Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

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Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)

‘If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.’ (Dr Leete. Chapter 12)

It is 1887. The narrator, Julius West, is full of plans to get a new house built in a stylish part of Boston – a project which is delayed because of almost daily strikes by the workmen – and worrying about his impending marriage to his fiancée.

All this stress exacerbates his insomnia so that, at the end of another trying day, when he retires to the sound-proof, purpose-built, cement-lined cellar he’s had built in his current house to insulate him from all distractions, he sends for the local mesmerist (Dr Pillsbury) who he’s been relying on for some time to help him get off to sleep.

When he wakes up it is to find himself in a strange room. The kindly people around him tell him it is the year 2000 and he has slept in that underground bunker for 113 years, three months and eleven days.

Bellamy spends a little effort conveying West’s disbelief, and then a page or so on his sense of horror and disorientation, but these are mostly gestures. The effort and bulk of the text goes towards the political theory, for the book quickly becomes an immensely thorough vision of The Perfect Society of the Future..

In the few pages devoted to describing life in 1887 the narrator had spent most of his time lamenting ‘the labour problem’. By that he meant that since (what turned out to be) a prolonged economic depression had begun in 1873, the working classes had woken up to their plight, organised unions across all industries, and been striking for better pay, better conditions, shorter working hours and so on, creating a permanent sense of crisis.

Society as giant coach

In an extended metaphor West compares the society of his time to an enormous coach which is being pulled along by thousands of wretched workers, whipped on by those who’ve managed to clamber up into the driving seat at the head of its thousands of companies and corporations.

Right on top of the coach, not doing any work and enjoying the sunshine, are those who’ve acquired or inherited the money to live off the labour of everyone beneath them. As the coach blunders along its muddy track some people fall lower down the coach, ending up pulling on the reins or fall right into the mud and are crushed, while others manage to escape the slavery of pulling, and clamber up the coachwork a bit. But even those at the top live in anxiety lest they fall off. No-one is secure or happy.

Society 2000

As you might expect, society in 2000 appears to have solved these and all the other problems facing society in 1887. The people who’ve revived him – Dr Leete, his wife and daughter – have done so in a private capacity. They were building an extension to their house when they came across the buried concrete bunker, all the rest of West’s property having, apparently, burned down decades earlier. On breaking a hole into it, they discovered West’s perfectly preserved, barely breathing body.

They speculate that Dr Pillsbury must have put West into a trance, but then later that night the house burned down. Everyone assumed West had perished in the fire.

Waking him gently, the father, mother and (inevitably) beautiful daughter, carefully and sympathetically help West to cope with the loss of everything he once knew, and induct him into the secrets of Boston 2000.

Dr Leete explains that the society he has arrived in is one of perfect peace and equality. He then begins the immense lecture about society 2000, an enormous, encyclopedic description of the Perfect Society of the future, which makes up most of the text.

Capitalism has been abolished. The ‘market’ has been abolished. Private enterprise has been abolished. Everything is controlled and managed by the state which represents ‘the nation’. All industry has been nationalised and all production is planned and administered by civil servants. Everyone is supplied with whatever they need by the state.

All citizens are born and raised the same. Everyone pursues education until aged 21 and is educated to the highest level they can attain, and then everyone undertakes three years working as a labourer. During this period people find out what their skills and abilities are, and then opt, at age 24, for the career which best suits their skills, whether it be coal mining or teaching Greek. At that point they join one of the dozen or so ‘armies’ of workers, organised and co-ordinated like one of the armies of 1887, and inspired by the same martial sense of patriotism and duty – but an army devoted to maintaining peace and creating wealth for everyone.

Equality is maintained by making those in unpleasant jobs work relatively short hours for the same rewards as those who work longer hours under more pleasant conditions.

And there is no money. Everyone has a ‘credit card’ and the state pays everyone the same amount every month, regardless of their job. How you ‘spend’ that credit is up to you, but it is all you get every month and there is no way to increase it, because individuals are not allowed to buy or sell or barter anything.

This Perfect Society is, then, a sustained attempt to put into practice the 19th century socialist adage of ‘from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their need’ (popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program).

And how did all this come about? Was there a violent revolution to transform the values of Bellamy’s day and to overthrow the vested interests of capitalists and bankers? The opposite, explains Dr Leete.

Friedrich Engels

Now I just happen to have recently read Friedrich Engels’s pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

In it Engels explains that historical materialism uses the philosophical notion of the dialectic to explain how new social systems arise out of the old. Thus, in Marx and Engels’s view, the late nineteenth century was seeing, out of the anarchy of super-competitive capitalism, thronged with competing companies, the emergence of larger companies, which bought each other up to create cartels of a handful of giant companies, eventually creating monopolies. This, they claimed, appears to be the natural development of capitalism, if left unchecked.

Engels shows how out of this natural development of capitalism, quite naturally and logically emerges state socialism. For already in various Western countries the state had decided to take into state ownership ‘natural monopolies’ such as telegraphy and the Post Office.

Engels explains that, as the other industries (coal, mining, steel, ship-building, railways) also become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands it will become obvious that the state should step in and run these industries as well. In other words, out of the anarchy of capitalism will emerge the order of state socialism – naturally, inevitably.

And that’s exactly what has happened in Bellamy’s version of history. One by one the state took over ownership of every industry until it had taken over all production. And the state, representing all the population, proceeded to reform them in the interests of the whole population, along the lines which Dr Leete is now explaining to West in pedantic detail.

Was there a violent revolution? No, because people had by that stage grasped the trend and seen how efficiently the government managed the other big concerns already in its control. People realised that it made sense. It was all quite painless.

Bellamy loses no opportunity to ram home the contrast between the squalor of his own day and the wonder of the Perfect Society. Not only do Dr Leete and Edith Leete explain things – at great length – but towards the end of the book West is invited to listen to a sermon delivered by one Dr Barton, who has heard about the discovery of the sleeper, and takes it as a peg on which to hang a disquisition about the changes between West’s day and the present.

