Woke America Is Pre-Revolutionary Russia
You’re used to me saying it, but now read this stunning essay by writer Peter Savodnik, writing in Tablet magazine, says that Woke America is like living in a 19th century Russian novel. Savodnik begins by recalling a semester in 2012 spent at Middlebury College, teaching Russian literature, and reflecting on what drew him there that year. More:
But there was something else, less obvious and more frightening, and that has become clearer, more haunting, in the eight years since: The metaphysical gap between mid-19th-century Russia and early-21st-century America is narrowing. The parallels between them then and us now, political and social but mostly characterological, are becoming sharper, more unavoidable.
We can reassure ourselves by repeating obvious truths: The United States is not czarist Russia. The present is not the past. History does not repeat itself. But those facts are not immutable laws so much as observations, and even though they are built on solid foundations, those foundations are not impervious to shifting sands. We can go backward. We can descend into a primal state we thought we had escaped forever. That is the lesson of the 20th century.
The similarities between past and present are legion: The coarsening of the culture, our economic woes, our political logjams, the opportunism and fecklessness of our so-called elites, the corruption of our institutions, the ease with which we talk about “revolution” (as in Bernie Sanders’ romanticization of “political revolution”), the anger, the polarization, the anti-Semitism.
But the most important thing is the new characters, who are not that dissimilar to the old ones.
Consider Yevgeny Bazarov. To Bazarov, one of the sons in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, the whole of Russia is rotten, and anyone who can’t see that is an idiot or a knave, and the only solution is to raze everything. There is a logic to his thinking. Russia was ruled by a backward-looking monarchy. The nobility was complicit in perpetuating grotesque inequality. The Orthodox Church was allied with the ruling classes. And the ruling classes moved glacially to liberalize. (In Western Europe, the feudal system started to collapse nearly four centuries before it did in Russia.)
One can imagine arriving at the conclusion that Russia would never reform itself, that the only way to liberate it from its medievalism was to start over. Bazarov, a doctor whose empirical nature, we are led to understand, informs his nihilism, is convinced that Russia must start over, and everything about him—his sarcasm, his lack of empathy—is meant to convey disdain, destruction, a sweeping away of the old. He is openly disrespectful of the fathers in the novel—Nikolai Petrovich and Vasily Ivanovich—because they’re old. They’re fathers. They come before, so they are necessarily less developed. To Bazarov, those who do not see the world exactly as he does—most people—are simply roadblocks or enemies. They are not really people. They are not wholly human.
One wonders if Bazarov is that different from today’s protesters and statue-topplers, the 20-somethings sowing discord in our newsrooms, the cancellers, the uber-woke, the sociopaths who police our social media feeds, those who would massage or rewrite history in the service of a glorious future. Like Bazarov, they are incapable of empathizing with those who do not view the world the way they do. Like Bazarov, they assume that the place they come from (America) is cancerous to the core—regressive, hateful, an affront to right-thinking people everywhere. Like Bazarov, there is about them a crude sarcasm (or snark). Like Bazarov, there is a logic to their outrage: Today, we are witnessing Americans revolting against the vestiges of a barbaric, racial hierarchy that was constructed four centuries ago. That hierarchy continues to be felt. It is not unreasonable to wonder, When will we finally transcend the past?
Savodnik goes through other characters from 19th century Russian novels. It’s uncanny, the parallels between then and now. I won’t quote much more from this essay, because it’s so very rich that I want you to read every line. He goes on:
We know how this turned out, and for those who have forgotten, or for those who are too young or ignorant to know, we should remind them over and over: Those who questioned the revolution, objected to any of its ends or means, thought there might be something worth preserving, were deemed hostile combatants or hapless chumps whose false consciousness inhibited progress. In the end, they were all airbrushed. In the end, the way one escaped this airbrushing was to signal, with a great and inauthentic virtue, that one was not a hostile combatant by spotlighting the real enemies of progress. Whether these enemies were real or “real” was immaterial. Only idiots worried about the truth. There was no truth. What was most important was to keep one’s head down and, if need be, accuse wantonly. Accuse! Accuse! Accuse! Or as Americans like to say, the best defense is a good offense. Everyone knew this would never lead to the place they had been promised it would lead to, but what else was there to do? As the violence ratcheted up, it was necessary to signal with ever greater ferocity, to name more names, to out more wrong-thinkers, until all that was left was the pathetic, bloodless corpse of a country dislodged from itself.
