Book Review: The Second Russian Revolution (1987-1991)

Belows is the review I wrote of Leon Aron’s new book Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991. It is a great read and I recommend it highly. It chronicles Glasnost, the period of awakening in Russia from around 1987-1991 that, Aron argues, was a moral awakening, indeed a repentance, of the first order that enabled the Russians to throw of the spiritual shackles of Communism.

Nothing is more powerful than a word spoken in truth, wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, arguably one of the most influential moralists of the last century. Glasnost was the period where speaking the truths that got you killed just a year or two earlier resounded ever more loudly in the public square. Lest we complacent Westerners take this development for granted, let’s remember that we have largely left off believing that truth even has an objective character. We are very close to the (philosophical) materialist assumptions that justified such great brutality and suffering in Russia and which Glasnost finally overthrew.

The review was published by the Acton Institute.

Source: Acton Institute | By Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991. By Leon Aron (Yale University Press, June 2012). 496 pages

“There are different ways to understand how revolutions work,” writes Leon Aron in his new book Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and the Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 that chronicles the collapse of Soviet Communism during Glasnost from 1987-1991. The most dominant is structuralism, an approach that draws from Marxist thought and sees the state as the central actor in social revolutions. In the structuralist view revolutions are not made, they happen.

Aron explains that structuralism has some merit because of its chronological linearity. It can reveal the events that lead from point A to B to C; an important function because the historian’s first step is to grasp what actually happened. But structuralism also has a grave flaw: the materialist assumptions (“objective factors”) informing it are deaf to the “enormously subversive influence of ideas.”

Structuralism, specifically, is subservient to Marxist dogma, particularly the relegation of the ideas into the category of idealism (non-being). It defines man as a passive actor in the fixed and impersonal currents that drive history that renders the historian blind to man’s moral character, particularly constituents such as “truth, memory, ideas, and ideals” that shape purpose and meaning and by them drive events.

Glasnost was a social revolution of the first order driven by these moral constituents, Aron writes. It arose not by the will of the Soviet state but because the state was already weakened. Aron quotes Tocqueville who first described how weakened states till the soil that leads to their dissolution:

It is not always that when things go from bad to worse that revolutions break out. On the contrary, it oftener happens that when a people … suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressures …Thus the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seems to mend its ways … Patiently endured for so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance appears to become so intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men’s minds.

Glasnost arose out of Perestroika, the effort to revive the moribund Russian economy by introducing market-based reforms and foster an increasing openness to the West. Internal progress was stymied by the moral rot that pervaded all levels of Russian society (alcoholism, cronyism, abortion, waste, fraud, despair, censorship, food shortages, murders, exiles). Perestroika could not succeed until the rot was first confronted.

Dry Tinder

Although Glasnost officially began in 1987, an event one year earlier lit the fuse. Unlike earlier Soviet rulers, Mikhail Gorbachev had a visceral dislike of the brutal terror that forced the compliance of Russian subjects to centralized economic planning. He choose instead to relax the restraints of the state on its subjects. After heated debate in the Politburo, the anti-Stalinist film Pokoyanie or Repentance was released and the floodgates opened. Russians were about to breathe the air denied them since Lenin first seized power.

Glasnost quickly took the shape of a national repentance in the full sense of that term. Censorship disappeared, not by state decree (the leadership had originally hoped to limit debate) but because millions of Russians sensed the shackles being broken and joined in to expunge the lies that held the terror state in place.

The discussions took place in journals and newspapers, on television, in homes and marketplaces. A flood of written material was produced, much of which Aron studied to shape his historical narrative,  selecting that which that illustrated with great clarity the radical nature of this second revolution.

The recovery of the past is laborious and often painful because the loss of historical memory creates the loss of individual identity. The New Man of the Collective, that febrile illusion of materialists everywhere  – be it Jacobin, Soviet, Nazi or any other incarnation – was the first lie that needed to be named and repudiated.