The revolution

Here is Dr Barton long-windedly describing the glorious revolution which, about a century earlier, overthrew the old order and instituted the Perfect Society.

‘Doubtless it ill beseems one to whom the boon of life in our resplendent age has been vouchsafed to wish his destiny other, and yet I have often thought that I would fain exchange my share in this serene and golden day for a place in that stormy epoch of transition, when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race, in place of the blank wall that had closed its path, a vista of progress whose end, for very excess of light, still dazzles us. Ah, my friends! who will say that to have lived then, when the weakest influence was a lever to whose touch the centuries trembled, was not worth a share even in this era of fruition?

‘You know the story of that last, greatest, and most bloodless of revolutions. In the time of one generation men laid aside the social traditions and practices of barbarians, and assumed a social order worthy of rational and human beings. Ceasing to be predatory in their habits, they became co-workers, and found in fraternity, at once, the science of wealth and happiness. ‘What shall I eat and drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?’ stated as a problem beginning and ending in self, had been an anxious and an endless one. But when once it was conceived, not from the individual, but the fraternal standpoint, ‘What shall we eat and drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?’—its difficulties vanished.

‘Poverty with servitude had been the result, for the mass of humanity, of attempting to solve the problem of maintenance from the individual standpoint, but no sooner had the nation become the sole capitalist and employer than not alone did plenty replace poverty, but the last vestige of the serfdom of man to man disappeared from earth. Human slavery, so often vainly scotched, at last was killed. The means of subsistence no longer doled out by men to women, by employer to employed, by rich to poor, was distributed from a common stock as among children at the father’s table. It was impossible for a man any longer to use his fellow-men as tools for his own profit. His esteem was the only sort of gain he could thenceforth make out of him. There was no more either arrogance or servility in the relations of human beings to one another. For the first time since the creation every man stood up straight before God. The fear of want and the lust of gain became extinct motives when abundance was assured to all and immoderate possessions made impossible of attainment. There were no more beggars nor almoners. Equity left charity without an occupation. The ten commandments became well nigh obsolete in a world where there was no temptation to theft, no occasion to lie either for fear or favor, no room for envy where all were equal, and little provocation to violence where men were disarmed of power to injure one another. Humanity’s ancient dream of liberty, equality, fraternity, mocked by so many ages, at last was realized.’ (Chapter 26)

You don’t need me to point out the way that, the nearer an author gets to a difficult subject, the more flowery and evasive his language becomes, and that the precise nature of the ‘revolution’ is the touchiest subject of all – and so becomes obscured by the most gasous verbiage – ‘when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race’ etc.

Here is Dr Leete’s version of the Great Event:

‘It was not till a rearrangement of the industrial and social system on a higher ethical basis, and for the more efficient production of wealth, was recognized as the interest, not of one class, but equally of all classes, of rich and poor, cultured and ignorant, old and young, weak and strong, men and women, that there was any prospect that it would be achieved. Then the national party arose to carry it out by political methods. It probably took that name because its aim was to nationalize the functions of production and distribution. Indeed, it could not well have had any other name, for its purpose was to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived, not as an association of men for certain merely political functions affecting their happiness only remotely and superficially, but as a family, a vital union, a common life, a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn. The most patriotic of all possible parties, it sought to justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.’ (Chapter 24)

‘A mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn’. Hmmm.

Instead of specifics, Bellamy gives us windy rhetoric. Instead of practical human steps, Bellamy gives us poetic visions.

Anyway, by virtue of this bloodless revolution in human society, politicians and political parties have been abolished because the committees which make up ‘the nation’ adjust and control things in the interests of the people, and everyone agrees what those are.

Thus laws and lawyers have been abolished because nine-tenths of 1887 law was about gaining, protecting and disputing property. Now there is no way to gain private property except by spending the monthly credit which everyone receives, now there is no money and no buying or selling or any other way whatsoever of acquiring valuables – there is no need for almost all of the old law.

Even the criminal law has fallen into disuse since nine-tenths of violent crime was robbery or burglary or mugging designed to get money or property. In a society without money, there is no motive for crime.

A platonic dialogue

And so on and so on, for 200 rather wearing pages, Mr West and Dr Leete sit in a room while the former asks dumb questions and the latter wisely and benevolently explains how the Perfect Society works. It often feels like one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, in the sense that West is simply the straight man who asks the questions – what about the law? what about crime? what about education? – which prompt Dr Leete to roll out another highly detailed and well-thought-out explanation of the Perfect Society.

Hardly anything happens. West accompanies young Edith Leete on a shopping expedition but this is solely so she can explain to him the huge advantages of a planned economy where the state provides everything its citizens require through central production and distribution, thus eliminating competition with the enormous waste of resources spent on advertising, on the artificial creation of different brands and makes, on the  countless different shops all offering complicated deals and 0% finance and all the rest of it.

All that has gone.Now you go to the one and only local megastore and buy goods which are available everywhere in the country, at the one fixed price. And it’s all cheap precisely because there are no middlemen and advertisers and so on to raise costs.

Similarly, one evening he goes out for dinner with the Leetes but this is solely a pretext to explain food production and distribution, and the way public food cooked in public restaurants is now cheaper and infinitely better than it was in 1887, while the waiters and so on are simply performing their three-year labouring apprenticeship and are not looked down on as a different class. Dr Leete himself was a waiter for a spell. Everyone is equal and is treated as an equal.

Critique

Painting visions of the future is relatively easy – although Bellamy’s vision becomes more and more compelling due to the obsessive thoroughness with which he describes every conceivable aspect of the Perfect Society – the difficulty with this kind of thing is always explaining how it came into being. This is often the weak spot in the writing of utopias. For example many utopian authors have invoked a catastrophic war to explain how the old world was swept away and the survivors vowed never to make the same mistakes again.

Because it’s the most important, and often the weakest part of a utopian narrative, it’s often the most telling to examine in detail. Andthis, I think, is the crux of the problem with Engels and Bellamy – the notion they both use that the state somehow, magically, becomes the people.