This is us, y’all. This is where we are. This is who we are. But to my knowledge, we don’t have any Dostoevskys or Turgenevs to prophesy in art. Or do we? Who am I missing.
Read it all. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how much you need to read this.
Of course this dovetails perfectly with my forthcoming book Live Not By Lies. I feel sheepish promoting the book here, but I wrote the book because I desperately want people, especially Christian people, to prepare themselves spiritually and communally for the catastrophe likely to befall us. We don’t have forever. If it were up to me, I would do what I could to make the book available tomorrow. But publishing moves slowly, and it won’t be out till September 29. You can pre-order it, though, and have it in your mailbox or on your Kindle the day it’s released.
Here are excerpts from my book that echo Savodnik’s essay. Note that Savodnik says, as I do in my book, that race and identity politics have taken the place for 21st century Americans the role that Marxism played for 19th century Russians:
Younger Russians [of the 19th century] also keenly felt the shame of their liberal fathers’ failures to change the system. In the midst of Russia’s decline, Marxism appealed to restless young intellectuals who were sick of the old order, had lost faith in reforming it, and who were desperate to tear the system down and replace it with something entirely different.
Marxism stood for the future. Marxism stood for progress. The gospel of Marxism lit a fire in the minds of prerevolutionary Russian radicals. Their priests and the prophets were their intellectuals, who were “religious about being secular.” Writes historian Yuri Slezkine: “A conversion to socialism was a conversion to the intelligentsia, to a fusion of millenarian faith and lifelong learning.”
Far-left radicalism was initially spread among the intellectuals primarily through reading groups. Once you adopted the Marxist faith, everything else in life became illuminated. The intellectuals went into the world to preach this pseudo-religion to the workers. These missionaries, says Slezkine, made what religious believers would call prophetic revelations, and by appealing to hatred in their listeners’ hearts, called them to conversion.
Once they had captured Russia’s universities, the radicals took their gospel to the factories. Few of the workers were capable of understanding Marxist doctrine, but the missionaries taught it to those capable of translating the essentials into a form that ordinary people could grasp.
You saw recently that Oprah Winfrey signed an agreement to create entertainment content based on The New York Times‘s propagandistic 1619 Project? This is that.
More from Live Not By Lies:
The post-World War I generation of writers and artists were marked by their embrace and celebration of anti-cultural philosophies and acts as a way of demonstrating contempt for established hierarchies, institutions, and ways of thinking. Arendt said of some writers who glorified the will to power, “They read not Darwin but the Marquis de Sade.”
Her point was that these authors did not avail themselves of respectable intellectual theories to justify their transgressiveness. They immersed themselves in what is basest in human nature and regarded doing so as acts of liberation. Arendt’s judgment of the postwar elites who recklessly thumbed their noses at respectability could easily apply to those of our own day who shove aside liberal principles like fair play, race neutrality, free speech, and free association as obstacles to equality. Arendt wrote:
The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.
Regarding transgressive sexuality as a social good was not an innovation of the sexual revolution. Like the contemporary West, late imperial Russia was also awash in what historian James Billington called “a preoccupation with sex that is quite without parallel in earlier Russian culture.” Among the social and intellectual elite, sexual adventurism, celebrations of perversion, and all manner of sensuality was common. And not just among the elites: the laboring masses, alone in the city, with no church to bind their consciences with guilt, or village gossips to shame them, found comfort in sex.
