2 Engineers of the Human Soul

In October 1919, according to legend, Lenin paid a secret visit to the laboratory of the great physiologist I. P. Pavlov to find out if his work on the conditional reflexes of the brain might help the Bolsheviks control human behaviour. 'I want the masses of Russia to follow a Communistic pattern of thinking and reacting,' Lenin explained. 'There was too much individualism in the Russia of the past. Communism does not tolerate individualistic tendencies. They are harmful. They interfere with our plans. We must abolish individualism.' Pavlov was astounded. It seemed that Lenin wanted him to do for humans what he had already done for dogs. 'Do you mean that you would like to standardize the population of Russia? Make them all behave in the same way?' he asked. 'Exactly', replied Lenin. 'Man can be corrected. Man can be made what we want him to be'.14

Whether it happened or not, the story illustrates a general truth: the ultimate aim of the Communist system was the transformation of human nature. It was an aim shared by the other so-called totalitarian regimes of the inter-war period. This, after all, was an age of Utopian optimism in the potential of science to change human life and, paradoxically at the same time, an age of profound doubt and uncertainty about the value of human life itself in the wake of the destruction of the First World War. As one of the pioneers of the eugenics movement in Nazi Germany put it in 1920, 'it could almost seem as if we have witnessed a change in the concept of humanity .. . We were forced by the terrible exigencies of war to ascribe a different value to the life of the individual than was the case before.'15 But there was also a vital difference between the Communist man-building programme and the human engineering of the Third Reich. The Bolshevik programme was based on the ideals of the Enlightenment — it stemmed from Kant as much as from Marx — which makes Western liberals, even in this age of post-modernism, sympathize with it, or at least obliges us to try and understand it, even if we do not share its political goals; whereas the Nazi efforts to 'improve mankind', whether through eugenics or genocide, spat in the face of the Enlightenment and can only fill us with revulsion. The notion of creating a new type of man through the enlightenment of the masses had always been the messianic mission of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia, from whom the Bolsheviks emerged. Marxist philosophy likewise taught that human nature was a product of historical development and could thus be transformed by a revolution. The scientific materialism of Darwin and Huxley, which had the status of a religion among the Russian intelligentsia during Lenin's youth, equally lent itself to the view that man was determined by the world in which he lived. Thus the Bolsheviks were led to conclude that their revolution, with the help of science, could create a new type of man.

Lenin and Pavlov both paid homage to the influence of Ivan Sechenov (1829—1905), the physiologist who maintained that the brain was an electromechanical device responding to external stimuli. His book, The Reflexes of the Brain (1863), was a major influence on Chernyshevsky, and thus on Lenin, as well as the starting point for Pavlov's theory on conditioned reflexes. This was where science and socialism met. Although Pavlov was an outspoken critic of the revolution and had often threatened to emigrate, he was patronized by the Bolsheviks.* After two years of growing his own carrots, Pavlov was awarded a 

handsome ration and a spacious Moscow apartment. Despite the chronic shortage of paper, his lectures were published in 1921. Lenin spoke of Pavlov's work as 'hugely significant' for the revolution. Bukharin called it 'a weapon from the iron arsenal of materialism'. Even Trotsky, who generally stayed clear of cultural policy but took a great interest in psychiatry, waxed lyrical on the possibility of reconstructing man:

What is man? He is by no means a finished or harmonious being. No, he is still a highly awkward creature. Man, as an animal, has not evolved by plan but spontaneously, and has accumulated many contradictions. The question of how to educate and regulate, of how to improve and complete the physical and spiritual construction of man, is a colossal problem which can only be conceived on the basis of Socialism. We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but we surely cannot improve man. No, we can! To produce a new, 'improved version' of man — that is the future task of Communism. And for that we first have to find out everything about man, his anatomy, his physiology and that part of his physiology which is called his psychology. Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: 'At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.'16

* It is tempting to conclude that Pavlov was the target of Bulgakov's satire, The Heart of a Dog (1925), in which a world-famous experimental scientist, who despises the Bolsheviks but accepts their patronage, transplants the brain and sexual organs of a dog into a human being.


 

The New Soviet Man, as depicted in the futuristic novels and Utopian tracts which boomed around the time of the revolution, was a Prometheus of the machine age. He was a rational, disciplined and collective being who lived only for the interests of the greater good, like a cell in a living organism. He thought not in terms of the individual T but in terms of the collective 'we'. In his two science fiction novels, Red Star (1908) and Engineer Menni (1913), the Bolshevik philosopher Alexander Bogdanov described a Utopian society located on the planet of Mars sometime in the twenty-third century. Every vestige of individuality had been eliminated in this 'Marxian-Martian society': all work was automated and run by computers; everyone wore the same unisex clothing and lived in the same identical housing; children were brought up in special colonies; there were no separate nations and everyone spoke a sort of Esperanto. At one point in Engineer Menni the principal hero, a Martian physician, compares the mission of the bourgeoisie on earth, which had been 'to create a human individual', with the task of the proletariat on Mars to 'gather these atoms' of society and 'fuse them into a single, intelligent human organism'.17

The ideal of individual liberation through the collective was fundamental to the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia. 'Not "I" but "we" — here is the basis of the emancipation of the individual,' Gorky had written in 1908. 'Then at last man will feel himself to be the incarnation of all the worlds wealth, of all the world's beauty, of all experience of humanity, and spiritually the equal of all his brothers.' For Gorky, the awakening of this collective spirit was essentially a humanist task: he often compared it to the civic spirit of the Enlightenment. Russia had missed out on that cultural revolution. Centuries of serfdom and tsarist rule had bred, in his view, a 'servile and torpid people', passive and resistant to the influence of progress, prone to sudden outbursts of destructive violence, yet incapable, without state compulsion, of constructive national work. The Russians, in short, were nekulturnyi, or 'uncivilized': they lacked the culture to be active citizens. The task of the cultural revolution, upon which the political and social revolutions depended, was to cultivate this sense of citizenship. It was, in Gorky's words, to 'activate the Russian people along Western lines' and to liberate them from their long history of Asiatic barbarism and idleness'.18

