The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World 
by Karl Schlögel, translated by Rodney Livingstone.
Princeton, 906 pp., £35, March, 978 0 691 18374 9
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The war​ in Ukraine has prompted a wave of self-critical reassessment among Western scholars of the former Soviet Union. Have studies of the USSR unthinkingly reproduced the logic of a Russian imperial project? Do we need to look at the Soviet period through the lens of ‘decolonisation’? The German historian Karl Schlögel’s own process of introspection began in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s stoking of rebellion in Donbas, which he describes in the preface to The Soviet Century as the ‘drop that made my cup run over’. Russia’s leaders, he writes, had ‘exploited post-imperial phantom pains, nostalgic yearnings and fear of the loss of social status to pursue an aggressive policy’. Published in German in 2017, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the book is his attempt to capture the particular texture and experiences of Soviet life, memories of which are fast fading. It is also a personal reckoning, what Schlögel calls ‘a balance sheet, a sort of final account of my studies of Russia or the Soviet Union’. This doesn’t mean he plans to retire: Schlögel has another huge book out in German later this year, on American industrial modernity. But it does mark the end of his engagement with the Russia he studied and knew. It’s almost 35 years since the USSR entered its terminal crisis. As Schlögel puts it, ‘the quarter of a century that has elapsed since that time has shown how painful this process of transforming the former Soviet Union has been.’

Schlögel witnessed a significant stretch of Soviet history, from the lingering effects of Khrushchev’s Thaw to Gorbachev’s perestroika and the final collapse. Born in Bavaria in 1948, he made his first trip to the USSR as a teenager in 1966 before training as a Slavist in West Berlin. He wrote his PhD thesis on worker protests in the postwar Soviet Union, and after a fellowship in Moscow in the early 1980s began to focus on cities, interpreting the past through the built environment. Moskau lesen, published in 1984, signalled the approach that would characterise much of his later work, combining descriptions of present-day Moscow with historical excavations.

Moskau lesen was followed by works on St Petersburg (1988) and Nizhny Novgorod (1991) and three collections of other East European Städtebilder – urban portraits in the spirit of Walter Benjamin’s depictions of Berlin, Moscow, Marseille or Naples. The work for which he is best known in English again revolved around a city. Terror und Traum (2008), translated in 2012 as Moscow, 1937, is a teeming account of the Soviet capital at the height of the Stalinist purges. In mapping events great and small onto the city’s landscape, the book fulfils Benjamin’s dictum (which Schlögel cites approvingly elsewhere): ‘To write history means giving dates their physiognomy.’

The Soviet Century is more intimate and more expansive. It draws deeply on his own experiences of ‘Soviet civilisation’, allowing the sensory reconstruction of places, objects and rituals. But rather than focusing on the hidden layers of meaning in a single city, it takes as its subject the everyday, material reality of the entire Soviet Union. This is no small undertaking. If your premise is that ‘the totality grows out of the details,’ and that ‘everything counts,’ then ‘the principal question in a project relating the history of Soviet civilisation is where to begin and where to stop.’ There are vignettes on everything from tattoos to hydroelectric dams, from china elephants (ubiquitous in Soviet homes) to Lenin’s mausoleum, from palm trees to the massive prefab housing blocks of the 1970s. Schlögel also deals with Soviet institutions and social phenomena, including queues, parades, border-crossings, communal apartments and bureaucracy. There are chapters addressing the distinctive iconography of Soviet modernity – Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographs, the charts and statistics of the Five-Year Plans, the use of dioramas to depict key historical moments – and others that focus on the role of the human body in Soviet society: gymnastics or fizkultura, fashion, ballet.

Schlögel’s approach to his material isn’t exhaustive or systematic, and he doesn’t pretend the selection is anything other than personal. This is his own Soviet Wunderkammer. It’s not a coincidence that the book opens with chapters on flea markets (barakholki) and museums. At the bazaar in Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park in the early 1990s, Schlögel found electric irons, Party newspapers, old family photo albums, gramophones, Second World War memorabilia, stamp collections – ‘fragments of the world of objects belonging to the empire that has ceased to exist’. The Soviet museum is the orderly counterpart to the chaos of the barakholka. The USSR, as Schlögel points out, was ‘uncommonly rich’ in museums of every size and subject: railways, the Arctic, geology, town planning. He describes a typical visit: ‘The location: often splendid old urban villas, palaces of the nobility or else churches; the rituals involved in the cumbersome production of the entry ticket; the cloakroom procedures; the stern looks of the museum attendants, frequently older women; and the feeling of loneliness unless a class of children happens to be on a school visit.’ For Schlögel, Soviet museums stood out for their ‘stupendous materiality’, their ‘insistence on the concrete nature of material objects – whether stuffed bears, clay pots or an issue of a pre-revolutionary underground newspaper’.

