The death of Mikhail Gorbachev has occasioned an irresolvable debate about whether the USSR’s final premier deserves posthumous credit (or blame) for the collapse of the Soviet Union or whether he was actually fortune’s fool—a man who hastened the destruction of a civilization he wished to save. But what was that civilization? What is it that constitutes what German historian Karl Schlögel calls its “lifeworld,” its elemental assumptions about values and practices? With the Soviet Union receding into the mists of history, how can one properly summarize its eight-decade existence, especially since the USSR’s elementary assumptions about values and practices differ so radically from ours?

We sometimes call the 1900s the “American century,” Schlögel observes, but it could almost as well be called the Soviet century. By choice or force, some 18 countries adopted the Soviet model and, with it, a distinctive way to live and to understand life. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, much of its lifeworld went with it, but many ways of thinking persisted. Indeed, it was the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, an action born of President Putin’s Soviet KGB training, that prompted Schlögel to write his new book, The Soviet Century (Princeton University Press).

This is not a conventional history. Schlögel has chosen a form rather more like an encyclopedia or an anthology of quotations, presenting disparate pieces of information in arbitrary order—60 essays of varying length. The author compares himself to a “flaneur,” a strolling observer wandering from place to place and reporting what he sees. As a whole, Schlögel has designed what he calls a musée imaginaire to provide us with an “archaeology” of Soviet life. Sections of The Soviet Century cover everything from the workings of doorbells and communal apartments to the distinct feel of Soviet museums to a famous collection of Russian avant-garde art to the endless queues that occupied vast amounts of people’s time. Each of these sections relies on Schlögel’s personal experiences from his first visit to the USSR in 1966 onward and is supplemented by extensive research.

Two previous studies of Soviet civilization also found intriguing ways to capture its distinctiveness. Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (2017 ) focuses on a building near the Kremlin where top Soviet officials lived and, more often than not, were arrested. No less brilliant, Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (2007) re-creates the moral maze and dangerous choices defining personal and family life in the USSR. Both these works, like Schlögel’s, are mammoth in scope and scale. And that is fitting, because gigantism itself, gargantuan undertakings motivated by a single plan, defined the very spirit of Soviet life. Let us build the biggest dam or mill or plant to show our unsurpassed achievements! But do not bother to inquire whether the project makes economic sense or how many lives it will cost to build it.

Consider Magnitogorsk, a city created from nothing in the 1930s to produce steel. Here is Schlögel: “Viewed from the air, it seems to be a pink, artfully created gigantic plaything, hurled down by titans…. Looked at closer… it is a grandiose silhouette of chimneys and blast furnaces, blackened by fire and rust. And from the ground, it is a landscape of iron and steel, smoke and gas, so vast that it seems pointless to try to ride around it.” It consists of dozens of plants, blast furnaces, rolling mills, and finishing mills that “produced more steel annually than Canada… and almost as much as the whole of Great Britain.” More than 10,000 Soviet businesses depended on it.

As Stalin never tried to conceal, Magnitogorsk was built by slave labor—dispossessed bourgeois, “kulaks,” or other groups for whom forced work would constitute reeducation. Working at temperatures that sometimes dropped to 30 below, “the combined male and female workforce lived in tents, caves, and, later, huts—often with up to eight hundred people squeezed into confined spaces.” Needless to say, safety precautions did not exist, and endless industrial accidents occurred: “No one has counted how many fell from the scaffolding, froze to death during excavations, or were killed by collapsing buildings and explosions.” And this was true of other gigantic projects, such as the Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Station Dam, built with the help of enthusiastic Americans who lived in their own housing, and, most notoriously, the Belomor Canal, which consumed tens of thousands of lives and, because it was too shallow, proved almost entirely useless except for rafts.

The core problem with Magnitogorsk and comparable Soviet enterprises was the presumption that technology, like Marxist-Leninist ideology, was fixed and permanent. Such enterprises could not readily adapt to change and so grew more and more outmoded. That is the difference between an American steel town like Pittsburgh and Magnitogorsk, which is today economically unviable, unhealthy, and may have to be abandoned.

Just as human lives were regarded as an infinite resource—you could always arrest more people—so nature was viewed either as so vast that it could not be damaged or, in Schlögel’s words, as “an adversary, an enemy to be fought, defeated and eliminated.” Like the “anarchic” capitalist economy, nature represented the “elemental” world humanity had been given. Bolshevism, by contrast, embodied conscious, rational planning, which was far superior. Humanity would rule, rather than be ruled by, natural and economic forces. That was what Friedrich Engels meant by “the leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.”

