Mar 25, 2009

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No. 2

Here is a brief review of an old, out-of-print book by a scholar of long ago, just one of many, many great, old books I have acquired that do not deserve to be forgotten. I started these reviews because I am sure there are other bibliophiles out there who can enjoy learning from them as much as I have.

I believe that the inexpensive old books I have discovered in used book stores and library sales are, in both the subject matter itself and in how it is presented, superior to what scholars and intellectuals publish today. Old books offer a dirt cheap way to give oneself a great education. I have learned from old books so much important material that, if I read only newer books, I would hardly be aware of, if at all; material that is essential to a good education.

For instance, it was mainly not through my formal education, but through my self-education that I came to see how history is often distorted and misrepresented by people and groups who have certain social/cultural/political agendas, such as Christians responding to the new rise of atheism by claiming that atheism leads to totalitarianism and mass-slaughter as in Soviet Russia. Well, here is one book that thoroughly and comprehensively looks at Russia's path to communism - and it is a history that does not quite corroborate what the Christians like to assert about the matter.

Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism, by Avrahm Yarmolinsky; Collier Books, 1971; 349 pp.

The road to Lenin’s communist Russia of 1917 actually began in 1790 when Alexander Radischev’s book, A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, was published. “While informed with the spirit of Western Enlightenment, the book [A Journey] is deeply rooted in the native soil. Never before had the seamy side of Russian life been so boldly exposed” including “that the gaudy fa├žade of Catherine’s rule conceals a corrupt and cruelly oppressive regime” (13).


Radischev was an official in the Russian government. As a teenager he was sent to Germany to study and he eagerly absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment‘s thinkers, especially the French philosophes. Radischev, though part of the nobility, was an egalitarian democrat who wanted the serfs emancipated and he saw industrialism as evil. He believed it was for the future generations to make his vision of Russia a reality.

It is not known why the official censor let the book slip by and be published but the consequences of his neglect were tremendous and far-reaching for his country. Radischev was sentenced to Siberia but the ideas of revolution were planted.

The explosive nature of Radischev’s book is evident by seeing the historical setting it was in, which was that of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In Russia, Catherine II “opened schools, encouraged book publishing, sponsored a periodical press, though only as long as the satire in which it indulged remained innocuous. A peasant uprising at home and the turn events were taking in France helped put an end to her flirtation with liberalism. The regime which started out as enlightened despotism ended as despotism tout court. But she could not wholly undo, what was, in part, the work of her own hands“ (18-19). After the French king was executed Catherine wanted everything French “exterminated.”

Western liberal ideas were penetrating Russia, especially in its army after the war with Napoleon. Yarmolinsky tells how in 1820 that “the French ambassador wrote that he could not think without horror of what would happen to Europe if forty million Russians, still half savage and brutalized by slavery, conceived a desire for freedom and proceeded to shake off their chains. True, the dangerous notion hadn’t yet entered the heads of the lower orders, but it was already inflaming the well-born” (31).

Secret societies began forming, mostly of military officers. These societies were born of disapproval with sundry political and military matters and were the forerunners of the later communist/anarchist terrorist and revolutionary groups.

A group of insurgent army officers who planned to overthrow the czar in December, 1825 (the “Decembrists“) composed a tract called The Orthodox Catechism. The text is vaguely reminiscent of America’s Declaration of Independence but is heavily religious and collectivist. In it all Russia’s misfortunes are attributed to its government so the authors call for the formation of a republic because that is the form of government consistent with divine law. They assert that Jesus Christ must reign on earth as he does in Heaven; and the death of the czar is a sign from God for the Russians to free themselves from their slavery. The establishing of a new government is the army’s responsibility.

At the same time, among the Russian intellectuals two schools of thought about Russia’s direction developed, the Westernists and the Slavophiles.

The Westernists thought that Russia would progress similarly as the Western Europeans had. They strongly favored institutional reform as a means of progress. Vissarion Belinsky was the most prominent of them. He called the Orthodox Church a “toady to despotism” that was “foreign to Christ, who was the first to teach mankind the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity” (72).