In 1909 Gorky, Bogdanov and Lunacharsky had established a school for Russian workers at the writer's villa on the island of Capri. Thirteen workers (one of them a police spy) were smuggled out of Russia at great expense and made to sit through a dry course of lectures on the history of socialism and Western literature. The only extra-curricular entertainment was a guided tour by Lunacharsky of the art museums of Naples. Bologna was the venue for a second workers' school in 1910. The object of this exercise was to create a group of conscious proletarian socialists — a sort of 'working-class intelligentsia' — who would then disseminate their knowledge to the workers and thereby ensure that the revolutionary movement created its own cultural revolution. The founders of the school formed themselves into the Vpered (Forward) group and immediately came into bitter conflict with Lenin. The Vperedists' conception of the revolution was essentially Menshevik in the sense that they saw its success as dependent upon the organic development of a working-class culture. Lenin, by contrast, was dismissive of the workers' potential as an independent cultural force and stressed their role as disciplined cadres for the party. The Vpered group also claimed that knowledge, and technology in particular, were the moving forces of history in a way that Marx had not envisaged, and that social classes were differentiated less by property than by their possession of knowledge. The working class would thus be liberated not just by controlling the means of production, distribution and exchange, but by a simultaneous cultural revolution which also gave them the power of knowledge itself. Hence their commitment to the enlightenment of the working class. Finally, and even more heretically, the Vperedists argued that Marxism should be seen as a form of religion — only with humanity as the Divine Being and collectivism as the Holy Spirit. Gorky highlighted this humanist theme in his novel Confession (1908), in which the hero Matvei finds his god through comradeship with his fellow men.


After 1917, when the leading Bolsheviks were preoccupied with more pressing matters, cultural policy was left to these former Vperedists in the party. Lunacharsky became the Commissar of Enlightenment — a title that reflected the inspiration of the cultural revolution which it set as its goal — and was responsible for both education and the arts. Bogdanov headed the Proletkult organization, set up in 1917 to develop proletarian culture. Through its factory clubs and studios, which by 1919 had 80,000 members, it organized amateur theatres, choirs, bands, art classes, creative writing workshops and sporting events for the workers. There was a Proletarian University in Moscow and a Socialist Encyclopedia, whose publication was seen by Bogdanov as a preparation for the future proletarian civilization, just as, in his view, Diderot's Encyclopedic had been an attempt by the rising bourgeoisie of eighteenth-century France to prepare its own cultural revolution.19

As with the Capri and Bologna schools, the Proletkult intelligentsia displayed at times a patronising attitude towards the workers they sought to cultivate. Proletkult's basic premise was that the working class should spontaneously develop its own culture; yet here were the intelligentsia doing it for them. Moreover, the 'proletarian culture' which they fostered had much less to do with the workers' actual tastes — vaudeville and vodka for the most — which these intellectuals usually scorned as vulgar, than it had to do with their own idealized vision of what the workers were supposed to be: uncorrupted by bourgeois individualism; collectivist in their ways of life and thought; sober, serious and self-improving; interested in science and sport; in short the pioneers of the intelligentsia's own imagined socialist culture.

* * * The revolution of 1917 came in the middle of Russia's so-called Silver Age, the first three decades of this century when the avant-garde flourished in all the arts. Many of the country's finest writers and artists took part in Proletkult and other Soviet cultural ventures during and after the civil war: Belyi, Gumilev, Mayakovsky and Khodasevich taught poetry classes; Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Eisenstein carried out an 'October Revolution' in the theatre; Tatlin, Rodchenko, El Lissitsky and Malevich pioneered the visual arts; while Chagall even became Commissar for Arts in his native town of Vitebsk and later taught painting at a colony for orphans near Moscow. This coalition of commissars and artists was partly born of common principles:.the idea that art had a social agenda and a mission to communicate with the masses; and a modernist rejection of the old bourgeois art. But it was also a marriage of convenience. For despite their initial reservations, mostly about losing their autonomy, these cultural figures soon saw the advantages of Bolshevik patronage for the avant-garde, not to speak of the extra rations and work materials they so badly needed in these barren years. Gorky was a central figure here — acting as a Soviet patron to the artists and as an artists' leader to the Soviets. In September 1918 he agreed to collaborate with Lunacharsky's commissariat in its dealings with the artistic and scientific worlds. Lunacharsky, for his part, did his best to support Gorky's various ventures to 'save Russian culture', despite Lenin's impatience about such 'trivial matters', from the publishing house World Literature, where so many destitute intellectuals were employed, to the Commission for the Preservation of Historical Buildings and Monuments. Lunacharsky complained that Gorky had 'turned out completely in the camp of the intelligentsia, siding with it in its grumbling, lack of faith and terror at the prospect of the destruction of valuable things under the blows of the revolution'. The nihilistic wing of the avant-garde was especially attracted to Bolshevism. It revelled in its destruction of the old world. The Futurist poets, for example, such as Mayakovsky, practically threw themselves at the feet of the Bolsheviks, seeing them as an ally of their own struggle against 'bourgeois art'. (The Italian Futurists supported the Fascists for much the same reason.) The Futurists pursued an extreme iconoclastic line within the Proletkult movement which enraged Lenin (a conservative in cultural matters) and embarrassed Bog-danov and Lunacharsky. 'It's time for bullets to pepper museums,' Mayakovsky wrote. He dismissed the classics as 'old aesthetic junk' and punned that Rastrelli should be put against the wall (rasstreliat in Russian means to execute). Kirillov, the Proletkult poet, wrote:

In the name of our tomorrow we shall burn Raphael Destroy the Museums, crush the flowers of Art.20

This was by and large intellectual swagger, the vandalistic pose of second-rate writers whose readiness to shock far outstripped their own talents.