In the rest of the book, Schlögel becomes the museum guide, pointing out details, providing context, offering personal anecdotes. But not everything can be easily itemised. Consider this account of his first visit to the industrial city of Magnitogorsk, in 1993:

There is no vantage point and no camera lens that could encompass the panorama … Viewed from the air, it seems to be a pink, artificially created gigantic plaything, hurled down by titans … Looked at closer, from, say, the surrounding hilltops, it is a grandiose silhouette of chimneys and blast furnaces, blackened by fire and rust. And from the ground, it is a landscape of iron and steel, smoke and gas so vast that it seems pointless to try to ride around it by tram, let alone explore it on foot.

The Soviet Century is full of such shifts in perspective. Schlögel describes the vast factory complexes, often built ex nihilo in the steppes at astonishing speed, in which a peasant workforce was transformed into an industrial proletariat, living at first in tents and then in rudimentary barracks. These were lives marked by great privation but also by a feverish intensity. As Schlögel writes in his chapter on Magnitogorsk, ‘it is scarcely possible to conceive of greater tensions than here, where the struggle for survival was everything. And it was this desperate struggle that fed a dream of the utopian world … The redemptive power of technology can get a grip only where the handcart and the shovel constitute the basic available equipment.’

Schlögel describes the way the improvisations of the early post-revolutionary years were turned into institutions, the most familiar example of which is Lenin’s mausoleum. The first wooden structure, hastily put together in January 1924, was replaced by a similar but more sturdy wooden structure a few months later, which in turn was replaced in 1929 by the granite ziggurat. (Lenin would have been horrified at his conversion into a holy relic.) There are many other examples of temporary expedients that stuck. Amid drastic housing shortages during the Civil War, multi-family dwellings were carved out of the homes of the bourgeoisie, but over time these arrangements became permanent – and for some ardent communists, the communal apartment or kommunalka became a kind of utopian ideal. Similarly, military parades in Red Square began in 1918 as drill exercises for an army still in formation but gradually took on the character of triumphal processions.

The most staggering transformations were those wrought on what for centuries had been an agrarian economy. Alongside the sudden expansion of industrial cities such as Magnitogorsk – the ‘pyramids of the 20th century’ – there were gargantuan infrastructure projects such as DniproHES, the hydroelectric dam on the Dnieper inaugurated in 1932. Forced-pace industrialisation also meant rapid urbanisation: as Schlögel points out, the first two decades of the USSR saw what was then the fastest and largest instance of urban growth in human history. In just thirteen years, the population living in cities and towns more than doubled from 26 million to 56 million. The sociological and psychological effects of this change were far-reaching, making the Stalin-era USSR an especially turbulent place – what the historian Moshe Lewin called a ‘quicksand society’. Modernisation was achieved at a tremendous human cost, with gruelling constraints imposed on the bulk of the population, even as it opened up new horizons.

The Gulag intrudes throughout The Soviet Century. Even the kitsch elephant decorations found on Soviet mantelpieces have a Gulag connection: Schlögel points out that slon, Russian for ‘elephant’, is also the acronym of Solovetskii Lager Osobogo Naznacheniia, the Solovki Special Purpose Camp. He devotes separate chapters to the camps on the Solovetsky Islands and Kolyma, drawing on memoirs and the stories of inmates such as Varlam Shalamov to describe the hardships prisoners endured. In Kolyma and other Arctic sites, the dominant factor was the cold: temperatures of -50ºC were not uncommon. Estimates vary, but perhaps some eighteen million Soviet citizens passed through camps and labour colonies between 1929 and 1953, with another ten million made to work elsewhere.