The “Plan” therefore became an almost mystical entity. It was human will itself. Given time, a plan could accomplish literally anything. Death would soon be a thing of the past. The idea of the omnipotent plan defined Bolshevism from the beginning. Leon Trotsky concluded his classic Literature and Revolution with a vision of a world entirely remade to suit human desires. “Communist life will not be formed blindly, like the coral islands, but will be built consciously” and so “life will cease to be elemental,” he declared confidently. “Through the machine, man in Socialist society will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and its sturgeons.” Trotsky’s “grouse and sturgeon” passage, as it has come to be called, also affirmed:

The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature…. But they are mere pupils’ practices in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them…. In the end, he [man] will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that his taste will be bad.

The Soviets never got around to using atomic bombs to destroy unwanted mountains, but right up until the end they planned literally to reverse the course of northern rivers.

Is it any wonder that the sheer scale of the pollution engendered by Soviet enterprises staggers the imagination? In Magnitogorsk, black snowflakes fall and, writes Schlögel, “there have been many days when the city has been shrouded in clouds of… sulphurous yellow soot…. Every hectare of the city area received seven tons of poison fall-
out annually.” While Magnitogorsk “ranked highest in every publication about air and water pollution” and experienced the highest incidence of cancer, the whole country has been subject to one preventable disaster after another. Nuclear waste has been tossed into rivers and lakes, deposited directly on the ground, or dumped into the Barents Sea. In other countries, local interests or civic organizations can publicize and oppose such practices, but the whole point of Bolshevik totalitarianism was that everything is subject to a single centralized power. How else could there be a single plan?

Everything was political, including the most widely distributed cookbook, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food (first edition 1939). Reference works were not supposed to be neutral. In its three editions, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia endeavored to offer an ideologically consistent presentation of human knowledge. As Schlögel points out, its editors mocked the very idea of “objective facts” as bourgeois. A proper “class standpoint” determined what was real, even when it differed from what was empirically observable. Quotations were altered. The past was always in flux. The Party line of the moment determined what was fact.

For the encyclopedia’s editors, the key problem was that the Party line kept shifting and prominent people kept becoming unmentionable, and so already published volumes had to be repeatedly revised. “It may well be the case that never before was a literary work subject-ed to such systematic revision with the aid of the censor’s pen and razor to strike out, scratch out or erase offending faces,” Schlögel observes. “People who were once known to every Soviet citizen became unpersons and to have known them was an offense.” The book was not only a Who’s Who but also a Who’s No Longer Who.

If I may cite a case from my own experience: After secret police chief Lavrenty Beria was shot in 1953, the University of Pennsylvania library received instructions to cut out and discard certain pages (on Beria) from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia and paste in new ones (on the Bering Strait). I was amazed to discover that the Penn librarians had actually done so!

It wasn’t safe to be either author or editor of this encyclopedia. Signed articles disappeared: “Few of the prominent editors… died a natural death or even lived to see the completion of the edition.” And it was death or a Gulag sentence for statisticians who conducted the 1937 census of the Soviet population and ascertained that there were 7.5 million fewer people than Stalin required. The statisticians who conducted the 1939 census arrived at the desired figure.


Schlögel’s most revealing chapters focus on the conditions of everyday life. Living space was always on everyone’s mind, and it was common to denounce someone to the secret police just to get their few square meters, a fate that befalls the hero of Mikhail Bulgakov’s posthumously published novel The Master and Margarita (1967). The memoirist Nadezhda Mandelstam recalled:

Future generations will never understand what “living space” means to us. Innumerable crimes have been committed for its sake, and people are so tied to it that to leave it would never occur to them…. Husbands and wives who loathe the sight of each other, mothers-in-law and sons-in-law, grown sons and daughters… all are wedded to their living-space and would never part with it.

Countless people lived in a kommunalka (communal apartment), and until 1958 it was the basic type of urban dwelling. A unit that had been an upper-middle-class apartment before 1917 became the residence of between 40 and 60 people. Living in such conditions, recalled the Nobel Prize–winning poet Joseph Brodsky, “bares life to its basics: it strips off any illusions about human nature. By the volume of the fart, you can tell who occupies the toilet, you know what he/she had for supper as well as for breakfast. You know the sounds they make in bed.”

Long lines for the toilet formed each morning. Endless quarrels over the common areas, the kitchen, and the electric bill shaped quotidian life. You might be living with a prostitute who brought her clients to her piece of a room or with a brawler who came home drunk in the middle of the night. When the doorbell rang, you listened first to the tone, to see if it was for your apartment, then for the number of rings, which specified which person was called. Neighbors reported on one another. When refrigerators came in, families kept them in their own room so that others could not pilfer food. People living this way, according to one observer, were “condemned . . . to a permanent war against one another from which no one can escape and in which they all without exception are doomed to become the victim of a never-ending battle.” As Slezkine points out, these arrangements did more than anything to form Soviet psychology, so that the whole Soviet Union might be described as one communal apartment.