The loss of historical memory created what Aron calls the “deafened zone,” a place in the national consciousness that contained no memories, that was enforced by an exhaustive policy of censorship that not only concealed facts but by the “hourly construction and maintenance of a ‘parallel,’ ‘brilliant’” reality created a history that never existed. Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Grossman’s Life and Fatewere published for the first time during Glasnost and did much to define what the “deafened zone” actually was.

One develops moral self-awareness first by hearing truth and then seeing and acting on it. Once the “brilliant” history was revealed as the continuous cascade of lies that it was, the voices of those muted by the cacophony of the state-controlled media began to be heard, faintly at first but louder as more witnesses stepped forward. First up were those who recalled seeing friends and relatives of the millions murdered by the barbarous regime.

It is difficult to grasp the scope of Soviet brutality. The best we can do is examine the individual stories and multiply them again and again until the limits of imagination are reached. The suffering is too great for any one person to perceive although people who value truth will see that the ideas driving the regime were conceived in the fetid bowels of hell. Nothing else explains such abject depravity.

Myths Shattered

This was only the beginning. “Any lasting polity espouses and propagates essential beliefs by which it lives,” writes Aron, and the Soviet Union “spawned a powerful mythology that legitimized political, economic, and social arrangements.” Sustained daily by constant propaganda and censorship and the restriction on travel except for the elites, it imposed severe penalties on any new version of the Soviet past and present. Yet, between 1987 and 1989, “virtually every constituent myth of this tale was shattered by uncensored truths.”

Legitimizing myths were becoming “unraveled” — a very dangerous development for the leadership because delegitimizing of the regime was a direct challenge to its power. Aron chronicles in considerable detail the unraveling that, in historical terms, happened in the blink of an eye. Here too Russian intellectuals began to weigh in. Economists pored over the “official” economic reports and pointed out they were riddled with lies; military analysts revealed the war in Afghanistan was a defeat (Russians believed they won) and  unearthed the truth behind the Great Patriotic War, particularly Stalin’s enthrallment with Hitler and the millions fed as fodder to the Nazi war machine because of his inept leadership.

Aron describes too the damage that forced collectivization imposes on the soul. Glasnost enabled the Russian to see that Homo Sovieticus was both a “symbol of a spiritual crisis and its epitome.” The Soviet Man forgot how to work, was driven by envy, sloth, lying, and stealing, driven to drink, both humiliated and humiliator. The virtue necessary for stability and progress was methodically and mercilessly ground out of almost everyone. Despair left the soul and the nation bare.

Moral crises are healed by repentance. In Greek, repentance (metanoia) means “a turning or change of the mind;” literally a new way of seeing. Although Aron does not mention it, the call to repentance was made years earlier. In 1975  From Under the Rubble, a book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and six other dissidents (all living in Russia at the time) was published that outlined with uncanny accuracy the steps necessary for the Russian restoration.

Glasnost, like every modern revolution, “was about reclaiming and extending human dignity … ” At first it imposed on the Russian leadership a new definition of socialism (Gorbachev sought to meld the new found freedom with socialist ideas) and foreign affairs. As time went on however, it became increasingly clear that the great collectivist experiment needed to be scrapped altogether. New ideas emerged that proclaimed that the quality of domestic and foreign policy were indissolubly dependent on the moral health of the citizenry. Universal values were to be recovered and implemented. A new democracy had to be crafted that was “based on deep-rooted morality and conscience.”

Aron’s masterful work may also contain a prophetic warning.  Russia repudiated the materialist ideas that eroded the barriers against the tyranny while the nations of the West are embracing them. If Russia’s history proves moral renewal breaks the shackles of darkness, then our moral corruption may be blinding us to an enslavement coming our way.


  1. M. Stankovich :

    You have alluded to this book and your upcoming review, as well as this idea of “weakened states that lead to their dissolution,” so I read this with some interest. While I say, with no offense intended, that I do not believe that the extent of my interest would constitute a full 500 pages, perhaps you would entertain some questions. You (or the volume) mentions nothing in regard to the antecedent influences of first, the Russian Orthodox Church, or the role and impact of agents such as the Voice of America. While appreciating that the author is focusing on a specific theater of time and a specific socio-political concept, Glosnost, proffered by an avowed atheist, I can’t imagine how you could reach the latter conclusion without acknowledging the influences of the former.

