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The End of History: Radical Responses to the Soviet Collapse

  • Author(s): Kellner, Joseph
  • Advisor(s): Slezkine, Yuri
  • et al.
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Abstract

This dissertation is the first cultural history of the dissolution of the USSR. It examines the spirited and highly visible search by many Soviets for meaning after the discrediting and disappearance of state ideological control.

Marxism-Leninism imagined history as an inexorable if halting ascent, lifting humanity into a luminous, just and rational future. But however vaguely that future was described, it bore no resemblance to the USSR in 1989. Instead, at the twilight of Soviet communism, a newly freed press revealed a darkening world of crime and corruption, and criminals and the corrupt were gaining handily from the newly freed markets. Widespread dislocation in the labor market, mass emigration and cascading crises of public health made the collapse a time of incomparable stress and disorientation. And amidst this material and moral crisis, Soviet streets flooded with prophets, proselytizers and mystics, each offering uncertain citizens new and often radical routes out of the abyss. In examining this milieu, the dissertation explores the ultimate fate of the Marxist-Leninist worldview, once its vision of the future was relegated to the past.

While that worldview framed humanity’s linear progress as scientific fact, notions of history’s shape are always a matter of interpretation and, indeed, of belief. Different conceptions of time and their implications are the major analytical thread binding my case studies together. The beliefs that my subjects adopted - beliefs esoteric or dogmatic, foreign or homespun, utopian or apocalyptic - led them to reimagine time in cycles, downward spirals, abrupt ends and new beginnings. Viewed together, the culture of the collapse reveals a dramatic fraying at the end of Soviet time and, in many respects, of a much longer European arc. It is not without cause that most survey courses of modern Europe end in the East in 1989. The Soviet collapse was the most momentous geopolitical event of the late 20th century, but a certain story of European modernity - of devolved political power, self-realization of the individual, scientific and industrial progress, and secularization - ends there as well. The USSR, having self-consciously adopted the mantle of that modernity, did produce distinctly modern people: urban, middle class, well-educated and unencumbered from youth by the opiate of religious faith. Yet it is precisely these people - my subjects - who then diverge from the supposed modern path. Their stories raise important questions about rationalism, ideology, and longstanding notions of progress.

The dissertation is built on five case studies, each exploring a particular set of beliefs. Topics were selected both for their high visibility at the time and for their radical departure from Soviet life as it was known – they include a history of Soviet astrology, of the Soviet Hare Krishna movement, of the arrival of Mormonism, of the apocalyptic Vissarion sect, and of mathematician Anatolii Fomenko’s popular and imaginative “New Chronology” of world history which, based on ostensibly hard data, folds all historical epochs into the last thousand years. The chapters progress chronologically, and in doing so, trace the origins and flourishing of the spiritual world of the collapse.

The case studies are grounded in over sixty interviews, which I conducted in Moscow and among sect members in remote southern Siberia. These form the backbone of each chapter, with substantial buttressing from archival materials, Soviet media, and broad reading in the sociology of religion. Each case study also requires a firm grounding in the specific doctrines in question, and much research time has been dedicated to unrecorded conversation and deep reading of scriptures, books and pamphlets produced by the groups under study.

The conclusions of my project should draw interest in several discrete fields. First, it should draw the interest of religious scholars in multiple disciplines. The USSR was the most totalizing and long-lived experiment in altering the mindsets of a polity, and state atheism was a major pillar of its official ideology. In most respects, atheism failed to capture hearts and minds, but its impact was still profound, even as people adopted new and radically un-Soviet beliefs. Science and rationalism retain their cachet among most of my subjects, and each belief system I profile must reckon with the authority of modern science. Scholars interested in conversion and belief in the modern era, and in so-called "New Religious Movements" in particular, should find much to consider in my work.

Second, historians and sociologists interested in crises and societal upheavals, especially from social and cultural perspectives, will see parallels between my work and their own. In Russia, this moment has notable precursors at the end of the 19th century, and during the succession crisis of the early 17th, particularly as concerns esotericism and the occult. These are explored in my chapter on astrology. To an American reader, it might recall the Great Awakenings of the early republic or the 1960s, explored with Mormonism and the Hare Krishnas, respectively. And Vissarion’s sect, self-consciously modeled on the ministry of Jesus Christ, introduces an even grander historical perspective. Some of the most surprising insights of the project come from readings in remote historical epochs - indeed, the nexus of spiritual and political crises seems unrestrained by period and place.

Finally, studies of the collapse of the Soviet Union comprise a field unto themselves, with growing productivity in history, sociology, anthropology and political science. Political and economic histories of some quality have already been written, but the event - the most momentous geopolitical change of the late 20th century - is predictably complex. I hope that my project, above all, will contribute substantially to this collaborative work, as the first cultural history of the collapse and transition.

Main Content

This item is under embargo until July 21, 2022.