How the House of Government helps us understand the Arab Spring

How the House of Government helps us understand the Arab Spring
Book review: Yuri Slezkine sheds light on the nature of revolution itself, writes Usman Butt.
6 min read
26 Feb, 2018
Understanding the 1917 revolution helps us understand Putin, and the Arab Spring [Getty]
Last year, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution was marked with a flurry of events, films and exhibitions trying to make sense of the events of 1917.

The occasion aroused interest beyond its historic roots; for many, the importance of the Russian revolution was not just about understanding the fall of the Tsar or the rise of the Bolsheviks, but trying to under the peculiar entity of Putin's Russia today.

For some of those involved in the Arab Spring, the anniversary was a time of reflection about the nature of revolution and its consequences. Although attending exhibitions and reading publications was about historical interest for me, I must admit that I was drawn to understanding what happened in Russia 100 years ago, because I was trying to make sense of what was happening in the Arab World right now.

Yuri Slezkine's new book The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution is perhaps one of the boldest takes on the past century of Russian history.

Written in a novelesque style, Slezkine, an American-Russian professor of history, argues that the Bolsheviks need to be seen as following in the line of millenarian or apocalyptic sects. This is a controversial argument as Communism was-born in the "age of reason" - and Karl Marx's famous declaration: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

Religion was thus the recourse for the poor looking for conciliation in their miserable living conditions, however, socialism and the move towards communism would enable the poor to be freed of their chains, end their oppression, and rid their need of religion.

Apostasy from religion was often an expectation for anyone joining the ranks of communist movements in pre-revolutionary Russia. Much of the history around the Russian revolution has been shaped by how the Bolshevists wished to portray themselves and the conditions that created their revolution.
Put simply, Marxists are not supposed to 'do' religion, let alone apocalyptic religion

For the Bolshevists, religion varied from harmless superstition to dangerous subversion from the necessary work of class liberation.

Put simply, Marxists are not supposed to "do" religion, let alone apocalyptic religion. Although I would argue that one can detect Christian millenarian influences within Marxist discourse, the idea that to reach a Communist society would be the end of history, where justice, freedom and equality had been achieved, and that this is an inevitable outcome of history, where evil is banished and the saints rule for 1,000 years bringing justice, peace and righteousness - the 1,000-year rule is where the term "millenarian" comes from - until reading this book, I had found little support for this connection.
The House of Government is availabe from
Princeton Universoty Publishing [PUP]

Within the first few years of the Arab Spring there was a noticeable acceleration in apocalyptic narratives both in the Arab media and through online social networks - events in places such as Syria were being discussed in millenarian terms with Salafi and Shia extremist groups envisaging their fight as not merely a celestial affair, but also as a sacred one too.

This intensified with the development of the Islamic State group into its full strength. Many activist friends in the Arab region despaired at the rise of millenarian discourse - how could eschatological beliefs possibly help the revolution against authoritarianism? While I couldn't answer them, I felt much of the assumption that went into asking a question like this was grounded within a certain reading of revolutionary history and politics - which is not all too dissimilar from the general discourse of Marxist historians looking at the Russian revolution.

Few works have actually tried to explore the link between rising apocalyptic zeal and revolutionary change. British historian Norman Cohn produced a famous work, The Pursuit of the Millennium, that surveyed revolutionary and archaistic millenarian movements in medieval Europe. Cohn argues that far from being apolitical, apocalyptic movements were often the instigators for social and political change driven by people who fundamentally believe the world is corrupt, evil and against them.

Apocalyptic movements were not only about leaving our world; in fact, they often demanded paradise now, which is why they were central to pre-modern revolutionary change. The idea of "paradise now" is essential to all revolutionary movements - and in that respect, everyone who took to the streets in 2011 was to some degree a millenarian. It is in this light that we find The House of Government, which, unlike Cohn's study, subjects one of the 20th century's greatest events to a millenarian framework. 

It defiantly feels as if Slezkine is concurring with Cohn's conceptual framework and applying the model to 20th century Russia.

Pre-revolutionary Russia was gripped by apocalyptic fever; many Orthodox Christian and offshoot groups sprang up preaching the second coming, the atmosphere was electric - and it is with this backdrop that we find Bolshevist activists preaching their version of the second coming.

Slezkine argues that the Bolshevists had the characteristic of a sect, it believed salvation was coming, that there would be a reckoning with evil (the Tsar). Russia was on the brink of awesome change, invisible forces were at work (history, in their case), "the meek shall inherit the earth", and that justice would come to Russia and spread to the rest of the world.

While intellectually grounded in material realities, there was something clearly metaphysical in their thinking. The trouble for the Bolshevists is that other churches were preaching a similar message, however, the Bolshevists viewed themselves as morally right and the other groups as misguided, a deeply sectarian way of looking at the world.

They were competing with churches to attract converts and agitate for revolutionary change. Slezkine uses references to Jesus and his disciples, Moses and his followers, and Muhammad and his believers, all of whom started out as millenarian sects, to assess how the Bolshevists performed as a millenarian sect.
Priests and churches became central spaces for organising protests, which is not to dissimilar for the role mosques played in the 2011 Syrian revolution

I feel that thinking of the Bolshevists in terms of these millenarian traditions is useful, however, they are not exactly equivocal - as the religious traditions cited were not merely revolutionary movements, and they were as concerned with the afterlife, very real within these traditions, but that was not the case with the Bolsheviks.

While we see the Russian revolution through the prism of the Bolsheviks, the initial February Revolution was led by rival sects. Priests and churches became central spaces for organising protests, which is not to dissimilar for the role mosques played in the 2011 Syrian revolution. After the Tsar abdicated, there were huge celebrations across Russia with people greeting each other with the millenarian phrase, "Christ has risen".

Even the Communists adapted the expression in their greetings.

The book takes us through the Bolshevist apocalyptic society until Stalin's purges - where the utopian ends, and the dystopian forms fully. With highs and lows it reads like Tolstoy, and is certainly not far off the physical length of War and Peace. I was left thinking about the importance of millenarian belief but also about the ability to transition from apocalyptic into material reality, something Judaism, Christianity, Islam succeeded at - but which eluded the Bolsheviks.

The Arab world itself is at a crossroads and reading history like this will enrich reflections on the past seven years.


The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution is on general release, published by Princeton University Press

Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.