    I’m glad you noted that Solzhenitsyn was arguably “one of the most influential moralists of the last century,” because my thought is that he was of no significant consequence to the events you describe. I think it was very telling that in a NY Times interview shortly before his exile in 1974, Solzhenitsyn indicated that the first person he wanted to meet in the West was “Archiyerie Alexandre” (Archpriest Alexander), not knowing it was Schmemann, to whom he listened on VOA (and it is ironic that Fr. Alexander’s son, Serge Schmemann, was the NY Times Moscow Bureau Chief during the period of this book). By 1978, Solzhenitsyn was sealed in a “compound” in Vermont, with his own chapel, and his own priest for 15 years and literally became unknown in Russia. When he finally returned (I believe it was 1995 or 1996), he was appearing on the equivalent of US “public-access” TV advocating restoration of Russian Monarchy. Fr. Alexander was heard on VOA late into his life.

    On the other hand, Bishop Basil (Rodzianko) was retired as the Bishop of San Francisco & the West (OCA) in 1984, moved to Washington, DC, and converted a small one-bedroom apartment into a chapel, radio recording studio, and residence from where he taped, amassed a huge collection of sermons and talks, and was broadcast by VOA into Russia virtually around the clock (He told me an amusing story of a “hard-rock” station in New Orleans that volunteered extra radio bandwidth late at night to broadcast “mirror” him into Russia, and showed me his cherished photos of DJ’s with hair and beards as long as his who met him at the airport when he went to meet them!). His voice and reputation were renowned throughout Russia, and one need only view the mainstream press’ video of Bp. Basil’s procession through the crowded streets of Moscow to deliver the Holy Fire into the hands of Patriarch Alexsie II to appreciate the power and influence of VOA.

    And finally, my own father, a Serbian military officer who had survived Dachau with Bishop (now St.) Nikolaj Velimirović, railed at me for my naivete and stupidity at believing Fr. Vitaly Borovoy, then Dean of Patriarch Pimen’s cathedral in Moscow, whom Protodeacon Eric Wheeler had “spirited away” from government “handlers” very early on a Saturday morning during Great Lent to serve liturgy. Fr. Vitaly told us that “seeds were quietly being planted in Russia,” that “the Church was alive and quietly influencing and teaching.” And I juxtapose my father’s comment that “the very hand of God will be necessary to crush them,” and the same man who sat in his chair, silent, as we watched Boris Yeltzin, standing on a military vehicle, addressing troops refusing to obey a direct order to fire on their own people. He couldn’t say a word, nor I think, should he have.

    This was a most amazing period of time to explore. But to simply say, “between 1987 and 1989, virtually every constituent myth of this tale was shattered by uncensored truths” is much different than saying “they were shattered in a culmination of the process” and fails to honor the enormity of that process, from within and from without. The “lyrics” say the Church is captive, but the “music” says the Church is not to be contained.

    In my mind I’m at page 85. Do I need to go to the library, Abouna? Make your case!

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      It’s the author’s bias M. Stankovich. I spoke with someone who knows him and while a practicing Jew (that’s where his moral awareness comes from), he doesn’t have much interest in Christianity I was told. But, who knows? After this research he might change his mind. I noticed no mention of the Orthodox Church at the time but since the bias was not a negative one, I decided to review the book on its own merits given that this is one of the first American historians as far as I know to apply a moral thesis to recent Russian history.

      Second, he clearly despises materialist reductionism, as do I. I can work with a person like that.

      I put in the reference to “From Under the Rubble” to signal that the idea that moral renewal (repentance) was floated long before Glasnost. It’s a good book and hopefully other people that read the review will pick it up.

      My sense is that if the review sparks the discussion as it has with you, it will succeed. I wrote it with that in mind. It all depends on how wide it gets disseminated. If AEI picks it up, it will reach a lot of people.