Notoriously, Engels speculated that the post-revolutionary state would simply ‘wither away’. Once the people had seized the means of production and distribution, once they had overthrown the exploiting bourgeois class, then ‘the state’ – defined as the entity through which the bourgeoisie organised its repression of the people – would simply become unnecessary.

Bellamy and Engels conceive of the state as solely a function of capitalism. Abolish the inequalities of capitalism – abolish ‘the market’, indeed all markets – and the state disappears in a puff of smoke.

Unfortunately, the entire history of the twentieth century has taught us that the state does just the opposite: given half a chance, it doesn’t weaken and fade, it seizes dictatorial power. More accurately, a cabal of cunning, calculating people – Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler – will take advantage of a weakened state to seize absolute power – it happened in Tsarist Russia, in post-war Italy, in Weimar Germany -and then institute absolute control, using all the tools of modern technology and propaganda at their command.

The last hundred years have revealed ‘the state’ to be something more like an arena in which a host of competing interests can just about be brought into alignment, held, contained, managed, with frequent political and economic crises and collapses. We now know that when ‘revolutions’ occur, they do not overthrow the state, but simply entrench a new and generally more oppressive state than the one that preceded it – Russia 1917, China 1949, Iran 1979.

But even more important than the question of how the old regime was overthrown, at the heart of the description of all utopias is a debate over ‘human nature’.

In Looking Backward West asks the obvious question: in order to bring all this about there must have been some kind of revolution in human nature: how did you bring that about?

To which Dr Leete, in his calm, wise, man-of-the-future way, explains that there has been no change in human nature: changing the system people are born into and live under allows real human nature to blossom. People, says Dr Leete, are naturally co-operative and reasonable, if you let them be. The Perfect Society is not a distortion of human nature – it is its final, inevitable, true blossoming.

This is the crux: we in 2018 find this difficult to credit because we have the history of the twentieth century to look back on – an unmitigated catastrophe in which, time after time, in Europe, Asia, Africa, China, South America, people have been shown to be irreducibly committed to pursuing their own personal interests, and then the interests of their family, tribe or kinship group, their community, or region, or class, or ethnic or racial groupings – well before any vague concept of ‘society’.

In my view the real problem with utopias like Bellamy’s or William Morris’s News From Nowhere (published just two years later) is that – although they deny it – they both posit a profound, and impossible change in human nature, albeit not quite the one they often identify and refute.

My central critique of books like this is not economic or political it is psychological, it is to do with the extremely narrow grasp of human psychology which books like this always depict.

My point is that in their books, everyone in society is like them – gentle and well-meaning, middle-class, bookish and detached. It is symptomatic that West wakes up in the house of a doctor, a nice, educated middle class man like himself not, say, in the house of a coal miner or factory worker or street cleaner or sewage engineer.

So many of these utopias are like that. One well-educated, middle-class white man from the present meets another well-educated, middle-class white man from the future and discovers – that they both magically agree about everything!

In a way, what these fantasies do is magic away all the social problems of their day, hide, conceal, gloss over and abolish them. It turns out that two chaps in a book-lined study can solve everything. Which is, of course, what most writers like to think even to this day.

In my opinion most writers have this problem – an inability to really grasp the profound otherness of other people – beginning with the most basic fact that a huge number of people don’t even read books, ever, let alone fairy tales like this – and so never hear about these writers and their fancy plans.

It is symptomatic that when the daughter of the house, fair Edith, wants to cheer West up, she takes him to a library, which contains leather-bound volumes of Dickens, Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley and all the rest of the classics. He is instantly reassured and at home. In a fantasy world of books. Exactly.

The central problem with propertyless socialism

There is no money and so no greed in this future society. Dr Leete says people don’t pass on inheritances because they cannot now convert goods into money, so heirlooms are just so much clutter.

As I read that I thought, but people will still barter and exchange. Why? Because people enjoy it, as my mum used to enjoy going to car boot fairs. And as soon as you have fairs and markets and people bartering and exchanging, you give goods a value, a higher value to some than to others – and people will start collecting, hoarding, exchanging, building up reservoirs of valuable goods, selling them on to the right person at the right time, at a profit – and it all starts over again.

Somehow all these utopias ignore the basic human urges to value things, and to swap and exchange them. My kids are collecting the Lego cards from Sainsburys and are swapping them with friends in the playground. My mum loved going to car boot fairs. My wife likes watching Antiques Road Show which is all about money and value. Maybe these are all ‘tools of the capitalist bourgeois system to keep us enslaved to a money view of the world’. Or maybe they reflect something fundamental in human nature.

This may sound trivial, but whether people had the right to sell goods was the core of the problem Lenin faced in 1921, after the civil wars with the white Russians were more or less finished, and he faced a nation in ruins. Farmers had stopped growing crops because the Red soldiers just commandeered them without paying. Where was their motivation to get up before dawn and slave all day long if the produce was just stolen?

And so Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy, which allowed peasants and farmers to keep some of their produce i.e. not turn it all over to the state, and allowed them to use it or sell it as they saw fit. I.e. Lenin had to buckle to the human need to buy and sell. It was Stalin’s insistence, ten years later, that all agricultural produce was to be taken from the farmers by the state authorities that led to the great famine in the Ukraine which led to some three million people starving to death.

Which all reminds me of the terrifying stories in Anne Applebaum’s book, Iron Curtain, about the lengths communist authorities had to go to in post-war Eastern Europe to ban freelance buying and selling. As soon as a farmer sells eggs from a chicken or milk from a cow which are surplus to the state’s quota, he is laying the basis for capitalismAny display of independent buying and selling had to be banned and severely punished. Applebaum’s accounts of farmers and workers and even schoolchildren, being arrested for what seem to us trivial amounts of marketeering, really ram this point home.

Each and every incident was, to the communist authorities, a crack in the facade which threatened to let capitalism come flooding back, and so destroy the entire socialist society and economy they were building.