In fact, there were worse living conditions, such as unheated hostels, barracks, or, as with the builders of Magnitogorsk, tents. All such arrangements were supposed to be temporary, but to understand the Soviet Union is to grasp that it endured a perpetual state of temporary emergency.

Schlögel devotes an entire chapter to toilets, which, as every Western visitor could have testified, were always shocking. Nauseating does not begin to describe them. And we are talking not about remote outhouses but places where one might expect something different: “No sooner did you leave the world of high culture—the public rooms of the Bolshoi Theatre, the Leningrad Philharmonic, the galleries and museums and the better or even the best hotels—than you, as a user of public toilets, were confronted with conditions that for simplicity’s sake we may call revolting, disgusting, and intolerable.” On long train journeys, you would find toilets “that with the best will in the world were barely usable or, alternatively, at a stop along the way, you would see passengers relieving themselves in standing-only toilets that did not even have swing doors to separate them off.” In communal apartments, families had their own toilet seats, which hung on the lavatory wall.

In the first years after the Revolution, anti-bourgeois sentiment motivated the destruction of decent facilities, even in the best hotels. “The rhetoric that extended the class struggle to interiors, bathrooms, and toilets” fueled vandalism, Schlögel notes. Like churches, clean toilets had to be destroyed.

Things did not improve as early revolutionary fervor faded. The reason, Schlögel surmises, is that no one took responsibility for spaces neither monumental nor private. “Semi-public” spaces belonged to no one. Foreigners were also shocked by “the neglect, indifference, filth, and vandalism” reigning “where it is least expected: in areas inhabited by average middle-class people so that visitors from outside are immediately struck by the sharp contrast between the apartment and the staircase, between the private and semipublic.” In entryways and stairways, nobody changed burnt-out light bulbs or repaired broken windowpanes. Waste bins that would not close stank, graffiti disfigured the walls, and everyone threw junk on the staircase.

Everything changed when socialism ended. People experienced a tualetnaya revolutsiia (toilet revolution) as soon as public toilets were transferred from municipal to private control. Once there was money to be made by charging for clean facilities, they were available. “Then it suddenly became possible to find clean, brightly lit, and regularly cleaned toilets,” Schlögel reports. “The introduction of pay toilets may have been the most important sign in many people’s minds” that the Communist era was over.

Something similar happened when apartments were privatized. Starting in the 1950s, the Soviets began to build endless prefabricated apartment buildings containing tiny flats with paper-thin walls and inadequate bathrooms, which at least allowed people to escape communal living. As soon as tenants could own their apartments, they installed new windows, acquired burglar-proof doors, and renovated bathrooms. “Since tenants were re-placed with owners,” Schlögel observes, “the main entrances, which used to be open to everyone at all hours, [were instead] fitted with an access code or perhaps even an intercom.” People now began to concern themselves with stairways and other public areas. “Changes of this kind call for a radical rethink,” Schlögel remarks. Socialism, as a distinct and distinctively destructive set of attitudes toward property, makes people inconsiderate, irresponsible, and indifferent to others.

Perhaps no experience characte-rized Soviet life more than the queue. As the historian Elena Alexandrovna Osokina observed, “almost the entire nation stood in the Soviet queue. . . There were depressed and angry queues, queues in which you stood for hours and queues that went on for days.” There were also invisible queues, including lists with years’ long waits for a car or an apartment. “In fact,” Osokina related, “many people ended up frustrated because the entire Soviet era turned out to be shorter than the queues it had produced.”

People hired others to stand in line. Men regarded queuing as wo-men’s work and resented having to do it. An essential constituent of Soviet experience was spending the night at the entrance of a department store. People became abusive, and, conducting a sort of Soviet Gallup poll, secret-police agents pretended to be ordinary citizens in line so they could overhear complaints and thus ascertain popular opinion. The only thing never in short supply was queuing itself. From interior ministry files for 1938–39 we learn that on the night of April 13–14, 33,000 customers waited outside stores; on April 16–17, it was 43,800. Very few people read books while in the lines because they were on the watch for queue jumpers. People even spent their vacations waiting in lines.

Folk from the countryside who grew food came to the cities, and especially to Moscow and Leningrad, to wait in lines to buy the very food they had grown. The explanation for this paradox was that the Plan allotted food and gave the most to favored cities. Just 2 percent of Soviet people “lived in Moscow in 1939–40, but it received 40 percent of the eggs and meat, over 25 percent of the fats, cheese and woolen textiles…. Over 50 percent of all available consumer goods went to Moscow and Leningrad.” A country that before the Revolution (and again in recent years) was a major food exporter suddenly experienced famine.

Ultimately, Schlögel observes, what stood in line was time itself: “The queue [was]… the literal ex-pression of stasis, zastoi.” Think how many man hours were wasted this way, and how counterproductive the whole system was. But efficiency is a concept belonging to the market.