The Slavophiles “were romantic doctrinaires who found in German philosophy sanction for their distrust of the intellect, their religiosity, their traditionalism. They believed that Russia possessed a culture distinct from and superior to that of the West” (69). They were populists in claiming that the Russian peasantry embodied the Orthodox faith and its sense of equality and brotherhood. Slavophiles held the lofty conviction that Russia could achieve no less than her own and the world’s salvation.

Alexander Herzen, who was prominent among the revolutionaries’ thinkers, was in the Westernist camp, envisaged a secular Armageddon in Europe that would bring in a new socialist society consisting of a centralized state, order (instead of freedom), and collectivism.

Nikolay Chernyshevsky was also one of the most important thinkers among the revolutionaries. He advocated enlightened self-interest, which meant identifying one’s happiness with the happiness of all. Man is the plaything of circumstances so his society is morally responsible for what he becomes. He also loathed laissez-faire and wanted to see the people living in phalansteries similar to those dreamt of by Fourier. After the publication in 1863 of Chernyshevsky’s fictional story, What’s to be Done?, about the heroically selfless “new men” of the future communism, his influence on radicals and revolutionaries - including on Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the next century - became tremendous.

Of the many terrorist groups in Road to Revolution, one was especially fanatical: “Half a dozen of the more audacious spirits discussed at length a plan for forming a terrorist band. They called it Hell. Each member of this secrecy-shrouded body was to be a dedicated and doomed man. He had to give up his friends, his family, his personal life, his very name” (137).


Dmitry Karakozov was a youth who was considered for the group and was fascinated by the possibility of daring action and self-immolation. “The cause of the common people was his ruling passion” (138). He tried to assassinate the czar but his pistol shot missed. This episode ended in much delicious irony.

That the czar’s life was saved was taken as proof of divine favor falling on him and the Russian people believed Karakozov was an angry serf-owner seeking revenge. Even a joint resolution in the U.S. Congress congratulating the czar for surviving the assassination attempt condemned his would-be assassin as an “enemy of emancipation.” Karakozov’s comrades were arrested and while in jail he vainly wrote to the czar pleading for his life to be spared. “On 3 September, two days after the verdict had been pronounced, Karakozov was hanged by one of the peasant’s for whom he wished to lay down his life” (141).

Like many of the early groups of Russian terrorists and revolutionaries, the Karakozov episode shows how they were often amateurishly inept to the point of hilarity. Often they were more dangerous to themselves than to their intended targets, and their many attempts to “rouse the masses” to revolt simply fell flat.

Yarmolinsky’s history of Russian radicalism ends in the 1890’s with the emergence of the major Marxist political parties.

Of nearly all the Russian revolutionaries, from the intellectuals down to the terrorists, three characteristics of them are salient.

First is how they saw their revolution in religious terms.

A few brief but very interesting examples from the book are representative of the communist revolutionaries' religious mentalities. In the early 1830’s when they were university students, Alexander Herzen and Nikolay Ogarev were seduced by the ideas of French socialist thinkers Saint-Simon and Fourier (whose socialist ideas were inspired by and meant to replace Christianity). They swore on the Bible “to dedicate their lives to the people and the cause of liberty ‘upon the basis of socialism‘” by forming a secret society (67). There was Vera Figner with her “ideal of the prophets and martyrs of the socialist evangel” (180). Michael Bakunin’s followers held “a dream of freedom and equality on earth which was a substitute for a lost faith in heaven” (184). In the 1870’s were one group of revolutionary propagandists who pored over the New Testament and “dreamed of a new faith that would at once steel the intellectuals with fresh courage and enlist the religious sentiment of the masses on the side of revolution.” They believed “a revolutionary was most effective when he suffered for the cause“(187). Yarmolinsky quotes one terrorist after an assassination: “Let my blood, too, be the seed of Socialism, just as the blood of the early martyrs was the seed of the Christian Church” (257).