Stalin once described the writer as the 'engineer of human souls'. The artists of the avant-garde were supposed to become the great transformers of human nature during the first years of the Bolshevik regime. Many of them shared the socialist ideal of making the human spirit more collectivist. They rejected the individualistic preoccupations of nineteenth-century 'bourgeois' art, and believed that they could train the human mind to see the world in a different way through modernist forms of artistic expression. Montage, for example, with its collage effect of fragmented but connected images, was thought to have a subliminal didactic effect on the viewer. Eisenstein, who used the technique in his three great propaganda films of the 1920s, Strike, The Battleship Potemkin and October, based his whole theory of film on it. A great deal of fuss was made of the 'psychic revolution' which was supposed to be brought about by the cinema, the modernist art form par excellence, which, like the psychology of modern man, was based on 'straight lines and sharp corners' and the 'power of the machine'.21


As the pioneers of this 'psychic revolution', the avant-garde artists pursued diverse experimental forms. There was no censorship of art at this time — the Bolsheviks had more pressing concerns — and it was an area of relative freedom. Hence there was the paradox of an artistic explosion in a police state. Much of this early Soviet art was of real and lasting value. The Constructi-vists, in particular artists such as Rodchenko, Malevich and Tatlin, have had a huge impact on the modernist style. This could not be said of Nazi art, or of what passed for art in Stalin's day, the grim monumental kitsch of Socialist Realism. And yet, almost inevitably, given the youthful exuberance with which the avant-garde embraced this spirit of experimentalism, many of their contributions may seem rather comical today.

In music, for example, there were orchestras without conductors (both in rehearsal and performance) who claimed to be pioneering the socialist way of life based on equality and human fulfilment through free collective work. There was a movement of 'concerts in the factory' using the sirens, turbines and hooters as instruments, or creating new sounds by electronic means, which some people seemed to think would lead to a new musical aesthetic closer to the psyche of the workers. Shostakovich, no doubt as always with tongue in cheek, joined in the fun by adding the sound of factory whistles to the climax of his Second Symphony ('To October'). Equally eccentric was the renaming of well-known operas and their refashioning with new librettos to make them 'socialist': so Tosca became The Battle for the Commune, with the action shifted to the Paris of 1871; Les Huguenots became The Decembrists and was set in Russia; while Glinka's Life for the Tsar was rewritten as The Hammer and the Sickle.

There was a similar attempt to bring theatre closer to the masses by taking it out of its usual 'bourgeois' setting and putting it on in the streets, the factories and the barracks. Theatre thus became a form of Agitprop. Its aim was to break down the barriers between actors and spectators, to dissolve the proscenium line dividing theatre from reality. All this was taken from the techniques of the German experimental theatre pioneered by Max Reinhardt, which were later perfected by Brecht. By encouraging the audience to voice its reactions to the drama, Meyerhold and other Soviet directors sought to engage its emotions in didactic allegories of the revolution. The new dramas highlighted the revolutionary struggle both on the national scale and on the scale of private human lives. The characters were crude cardboard symbols — greedy capitalists in bowler hats, devilish priests with Rasputin-type beards and honest simple workers. The main purpose of these plays was to stir up mass hatred against the 'enemies' of the revolution and thus to rally people behind the regime. One such drama, Do You Hear, Moscow?, staged by Eisenstein in 1924, aroused such emotions that in the final act, when the German workers were shown storming the stronghold of the Fascists, the audience itself tried to join in. Every murdered Fascist was met with wild cheers. One spectator even drew his gun to shoot an actress playing the part of a Fascist cocotte; but his neighbours brought him to his senses.

The most spectacular example of revolutionary street theatre was The Storming of the Winter Palace, staged in 1920 to celebrate the third anniversary of the October insurrection. This mass spectacle ended the distinction — which in any case had always been confused — between theatre and revolution: the streets of Petrograd, where the revolutionary drama of 1917 had been enacted, were now turned into a theatre. The key scenes were re-enacted on three huge stages on Palace Square. The Winter Palace was part of the set with various windows lit up in turn to reveal different scenes inside. The Aurora played a star role, firing its heavy guns from the Neva to signal the start of the assault on the palace, just as it had done on that historic night. There was a cast of 10,000 actors, probably more than had taken part in the actual insurrection, who, like the chorus in the theatre of the Ancient Greeks, appeared to embody the monumental idea of the revolution as an act of the people. An estimated 100,000 spectators watched the action unfold from Palace Square. They laughed at the buffoonish figure of Kerensky and cheered wildly during the assault on the palace. This was the start of the myth of Great October — a myth which Eisenstein turned into pseudo-fact with his 'docudrama' film October (1927). Stills from this film are still reproduced in books, both in Russia and the West, as authentic photographs of the revolution.22

Art too was taken on to the streets. The Constructivists talked of bringing art out of the museums and into everyday life. Many of them, such as Rodchenko and Malevich, concentrated their efforts on designing clothes, furniture, offices and factories with the stress on what they called the 'industrial style' — simple designs and primary colours, geometric shapes and straight lines, all of which they thought would both liberate the people and make them more rational. They said their aim was 'to reconstruct not only objects, but also the whole domestic way of life'. Several leading avant-garde painters and sculptors, such as Chagall and Tatlin, put their hands to 'agitation art' — decorating buildings and streetcars or designing posters for the numerous revolutionary celebrations and festivals, such as I May or Revolution Day, when the whole of the people was supposed to be united in an open exhibition of collective joy and emotion. The town was literally painted red (sometimes even the trees). Through statues and monuments they sought to turn the streets into a Museum of the Revolution, into a living icon of the power and the grandeur of the new regime which would impress even the illiterate. There was nothing new in such acts of self-consecration by the state: the tsarist regime had done just the same. Indeed it was nicely ironic that the obelisk outside the Kremlin erected by the Romanovs to celebrate their tercentenary in 1913 was retained on Lenin's orders.