When socialism ended, so did the queues. What had been accepted as a blind natural process, an inevitability everywhere and always, turned out to be the result of a dysfunctional system based on central planning.

It wasn’t just shopping that wasted time. Almost everything demanded permits, often several, obtainable from offices where clients were regarded as nuisances. The appropriate person was often away from his desk. No one else knew when he would return and no one would take over his job. Dostoevsky refers to an emotion he called “administrative ecstasy,” the sheer pleasure low-level bureaucrats derive from making someone squirm. In the Soviet period, when everything was done by the state, conditions were that much worse.

Citizens faced “a vast indifference that paralyzed one’s expectations of rational calculation, which oddly enough was something the Soviet way of life was especially proud of…. Calculations about the use of time collapse.” As Schlögel summarizes this aspect of Soviet life: “Everyday work and going about one’s business were organized in a manner that went against all common sense. The excessive complexity and bureaucratic nature of the simplest processes made a mockery of any idea of efficiency.” Restaurants routinely displayed a notice saying that no tables were available “when it was crystal clear that the establishment was completely empty.”

Schlögel might have added that, like communal apartments and queues, endless bureaucracy rendered initiative impossible, effort pointless, and individual dignity a joke, which was just what Soviet ideology prescribed. It was precisely their initiative and productivity that made kulaks—hard-working, economically successful peasants—so despised and, in Stalin’s “war on the countryside,” the target of deportation and extermination campaigns.

There is something truly paradoxical here. The Soviet Union proclaimed the economic superiority of socialism and launched five-year plans to increase productivity, yet it systematically exterminated its most productive citizens. And not only kulaks. Just as the Soviets were building modern dams and factories, they put “bourgeois experts” and engineers on trial. A few years before World War II, they purged more than half their top generals and admirals. If one’s goal is to “overtake the capitalist countries,” why cultivate inefficiency? Why transform professors or specialists it took years to train into prisoners digging the frozen earth?

The answer, I think, is that productivity was always secondary to the regime’s guiding principle: absolute control over everything. People learned never to initiate. Bureaucrats rarely conduct cost-benefit analyses, and they can be relied on to extend their control as much as possible. In Western societies, that tendency must, at least in principle, be justified by its beneficial results. In the totalitarian USSR, it was itself the desired result.


Everything was organized in a two-tier system, with the privileged nomenklatura (top officialdom) having access to separate stores, vacations, and just about anything else. They did not wait in those queues. They even had a separate telephone system. Few ordinary citizens even had a telephone, and the lines at public phones were endless. Still more telling, there was no phone book. Why give ordinary citizens the ability to do things? Why make it easy to form horizontal connections not supervised by the state?

The same principle of two systems governed libraries. In the early 1980s, Schlögel informs us, the catalogue of the Lenin Library listed 70 million books, but there was no listing for Trotsky or Nietzsche. Whole branches of knowledge—such as theology—were absent. So were Soviet publications from 1918–1936 that contained quotations from Trotsky or other executed prominent Bolsheviks, books in Russian published outside the USSR, and, especially, foreign books, magazines, and newspapers—including “the whole of ‘bourgeois’ non-Marxist, anti-Soviet Western literature,” from Time to Der Spiegel.

Beginning with the 1924 “Guide to the Elimination of All Forms of Literature from Libraries, Reading Rooms, and Book Bazaars” and the 1926 “Instruction Concerning the Monitoring of Books in Libraries,” millions of volumes were pulped. In 1938–39, Schlögel observes, 24,138,799 books were destroyed. And with every show trial or change
of direction, “bacchanals of purification” took place.

But not all offending publications were annihilated. Many books withheld from the general public were deposited in a separate collection, the spetskhran, which had its own catalogue and secret stacks accessible only to a select few, including foreign scholars admitted to the Lenin Library’s Reading Room Number 1. That all changed under perestroika—Gorbachev’s policy—when the Lenin Library mounted an exhibition entitled “Publications from the Special Collection of the Lenin Library That Have Been Restored to Open-Access Shelves.” Visitors’ comments “conveyed a feeling of arriving at a state of adulthood.”

Schlögel devotes his concluding chapter to his idea that the best place for a museum of Soviet life would be the Lubyanka, the gigantic building that housed the secret police. Visitors could see the rooms where famous people were tortured or shot. Windowless cells with an electric light that was never turned off would also display extracts from memoirs of former inmates about the special sense of time created by such conditions.

The volume concludes with an extract from the memoirs of Aleksander Wat, who recalls how, as a prisoner, he was once taken for a walk on the roof of the Lubyanka. In the distance, he faintly heard a radio broadcast of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” He reflected: “If the human voice, manmade instruments, and the human soul can create, even once in all of history, such harmony, beauty, truth, and power in such unity of inspiration—if this exists, then how ephemeral, what a nonentity all the might of empires must be.”

We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link