as of German soldiers “who never managed to return home” alongside discarded sets of the complete works of Marxism-Leninism, the children’s books by Korney Chukovsky and Arkady Gaidar, the Academy editions of the Russian classics and the great cookery book from the Stalin era. One may even find a whole bundle of documents reflecting an entire life including family photographs and their trajectory – their school reports, their sporting successes, their party membership and so on right down to the end of their life. “We might even say,” Schlögel says, “every great crisis, every revolution, the end of every era finds expression in bazaars where the shards of the vanished world are offered for sale on the cheap”.
Schlögel then takes us to Soviet museums for “they are storehouses of cultural memory, for both major events and minor details; memories of families, tribes, nations, empires and enterprises”. He notes how, after the 1930s under Stalin, ungratifying facts of Soviet history such as vestiges of the cruel behaviour of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, the Holodomor famine in Ukraine during the period of collectivisation and industrialisation, the repression of the nationalities, the nonheroic side of the Great Patriotic War with its horrendous sacrifices were erased from museum inventories. A new, “nonideological and myth-free narrative” can be seen in many of the museums of the republics that have regained their independence”.
The deportation of leading representatives of the Russian intelligentsia, Schlögel says, belongs to a history that “even now is far too little known”. It is the history of the exodus of about two million people after the Revolution and Civil War. Especially after the Second World War and during the latter years of the Soviet Union, these refugees, émigrés and nonreturnees spread out across the world and settled in the world’s metropolises. While the movements of refugees and émigrés away from Hitler-dominated Europe is well documented, the Russian emigration, the other great exodus of the twentieth century, is less so. Many great names were part of the Russian diaspora. It included writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Ivan Bunin, economists and sociologists such as Pitirim Sorokin and the Nobel Prize laureate for economics Simon Kuznets, musicians such as Igor Stravinsky and Serge Koussevitzky, philosophers such as Nikolay Berdyaev and Alexandre Kojève. They were the lucky ones. “It is one of the tragic paradoxes that the first exiles outlived many of those who drove them away in the first place and that deportation proved to be their salvation,” Schlögel writes. Many were not. Leon Trotsky was put on a boat for Constantinople in 1929 only to be murdered later in Mexico by Stalin’s agents.
With empire-building and nation-building, the enterprise of firming up an image of socialist construction was taken up in right earnest, evident from the curated pictures of the dam of the Dnipro Hydro Electric Station, the blast furnaces of Magnitogorsk, the lock chambers of the White Sea Canal, originally named after Stalin and the rhythm of the workshops of the tractor factory in Kharkiv. They were meant to be images of modernity and “the leap of a backward agrarian country into the twentieth century”. Photographers, outstanding masters of their trade, such as Dmitry Baltermants, were commissioned to draw up The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, which first appeared in the Soviet Union in 1939 (‘Stalin’s Cookbook: Images of the Good Life in the Soviet Age’) with images of abundant food – “tins of food heaped into pyramids, displays of fish and sausage, fishing vessels at sea, mountains of melons and citrus fruits, and combine harvesters on infinitely vast fields of grain”, ostensibly to hide memories of the horrific famine which claimed the lives of millions, the hunger in the lands devastated by the Germans, and the sufferings of the many millions of people uprooted by the war.
The wealth of this book cannot be sufficiently explored within the limits of a review. Gibbonian in scale, it is a veritable cornucopia of jewels. “In Russia, radical changes and catastrophic experiences occur in their pure form,” Schlögel states. Reading his chronicle of this massive churn in all its sensory whimsies, we gain fresh insights into the lost world of the Soviet Union.
Prasenjit Chowdhury is an independent writer. He lives in Kolkata.