      Here’s how the author describes his book:

  2. M. Stankovich :

    It is a bit ironic to read that Aron has himself been broadcasting into Russia via VOA for years. Maybe I’ll send him an email…

  3. Cynthia Curran :

    What is interesting is that the Soviet Union had a large underground economy that was more responded to the market. In the case of Cuba or Korea they have less trade with the outside world than the old Soviet Union. We boycotted Cuba and Castro is sill in power. Personality, it might have been better to have restored trade like we did with China or Vietnam but that has it downside as well since they have labor cost advantages. So, actually the Soivet Union lasted as long as it did and not as poor as North Korea since it did have an underground economy that help sometimes with the shortages of goods and had trade with the outside world, so it was’t totally removed form the economy.

  4. Umm… the market reforms led to massive collapse of the Russian economy, wide scale looting, and a morally vacant materialism that dwarfed the late Soviet period. Good riddance to the Soviet state but its just bizarre that you somehow position “free market” ideology as something that stands in contrast to materialism – the free market is the ultimate triumph of anti-human materialism and as Fr. Hopko notes it is killing off what the Communists couldn’t – lived Christianity – here and there.

    • Fr. Hans Jacobse :

      Market reforms were necessary to lift the Soviet Union out of the poverty caused by centralized planning. Free markets are an engine of prosperity, centralized planning the cause of poverty. I think you are confusing the collapse and the looting that followed with free markets. That looting was part of the collapse.

      And don’t confuse consumerism with philosophical materialism, although the latter certainly is related to the former. Consumerism and/or materialism is not the result of free markets. In fact, what you find is that the more materialistic and consumerist a society becomes, the more it moves toward centralized management of the economy, ie: socialism.


        A recent reminder of the predatory behavior of American sociopath-businessmen in Russia. Exhile archives are a good source to understand how extreme the degeneracy was under the American market regime.

        In any case, while 100% planned economies don’t work, you are spouting blind ideology: market reforms in Russia resulted in the collapse of the economy by 50%. Only by breaking the backs of the free market bandits was Russia able to stabilize and grow the economy – and start to build a middle class. The reality is market forces need to be managed and controlled – like fire, there is tremendous power and importance but uncontrolled fires can destroy everything of value.

      • See: Did Markets Fail in Post-Soviet Economies?

        According to Prof. Pavel Yakovlev, several post-Soviet economies have struggled to obtain prosperity since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many argue that this is a failure of capitalism. To Prof. Yakovlev, this has not been a failure of capitalism, but rather, has been a failure to create the conditions necessary for capitalism.

        To see whether or not this is true, Prof. Yakovlev looks for differences in GDP growth rates between post-Soviet countries. He finds that Azerbaijan and Poland have performed well, with average GDP growth rates of over 4% per year. These countries, in comparison to the other post-Soviet countries, have more economic and political freedoms, lower levels of corruption and inflation, and more transparent institutions. They also happen to be located on the outer edge of the soviet bloc, where corrupt Soviet style institutions did not take root.

        Other post-Soviet countries like Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have experienced dismal economic performance because they have failed to create a market friendly environment. They also, in comparison to the top performing post-Soviet economies, have high rates of corruption and inflation, low economic and political freedoms, and poorly defined and enforced property rights.

        Markets did not fail in poorly performing post-Soviet economies, but rather, were never actually given a chance to succeed.

        More on transition economies here.

        How to launch the transition mattered so much not because the workers or the people objected, but, it turns out, because the elite were the strong interest group that had to be mollified. Because much output under socialism was of so little value, whether real output declined during the transition is still in dispute. Privatization and enterprise restructuring have been the most pioneering areas, and the final verdict on their success is not yet in. Corruption is widespread, but this tends to happen in all countries where government officials have a large amount of discretionary power, not just in transition economies. Macroeconomic stabilization and liberalization hardly offered anything very unexpected, apart from technicalities such as barter. As time passes, the peculiarities of transition economies wane.