In Bellamy’s Perfect Society prices are set by the state, everything is supplied by the state, and you ‘buy’ things based on your fixed monthly income from the state. There is no competition and so no bargains or special offers. We now know that, when something very like this was put into effect in Soviet Russia, the result was the creation of a vast black market where normal human behaviour i.e. bartering, buying and selling for profit, returned and triumphed.

In fact, the several accounts of the last decades of the communist experiment which I’ve read claim that it was only the black market i.e. an unofficial market of bartering and trading everything, raw material, industrial and agricultural produce, which allowed the Soviet Union’s economy to stagger on for as long as it did.

What the Russian experiment, and then its extension into China and Eastern Europe, showed is that the socialist concept of society proposed by Marx, Engels, Bellamy or Morris, can only exist by virtue of an unrelenting war on human nature as it actually is – selfish, stupid, criminal, lazy, greedy, sharp and calculating human nature.

Only by permanent state surveillance, by the complete abolition of free speech and freedom of assembly, by the creation of vast prison camps and gulags, and severe punishments for even voicing anti-socialist sentiments, let alone tiny acts of rebellion such as bartering or selling goods, could ‘socialist societies’ be made to artificially survive, despite all the intrinsic ‘human’ longings of their inhabitants.

And even then it turned out that state planning was inefficient and wasteful, completely failing to produce any of the consumer goods which people cried out for – cars, fridges, TVs, jeans.

Bellamy’s encyclopedic approach

Then again, it’s not necessarily the function of utopias like this to portray a realistic society of the future. Bellamy tries, far more than most authors of utopias, to paint a really persuasive picture of what a Perfect Society would look like. But ‘utopias’ need not be as pedantically systematic as the one he has written; they can also perform the less arduous function of highlighting the absurdities and injustices of our present day society. And here Bellamy, in his slow, steady, thoughtful manner, is very thorough and very effective. His targets include:

  • competition over wages
  • the anarchy of a myriad competing companies
  • the inevitability of regular crises of over-production leading to crashes, banks failing, mass unemployment, starvation and rioting
  • state encouragement for everybody to rip everybody else off
  • the system whereby a lengthy number of middle-men all cream off a percentage before passing products on to the public thereby ensuring most people can’t afford them
  • advertising and hucksterism, which he ridicules – now abolished
  • political parties representing special interests – all gone
  • demagogic lying politicians – rendered redundant by universal altruism
  • rival shops stuffed with salesman motivated by commissions to sell your tat – replaced by one shop selling state-produced goods
  • how greed, luck and accident forced most people into a job or career – rather than his system of allowing people to choose, after long education in the options, the vocation which suits them best
  • having to travel miles to concert halls and sit through tedious stuff before they get to anything you like – in the future ‘telephones’ offer a selection of music piped straight to your home
  • international trade is managed in the same way, by a committee which assigns fixed values to all goods
  • travel is easy, since American ‘credit cards’ are good in South America or Europe
  • when the Leete family take West for a meal, they point out that communal canopies unroll in front of all buildings in case of rain, to protect pedestrians
  • at the meal there is a lengthy diatribe on how the waiter serving them comes from their own class and education and is happy to servile, unlike 1887 when the poor and uneducated were forced into ‘menial’ positions
  • state education is a) extensive, up to age 21, b) designed to draw out a person’s potential
  • sports is compulsory at school in order to create a healthy mind in a healthy body (Chapter 25)
  • women are the equals of men, and all work, apart from short breaks for childbirth and early rearing
  • all the false modesty of courtship has been abolished, replaced by frank and open relationships between the sexes
  • and – with a hint of eugenics – Dr Leete claims that now men and women are free to marry for love instead of for money, as was mostly the case in 1887, this allows the Darwinian process of natural selection to operate unobstructed and it is this which accounts for the fact that the Bostonians of 2000 are so much taller, fitter and healthier than the Bostonians West knew in 1887

All these aspects of contemporary capitalist society come under Bellamy’s persistent, thorough and quietly merciless satire.

Style

A comparison with the science fantasies which H.G. Wells started writing a few years after Looking Backward was published, sheds light on both types of book.

The key thing about Wells’s stories is their speed. One astonishing incident follows another in a mad helter-skelter of dazzling revelations. Wells is heir to the concentrated, punchy adventures – and the pithy, active prose style – of Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. He takes their fast-moving adventure style and applies it – instead of hunts for treasure in colourful settings or detective sleuthing – to the scientific ideas which he found being discussed by all around him as he studied for his science degree in South Kensington in the late 1880s.

Bellamy couldn’t be more different from Wells. He is slow – very slow. His book is really a slow-paced, thoughtful political treatise, with a few romantic knobs on.

And his prose, also, is slow and stately and ornate, pointing back to the Victorian age as much as Wells’s prose points forward to the twentieth century. Here is Dr Leete giving another version of the crucial moment when the capitalist world of monopolies gave way to one, state monopoly.

‘Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.

‘In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world’s history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people’s livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.’ (Chapter 5)

Wordy, isn’t it? You have to slow yourself right down to his speed to really take on board the power of his arguments.

But it’s worth making the effort in order to savour and mull them. It is, for example, a clever rhetorical move on Bellamy’s part to make the American rejection of capitalism around 1900 seem a natural extension of the American rejection of monarchy a century earlier (in the 1775 War of Independence).

And here is Dr Leete explaining why, in the new system, money isn’t needed.

‘When innumerable different and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary.’

Clever, isn’t it? Clear, rational, sensible… And totally unrelated to the real world.

Epilogue

And then West wakes up and it was all – a dream!

I kid you not. Like the corniest children’s school composition, that is how the book ends. West finds himself being stirred and woken by his (black) manservant to find himself back in bed, in  his underground bunker, back in 1887 – and experiences a crushing sense of loss as he realises that the future world he was just getting used to… was all a fantasy.