Its tsarist inscription was replaced by the names of a 'socialist' ancestry stretching back to the sixteenth century. It included Thomas More, Campanella and Winstanley.23

As far as one can tell, none of these avant-garde artistic experiments was ever really effective in transforming hearts and minds. Left-wing artists might have believed that they were creating a new aesthetic for the masses, but they were merely creating a modernist aesthetic for themselves, albeit one in which 'the masses' were objectified as a symbol of their own ideals. The artistic tastes of the workers and peasants were essentially conservative. Indeed it is hard to overestimate the conservatism of the peasants in artistic matters: when the Bolshoi Ballet toured the provinces during 1920 the peasants were said to have been 'profoundly shocked by the display of the bare arms and legs of the coryphees, and walked out of the performance in disgust'. The unlife-like images of modernist art were alien to a people whose limited acquaintance with art was based on the icon.* Having decorated the streets of Vitebsk for the first anniversary of the October insurrection, Chagall was asked by Communist officials: 'Why is the cow green and why is the house flying through the sky, why? What's the connection with Marx and Engels?' Surveys of popular reading habits during the 1920s showed that workers and peasants continued to prefer the detective and romantic stories of the sort they had read before the revolution to the literature of the avant-garde. Just as unsuccessful was the new music. At one 'concert in the factory' there was such a cacophonous din from all the sirens and the hooters that even the workers failed to recognize the tune of the Internationale. Concert halls and theatres were filled with the newly rich proletarians of the Bolshevik regime — the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow was littered every night with the husks of the sunflower seeds which they chewed — yet they came to listen to Glinka and Tchaikovsky.24 When it comes to matters of artistic taste, there is nothing the semi-educated worker wants more than to mimic the bourgeoisie.

* * * Alongside new art forms the 'dreamers' of the revolution tried to experiment with new forms of social life. This too, it was presumed, could be used to transform the nature of mankind. Or, more precisely, womankind.

Women's liberation was an important aspect of the new collective life, as envisaged by the leading feminists in the party — Kollontai, Armand and Balabanoff. Communal dining halls, laundries and nurseries would liberate women from the drudgery of housework and enable them to play an active role in the revolution. 'Women of Russia, Throw Away Your Pots and Pans!', read one Soviet poster. The gradual dissolution of the 'bourgeois' family through liberal reform of the laws on marriage, divorce and abortion would, it was supposed, liberate women from their husbands' tyranny. The Women's Department of the Central Committee Secretariat (Zhenotdel), established in 1919, set itself the task to 'refashion women' by mobilizing them into local political work and by educational propaganda. Kollontai, who became the head of Zhenotdel on Armand's death in 1920, also advocated a sexual revolution to emancipate women. She preached 'free love' or 'erotic friendships' between men and women as two equal partners, thus liberating women from the servitude of marriage' and both sexes from the burdens of monogamy. It was a philosophy she practised herself with a long succession of husbands and lovers, including Dybenko, the Bolshevik sailor seventeen years her junior whom she married in 1917. and, by all accounts, the King of Sweden, with whom she took up as the Soviet (and the first ever female) Ambassador in Stockholm during the 1930s.

* The Socialist Realism of the 1930s, with its obvious iconic qualities, was much more effective as propaganda.


As the Commissar for Social Welfare Kollontai tried to create the conditions for this new sexual harmony. Efforts were made to combat prostitution and to increase the state provision of child-care, although little progress could be made in either field during the civil war. Unfortunately, some local commissariats failed to understand the import of Kollontai's work. In Saratov, for example, the provincial welfare department issued a 'Decree on the Nationalization of Women': it abolished marriage and gave men the right to release their sexual urges at licensed brothels. Kollontai's subordinates set up a 'Bureau of Free Love' in Vladimir and issued a proclamation requiring all the unmarried women between the ages of eighteen and fifty to register with it for the selection of their sexual mates. The proclamation declared all women over eighteen to be 'state property' and gave men the right to choose a registered woman, even without her consent, for breeding 'in the interests of the state'.25

Little of Kollontai's work was really understood. Whereas her vision of the sexual revolution was in many ways highly idealistic, she was widely seen to be encouraging the sexual promiscuity and moral anarchy which swept through Russia after 1917. Lenin himself had no time for such matters, being himself something of a prude, and condemned the so-called 'glass-of-water' theory of sexual matters attributed to Kollontai — that in a Communist society the satisfaction of one's sexual desires should be as straightforward as drinking a glass of water — as 'completely un-Marxist'. 'To be sure,' he wrote, 'thirst has to be quenched. But would a normal person lie down in the gutter and drink from a puddle?' Local Bolsheviks were dismissive of 'women's work', nicknaming Zhenotdel the 'babotdel' (from the word 'baba', a peasant wife). Even the women themselves were suspicious of the idea of sexual liberation, especially in the countryside, where patriarchal attitudes died hard. Many women were afraid that communal nurseries would take away their children and make them orphans of the state. They complained that the liberal divorce laws of 1918 had merely made it easier for men to escape their responsibilities to their wives and children. And the statistics bore them out. By the early 1920s the divorce rate in Russia had become by far the highest in Europe — twenty-six times higher than in bourgeois Europe. Working-class women strongly disapproved of the liberal sexuality preached by Kollontai, seeing it (not without reason) as a licence for their men to behave badly towards women. They placed greater value on the old-fashioned notion of marriage, rooted in the peasant household, as a shared economy with a sexual division of labour for the raising of a family.26