Secondly, just like contemporary terrorists they were fanatical nihilists who reveled in death, destruction, and martyrdom. For instance one revolutionary pamphlet stated, “We must devote ourselves wholly to destruction, constant, ceaseless, relentless, until there is nothing left of existing institutions.” And here is another especially evil quote from the terrorists’ literature: “We prize thought only in so far as it can serve the great cause of radical and ubiquitous destruction” (152). Then there is Sergey Nechayev’s infamous, The Catechism of the Revolutionary, which describes the revolutionary as a “doomed man” who has, literally, only one interest: revolution, so he can “destroy this vile order.” Some of this rhetoric, also like statements of terrorists since then, is undoubtedly hyperbolic bravado and propaganda - but it expresses some amount of profoundly held conviction, nonetheless.

Thirdly, they were second-handers, some of them abjectly so. Nechayev was a basket-case of second-handedness.

In order to be seen as a hero by his comrades he faked his imprisonment, faked his escape from his faked imprisonment, and even faked being killed by the police. “His ascetic habits - he lived on bread and milk, and slept on bare boards, at least while staying at the homes of his followers - could not but make an impression. Those he did not fascinate he ruled by fear…He arrogated to himself the right to destroy those who did not see eye to eye with him” (157).

One cell member was disobedient to Nechayev and doubted the existence of a mysterious, secret “Central Committee” Nechayev claimed he attended and would then give them orders from (he was, indeed, its only member). Nechayev and three other cell members murdered him. “For years the cry to kill the people’s enemies had repeatedly been raised by the handful of would-be liberators. The only victim turned out to be one of their own small number who had aroused the leader’s hostility” (159).

Nechayev was eventually arrested and was to be sentenced to Siberia, but his pseudo-heroics only made things worse for himself. During his sentencing he shouted, “Down with the Czar!” and “Long live the free Russian people!” and similar insults to the authorities. “As a result, the Emperor changed the court sentence to solitary incarceration for life in the Fortress of Peter and Paul” (165).

Road to Revolution is a very interesting, informative, and readable book on the Russian revolutionaries before Lenin, from their intellectual theories and religious inspirations to their bloody actions. For anyone wanting to learn about this subject, Yarmolinsky’s book is required reading. More important, considering how often Christians attempt to tie atheism, rationality, and secularism to the totalitarian bloodbath of communism, Yarmolinsky’s book is an effective (although unintended by him) debunking of that assertion. Russian communism and its horrors were, to a very large extent, clearly consequences of irrationalism and secularizing the Christian religion.

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No. 1

3 comments:

  1. That sounds like a fascinating read.

    I agree with you that there are a lot of old OOP books that make for informative reading. If you would like to follow up your reading on Russia, I recommend The Rise of the Soviet Empire: A Study of Soviet Foreign Policy, by Jan Librach.

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  2. Tom,

    Thanks for bringing my attention to this book. It sounds fascinating. From your description, it sounds like many of these revolutionaries were influenced by the Enlightenment as well as by Christianity. I'm not an expert on the Enlightenment but is there a sense in which the Enlightenment contributed to the socialist revolutions? After all, men like Rousseau and Hobbes were Enlightenment era figures even if they were not pro-individualist influences. It seems like the better elements of Enlightenment thought led to the Anglo-American experience while the worse elements led to Continental socialism.

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  3. Ardsgaine, I'll keep that 'Soviet Empire' book in mind because I still have a lot of books on Russian history, philosophy, religion, and intellectual history I have to get time to dive in to.

    Good question, Madmax. I'm not sure how much they were influenced by the Enlightenement, I'd like to know. The French Enlightenment brought about socialism and as my understandiing of it stands now I'd say the French political and social thinkers seemed to have done what the Russians did - secularize the ideas in religion. I read 'Road to Revolution' a few years ago, so I had to review it for this post. While doing that I was suddenly aware of a glaring omission from the Russians philosophies: no basis in Greek thought. Greek thought obviously made the Enlightenment possible. Greek thought makes progress possible - which is what the Russians wanted! So yeah, it's as complicated as it is fascinating to see where different philosophies go and what comes of them.

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