There then follows by far the most imaginatively powerful passage in the book. West dresses and goes out into the Boston of 1887, walking past the confusion of shops, the bombardment of advertising hoardings, down into the industrial district where noisy, smoky factories are employing children and old women, screwing out of them their life’s blood, all that human effort wasted in violent and unplanned competition to produce useless tat (‘the mad wasting of human labour’), then wandering up to the banking district where he is accosted by his own banker who preens himself on the magnificence of ‘the system’, before walking on into the slums where filthy unemployed men hover on street corners and raddled women offer him their bodies for money.

All the time, in his mind, West is comparing every detail of this squalid, chaotic, miserably unhappy and insecure society with the rational, ordered life in the Perfect Society which he (and the reader) have been so thoroughly soaked in for the preceding 200 pages.

The contrast, for the reader who has followed him this far, between the beauty of what might be, and the disgusting squalor of what is, is genuinely upsetting. It was a clever move to append this section. It is the only part of the book which has any real imaginative power, and that power is fully focused on provoking in the reader the strongest sensations of disgust and revulsion at the wretchedness and misery produced by unfettered capitalism.

From the black doorways and windows of the rookeries on every side came gusts of fetid air. The streets and alleys reeked with the effluvia of a slave ship’s between-decks. As I passed I had glimpses within of pale babies gasping out their lives amid sultry stenches, of hopeless-faced women deformed by hardship, retaining of womanhood no trait save weakness, while from the windows leered girls with brows of brass. Like the starving bands of mongrel curs that infest the streets of Moslem towns, swarms of half-clad brutalized children filled the air with shrieks and curses as they fought and tumbled among the garbage that littered the court-yards.

There was nothing in all this that was new to me. Often had I passed through this part of the city and witnessed its sights with feelings of disgust mingled with a certain philosophical wonder at the extremities mortals will endure and still cling to life. But not alone as regarded the economical follies of this age, but equally as touched its moral abominations, scales had fallen from my eyes since that vision of another century. No more did I look upon the woeful dwellers in this Inferno with a callous curiosity as creatures scarcely human. I saw in them my brothers and sisters, my parents, my children, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. The festering mass of human wretchedness about me offended not now my senses merely, but pierced my heart like a knife!

And then – on the last page – there is another, final twist. West wakes again… and is back in the Perfect Society of the future.

His vision of waking and wandering through the Golgotha of Boston in 1887 was itself a dream. He rouses himself hot and sweating. He looks back in horror at the life he led back and the values he unthinkingly accepted. And he is filled with shame, bitter recriminating shame and overwhelming guilt that he did nothing, nothing at all to change and reform the society of his day but acquiesced in his privileged position, enjoyed the wine and the fine women of his class, ignored the poor and brutalised, and didn’t lift a finger to change or improve the world.

The fair Edith appears picking flowers in Dr Leete’s garden and West falls at her feet, puts his face to the earth and weeps bitter tears of regret that he stood by and let so many people suffer so bitterly.

And I confess that, despite all the rational objections to his Perfect Society, and to the rather boring 200 pages which preceded it, these final pages are such an effective accusation of all us middle-class people who stand by and let people endure appalling poverty and suffering, that it brought a tear to my eye, as well.


Related links

Reviews of other early science fiction

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy

1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris
1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
1898 The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
1899 When the Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells

1901 The First Men in the Moon  by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle (1929)

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

 

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 @ the Royal Academy

1. The historical context

The best book about the Russian Revolution I know of is Orlando Figes’ epic history, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. There is no end to the poverty, misery and bloodshed it recounts. Russia was an astonishingly backward, primitive country in 1917. On top of the vast population of serfs living in their primitive wood huts in a hundred thousand muddy villages, sat the class of landowners in their country estates, serviced by local doctors and lawyers. These bourgeois aspired to the fine things enjoyed by the upper classes in the handful of notable cities – Kiev, Petersburg, Moscow. They are the class portrayed in the plays of Anton Chekov (1860-1904).

In these big cities the fabulously wealthy aristocracy mingled with a small class of intellectuals – Russians called them the intelligentsia – who congratulated themselves on the flourishing of the arts which transformed Russian cultural life in the late 19th century, and was evolving quickly as the new century dawned. (Many of these artists, writers and impresarios were depicted in the wonderful ‘Russia and the Arts’ held last spring at the National Portrait Gallery.)

But when the weak Czar Nicholas II took Russia into the Great War in 1914, the weakness of Russia’s economy and industrial ability was painfully highlighted. Troops with few modern weapons, uniforms or equipment were quickly defeated by the German army. Among his many mistakes, the Czar took personal responsibility for the running of the war. There were soon food shortages and other privations on top of national humiliation at the many defeats. The surprise is that it took until spring 1917 for the Czar’s government to be overthrown and the Czar was forced to abdicate.

The provisional government which came to power in February 1917 was competing from the start against workers councils, or soviets, which claimed genuine authority, and were dominated by communists. The provisional government made the mistake of continuing the war and this, along with worsening privations and its own internal squabbles, led to its overthrow in October 1917, in a revolution spearheaded by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks made good on their popular promise to bring the war to an end, immediately began negotiating with the Germans and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. But it was only the end of one kind of violence, for a massive civil war broke out in Russia, with so-called ‘White Armies’ led by Russian generals, fighting against what became known as the ‘Red Army’, manned and staffed by everyone who wanted to overthrow the rotten old regime.

After initial setbacks, the Red Army became better organised and slowly crushed their opponents. In 1920 Lenin ordered part of it to advance westwards through Poland with the aim of linking up with communist forces in the post-war chaos of Germany, and spreading the Bolshevik revolution right across Europe.

The heroic Poles fought the Soviets to a standstill at the Battle of Warsaw (described in Adam Zamoyski’s excellent book, Warsaw 1920), forcing the Red Army back onto Russian soil and, for the time being, curtailing the Bolsheviks’ messianic dream of leading a World Revolution.

