Matryoshka dolls with Soviet and Russian leaders

Book review: ‘The Soviet Century’ by Karl Schlögel

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An in-depth look at 100 years of social, political and technological upheaval helps to explain how Russia has evolved into the country it is today.

Among all the 18 chapters and 60-odd subchapters of this formidable volume, there’s one section conspicuous by its absence – the Soviet Union’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine.

Before you rush in to correct me that it was not the Soviet Union but Russia that brutally invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, let me assure you that this isn’t a Freudian (or any other) slip on my part. My ‘mistake’ is deliberate - having spent 35 years of my life in that very ‘USSR’ I have good reason to assert that modern Russia is a logical successor and a legitimate heir of the Soviet Union, differing only in its somewhat diminished territory as well as its official name.

The country that so treacherously and so unnecessarily attacked its ‘brotherly’ fellow-Slavic neighbour, remains in essence the same totalitarian state it has been for the all the years that have passed since October 1917, when power was usurped by a group of corrupt, belligerent and murderous gangsters calling themselves Bolsheviks.

Karl Schlögel’s ‘The Soviet Century’, now available in an English language edition translated by Rodney Livingstone (Princeton University Press, £30, ISBN 9780691183749) was first published in German in 2018, four years prior to the commencement of what in Putin-speak is called a ‘special military operation’, but in reality constitutes the bloodiest military confrontation in post-WWII Europe, when very few of us were able to predict it. It is an impressive 900-page-long literary coup, albeit in future editions (which, I am sure, will follow), I would change the subtitle from ‘Archaelogy of a Lost World’ to ‘The Road to Rushism’, the lexical merger of ‘Russian’ and ‘fascism’ being the only correct description of the type of society that exists in Russia today.

Karl Schlögel is a prominent German scholar whose previous book - significantly titled ‘Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland’ - was first published in the UK in 2018. He patiently leads the reader to the same conclusion, even if he discreetly refrains from calling a spade a spade.

It took me a couple of weeks to read this weighty volume, and even longer to convince myself to sit down and write this review. Why? Because, like many of my fellow Ukrainians, I now tend to instinctively recoil from anything related to the Soviet Union and/or Russia. The sensation is probably similar to the anti-German sentiment that prevailed in Britain during and immediately after the Blitz. An obvious knee-jerk reaction, but hard to contain when Ukrainians are being murdered daily in their hundreds by the invaders.

Delving gradually into this remarkable book, which in its depth of coverage, can only be compared to the now extremely hard to find four-volume ‘Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the History of Soviet Everyday Life’ published in Moscow (in Russian) in 2015 (I am lucky to own a digital copy of it), I became increasingly amazed by its unexpected topicality. I realised with frightening clarity that far from being a ‘lost’, ‘vanished’, or ‘museum’ world, as the Soviet Union is repeatedly characterised by Schlögel, the totalitarian monster remains very much alive.

To paraphrase the medieval French announcement on the death of a monarch, the Soviet Union is dead. Long live the Soviet Union!

The main strength of ‘The Soviet Century’ is that it covers countless seemingly insignificant aspects of Soviet life that nevertheless speak volumes: from cookbooks and new ‘red calendars’ to perfumes, prison tattoos and Beriozka hard-currency stores, from which ordinary Soviet citizens were barred. (I was the first Soviet journalist to expose such shops when I was reporting for Krokodil magazine in the late 1980s).

I was thrilled to see a 1980s train timetable for Moscow’s Kazansky railway terminal, reproduced in the chapter ‘The Railroads of Empire’. As a travel-hungry Soviet boy, I collected such timetables, which I used for vicarious armchair travels. ‘Russian or Soviet History Is the History of the Railway’ – is the title of one of the chapter’s subsections. Another –‘The Boiling Samovar, Sandwiches Wrapped in Cellophane’ - brings back the sounds and even the smells of my childhood voyages.

Alongside the grand failures of the Soviet regime, Schlögel mentions its achievements too. One of them was the construction of the Magnitogorsk steel plant in the Urals in the late 1920s. However, the fact that the industrial giant had been built with the help of numerous Western contractors was not common knowledge in the USSR: “The technology for ‘the most modern steelworks in the world’ was supplied under contract by the US company McKee of Cleveland for 2.5 million gold roubles. And for the American and German engineers who were unable to dispense with central heating, running water and the Saturday Evening Post, a little America was created… consisting of 150 cottages that can still be marvelled at to this day.”

The book’s shortest section, the two-page chapter 16, is dedicated to wrapping paper and packaging. In it, I was reminded of the “coarse grey-brown” Soviet wrapping paper, which, as Schlögel insightfully remarks, “really had been representative of an entire period”. Yes, in reality it was the coarse and useless wrapping paper, not the heavily state-subsidised window-dressing areas of space exploration, ballet and nuclear physics that represented the Soviet regime’s true face and nature - an extremely apt observation and a powerful metaphor that I haven’t come across anywhere else.

Just like Schlögel’s thoughts on the Soviet housing projects, those ‘Sublime Vistas of the Prefab Mountains’ (the title of Chapter 37), focusing, among other things, on the much-hyped Moscow suburb of Cheryomushki – “a showpiece project consisting of five-storey residential blocks of prefabricated apartment built on former kolkhoz fields”. I had the misfortune to live in one of those human beehives, in the company of ubiquitous cockroaches and permanently drunk neighbours.

‘The Soviet Century’ brought back a lot of memories – good and bad. But even for someone like myself who lived in the USSR for many years it is an eye-opener that has helped me to better understand the topsy-turvy Soviet world. Being aware of that peculiar reality, so different from what we are used to in the West, is essential in trying to comprehend the tragic events that are happening now in Ukraine. That makes ‘The Soviet Century’ both extremely timely and utterly indispensable.

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