It was not just in sexual matters that Lenin disapproved of experimentation. In artistic matters he was as conservative as any other nineteenth-century bourgeois. Lenin had no time for the avant-garde. He thought that their revolutionary statues were a 'mockery and distortion of the socialist tradition — one projected statue depicting Marx standing on top of four elephants had him foaming at the mouth — and he dismissed Mayakovsky's best-known poem, '150,000,000', as so much 'nonsense, arrant stupidity and pretentiousness'. (Many readers might agree.) Once the civil war was over Lenin took a close look at the work of Proletkult — and decided to close it down. During the autumn of 1920 its subsidy was drastically cut back, Bogdanov was removed from its leadership, and Lenin launched an attack on its basic principles. The Bolshevik leader was irritated by the iconoclastic bias of Proletkult, preferring to stress the need to build on the cultural achievements of the past, and he saw its autonomy as a growing political threat. He saw it as 'Bogdanov's faction'. Proletkult certainly had much in common with the Workers' Opposition, stressing as it did the need to overthrow the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie, as still manifested in the employment of the 'bourgeois specialists', and indeed shortly later in the NEP itself. There was in this sense a direct link between the anti-bourgeois sentiments of the Proletkult and Stalin's own 'cultural revolution'. From Lenin's viewpoint, closing down the Proletkult was an integral aspect of the transition to the NEP. While the NEP was a Thermidor in the economic field this cessation of the war on 'bourgeois art' was a Thermidor in the cultural one. Both stemmed from the recognition that in a backward country such as Russia the achievements of the old civilization had to be maintained as a base on which to build the socialist order. There were no short-cuts to Communism.

Lenin wrote a great deal at this time on the need for a 'cultural revolution'. It was not enough, he argued, merely to create a Workers' State; one also had to create the cultural conditions for the long transition to socialism. What he stressed in his conception of the cultural revolution was not proletarian art and literature but proletarian science and technology. Whereas Proletkult looked to art as a means of human liberation, Lenin looked to science as a means of human transformation — turning people into 'cogs' of the state.* He wanted the 'bad' and 'illiterate' Russian workers to be 'schooled in the culture of capitalism' — to become skilled and disciplined workers and to send their sons to engineering college — so that the country could overcome its backwardness in the transition towards socialism.27 Bolshevism was nothing if not a strategy of modernization.

Lenin's emphasis on the need for a narrow scientific training was reflected in the change in education policies during 1920—I. The Bolsheviks viewed education as one of the main channels of human transformation: through the schools and the Communist leagues for children and youth (the Pioneers and the Komsomol) they would indoctrinate the next generation in the new collective way of life. As Lilina Zinoviev, one of the pioneers of Soviet schooling, declared at a Congress of Public Education in 1918:

We must make the young generation into a generation of Communists. Children, like soft wax, are very malleable and they should be moulded into good Communists .. . We must rescue children from the harmful influence of family life . .. We must nationalise them. From the earliest days of their little lives, they must find themselves under the beneficent influence of Communist schools. They will learn the ABC of Communism... To oblige the mother to give her child to the Soviet State — that is our task.

The basic model of the Soviet school was the Unified Labour School. Established in 1918, it was designed to give all children a free and general education up to the age of fourteen. The practical difficulties of the civil war, however, meant that few such schools were actually established. During 1920 a number of Bolshevik and trade union leaders began to call for a narrower system of vocational training from an early age. Influenced by Trotsky's plans for militarization, they stressed the need to subordinate the educational system to the demands of the economy: Russia's industries needed skilled technicians and it was the schools' job to produce them. Lunacharsky opposed these calls, seeing them as an invitation to renounce the humanist goals of the revolution which he had championed since his Vperedist days. Having taken power in the name of the workers, the Bolsheviks, he argued, were obliged to educate their children, to raise them up to the level of the intelligentsia, so that they became the 'masters of industry'. It was not enough merely to teach them how to read and write before turning them into apprentices. This would reproduce the class divisions of capitalism, the old culture of Masters and Men separated by their power over knowledge. Thanks to Lunacharsky's efforts, the polytechnical principles of 1918 were basically retained. But in practice there was a growing emphasis on narrow vocational training with many children, especially orphans in state care, forced into factory apprenticeships from as early as the age of nine and ten.28

* Stalin often referred to the people as 'cogs' (vintiki) in the vast machinery of the state.


