20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by well-known historian Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism in the Soviet Union. In this essay, the author analyzes the ideology of VSKhSON—the All-Russian Social-Christian Union for the Liberation of the People.



The All-Russian Social-Christian Union for the Liberation of the People (VSKhSON) was Russia’s first relatively large underground organization in the post-Stalin period whose goal was a violent coup in the USSR (the only exception being the People’s Labor Union, which existed abroad). Its members were distinct from the liberal dissidents who fought for civil rights. There is no doubt that under Soviet conditions, both movements were utopian, but in markedly different ways.

The ideal of the liberal dissident movement (represented by the human rights periodical Chronicle of Current Events) was a pluralist system and Western democracy in general. In contrast, VSKhSON considered Russia to be an Orthodox civilization that differed from Europe, and viewed Soviet communism as a product of the evil West. Like all paladins of the Russian idea, VSKhSON had to seek a “Russian path” to freedom, trying, in a sense, to reinvent the wheel. What they succeeded in inventing was a theocracy.

Rejecting the very basis of Western society—free entrepreneurship—as being alien to Russia, VSKhSON was opposed also to its “superstructure”: an open political system. The VSKhSON program proclaimed that “the Social Christian doctrine considers the form of government in which power comes as a prize for rivaling parties, or is monopolized by one party, as absolute evil” (italics mine). Generally speaking, the party system is unacceptable from the Social Christian point of view. Thus, they equated pluralist democracy to one-party dictatorship and rejected both.


“The Berdyaev Circle”

No wonder liberal opponents sarcastically called VSKhSON the “Berdyaev circle.” VSKhSON claimed they “discovered” dissident philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev and actively distributed the books that he wrote in exile among the youth in Leningrad, since during Stalin’s rule these books were otherwise inaccessible. They even made reading Berdyaev’s books a method of recruiting new members. Berdyaev became the VSKhSON’s lodestar.

VSKhSON’s program did not provide for any parliament or Duma in Russia’s future, offering instead, under Berdyaev’s influence, “representation of peasant communities and national corporations—large unions of workers of physical and mental labor’” (quote from The New Middle Ages by Berdyaev). In other words, the real problem was not that VSKhSON monopolized the ideological legacy of this remarkable, albeit extremely controversial thinker of twentieth-century Russian philosophy, but rather that VSKhSON chose his most unfortunate and most reactionary book as its guide. Eugene Vagin, former chief of VSKhSON’s ideological department, however, called it “[Berdyaev’s] most profound and brilliant [work].”

I wrote about The New Middle Ages in some detail in my previous article “The Birth of Imperial National Communism.” This book was written immediately after the victory of Mussolini in Italy, when, to Berdyaev, who could get easily carried away sometimes, it seemed for the moment that “fascism was a unique phenomenon in the creative life of modern Europe.” Following their lodestar, VSKhSON countered the “degenerate talking shops” (i.e. Western parliaments) with the “representation of real corporations.”

The young members of VSKhSON were seeking freedom. But in the nineteenth century, Slavophiles, the founders of the ideology of the “Russian path,” were zealous for liberty, too. But according to both, freedom had to be a special kind of freedom—“Russian freedom”—that offered protection not so much from the Russian authorities, but from the West.

Of course, the world has changed significantly since the 1920s, and the price of fascist rhetoric is now well known, as are the ramifications of fascism. Indeed, in later years, Berdyaev repeatedly repented his error. But for the ideologues of the “Berdyaev circle” it didn’t matter that their once-teacher, in his unspeakable levity, was once impressed with Mussolini; it only mattered that his rhetoric was anti-Western. In search of the “Russian path” to freedom, they jumped at the only ideology that was voiced against the West. In 1992, Vagin indignantly rejected another of Berdyaev’s books, The Origin of Russian Communism, as “totally unacceptable.” Well, of course, because in this book Berdyaev insisted that communism had distinctly Russian roots. Alas, neither prison nor emigration taught VSKhSON ideologues anything.