Schlögel’s description of the problem of forced labour might raise eyebrows: ‘Not only is it murderous, it is also ineffective; and it does away with the pressure to innovate.’ But he is right to emphasise the contributions of the camps to the Soviet economy. The Kolyma gold fields accounted for a third of the USSR’s total gold production; without them, Schlögel concludes, ‘it would have been impossible to realise the ambitions of the Five-Year Plans [and] there would have been no build-up of the arms industries before and during the Soviet-German War.’

Schlögel​ ends by proposing that the musée imaginaire he has assembled over the course of the book could be given physical form as an actual museum. To realise this ambition, he argues that

there is hardly a better place than the Lubyanka in Moscow: the home of the secret services, which would be transformed into a forum of the open society … What was formerly a labyrinth of terror would be opened up … A place in which people fell silent would become one where names and voices are returned to the dead. The archive with the personal data of millions of people would become the material for an epic of life and afterlife in a state of emergency.

The repurposing of the Lubyanka building would be welcome, of course: it is currently the headquarters of the FSB. But it’s a puzzling choice. For one thing, it would go against Schlögel’s approach elsewhere: a museum can offer only a poor simulacrum of the evidence of the senses, and only partially represent the accumulation of historical detail he discerns in cities and landscapes. There is something curious about the proposal to preserve the Soviet experience within four walls when, as Schlögel’s book shows, its material traces are everywhere. But, more important, to locate the Soviet experience inside its most repressive institution would mean framing its history as primarily one of state violence. The complexity Schlögel has spent hundreds of pages conveying – the utopian aspirations, the reforging of an agrarian into an industrial society, the pleasures and pains of daily life – would be collapsed into a single narrative.

Despite his insistence on the importance of resisting linear history, there are ways in which The Soviet Century does repeat a single and rather familiar narrative. In a chapter on bells, Schlögel begins by noting that ‘bells and the … sound they produced’ were central to life in imperial Russia: ‘Birth, baptism and death were announced in the “language of bells”.’ But since these bells also stood for ‘the power of the Orthodox Church’, the new Soviet regime regarded them as ‘the presence of a spiritual and cultural hegemony that had to be broken’. The industrialisation drive of the late 1920s produced ‘a hurricane of destruction’: churches were razed or turned into museums or granaries, bells were melted down for scrap, and ‘the rich culture and sound of bells were entirely lost to Russia.’ After a prolonged silence, however, the fall of communism restored the Orthodox Church and its bells: ‘Over the flat countryside the gleaming, golden domes of renovated churches are the emblems of a spiritual reconquista in jaded Russian villages … The bell foundries that had completely disappeared are enjoying a revival … The art of the carillon is again being learned and taught.’

This is one way to tell the story of the Soviet experience and taken in isolation it’s engaging. But the cumulative effect of several chapters that follow a similar narrative arc – beginning with the tsarist period, evoking the turbulent transformations that took place between 1917 and 1991, ending with an epilogue on the 1990s – is to bracket the Soviet period as a stormy aberration within the flow of Russian history. (I can’t help thinking here of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which contains only one oblique reference to the USSR.) There are moments when Schlögel pushes against this fable, especially when he looks at the experiences and motivations of the people engaged in Soviet industrialisation. But the general pattern confirms the conventional view of the era as a prolonged anomaly, and the return to capitalism as its necessary corrective.

One of the many problems with this story is that it assumes a continuity between the Russia of the tsars and the Russia of Yeltsin and Putin. Not only does this overstate the depth of the current Russian regime’s roots, but the idea that a dormant Russian empire was simply revived after 1991 also implies that the current confrontation between that empire and the West is a return to the age-old norm. In its own way, the continuity narrative mirrors the Kremlin’s depiction of a ‘civilisational’ clash between Russia and the West. But much as Putin might like to think of himself as leader of an ‘eternal Russia’, his Russia is a new entity, neither neo-tsarist nor retro-Soviet. Before launching the invasion of Ukraine, Putin made clear his intent to unravel the territorial boundaries established by the Bolsheviks, which he has described as partitions of a wider ‘Russian world’. The disintegration of the Soviet Union was seen as surprisingly peaceful at the time. But it may be that the decades since 1991 have merely been an interlude, and that the war in Ukraine will be followed by a series of conflicts over the possible contours of Russia. If so, the contrast with the Soviet century will lie not in contemporary Russia’s adherence to past forms but in its alarming novelty.

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