Lenin's patronage of Taylorist ideas ran in parallel with this trend. He had long hailed the American engineer F. W. Taylor's theories of 'scientific management' — using time-and-motion studies to subdivide and automate the tasks of industry — as a means of remoulding the psyche of the worker, making him into a disciplined being, and thus remodelling the whole of society along mechanistic lines. Lenin encouraged the cult of Taylorism which flourished in Russia at this time. The scientific methods of Taylor and Henry Ford were said to hold the key to a bright and prosperous future. Even remote villagers knew the name of Ford (some of them thought he was a sort of god guiding the work of Lenin and Trotsky). Alexei Gastev (1882—1941), the Bolshevik engineer and poet, took these Taylorist principles to their extreme. As the head of the Central Institute of Labour, established in 1920, he carried out experiments to train the workers so that they would end up acting like machines. Hundreds of identically dressed trainees would be marched in columns to their benches, and orders would be given out by buzzes from machines. The workers were trained to hammer correctly by holding a hammer attached to and moved by a hammering machine so that after half an hour they had internalized its mechanical rhythm. The same process was repeated for chiselling, filing and other basic skills. Gastev's aim, by his own admission, was to turn the worker into a sort of 'human robot' (a word, not coincidentally, derived from the Russian verb to work, rabotat'). Since Gastev saw machines as superior to human beings, he thought this would represent an improvement in humanity. Indeed he saw it as the next logical step in human evolution. Gastev envisaged a brave new world where 'people' would be replaced by 'proletarian units' so devoid of personality that there would not even be a need to give them names. They would be classified instead by ciphers such as A, B, C, or 325, 075, 0, and so on'. These automatons would be like machines, 'incapable of individual thought', and would simply obey their controllers. A 'mechanized collectivism' would 'take the place of the individual personality in the psychology of the proletariat'. There would no longer be a need for emotions, and the human soul would no longer be measured 'by a shout or a smile but by a pressure gauge or a speedometer'. This nightmare Utopia was satirized by Zamyatin in his novel We (1924), which inspired Orwell's 1984. Zamyatin depicted a future world of robot-like beings, the 'we', who are known by numbers instead of names and whose lives are programmed in every detail. The satire was dangerous enough for We to remain banned in the Soviet Union for over sixty years.


Gastev's vision of the mechanized society was no idle fantasy. He believed it was just around the corner. The ABC of Communism, written by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky in 1919, claimed that a 'new world' with 'new people and customs', in which everything was 'precisely calculated', would soon come into existence. The mechanistic motifs of Proletkult art were supposed to foster this new Machine World. There was even a League of Time, whose 25,000 members in 800 local branches by the time Zamyatin wote We, kept a 'chronocard' on which they recorded how they spent each minute of their day ('7.00 a.m. got out of bed; 7.01 a.m. went to the lavatory') so as to be more efficient in their use of time. The crusaders of this clockwork world wore oversized wristwatches (there is still a fashion for them in Russia today). As self-appointed 'Time Police', they went round factories and offices trying to stamp out 'Oblomovism', that very Russian habit of the wastage of time. Another one of their plans to save time consisted of replacing the long words and official titles of the Russian language with shorter ones or acronyms. Politicians were told to cut their verbose comments, and speakers at congresses to keep their speeches short.29

* * * The war against religion played a vital role in this battle for the people's soul. The Bolsheviks saw religion as a sign of backwardness (the 'opium of the masses') and the Church as a rival to their power. In particular, they saw the religion of the peasants as a fundamental cultural gulf between their own Enlightenment ideals and the 'dark' people of the countryside, a people they could neither understand nor ever really hope to convert to their cause. The war against religion was thus an aspect of their broader campaign to conquer the 'otherness' of the peasantry.

Until 1921 the war against religion was fought mainly by propaganda means. The Bolsheviks encouraged the popular wave of anti-clericalism that had swept away the Church lands in 1917. The Decree on the Separation of Church and State in January 1918 aimed to place the clergy at the mercy of the local population by taking away its rights to own property — church buildings were henceforth to be rented from the Soviets — or to charge for religious services. Religious instruction in schools was also outlawed. Bolshevik propaganda caricatured the clergy as fat parasites living off the backs of the peasantry and plotting for the return of the Tsar. Most provincial newspapers had regular columns on the 'counter-revolutionary' activities of the local priests, although in fact most of the parish clergy had either gone or been dragged along with the peasant revolution. Needless to say, the Cheka jails were full of priests.

The aim of Bolshevik propaganda was to replace the worship of God with veneration of the state, to substitute revolutionary icons for religious ones. Communism was the new religion, Lenin and Trotsky its new arch-priests. In this sense the Bolshevik war against religion went one step further than the Jacobin dechristianization campaigns: its aim was not just to undermine religion but to appropriate its powers for the state.

On the one hand was the Bolsheviks' iconoclastic propaganda. Christian miracles were exposed as myths. Coffins said to hold the 'incorruptible' relics of Russian saints were opened up and found to contain bare skeletons or, in some cases, wax effigies. The celebrated 'weeping icons' were shown to be operated by rubber squeezers that produced 'tears' when an offering was made. The peasantry's attachment to religious and superstitious explanations was ridiculed as foolish: harvest failures and epidemics were to be avoided by agronomic and meteorological science rather than prayer and rituals in the fields. 'Godless acres' were farmed beside 'God's acres' — the former treated with chemical fertilizers, the latter with holy water — to drive home the point. Peasants were taken for rides by aeroplane so that they could see for themselves that there were no angels or gods in the sky. Most of the local press had special columns for this sort of 'scientific atheism'. Hundreds of atheistic pamphlets and stories were also published. Literature and music deemed to be religious were suppressed. The works of Plato, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Tolstoy were all banned on these grounds, as was Mozart's Requiem, nearly all of Bach and the Vespers of Rachmaninov. There was also an atheist art — one especially blasphemous poster showed the Virgin Mary with a pregnant belly longing for a Soviet abortion — and an equally iconoclastic theatre and cinema of the Godless. Then there were study groups and evening classes in this 'science' of atheism (a good grounding in it was essential for advancement in the party-state). A Union of the Militant Godless was established in 1921 with its own national newspaper and hundreds of local branches which held 'debates' with the clergy on the question: 'Does God Exist?' These debates usually involved the staged conversion of at least one priest, who would suddenly announce that he had been convinced that God did not exist, and would call on the Soviet authorities to forgive him his error. Most of these priests must have been tortured in the Cheka jails, or else threatened with imprisonment, in order to make them confess in this way. Even so, the victory of the Godless was by no means assured. In one debate the priest asked the Godless who had made the natural world. When they replied that Nature had made itself through evolution there were hoots of laughter from the peasant audience, to whom such a proposition seemed quite ridiculous, and a victory for the priest was declared.30

On the other hand was the Bolshevik propaganda which held up Communism as the new religion. The festivals, rituals and symbols of the Communist state were consciously modelled on their Christian equivalents — which they sought to replace. Soviet festivals were scheduled on the same days as the old religious holidays: there was a Komsomol Christmas and Easter; Electric Day fell on Elijah Day; Forest Day (a throwback to the peasant-pagan past) on Trinity Sunday. May Day and Revolution Day were heavily overladen with religious symbolism: the armed march past the Kremlin, the religious centre of Orthodox Russia, was clearly reminiscent of the old religious procession, only with rifles instead of crosses. The cult of Lenin, which flourished in the civil war, gave him the status of a god. The very symbol of the Communist state, the Red Star, was steeped in religious and messianic meaning deeply rooted in Russian folklore.

