Revolutionary thought in Russia, 19th-early 20th century: An encyclopaedia [Book review]

Revolutionary thought in Russia, 19th-early 20th century: An encyclopaedia [Revolyutsionnaya mysl v Rossii XIX-nachala XX veka: Entsiklopediya]. Editor in chief V.V. Zhuravlyov. Politicheskaya Entsiklopediya, Moscow, 2013, 613 pgs. In Russian.

This book, a massive, large-format hardcover volume, is the last in a series of reference guides that Moscow-based publisher Politicheskaya Entsiklopediya (or RossPEn) has over the last decade dedicated to the development of Russia’s pre-1917 political ideologies. These included books on conservative and liberal thinking.

As diverse the revolutionary movements in the Russian Empire were, and as turbulent the last century or so of its history were, there was a wealth of these movements. Soviet-era histories of the revolution were obviously biased, presenting pretty much everything as a progression towards the great united party, focusing on obscure Marxist circles to a much greater extent than some of the movements that had larger following and more influence on the non-stop litany of strikes, riots or political violence that is the Russian history of the era - and Bolsheviks’ opponents and rivals were usually vilified. Now, some years after the fall of the USSR, with some of the ideological strangleholds lifted, some (but not all) archives opened to researchers, and foreign and emigre sources more easily available, the time is probably right to sum up and to uncover some of these hitherto hidden histories.

In his preface, the encyclopaedia’s editor in chief Dr Valeriy Vasilyevich Zhuravlyov noted that “objective circumstances, combined with subjective factors, made ripening of revolutionary ideas within society natural and ultimately inevitable, which, in their turn, became a powerful mobilising factor for growth of these ideas into revolutionary practice” (pp. 6-7). The post-Soviet historians’ interest in liberal and conservative ideologies has been almost as one-sided as the Soviet communist slant, and this encyclopaedia is a contribution to redress it.

As the title suggests, the book is focusing not so much on the minutiae of the tide of events but as much or more on the ideas, on ideological constructs and on the analyses of social situations and political events.

As Zhuravlyov’s foreword notes, it is “intended to reproduce in systematised manner a kaleidoscope of socially important ideas of radical part of Russian society within boundaries of revolutionary socio-political thought” (p. 6).

The three major groups of articles include entries on general topics such as Anarchism (pp. 32-35) or the People - these are usually lengthy and suggest ways to explore the wealth of information therein; biographies of everyone who was anyone from Alexander Radishchev and the Decembrists through to Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, with questions of “what these people thought” or “what their ideological trajectories or alliances were” usually answered in more detail than questions such as “what happened to them”, and often in their own words, with key passages quoted; and entries on influential publications, legal, emigre and clandestine.

Dozens of entries are dedicated to Russia’s many proponents of stateless socialism, starting from Alexander Herzen and the early Proudhonists like Nozhin or Sokolov. The perception of Russian anarchism only having been formulated by three great bearded men - Bakunin, Kropotkin and Leo Tolstoy (the latter has no entry, perhaps owing to his political ideas being but a fraction of his personality, or rather more likely because he was not prone to revolutionism - he is namechecked in the entry on anarchism though, p. 33) - is far from the truth. There were numerous creeds, anarcho-communist, anarcho-individualist, anarcho-syndicalist, anarcho-mystical, anarcho-universalist, as well as related trends (like the “workers’ conspiracy” of proto-Maoist, anti-intelligentsia revolutionary Jan Waclaw Machajski). Some of these had little following and less lasting effects, some, like Kropotkinite anarcho-communism, attracted many adherents in Russia and are still quoted and discussed.

As an example, here’s what Dmitry Rublyov’s entry on Daniil Novomirsky (1882 - after 1936, real name Yankel Kirillovsky) contains (pp. 363-366). One paragraph sums up his biography, which included stints with the social democrats (1900-1905) and the Bolsheviks (1919-1921), with an anarchist period squeezed in between, hard labour between 1908 and 1915, escape from Siberian exile to the USA, return to Russia after the 1917 revolution, and a 10-year labour camp sentence in 1936 after which Novomirsky vanished. The following paragraphs are outlining his early, Marxist-influenced version of anarcho-communism which emphasized class struggle over mutual aid; his move away from Marxist philosophy; Novomirsky’s ideas of how militant anarcho-syndicalist trade unions should overthrow the capitalist state; organisation of communist society after the revolution; his turn towards anarcho-individualism and his formulation of the concept of “affinity group” circa 1907; similarities between the theories of Novomirsky and Borovoi; his criticism of social-democratic reform programme, and Machajski’s influence on his views concerning the intelligentsia; his analysis of the reasons for the anarchist movement’s failure in the 1905-1907 revolution; Novomirsky’s activities during said revolution and anarchist organisations which his ideas influenced at the time; and the influence of Novomirsky on revival of the anarchist movement in Russia in the 1980s, as well as rise in popularity of his idea of affinity group in the modern anarchist movement. There is also a photo of Novomirskiy, and a bibliography.

Just in case, another famous anarchist born in the Russian Empire, Nestor Makhno, does not have an entry to his name - I presume because his major importance was not so much to the theory, and along with his theoretical contribution (The Platform) were made after October 1917, the cutoff date. Volin, who edited Makhno’s memoirs and whose ashes are at the same Parisian cemetery, is featured - he was seen as a major anarcho-communist thinker in the pre-revolutionary emigre circles, and played a spectacular role in the anarcho-syndicalist propaganda after the February 1917 revolution.

Ideological hair-splitting, crucial though it was to find the way for the social revolution to succeed, resulted in a diversity of tactics and approaches, many of which are still relevant for understanding the world, and ways to change it. The encyclopaedia’s many authors not only manage to grasp the fundamental ideological concerns but also summarise them in a concise and neutral manner.

Limited space means, however, not only a plethora of abbreviations (which are helpfully deciphered on pp. 609-612) but also some narrative getting streamlined. I.e., this encyclopaedia’s contributor Yevgeniya Rudnitskaya’s biography of Nozhin [Shestidesyatnik Nikolay Nozhin. Nauka, Moscow, 1975] suggests suicide (provoked by his helplessness to prevent Dmitry Karakozov’s attempt on Alexander II, which despite failure unleashed “white terror” against radicals) as the most likely albeit not perfectly certain cause of Nozhin’s death; entry (pp. 368-371) by Rublyov (who wrote about many of the anarchists herein) states that as an undisputed fact.

The shortcomings are few, and statistically negligible; the book is a crucial resource for those with any interest in Russia’s history, or the history of anarchist, or wider radical movement therein.

Some of the entries likely to be of interest to researches of anarchist histories include those on Bakunin, Mikhail; Borovoi, Alexei; Cherkezishvili, Varlam; Chernyi, Lev; Daynov, Mendel; Engelson, Vladimir; Ge, Alexander; Gogelia, Georgy; Goldsmith, Maria; Golos Truda (newspaper); Grossman, Iuda; Karelin, Apollon; Knizhnik-Vetrov, Ivan; Kropotkin, Peter; Metchnikoff, Leon; Novomirsky, Daniil; Nozhin, Nikolay; Posse, Vladimir; Rabotnik [1] (newspaper); Rayevsky, Maxim; Romanov, Stepan; Sokolov, Nikolay; Volin; Zaytsev, Varfolomey. There are also quite a few borderline cases, various proponents of non-statist but not necessarily anarchist socialism, revolutionaries who went through, say, a Bakuninist phase or shared some positions with anarchists, and entries on general issues (Agrarian Question, State, etc.) which reflect anarchist positions.