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Alternative Dreams of the Russian Revolution

Few talk of the greatness of ideas that sprung in the beginning of the revolution – pluralism in literature, poetry, linguistics, mathematics – that is sheer genius.

Stalin in 1937. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution changed economic and political configurations across the world. Through a series of articles, The Wire revisits the making of The Soviet Century

The 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, one of the great epics of history, encounters a sense of staleness in India. The narratives are linear, oozing a sense of disdain of an event that has faded. The 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution as an event in India, has become a failure of storytelling. One misses a sense of gossip, the rumour of utopia, a sense of dreams which goes beyond anything Eisenstein portrayed in his great movie October on Leon Trotsky’s classic book on The History of the Russian Revolution. I remember the sociologist Arthur Stinchcombe commenting that Trotsky, not the pompous Winston Churchill, should have received the Nobel prize for literature. It could have changed the perception people had of him.

What one misses is the idea of the Bolshevik revolution as a dream of alternative imaginations, not just a puritanical, linear narrative on political economy and the genocidal dreams of Stalin. The sadness was that Stalinism probably lasted longer in India than elsewhere. Even when the intellectuals of Europe had discarded it is a pathology, the communist party in India stuck to it like a piece of catechism. Yet even with our sense of theology, there was a sense of dream and utopia. I remember a moment when I was travelling from Alleppey to Ernakulam. One heard that the Soviet leader Leonard Brezhnev had just died. As we travelled across a series of towns, one saw funeral marches walking with quiet dignity. Men in immaculate white dhotis carrying black umbrellas as if it to fire the last salute. One almost sensed the boring commissar in Brezhnev was more missed in India than in Moscow.

The revolution was a dream that became a nightmare. It cannibalised and destroyed its best people. I remember Nikolai Vavilov, a great biologist and student of Bateson at Cambridge. Vavilov was the discoverer of what was eponymously named the Vavilov zones. These were zones of the greatest diversity of plants. Vavilov’s work was condemned by Lysenko, and Stalin sent Vavilov to the Gulag. The Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has a moving section in his Gulag Archipelago. The scientist was forced to endure over 400 interrogation sessions but even then refused to confess. Vavilov, ill with torture died in 1943. Solzhenitsyn adds that Vavilov’s interrogator Khvat lived in peaceful retirement, spending his pension at 41 Gorky Street. The most poignant moment was when Vavilov’s colleagues opened his briefcase. The inveterate collector who understand the poetics of diversity had left behind a new plant unknown to science.

Nikolai Vavilov. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As legendary as Vavilov, was Gleb Mikhail Krizhanovsky. Krizhanovsky and Lenin visualised planning as a reciprocity of the dreams of science and politics. E. H. Carr points out in a footnote in his monumental book that it was Krizhanovsky who visualised the academy of sciences and set the state for the Leninist dream of communism as Soviets plus electrification. Krizhanovsky coined the idea of energetika and dreamt of utopias based on high energy. The idea had even an occult dimension to it. Stalin in his brutal style eliminated the great scientist.

Even more poignant was Stalin’s elimination of a monastic group which were legendary as mathematicians. In the early 20th century, mathematical research was sensing an impasse. Leading the revolution till then was the legendary French group called the Bourbaki, which included the great mathematician André Weil. The French could find no rational breakthrough but set theory found a solution through a religious group called the Name Worshipers, whose mystic notion of numbers gave them a different solution from the Cartesian assumptions of the French greats like Emile Borel, Rene Baire and Henri Lebesgue.

As Loren Graham and Jean Mikhail Kantor observe, “The Russians were stimulated by mystical and intuitional approaches connected to a religious heresy called Name Worshipping.” Graham and Kantor provide a brilliant narrative of this group which once again disappeared in Stalin’s hands. There is an Indian connection to the legend of the Bourbaki.

André Weil was a professor of mathematics at Aligarh University. It was he who recruited D. D. Kosambi and it was Kosambi who writes one of the first papers on the Bourbaki by an Indian. Yet, the more tantalising question, had the rationalist Weil been more like his sister, Simone Weil, a mystic, is – would mathematics have taken a different turn? The question keeps tantalising one as one keeps wondering, asking the “what-if” question. How different would Russia have been if all these alternative imaginations had flowered in Russia, creating not an official ideology, but a pluralistic world of knowledge.

Mikhail Bakhtin. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The mind boggles at the Russian contributions to science. One remembers Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, which became one of the classic critiques of Stalinism. The Russian contributions to alternative and literary criticism were impressive. One merely has to think of Mikhail Bakhtin and Roman Jakobson. Bakhtin, a genius, was a follower of orthodox Christianity. His work has now witnessed a revival and the author of Dostoyevsky’s poetics and the great book on the carnival Rabelais is today recognised as a genius for his work on dialogism. Bakthin was arrested in 1929 and sent to exile in the town of Kustanai in Soviet Central Asia. It was only Jakobson who kept Bakhtin alive and it was his enthusiasm that brought out the first English translation of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Bakhtin today is a revered figure but what one thinks of, is again the wilderness of time in which his works disappeared.

Russia also had its flotilla of poets, legendary names that hailed the revolution and felt disillusioned by it later. One thinks of Mayakovsky, and Alexander Blok, both of whom committed suicide. One must also cite Akhmatova and Mandelstam, poets whose words indict the Revolution and Stalin. One has to read their poems to capture the tragedy of the era.

Oddly, few people talk of the greatness of ideas that sprung in the beginning of the revolution, an effervescence of pluralism in literature, poetry, linguistics, mathematics, that is sheer genius. One is tempted to ask the “what-if” question, what if these ideas had survived and Stalin was absent? I wonder if we would be facing the mediocrity of Trump and Putin or the indictments of Stalin. I wish some genius could write an alternative history of Russia as if all these ideas flourished. The sadness is the dream and the possibility is literally over. It would be like recreating a literary or scientific world which the world calls a Potemkin village, an imitation of reality meant to deceive an audience into thinking it was real and even possible.

Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at the Jindal Global Law School and director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O. P. Jindal Global University.