      • The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics last week published a “Top Ten Economics Books for Beginners” list. It includes the Common Sense Economics book by by James Gwartney, Richard L. Stroup, and Dwight R. Lee that I’ve recommended elsewhere on this blog.

        Another one on the IFWE list that I like is the Economics in Christian Perspective by Victor Claar and Robin Klay. If your parish is behind the Fair Trade movement, you might be interested in Claar’s Acton Institute monograph (ebook and print) titled Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

        The IFWE list recommends Are All Economists Basically Immoral? by theologian and economist Paul Heyne. Anyone with an interest in learning more about economics should also consider reading his The Economic Way of Thinking, “which sold 200,000 copies in Russia alone and has been translated in Bulgarian, Czech, Hungarian, Romanian and other languages.” You can get a used copy of this textbook rather inexpensively on Amazon (look for the older editions).

        Here’s a link to the audio for Heyne’s last lecture, “The Moral Critics of Capitalism.” Well worth a listen.

  5. Cynthia Curran :

    I doubt that, religion is stronger than the US than in Western Europe or some Parts of Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic is indifferent to religion not hostile and its the most successful of the old eastern bloc countries. On the other hand, people were more religious in the middle ages should we return to feudalism and the old guild systems. The Soviet Union was one big monopoly and was dated it would have been more successful in the Hellenistic age where the state own major industries like banking in Ptolemaic Egypt.

  6. Cynthia Curran :

    Here’s a question where free markets hurt:immirgation, many libertarian pretend that people here illegality don’t have children but cities with a lot of illegal immirgants and children use the free and reduce lunch program more than the native born do. Also, Center for immigration studies shows Ca, Tx, Az which have highest number of legal and illegal immigrants with low job skills have a high ratio of poverty compared to the native born. Should some immigration be discouraged.

  7. Cynthia Curran :

    Well, actually people site the book of acts on Communism for Christians. The first groups that pushed for Communism in medieval society were the free spirits also loosed in sexual morality and believe not only property in common but wives. The same occurred with the early Anabaptist who took a city in Germany by force and also had a common of property and wives. Real communism doesn’t usually work except in small groups that shared the same beliefs. And the radicals were the big pushers in medieval society and the reformation among the Protestants for communism Orthodoxy is traditional which usually goes against communists movements that want to destroy traditional societies and make everyone equal. Emperors were never the equal of the common man.

  8. Cynthia Curran :

    Here’s some thoughts from Neo-Conservative David Horowitz who grew up communists as a child. Back in the 1980’s he and some other ex-leftist visit Poland before the fall of the communist. He stated that Crocow had a steel mill so bad in pollution that the US state department didn’t assigned employees with children under 10 years old. The salary assigned to each worker was 20 dollars a year and no telephone in the apartment. Many poles had relatives working in the west and were able to get afford to buy 20 blue jeans because of those relatives working in the west. Also, apartment building of one of people that Horowitz had urine drenched stair case and a tiny one room apartment perhaps as small as 8 by 10 feet, how everyone fit into I don’t know. A waiting list for an apartment let that was 20 years. Also, a remark that food ration in Eastern Europe was even smaller than it was under the czar in 1913 in Russia.

  9. Cynthia Curran :

    This is a blog on a country that a lot of orthodox would like to copy at least at the economic level-Sweden, you might know Christian, this website is not about comparing the Swedish system to other countries systems. The website is simply about pointing out the problems as they exist within the Swedish Model. But yes, in Sweden there are kids that go hungry, there are homeless and there are elderly that have gotten their entire pensions drawn in by the state. Although we don’t have the problem of “no insurance” that I often hear as a major point of critique of the American healthcare system, in Sweden we have have plenty of negligence and malpractice. Meaning: just because there is an E.R. you can go to (without insurance), that doesn’t mean you get help or even descent help if you go there. There are many horror stories in Sweden of misdiagnosis, malpractice, poor service and people dying because of a completely failing and overburdened system that now is on the brink of collapsing. Furthermore, the healthcare system in Sweden is something that EVERYONE is paying into with every paycheck willingly or unwillingly. So even if you NEVER go to a doctor during your entire life – you are still paying for it. Is that fair? The health care system is “preemptive”, you pay and pay and pay for something that hasn’t happened yet (and might never happen). What also needs to be considered is that the health care service that the government offer is of very low standard and the service is very poor. There not much competition since there are few private practices and hospitals – so there are very few options to go elsewhere (even if you have the money to do so). Is that fair?

