The Soviet Century by Karl Schlögel

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Readers of Karl Schlögel’s books could be forgiven for measuring them on an avoirdupois scale. The latest The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World is over 900 pages in length and deliberately draws the readers’ attention to spatial concepts with its strange title. Its saving grace rests with the author’s decision to continue to dig into the past, maybe the present, and through a very deep study, unearth the history of the Russian people.

When engaging with this book, it soon becomes apparent that this is an attempt to reveal all aspects of life in the USSR. The author’s intention seems to have been to write a book in a style that might be described as immediate, grounded in firsthand encounters and, as a consequence, vivid. An example appears in the careful structuring that assists the reader. We become immediately struck by the abstractness of the gulag, the details of planned economy, the railway system, trivia such as cookbooks, military medals, even perfume called Red Moscow before the focus changes to long queues and cramped compartments, until the focus yet again alters to the Lubyanka and urban fantasies.

Little wonder that Schlögel is regarded for his expertise in Russian affairs. At every step he receives commendation for his profound knowledge of Russian culture. His ability to tell some anecdote virtually ‘off-the-cuff’ with a wry humour that appeals to an audience of all races. His book has been described as follows:

The Soviet Union is gone, but its ghostly traces remain, not least in the material vestiges left behind in its turbulent wake. What was it really like to live in the USSR? What did it look, feel, smell, and sound like? (Frontispiece)

A number of issues arise. First among these is that we are faced with the decision whether his selections are plausible and convincing. It is the reader who has to make this decision. The chapters are of uneven length – some in fact are of vastly different lengths, some lack clear sequence. The chronology of some of the chapters varies greatly. A comment is appropriate about the narrative storyline. Indeed, some are vignettes of Soviet life informed by scholarly context.

What should have been chapters 16, 17, 18 in fact contain no numbering at all. The author’s purpose appears to be to simply make the point that railways always matter. As a result, omissions and gaps appear in the landscape of Soviet civilisation. There are restricted ways in which food and agriculture are presented. We read of decaying villages and the inefficiency of state farms, but diet and public health implications are ignored. As one critic put it, the impact of insularity which undergirded the entire edifice of soviet experience is no more than implicit in each of the parts and chapters.

However, the book draws deeply on the author’s own experiences, allowing the sensory reconstruction of places, objects and rituals. Schlögel’s approach to his material isn’t exhaustive or systematic and he doesn’t pretend the selection is anything other than personal. He tends to develop into a museum guide, pointing out details and offering personal anecdotes.

Of much interest is the picture of the vast peasant workforce building from nothing on the steppes and developing at great speed into the industrial proletariat. He quotes a number of examples. Lenin’s mausoleum was replaced again and again until it became a granite ziggurat. The growth of population living in the cities and towns more than doubled from 26 million to 56 million in 13 years.

Most statistics relating to the Soviet Union are staggering in their complexity – when the author maintains that the structure of the book could easily be given physical form as an actual museum, why should I fail to believe him?

The Soviet Century – Archaeology of a Lost World


by Karl Schlögel

Princeton University Press


$69.95; 928pp

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