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TAC Bookshelf: The Bolsheviks as Religious Fanatics

Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.

Rod Dreher, senior editor: For someone who is constantly reading—indeed, I usually have two or three books going at the same time—I am far too easily intimidated by the size of a book. I am not proud of this, but it’s a fact. Despite its acclaim, I deferred picking up historian Yuri Slezkine’s The House Of Government: A Saga Of The Russian Revolution (Princeton, 2017), because at 1,106 pages, it’s about as big and as dense as Lenin’s tomb. However, I’m working on a book of my own about communism and its meaning for our own time; eventually, attention had to be paid to Slezkine’s much-praised work.

Turns out that House Of Government is a terrific read, and the most important book of the many I have read for my project. The only reason I ever put it down is my arms get tired from holding the massive thing. The novelistic narrative weaved by Slezkine, a Russian-American historian at Berkeley, is utterly captivating, in part because he focuses on people and places that aren’t as familiar to readers of conventional Soviet histories.

Yes, Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky are there, but they don’t bigfoot the stage in Slezkine’s account. This allows for a view of the Russian Revolution that is at once more expansive and more intimate. Slezkine takes us into the snowbound Siberian parlors of Bolshevik exiles as they huddle around the stove, reading Marx and Engels to each other by lamplight, and plotting the overthrow of the Tsar. And he takes us to the construction site of the gargantuan apartment building that gives the book its title, to show how the problems in building the complex foreshadowed the collapse of the Soviet project. All of this gives rich, absorbing context to the big events of the Revolution. Lenin came from somewhere. So did Stalin.

Slezkine’s most valuable insight is to treat the Bolsheviks as members of an apocalyptic millennial cult, without God. He draws parallels in Christian history between them and religious movements that sought to build heaven on earth, no matter how many so-called evildoers had to be liquidated to do it. If you think of the Bolsheviks as religious fanatics, their bizarre, cruel acts make a lot more sense. And to be frank, so do the words and deeds of the social justice cultists of our own time and place.

I am also reading Dissident For Life: Alexander Ogorodnikov and the Struggle For Religious Freedom In Russia (Eerdmans, 2013), by Koenraad de Wolf, translated by Nancy Forest-Flier. It’s a biography of one of the leading Christian dissidents of the late Soviet period, a layman who was released from the gulag in 1988, after a decade of enduring grotesque sadism at the hands of his Soviet captors—all because he was a Christian who would not renounce God. I met Ogorodnikov recently in Moscow and interviewed him for my book. I asked for the interview based only on his reputation; I had not yet read his biography, which I began after I returned to the United States.

It is well that I only came to this book after the interview. Had I known at the time exactly the kind of man who sat across from me in the lobby of the Hotel Metropol, drinking tea and answering my questions quietly, I might have struggled to ask him a single question. Ogorodnikov may or may not be a saint—that’s not for me to decide—but he is unquestionably a giant of the 20th century, even though almost no Americans know his name and he remains relatively anonymous in his own country. He bears the history of his nation and its sacrificial century in his own broken body.

As I went to the bar to pay the bill for our tea, the young server asked me who was that man I was interviewing. “He’s one of the greatest men in Russia,” I said, and explained why. “Ah,” she said. “The gulag. I think I saw a movie about that once.” To her post-communist generation, it’s already ancient history.

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