During these years of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, the liberal or left-leaning intelligentsia experienced a wave of euphoria and optimism. There was a tremendous sense of throwing off the shackles and restrictions of nineteenth-century, personal, subjective, ‘bourgeois’ art. Artists and theoreticians rejected all its aesthetic and cultural and moral values in the name of creating a completely new art which would be for the people, the masses, communal art, popular and accessible art which would depict the exciting possibilities of the New Society everyone would build together. This led to radical new ways of seeing and creating, the cross-fertilisation of traditional artistic media with new forms, an explosion of avant-garde painting, music, architecture, film, agitop theatre for workers in factories and so on.

It is perfectly possible to be amazed, stunned and overwhelmed at the outburst of experimentation and exuberance and optimism expressed by artists across all media in the decade after the revolution – but still to be uncomfortably aware of the sub-stratum of revolutionary violence which it was based on and, in some cases, glorified.

And also to be bleakly aware that the death of Lenin in 1924 set the scene for the inexorable rise of the tyrant Josef Stalin. In fact the revolution was characterised from the start by the criminal stupidity of Soviet economics and social policy, which almost immediately resulted in worsening shortages of food and all other essentials. But laid on top of this was Lenin’s deliberate use of ‘revolutionary violence’ to intimidate and often, to simply arrest and execute anyone opposing the regime – violence which was taken up and deployed on an increasingly mass scale by Stalin later in the 1920s.

It was the combination of incompetence and slavish obedience to party diktat which led to the horrors of the Ukraine famine in the early 1930s (graphically described by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin) and crystallised into Stalin’s mass purges of the 1930s and the creation of a huge network of labour camps across frozen Siberia, the infamous gulag archipelago. This economically incompetent tyranny was forcibly imposed onto the nations of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and was then exported to China (which fell to Mao’s communists in 1949) and on into other developing countries (Korea, Vietnam) with catastrophic results.

It was the historical tragedy of countless colonised countries in the so-called developing world,  that when they sought their independence after the Second World War, it was in a world bitterly divided between a brutal communist bloc and an unscrupulous capitalist West, thus forcing them to choose sides and turning so many of the liberation struggles into unnecessarily protracted civil wars, covertly funded by both sides in the Cold War.

And then, after one final, brutal fling in Afghanistan (comprehensively described in Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite), the entire Soviet Union collapsed, communism ceased to be a world power, and Russia emerged from the wreckage as an authoritarian, nationalist bandit-state.

2. Atrocity and accountability

This long, sorry saga started 100 years ago this year and we can’t un-know what we all know about its grim legacy – i.e the mass slaughter of the mid-twentieth century, followed by decades of repression and decline. And this exhibition is frank about that.

  • A whole section is devoted to the collapse of pure communism in the very early 1920s and the way Lenin was forced to reintroduce some elements of market capitalism in his New Economic Plan of 1922.
  • Later, a room is dedicated to the forced collectivisation of agriculture – and the discrepancy between the heroic posters and silent movies showing happy, smiling peasants swimming in lakes of milk and climbing mountains of grain – while the actual peasants were, of course, in many places starving, killing their livestock and eating their seed grain rather than have it ‘stolen’ by the state and its often corrupt agents.
  • And at the very end of the exhibition there is a gruesome conjunction of state propaganda films of healthy young men and women putting on acrobatic displays in Red Square – contrasted with a slide show of mugshots of some of the millions and millions of Russian citizens who were arrested, interrogated, tortured, dragged off to labour camps for decades or simply executed, mostly on trivial or invented charges. All overseen by the man who, by the end of the period covered by this exhibition, was emerging as the Soviet Union’s brutal lord and master, Stalin.

Russian revolutionary art, the exhibition

This is an epic exhibition about an epic subject, a huge and seismic historical and social event, the creation of the ideology which disfigured and scarred the 20th century, leading directly to countless millions of avoidable deaths. But nobody at the time knew that. The exhibition makes a heroic attempt to reflect the contradictions, capturing the huge wave of euphoric invention which swept through all the arts, alongside the doubts many artists and creators had from quite early on, reflecting the revolution’s early economic failures, and then the looming growth of Stalin’s influence.

For example, an entirely new form of typography was developed with new fonts laid in bands across the page, often at angles, with photographs which were similarly taken from new and exciting angles, especially of new modernist buildings and the paraphernalia of the second industrial revolution – steelworks, electricity pylons, steam trains.

Some of the most appealing exhibits are the clips from heroic black-and-white propaganda films from the period, depicting smiling workers engaged in bracing physical labour, in shipyards and coalmines and construction sites, on farms and factories. Propaganda it obviously is, but they still have a wonderful virile energy.

Films, lots of photographs, paintings, magazines and pamphlets, along with revolutionary textiles, fabrics and ceramics, architectural and interior design, it is all here in overwhelming profusion, and all are introduced with excellent historical background and explanation.

1. Avant-garde versus traditional naturalism

I knew that by the mid-1930s the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ had triumphed as the official state-sanctioned form of Soviet art. But the exhibition for the first time explained to me how forms of realistic, figurative painting depicting heroic moments and the heroic leaders of the revolution existed right from the start – it wasn’t artificially created by Stalin and his henchmen, it was always there. Thus there were two main groups debating the fate of Soviet art throughout the period – futurists and traditionalists – and they co-existed at the same time.

The Futurists, many of whom had in fact been experimenting with abstract ‘formalist’ art since before the revolution, believed that the revolution required a complete break with the past, the deliberate abandonment of traditional aesthetic values and modes. ‘Death to art!’ wrote Alexei Gan in his 1922 book on constructivism. At the 1921 exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 Alexander Rodchenko presented three canvases, each of a single colour (red, yellow and blue), which he declared to be ‘the end of painting’. He abandoned painting in favour of photography and, even here, pioneered new forms of photojournalism, photomontage and book and poster design.