The end of official censorship after the 1905 uprising opened the floodgates to erotic literature, which found renewal in sexual passion. “The sensualism of the age was in a very intimate sense demonic,” Billington writes, detailing how the figure of Satan became a Romantic hero for artists and musicians. They admired the diabolic willingness to stop at nothing to satisfy one’s desires and to exercise one’s will.
One more clip:
One of contemporary progressivism’s commonly used phrases—the personal is political—captures the totalitarian spirit, which seeks to infuse all aspects of life with political consciousness. Indeed, the Left pushes its ideology ever deeper into the personal realm, leaving fewer and fewer areas of daily life uncontested. This, warned Arendt, is a sign that a society is ripening for totalitarianism, because that is what totalitarianism essentially is: the politicization of everything.
Infusing every aspect of life with ideology was a standard aspect of Soviet totalitarianism. Early in the Stalin era, N. V. Krylenko, a Soviet commissar (political officer), steamrolled over chess players who wanted to keep politics out of the game.
“We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,” he said. “We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess,’ like the formula ‘art for art’s sake.’ We must organize shockbrigades of chess-players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.”
The other day, I wrote about a teacher’s call in Philadelphia to make “antiracism” into “the overarching theme” of all public education in that city’s schools. This same mentality — infusing ideology into all aspects of life — is what has overtaken The New York Times and other newspapers. You might recall the Times‘s town hall meeting last summer, in which an unnamed staffer confronted executive editor Dean Baquet:
Staffer: Hello, I have another question about racism. I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country. And I think particularly as we are launching a 1619 Project, I feel like that’s going to open us up to even more criticism from people who are like, “OK, well you’re saying this, and you’re producing this big project about this. But are you guys actually considering this in your daily reporting?”
Baquet did not have the courage to stand up for traditional journalistic standards here. And we have seen since then that the newspaper has become even more aggressively and monotonously centered around race, from a progressive point of view. We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of journalism, Baquet might have said. We must organize shockbrigades of journalists, and begin immediate realization of an antiracist plan for journalism.
If you want to read the whole thing, pre-order Live Not By Lies. It is essential reading both to understand the meaning of this moment, and to prepare resistance. Of course I don’t know how this is going to end. In his piece, Savodnik talks about the nihilistic white-nationalist right as a part of the current picture. Personally, I expect that as the left-wing cultural revolution proceeds, we will see violent reaction from young white men who feel nothing but rage, and like they have nothing to lose. My guess is that after a period of violence, the left-wing establishment will impose peace with force of arms, and use the power of already existing surveillance technology (e.g., the means and methods of surveillance capitalism) to control and suppress dissent. This is the world that Live Not By Lies is trying to prepare us for.
Don’t dare allow yourself to believe that it can’t happen here. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, Silvester Krcmery, and Hannah Arendt all said that that is the lie that people living in modern Western liberal democracies tell themselves to avoid having to face reality, and act to fight evil while there is time. One more clip from Live Not By Lies, about how Russians of the late imperial era did not see what was coming until it was too late:
In retrospect, this seems almost unbelievable. How could the Russians have been so blind? It was, in a sense, a problem of the imagination. Reflecting on the speed with which utopian dreams turned into a grisly nightmare, Solzhenitsyn observed:
If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings, that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.
It wasn’t just the tsarists who didn’t see it coming but also the country’s leading liberal minds. It was simply beyond their ability to conceive.
It can happen here, and it will happen here, unless we wake up and act decisively. Acting decisively also means making preparations, like Father Tomislav Kolakovic and his followers in pre-communist Slovakia, for how the church will survive under the coming totalitarianism. But we will talk about that in depth once Live Not By Lies has been published. Something to get straight in your head now: do not listen to people who tell you everything is going to be okay, that this is something passing, and everything will get back to normal soon enough. It’s a dangerous delusion.