Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#16 - JRL 2007 - 211 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
October 8, 2007
In Memory of a Lost Chance
The Cost of Unfreedom

Comment by Alexander Arkhangelsky

For me and many other observers, the image of the recent United Russia party congress overlapped with personal memories of the 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A weaver and a disabled man beg the leader to stay, and then a storm of applause turns into a wild ovation. Of course, any analogy is weak: if such a capable cabinet of ministers had possibly been appointed before the start of the 26th Congress, then maybe the collapse of the Soviet Union would not have been so violent and destructive. But the handwriting seems very similar.

One is somehow reminded of an episode that happened 85 years ago. Towards the end of perestroika, a legend emerged of the philosophers' ship. Allegedly, in the fall of 1922, Lenin gathered the philosophical leaders of the intelligentsia he hated so much, put them on a steamship and sent them off to Constantinople.

The steamship did exist, of course. It was called the Oberbürgermeister Haken, and it left Petrograd for Stettin on Sept. 29, 1922. Nikolai Berdyaev strolled on the ship's deck with philosophers Semyon Frank and Sergei Trubetskoy. So this ship can, at a stretch, be called a philosophers' ship.

That summer, however, the Cheka exiled the leaders of Pomgol, an organization that helped feed the starving during the famine of 1921. On Sept. 23, 1922, the thinkers Pitirim Sorokin and Fyodor Stepun were sent to Latvia on the Moscow-Riga train. Later, on Nov. 16, another steamship, the Preussen, sailed from Russia, carrying Lev Karsavin, Vladimir Lossky and Ivan Lapshin. At the beginning of 1923, the Bulgakovs - Sergei, a future priest, and Valentin, director of Tolstoy Museum and a follower of Tolstoy, were exiled along with intellectuals from Odessa and Kharkov, Nizhny Novgorod and Tiflis.

Based on different calculations, a total of 240 intellectuals were exiled from the Soviet Union: at different times, in different ways, but systematically and methodically, the way only the Cheka, the state security service, could do it.

There were many philosophers on the lists of individuals to be exiled, and many priests, including Eastern Rite Catholics, but most were professors, those who wanted and knew how to communicate with young people. Those who, due to their high professional status, wanted and knew how to say a quiet, firm "no" to the authorities. They were people whose beliefs did not coincide with the interests of the regime, including its scientific beliefs. Cynics were not touched then, but their time would come.

To understand the true meaning of those events, it is important to remember this was 1922.The NEP (the New Economic Policy) had just started to yield first results; the country started breathing and coming back to life. The Bolshevik fear of a popular revolt driven by material hardships sharply declined.

Another threat arose, however - the threat of being overthrown for spiritual and ideological reasons. If economic life had returned, many reasoned it would be possible to go back to the kind of political life they had previously enjoyed, a life with opinions, personal views, choices and freedom of speech. The professors wanted to educate the next generation of students in the traditions of the Russian academic environment, not in the spirit of militant communism.

At the end of May 1922, Lenin suffered a severe apoplectic stroke, after which the self-proclaimed genius ended up looking like a quiet idiot with the expression of permanent fear on his childish face. Of course, he knew nothing about the future, but he was terribly alarmed by the present. It would be wrong to terminate the NEP, but it was impossible to leave things as they were. He decided to exile the troublemakers, at the same time instituting execution as punishment for any attempt of the deportees to come back to the country without permission. At this, he let loose the Cheka hounds.

The Cheka was only happy to oblige, of course. Instead of troubling themselves with the disobedient intellectuals, it seemed so much easier to force them out of the country. Who knows, maybe many of them will not live happily abroad, and some of them could be recruited as spies without much risk or any serious suspicions.

The smartest and most far-sighted, however, understood something else, too, something that even Lenin failed to see. If you cut the older intellectual layer off the new Russia, tomorrow you'll have to close the NEP program, too. Of course the professors and academicians were disgusted by the fat NEP men, while the NEP men did not care about their legal, scientific and especially philosophical stuff. But if there is no dissident community of professionals who are able to despise the idiotic authorities, there will be no free economic relations - if only because after forcing out the disobedient leaders, you have to put obedient scoundrels in their place and the latter are rarely talented.

Mediocrity in science, press and ideology then contradicts a policy of trade relations and competition. In real life, it never happens so that the weakest survive in one place, and the strongest grow in the other. The Soviets could either have the NEP and at least relative freedom, or exile the professors and eliminate NEP. What comes after is a totalitarian regime of government-controlled economy.

And, strictly speaking, this is exactly what happened. The professors were forced out, the NEP was cancelled; the owners of the most successful businesses were kept in place, as a compromise. This liberal notion was later rejected, too, and we know only too well what happened next.

But that, for some reason, is being doubted again today- for example, in the notorious Russian history textbook, written by Alexander Filippov and Pavel Danilin. The textbook, which ends with a chapter on sovereign democracy, was bluntly supported by the party of power.

The authors seriously explain that "terror was an instrument of management and a component of the strategy for the country's rapid modernization. This is why it attacked all levels of the society, including the ruling clique. The result of "purging" of this clique was the formation of a new administrative layer, unconditionally loyal to the supreme authorities and impeccable from the point of view of discipline. Roughly speaking, the stock phrase from the perestroika magazine Ogonyok about the "senseless brutality" is false - it was a very sensible and carefully calculated brutality.

It might have well been calculated, but what does it have to do with "rapid modernization"? And the bureaucratically accurate phrase about the appearance of the "new administrative layer, which was appropriate for the objective of modernization" sounds like a pragmatic pardon of Stalinism. Why would this layer with its "rapid modernization" even be necessary if NEP hadn't been stopped short? Freedom - both commercial and intellectual - would have achieved everything much faster, much more naturally and without violence.

Incidentally, the language used in the textbook gives the authors away completely: they also belong to this "new layer," which would have been impossible and unthinkable without the exile of the true intellectual elite in that fateful year 1922. It was impossible to speak Russian this way while a dignified intellectual tradition still existed; it became possible to speak and think this way after the disappearance of the layer that could arrogantly raise an eyebrow at the Soviet speeches and say: "Go, my boy; here's some money, buy yourself some vodka."