Not only was painting rejected on aesthetic grounds, but on moral and political ones, too. Old fashioned painting carried the connotation of subjectivity and individual genius, both of which were rejected in the name of capturing the new spirit of the people. Moreover, oil painting was also inextricably linked with the world of the ‘fine’ arts, wealth, power, patrons and exploiters.

By contrast, traditionalists believed in the ongoing importance of realistic representations of everyday life in a highly traditional figurative style, perhaps cranked up with a kind of heroic tone.

What’s fascinating is the way both traditions flourished side by side. Thus the exhibition opens with some big paintings depicting the unquestioned hero of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, as well as key historical moments such as the storming of the Czar’s Winter Palace and so on.

V.I.Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

V.I. Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

By 1928 the Soviet government was strong enough to repeal the New Economic Plan (a kind of state capitalism which they’d been forced to introduce in the early 1920s to stop the economy collapsing). The NEP was ended and 1928 was the year which saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. The resulting clampdown on market enterprises ended support for avant-garde fringe groups who found it harder to get sponsors or exhibit their works. Meanwhile, the realist artists found themselves enjoying greater official recognition and support.

This exhibition ends in 1932, the year the term ‘socialist realism’ was first officially used. The proletarian writer Maxim Gorky published a famous article titled ‘Socialist Realism’ in 1933 and by 1934 Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar in charge of art, had laid down a set of guidelines for socialist realist art. Henceforward all Soviet art works must be:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

It was the death knell of the entire innovative field of futurist, constructivist, supermatist and all other forms of avant-garde experimental art. It was the triumph of the philistines.

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

In fact, this exhibition is itself based on one that was actually held in 1932 in the Soviet Union. Titled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, it contained works from all the disparate traditions which had flourished between 1917 and 1932. Many of the works which appeared in that 1932 exhibition are being shown here. However, the Royal Academy show isn’t nearly as big as the original (some 200 works compared with the original’s 2,640 by 423 artists!) – and it also includes photos, posters, films, ceramics and so on – a far wider range of media – which weren’t in the original.

The 1932 exhibition marked the defeat of the entire futurist-modernist tradition in Russia. The same year saw the incorporation of all independent artistic groups and movements into the state-controlled Union of Artists. Private galleries were all closed down, replaced by State-sponsored exhibitions. From now on it was impossible to be an artist or make any money unless it was working on state-commissioned, state-approved projects. Many of the avant-garde saw their work banned, were thrown out of work or, at worst, were arrested, imprisoned or even executed.

One of the great poets of the time, Alexander Blok, had died in 1921, already disillusioned by the direction the revolution was taking. ‘Blok’s death signified the beginning of the end of artistic freedom in Russia.’ The hugely influential Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovksy, who had devoted so much energy not only to revolutionary poems but to a new type of agitprop poster (many included here) committed suicide in 1930. The curator of the 1932 exhibition on which this one is based, Nikolay Punin, was arrested and sent to a labour camp. Later the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1938, where he died. The innovative theatre designer Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and shot by firing squad in February 1940.

The modernist poet Anna Akhmatova – her first husband killed by the security services as early as 1921, her second husband and son imprisoned in the gulag – went into her long period of internal dissidence, during which she produced some of the great poems which captured the atmosphere of mourning and loss under the Stalin dictatorship.

2. Famous artists

The exhibition includes some marvellous works by painters we are familiar with in the West: there are several examples of the fabulous zoomorphic abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky (who had the good sense to leave Soviet Russia in 1920, moving to Germany to become a leading light of the famous Bauhaus of art and design).

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

There are also a few of the wonderful dreamy fantasies of Marc Chagall, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of the Steppe (he hailed from the provincial town of Vitebsk in modern Belarus). Chagall was doubly fortunate – as both a Jew and an experimental artist – to survive Soviet Russia (he left for Paris in 1923) and the Holocaust (he fled France in 1941, one step ahead of the Nazis) and to live to the ripe old age of 97. A rare happy ending, which suits his gay and colourful paintings.

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

3. Kazimir Malevich

In the 1932 exhibition which this show is based on, Russian avant-garde painter had an entire room devoted to him. The RA exhibition recreates it.

Malevich (as we learned from the fabulous Tate Modern exhibition in 2014, and the Black Square exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in spring 2015) thought intensively about representation and art. He wanted to ‘free art from the dead weight of the real world’, and boiled all art down to a kind of ground zero – his famous black square, painted in 1915. A painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work.

From this reductio ad absurdum he then built up a particular version of modernism which he called Suprematism, embodied in a series of works which use geometric shapes criss-crossing on the picture plane to generate purely visual feelings of dynamism and excitement. The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all.

I liked the Kandinskys in the previous room, but for me they were eclipsed by the power and beauty of Malevich’s abstracts. These have a tremendous force and impact. For some reason to do with human psychology and perception, they just seem right.

However, as the doctrine of Socialist Realism took hold, Malevich found it expedient in the 1930s to retreat from pure Suprematism and to return to a kind of figurative painting. Figurative but with a very abstract flavour, not least in his use of blank eggs for heads, or very simplified heads painted in bright colour stripes. Socialist realism, Jim, but not as we know it.

The Malevich room here uses photographs of the 1932 hang to recreate it as nearly as possible, with the famous Black Square and its partner Red Square in the middle, flanked by suprematist works, with an outer circle of the strange 1930s automaton paintings, and then a set of display cases showing the white models, the skyscraper-like maquettes of abstract forms, which Malevich called ‘architektons’. It’s almost worth visiting the exhibition for this one room alone.

Here is one of Malevich’s later, semi-figurative works.

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

4. Constructivism

But there are many, many more works here – exciting modernist newspaper, magazine and book designs; clips from quite a few black-and-white propaganda and fiction movies (there are several split screen projectors showing scenes from the epic films of Sergei Eisenstein); agitprop posters and pamphlets, including the revolutionary graphic design of El Lissitzky.

‘The Constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object.’ (Tate website).

This aesthetic, based on industrial designs and materials and workers, underpinned much of the work of the period and spread beyond Russia, into Germany and France and some extent the USA, because an explosion of new industrial techniques, with new products and designs was part of the spirit of the age.