    Reply ↓

    • I think the problem is that far too many people think that the blind amorality of “systems” – government being the largest of them all – will bring the justice that human personality obviously cannot have. Basically, when a doctor says “I cannot attend you, because you can’t pay”, all the fibers of the liberal stretch in indignation *YOU CAN, YOU JUST WON’T! AND FOR MONEY!” A “system”, so they think, would never do that. A system is planned. It is under control. It obeys us. They fail to see that a “system” is just a group of people organized in a certain way. The same doctor who denies care for money in a capitalist society, denies care in a “free system” because his real sponsor, the one he has to attend to, is his employer, the government. He will care more about getting degrees, passing internal exams, getting “points” for promotion, entering exactly at 9:00 and leaving exactly at 5:00, than attending patients. If to please his sponsor he has to subscribe to treatments and medicines he does not agree with, he will have to do it and possibly do it without concern for the effect in the pacients. Even worse. This doctor, and many like him, would be the head and the “committees” and “ministeries” with the control to both provide the service and to make the laws that rule it. It is true that in a capitalist society a greedy doctor can deny help to a person. But it is the *only* evil this man can do. As the “minister of health” of a continent-wide health system and the power to regulate his competitors he will do much worse than denying help to one person. He will create an entire society that concentrates resources and money on him and his allies, dennying help to millions and millions. There is no such a thing as an evil capitalist who is evil because he is a capitalist. He is evil because he is an evil human being. In a capitalist society he is *just* an evil capitalist. In a state-centered society, he will be an evil aristocrat consuming the life of uncountable individuals.

      Also, in a free market, if a doctor prescribes a medicine of lower quality because of some dirty deal with the pharmaceutical company and that goes wrong, at least you can complain to the state. In a “public system”, the state is the one who made the bad choice and it is the first to try to bury its own mistakes.

      I think that one of the big ironies with liberals who think the state should do everything, is that it is in a society where the market is free and the state is the “supervisor” only that I can defend myself from evil and greedy people by recurring to the state by means of police and the judiciary. In a system where the state does everything, there is no one to ask for help.

  10. Father, what do you make of Dugin’s slavic-fascist influence in today’s Russia? I ask that having in mind these two articles:

    I think his movement can have a corrupting influence among Russian Orthodox Christians and if he gets what he wants, it would destroy the image of the Church for many centuries.

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      Fabio, I read the articles and frankly, I am always cautious about what I read these days regarding Russia because I really do not know who to trust. So much of American – Russian relations is still read through the Cold War paradigm that doesn’t function anymore. The neo-cons, who are as obtuse as liberals regarding the religious foundations of culture, seem to want to recreate a familiar paradigm of the past because, like their liberal brothers, they are clueless about how to comprehend the world today — Arab Spring and all that.

      I am not discounting the points in the article, just saying right now I don’t know what weight to give them. I would be like, say, reading an article in the Guardian comparing the Tea Party to the KKK. The premise is ludicrous, but a European reader would not know that.

      • I understand. I just would like to know how much Putin actually hears him.

        In fact, what is missing in Russia, in my opinion is the Nuremberg of Communism. I am sure the people would be willing to accept that many of the “collaborators” with the regime were never asked if they wanted to collaborate and were actually blackmailed. These could be sent free.

        I am sure too that many of the leaked names were so precisely to demoralize some Christian authorities before their own flock. I am always surprised on how people so suspicious of everything KGB are so quick to believe anything the FSB “leaks” about past “collaborators”.


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