A Red Army leaflet of 1918 explained to the servicemen why the Red Star appeared on the Soviet flag and their uniforms. There was once a beautiful maiden named Pravda (Truth) who had a burning red star on her forehead which lit up the whole world and brought it truth, justice and happiness. One day the red star was stolen by Krivda (Falsehood) who wanted to bring darkness and evil to the world. Thus began the rule of Krivda. Meanwhile, Pravda called on the people to retrieve her star and 'return the light of truth to the world'. A good youth conquered Krivda and her forces and returned the red star to Pravda, whereupon the evil forces ran away from the light like owls and bats', and 'once again the people lived by truth'. The leaflet made the parable clear: 'So the Red Star of the Red Army is the star of Pravda. And the Red Army servicemen are the brave lads who are fighting Krivda and her evil supporters so that truth should rule the world and so that all those oppressed and wronged by Krivda, all the poor peasants and workers, should live well and in freedom.'31

In private life, as in public, religious rituals were Bolshevized. Instead of baptisms children were 'Octobered'. The parents at these ceremonies, which boomed in the early 1920s, promised to bring up their children in the spirit of Communism; portraits of the infant Lenin were given as gifts; and the Internationale was sung. The names chosen for these Octobered children — and indeed for adults who also changed their names — were drawn from the annals of the revolution: Marx; Engelina; Rosa (after Rosa Luxemburg); Vladlen, Ninel, Ilich and Ilina (acronyms, nicknames or anagrams for Lenin); Marlen (for Marx and Lenin); Melor (for Marx, Engels, Lenin and October Revolution); Pravda; Barrikada; Fevral (February); Oktiabrina (October); Revoliutsiia (Revolution); Parizhkommuna (Paris Commune); Molot (hammer); Serpina (sickle); Dazmir (Long Live the World Revolution); Diktatura (Dictatorship); and Terrora (Terror). Sometimes the names were chosen on the basis of a misunderstanding or simply because they were foreign sounding and were thus associated with the revolution: Traviata, Markiza, Embryo and Vinaigrette. Red weddings were another Bolshevik ritual, popular among the Komsomol youth. They were usually held in a factory or some local club. Instead of the altar the couple faced a portrait of Lenin. They made their vows of loyalty both to each other and to the principles of Communism. In his satirical novel Dog's Wedding (1925), Brykin reproduced such a vow. 'Do you promise', asks the officiator, 'to follow the path of Communism as bravely as you are now opposing the church and the old peoples customs? Are you going to make your children serve as Young Pioneers [the Komsomol organization for younger children], educate them, introduce scientific farming methods, and fight for the world revolution? Then in the name of our leader, Comrade Vladimir Ilich Lenin, I declare the Red Marriage completed.' Finally, there was the Red Funeral, mainly reserved for Bolshevik heroes, which drew on the funereal traditions of the revolutionary movement — with its guard of honour, the coffin set high on a bier draped in red, the dirgelike hymn 'You Fell Victim', the graveside orations and the gunfire salute — originally used at Bauman's burial, that first martyred Bolshevik, in 1905.32

From 1921 the war against religion moved from words and rituals to the closure of churches and the shooting of priests. Lenin instigated this totally gratuitous reign of terror. Apart from the Academy of Sciences, the Church was the only remaining national institution outside the control of the party. Three years of propaganda had not undermined it — in many ways the civil war had made people turn to religion even more — so Lenin sought to attack it directly. The famine of I92I-2 gave him the pretext he needed. Although the Church had actively joined in the famine relief campaign, offering to sell some of its non-consecrated valuables to buy foodstuffs from abroad, Lenin found a strategy that enabled him to accuse it of selfishly turning its back on the crisis. He ordered the Church to hand over its consecrated valuables for sale as well, even though he must have known that it was obliged to disobey the order (the secular use of consecrated items was sacrilegious). This provocation would make the Church appear as it was charged — as an 'enemy of the people'. To rally the public against it the press called hysterically for all the Church's valuables to be sold for the famine victims: 'Turn Gold into Bread!' was the emotive slogan. In a last desperate effort to prevent the pillage of his churches, Patriarch Tikhon offered to raise money equivalent to the value of the consecrated items through voluntary subscriptions and the sale of other property; but his offer was refused. Lenin was not interested in the money; he wanted a pretext to assault the Church.