There are even fabrics and ceramics which carried revolutionary slogans and images; huge paintings; photos of leading artists, directors, theatre designers and poets from the era.

5. Photography

Photography was perhaps the medium best suited to capturing revolutionary conditions.

  • Obviously enough, it was faster than painting – a photo could be published in newspapers, posters or pamphlets the same day it was taken.
  • Also, photos are, on the face of it, more truthful and ‘realistic’ than painting, capturing a likeness or a situation with an honesty and immediacy which painting can’t match. As Alexander Rodchenko put it, ‘It seems that only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life’.
  • In the hands of constructivist or futurist photographers, photographs also turn out to be the perfect medium for conveying the geometric or abstract quality of industrial machinery, and the bold new architecture of soaring factories, apartment blocks, electricity pylons and all the other paraphernalia of a peasant society forced to industrialise at breakneck speed.

Thus swathes of propaganda photography showing men and machinery in dynamic semi-abstract images of tremendous power.

A little more traditional is the photographic portrait. There is a sequence of works by Moisei Nappelbaum, a fabulously brilliant portrait photographer, who was working before the revolution and managed to survive the new circumstances, eventually becoming Head of the State Photographic Studio.

But at the same time as it could convey a ‘realist’ vision of the world, photography during  this period turned out to be capable of all kinds of technical innovations and experiments. A leading figure in both constructivist design and experimental photography was Alexander Rodchenko.

6. Movies

The most famous Soviet director was Sergei Eisenstein so there are inevitably clips from his epic films about key moments in the revolution – Battleship PotemkinThe Strike.

But there are plenty of other examples of propaganda films. One of the most striking is Man with a Movie Camera, an experimental 1929 silent documentary film with no story and no actors, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. Man with a Movie Camera shows city life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. The ‘characters’, if there are any, are the cameramen, the film editor, and the modern Soviet Union they present in the film.

The film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov uses, including double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and self-reflexive visuals.

The film was publicised with a suitably constructivist poster.

7. Less well-known artists

So far, so well-known. But completely new to me were the works of the artists working more in the Socialist Realist tradition, a whole area which is usually ignored in 20th century art history. Many, it must be said, are very so-so.

Probably the most impressive is Isaak Brodsky, who established himself as a kind of court painter to the Bolsheviks, and produced works which are both wonderfully accurate masterpieces of draughtsmanship, combined with great technical finish with the medium of oil – a kind of communist John Singer Sargent. I like Victorian realism and so I responded to the warmth and figurative accuracy of these works.

Brodsky flourished under the new regime and would go on to become Director of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in 1934.

Another figure who we get to know throughout the exhibition, is Alexander Deineka, according to Wikipedia ‘one of the most important Russian modernist figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century’. His paintings are big and are a unique and distinctive combination of figurative depiction of the human body in attractively abstract settings.

Deineka’s paintings aren’t exactly pleasing, but are very striking. This one, supposedly of workers in a textile factory, doesn’t look remotely like any real factory and the people are hardly the big muscular men of Soviet propaganda, but rather fey elfin figures (bare footed!). The whole looks more like a science fiction fantasy than a work of ‘socialist realism’.

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Later in the exhibition there are more Deinekas, some depicting heroic war situations, others depicting sportsmen and women.

An entire room is devoted to 15 or so paintings by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who is little known in the West. Petrov-Vodkin managed to combine a formalist interest in geometry with a recognisably figurative approach, a bit like the later Wyndham Lewis. He is included by the curators precisely to redress the balance away from the avant-garde artists we in the West tend to know about, and to present a better sense of the Russian culture of the time. His paintings are wonderfully attractive.

And towards the end there was a flurry of realist works by another big name of the day, Alexander Somokhvalov:

Somokhvalov is in the final room, which represents the triumph of Socialist Realism: Is it kitsch? Is it rubbish? Possibly. Is it valuable in its own right, or because it sheds light on the ideology of the time?

Taken together, these relatively unknown Socialist Realist painters certainly provide a different vision, a way of looking at the world aslant from the usual Western heroes of modernism we’re used to. Giving them space and attention is one of this fabulous exhibition’s main achievements.

8. Tatlin’s glider

The Royal Academy is a big building and they’ve really gone to town here, filling the space with some monster exhibits. One entire room is devoted to a lifesize recreation of one of the glider-cum-flying machines developed by futurist designer, Vladimir Tatlin, between 1929 and 1932. Tatlin dreamed of building a machine which would genuinely allow humans – all humans – cheaply and easily to – fly! Hard to conceive a more utopian dream than this.

The glider is suspended from the ceiling and imaginatively lit so that, as it slowly rotates in the breeze, a continually changing matrix of shadows is cast by its elaborate wooden struts onto the walls and ceiling, forming ever-changing shapes and patterns. It’s a darkened, quiet and calming room. Small children came into the room and looked up at this strange flying machine with amazement. It reminds you that quite a few of these artists’ output may look radical and revolutionary, urban and atheist, but that they themselves often came from a deeply spiritual place: Tatlin, Kandinsky, Malevich.

9. Revolutionary fabrics

Vast amounts of fabrics and textiles were produced which contained and distributed revolutionary logos and imagery, incorporating wonderfully powerful constructivist motifs.

10. Soviet women

There are lots of strong women in Soviet art (as in Soviet life). They often feature or star in movies like Women of Ryazan (1927) as well as in countless posters and paintings hymning the gender equality which was an important component of Soviet life.

My favourite, and a standout work in the whole exhibition, was this stunning piece, a huge painting of a woman tram ticket collector titled Tram Ticket Lady, by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894–1971). It is enormous and enormously compelling – a wonderful picture of female pagan power.

Conclusion

This is a huge, wide-ranging and awe-inspiring exhibition, which does a good job of capturing the excitement and terror of one of the most important periods in human history and one of the most innovative eras in Western art.

Artists to remember


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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