Certainly, the young members of VSKhSON were seeking freedom. But in the nineteenth century, Slavophiles, the founders of the ideology of the “Russian path,” were zealous for liberty, too. In this sense, both movements were undoubtedly liberal. But according to both, freedom had to be a special kind of freedom—“Russian freedom”—that offered protection not so much from the Russian authorities, but from the West. In the minds of the Slavophiles, freedom was guaranteed by autocracy, paradoxically or not; but for VSKhSON, it was guaranteed by theocracy. That’s why members of the latter were national-liberals. As we learned from “Solovyov’s staircase,” had their brave fight not been interrupted so tragically by arrests and prison camps, the VSKhSON would have ended up much like the Slavophiles—transformed from paladins of freedom into servants of reactionaryism.


Theocracy and Civil Rights

According to the VSKhSON program, the theocratic character of a new state has to be provided by a “vigilant” supreme council, “one-third [of which should be composed] of persons of the Church’s upper hierarchy and two-thirds [of which should be composed] of the nation’s outstanding representatives.” Of course, the “Church” was assumed to be Russian Orthodox, but the process whereby the council’s “persons of the Church’s upper hierarchy” and “outstanding representatives” were to be elected was unknown. It was known only that they were to be elected for life. In an interview with Radio Liberty (Svoboda), Vagin stated that “he [himself] professes the faith of Dostoyevsky: a Russian man is Orthodox, and Christian Orthodoxy is fundamentally natural to a Russian man.” The Orthodox council would have the “right of veto, which it may impose on any law or action that does not comply with the basic principles of Social Christianity.” Finally, the council would elect the state ruler—a “representative of national unity.”


VSKhSON members after their release from prisons and concentration camps, 1976. Left to right: Leonid Borodin, Anatoly Sudarev, Alexander Miklashevich, Eugene Vagin, Vyacheslav Platonov, Yuri Buzin, Georgy Bochevarov.


Organized this way, the Social Christian State would have to guarantee “basic human and civil rights.” It promised a lot of rights—more than Stalin’s Soviet constitution of 1936. But similar to the Stalin constitution, the mechanism for exercising those rights was not specified. What’s more, Social Christianity did not provide for political opposition—the only real, historically proven guarantee of human rights.

Unlike Vagin, Dostoyevsky did not develop government projects for Russia’s future and did not intend to become one of its political leaders. Therefore, we have to guess at what Vagin meant by saying that the “Russian man is Orthodox.” Russia is a multiconfessional country: it has Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and non-believers. Within the borders of the Soviet empire, these groups accounted for at least half of the population. How were the rights of all these groups to be respected if they were not represented in the supreme council of the Orthodox state?

Perhaps some of them could be represented as part of the “rural communities and national corporations.” In this case, they would not be listed as representatives of their faiths, but as members of the their communities and corporations. And do not forget about the right of veto that the Orthodox supreme council could impose on any decision of those “representatives.” I’m afraid that Nikolai Berdyaev would not recognize VSKhSON’s idealogues as his followers.

My late friend Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky, a writer and dissident, served time in a Soviet penal colony with some of the VSKhSON members. He told me how he once mentioned to them that he would protest against their “Social Christian state” the same way he protested against the Soviet regime. The VSKhSON members replied to him, “Then we will put you in prison, Andrei Donatovich.”

For people like Sinyavsky or myself, who belonged to neither rural communities nor national corporations, interest in the VSKhSON project was not just academic. It was literally a matter of fate. Moreover, Article 74 of the VSKhSON program explicitly states, “After the communist dictatorship is overthrown, the state authority must be transferred to the Provisional People’s Revolutionary Government.” What would VSKhSON have done with people like us, if they had won? Put us all in prison, as they promised to do to Sinyavsky? Or at best—make us leave the country?