On 26 February 1922 a decree was sent out to the local Soviets instructing them to remove from the churches all precious items, including those used for religious worship. The decree claimed that their sale was necessary to help the famine victims; but little of the money raised was used for this purpose. Armed bands gutted the local churches, carrying away the icons and crosses, the chalices and mitres, even the iconostases in bits. In many places angry crowds took up arms to defend their local church. In some places they were led by their priests, at others they fought spontaneously. The records tell of 1,414 bloody clashes during 1922—3. Most of these were utterly one-sided. Troops with machine-guns fought against old men and women armed with pitch forks and rusty rifles: 7,100 clergy were killed, including nearly 3,500 nuns, but only a handful of Soviet troops. One such clash in the textile town of Shuya, 200 miles north-east of Moscow, in March 1922, prompted Lenin to issue a secret order for the extermination of the clergy. The event was typical enough: on Sunday 12 March worshippers fought off Soviet officials when they came to raid the local church; when the officials returned three days later with troops and machine-guns there was some fighting with several people killed. The Politburo, in Lenin's absence, voted to suspend further confiscations. But Lenin, hearing of the events in Shuya, dictated contrary orders over the phone from his country residence at Gorki with strict instructions of top secrecy. This memorandum, first published in full by a Soviet publication in 1990, reveals the cruel streak in Lenin's nature. It undermines the 'soft' image of Lenin in his final years previously favoured by left-wing historians in the West who would have us believe that the 1920s were a hopeful period of 'Soviet democracy' before the onset of Stalinism. Lenin argued that the events in Shuya should be exploited to link the clergy with the Black Hundreds, to destroy the Church 'for many decades', and to 'assure ourselves of capital worth several hundred million gold roubles ... to carry out governmental work in general and in particular economic reconstruction'. It was 'only now', in the context of the famine, that the hungry peasants would 'either be for us or at any rate neutral' in this 'ferocious' war against the Church; later on we will not succeed.' For this reason, continued Lenin:

I have come to the unequivocal conclusion that we must now wage the most decisive and merciless war against the Black Hundred clergy and suppress its resistance with such cruelty that they will not forget it for decades to come . . . The more members of the reactionary bourgeoisie and clergy we manage to shoot the better.

It has recently been estimated that 8,000 people were executed during this brutal campaign in 1922 alone. Patriarch Tikhon claimed to know of 10,000 priests in prison or exile, including about 100 bishops. It was only after 1925, under pressure from Russia's Western trading partners, that the persecution came to a temporary halt.33

According to Gorky, the Bolsheviks deliberately used the Jews in their ranks to carry out confiscations of church property. He accused them of deliberately stirring up anti-Semitism to divert the anger of the Christian community away from themselves. In several towns, such as Smolensk and Viatka, there were indeed pogroms against the Jews following the confiscation of church property. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks were closing down synagogues as part of their campaign against religion. The first to be closed were in Chagall's home town of Vitebsk in April 1921. The Soviet authorities claimed that six of the city's eighty synagogues were needed for conversion to Yiddish schools. The Jews quickly occupied those synagogues which had been targeted for closure and held prayer meetings in them. But the authorities removed them with troops, smashing windows, chanting 'Death to the Yids!' and killing several worshippers in the process. None of the synagogues was used as a school: one became a Communist university; several were turned into workers' clubs; one even became a shoe factory. More closures followed in Minsk, Gomel, Odessa and Kharkov. Overall, 800 synagogues were closed down by the Communists between 1921 and 1925. There was more than just a tinge of anti-Semitism in all this. The lower party ranks were filled, in Gorky's words, with 'old Russian nationalists, scoundrels, and vagabonds, who despise and fear the Jews'. The Military and Workers' Oppositions, which mobilized their support from the lower party ranks, both used the rhetoric of anti-Semitism in their language of class animosity towards the 'bourgeois specialists'. The early years of the NEP, which witnessed a boom in the sort of small-scale trading where Jews were traditionally dominant, strengthened this anti-Semitism. For the lower-class Bolsheviks, in particular, it was galling to see the 'Jewish' traders 'taking over' Moscow. During the civil war these 'speculators' would have been arrested; now they lived better than the party rank and file, while half the Russian workers were unemployed. The revolution, it seemed to them, was in retreat both on the class and the racial fronts. It was in this context that many of the more militant Bolsheviks began to argue, as Marx himself had done, that the Jews as a social group were synonymous with capitalism — that all traders were essentially 'Jews'. Such ideas were prevalent in the Bolshevik campaign against Judaism which took off in 1921. The ultimate insult of this campaign was delivered on the Jewish New Year of 1921 when a mock 'trial' of Judaism was put on for propaganda purposes. It was staged in the same courtroom in Kiev where the innocent Beiliss (also read: Judaism) had been tried in 1913.34

* * * The Bolshevik persecution of religion did little to weaken the hold of this 'opiate' on the minds of the population. Although the 1920s witnessed a decline of religion, especially among the rural youth who went to school or left the countryside for the city, this probably had less to do with the Bolsheviks' efforts than with the secularizing tendencies of modern life. It had been happening in any case for decades. In fact, if anything, the oppressive measures of the Bolsheviks had precisely the opposite effect — of rallying the believers around their religion. Despite the separation of Church and state, the local clergy continued to be supported by the voluntary donations of their parishioners as well as by fees and grants of land from the peasant communes. Ironically it was not that far from the dreams of the nineteenth-century liberal clergy for an organic self-supporting parish. Even those who no longer believed in their religion with the same unquestioning faith often continued not merely to observe but also to show a strong attachment to its rituals. Octobered babies and Red Weddings failed to supplant their religious equivalents (which also happened to be more fun). People continued to bury their dead rather than cremate them, despite the shortages of coffins and graves and the free state provision of cremations, because, in the words of one morgue official, 'the Russians are still either too religious or too superstitious to part from the Orthodox burial traditions'.35

As in religion, so in the fields of culture and social life, the attempt by the Bolsheviks to 'make the world and man anew' foundered on the rocks of reality. It was in many ways a Utopian dream — one of the most ambitious in history — to believe that human nature could be changed by simply altering the social environment in which people lived. Man cannot be transformed quite so easily: human nature moves more slowly than ruling ideologies or society. This is perhaps the one enduring moral lesson of the Russian Revolution — as it is indeed of the terrible history of this century.

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