The National Issue

Article 73 of the VSKhSON program states that the union “recognizes itself as a patriotic organization of Great Russia’s dedicated representatives of all nationalities.” The first question that comes to mind is, what did the authors mean by “Great Russia”? Within what borders did they think it existed? Within the borders of the fifteen Soviet republics? Or within the borders of the member states of the Warsaw Pact? The program does not specify. Article 83, however, states that “countries where Soviet troops were temporarily stationed could be assisted in national self-determination on the basis of Social Christianity” (italics mine). But if, say, Hungary or Poland wanted self-determination not “on the basis of Social Christianity” but on the basis of the Western pluralist political system? And Czechoslovakia—on the basis of “socialism with a human face”? Does this mean these countries should be denied assistance?

The VSKhSON program reveals nothing about ethnic relations inside the USSR. Not a word is said about the Baltic provinces (republics), or about Ukraine. It seems that by “Great Russia,” they meant the former Russian Empire with all of its old issues. However, one of these issues—the Jewish question—was quite acute at the time.

How did “Great Russia’s dedicated representatives of all nationalities” approach this eternal issue? I learned the answer from an unexpected source—the memoirs of Bernard Karavatski, a Polish citizen who sincerely sympathized with VSKhSON and considered its members “the cream of the Russian nation” and “the pick of the Russian youth.”

In one of his panegyrics for VSKhSON, I found a strange paragraph about the views of “[VSKhSON]’s chief of personnel,” Mikhail Sado: “I find it hard to accept the fact that an anti-Semitic tone slipped into this man’s conversation. Probably, this extremely interesting personality consumed this deeply rooted vice with his mother’s milk.” The chief of personnel is the person who selects the members of the organization committed to representing “all nationalities” of the country. Yet he harbors anti-Semitism that he “consumed with his mother’s milk”?

The Social Christian State would have to guarantee “basic human and civil rights.” It promised a lot of rights, but the mechanism for exercising those rights was not specified. What’s more, Social Christianity did not provide for political opposition.

I found even more interesting details in the memoirs of the poet and political prisoner Alexander Petrov-Agatov, an amazing man who spent most of his life in Soviet prison camps along with Sinyavsky and members of VSKhSON. “The Jewish problem,” Petrov-Agatov wrote, “was especially acute. I got acquainted with Solomon Borisovich Dolnikov, who was Zionist, and suggested to Andrei Donatovich [Sinyavsky] that he come to visit him. [I said,] Solomon Borisovich is a nice man, but keep in mind that the Jews here are especially intolerable. However, seeing my good relationship with Dolnikov, people started badmouthing me, too: ‘[He is] a Jew! He is not Petrov! He is a Frayerman or a Zilberstein. All of them, bastards, purchased their Russian names.’ Hatred for the Communists was identified as their hatred for the Jews. ‘Lenin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Kosygin—they are all kikes.’”

The situation was peculiar, not to say anti-Semitic. At first glance, this attitude completely contradicted the VSKhSON ideology. Imprisoned VSKhSON members saw the roots of the Soviet system in capitalism, while other prisoners saw them in the “kikes’ domination.” The former promised to selflessly represent “all nationalities” of the USSR, while the latter believed that there were only two: Russians and Jews. How should members of an organization that proclaimed itself international and Social-Christian behave in such a situation?

Judging by what Petrov-Agatov wrote, the VSKhSON members neglected their Christian duty and did not rise to the defense of the “humiliated and insulted” Jews; they did not distance themselves from the persecutors. VSKhSON’s chief ideologist himself believed that “all of Russia’s misfortunes came from the Jews.” When Sinyavsky asked one of VSKhSON’s members, “What would you do with the Jews, if you won?” he got a clear answer: “We would send them to Israel.” “And what about those who do not want to leave?” Sinyavsky asked. The answer was presented without thinking: “We would exterminate them.” “How? Along with children?” he gasped. “Well, Andrei Donatovich, when you exterminate rats, do you think about baby rats?”

I’m not sure I need add anything further.