History depends on rupture. Credit: Sergei FadeichevTASS via Getty Images

May 13, 2020   6 mins

“If the term ‘apocalypse’ fits any event in recent world history, it is the Russian Civil War. This is not to suggest that the events of 1917-20 were the end of the world. The revolutionaries saw what was happening as the beginning of a new human order, and if they did not, in fact, establish a New Jerusalem, we can see, seventy years later, that they certainly created in Russia something remarkable and enduring. But their hold on power was bought at the price of great suffering and an unknown but terrible number of deaths — perhaps seven to ten million in all. War and strife, famine and pestilence — the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — devastated the largest country in Europe…”

Appearing at the start of the 1987 edition of the military historian Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War, this judgement resonates more deeply today. The system the Bolsheviks created has collapsed and vanished. A rebooted version of the Cheka, or All-Russian Extraordinary Commission — the secret police founded by Lenin that established the new society by the use of terror and, through its successors the OGPU, NKVD and KGB, shaped Soviet life until its end — continues to be the core of the Russian state. Yet the country it governs — featuring an oligarchical type of capitalism intertwined with state security structures, a restored Orthodox Church and a Eurasian-flavoured variety of imperialism — is unimaginably different from anything envisioned by the founders of the Soviet state.

An attempt to exterminate completely a section of humankind, the Holocaust was surely the most authentically apocalyptic episode in human history. Yet Russia’s civil war did display several of the features that go with an apocalyptic event. Understanding this neglected period may enable us to understand how far our own time is — and is not — an apocalyptic moment of this kind.

In waves of terror beginning in August 1918, when Lenin was injured in an attempted assassination, the new Soviet regime killed its own citizens on a previously unknown scale. During the two months that followed, around 15,000 people were executed for political crimes — more than twice the total number of prisoners of all kinds executed in the previous century of tsarist rule (6,321). Taken together, the casualties of the Revolution, the 1918 terror, the civil war and the ensuing famine cost the lives of around 25 million people in the territories of the former Tsarist empire — 18 times the number of casualties it incurred in the First World War (1.3 to 1.4 million.)

For the rulers of the new state, the breakdown of the old order was an opportunity to refashion society on a new model. “Former persons” — aristocrats, landlords and priests, together with anyone who employed others — were stripped of civil rights and denied ration cards and housing. Many dying of starvation or from hard labour in the concentration camps Lenin had established, these human remnants of the past watched as their entire way of life was erased. The same was true of the peasantry, whose recurrent rebellions were crushed with savage force. In the large-scale uprising in the Tambov region in 1920-21, Soviet forces used poisonous gas to clear forests into which the peasants had fled.

The famine that ensued killed around 5 million people in 1921-1922. The cause was not just drought and a bad harvest. As a result of the collapse of railways, health and waste disposal services, epidemic diseases such as typhus and cholera were rampant. Cities were depopulated and their wooden buildings demolished and used for firewood. Grain requisitioning and the export of agricultural produce created mass starvation of a peculiarly horrific kind. Russian may be the only language that contains two words for cannibalism. One — trupoyedstvo — denotes the eating of corpses, the other — lyudoyedstvo — killing in order to consume the victim. According to some reports at the time, public markets for human flesh appeared in famine-struck areas in which body parts from cadavers in the latter category commanded higher prices on account of their freshness.

If one of the meanings of apocalypse is a sudden shift to conditions that were hitherto almost unimaginable, this period of history certainly qualifies. But the years from 1917-23 were apocalyptic in another sense. The Soviet state was believed — by the new government and its progressivist camp-followers in the West, if not by the majority of Russians — to be building a society that would be better than any that had existed before. Curiously, the collapse of the Soviet state was greeted in the West with an outbreak of apocalyptic optimism much like that which accompanied its foundation.

On October 27, 1989, a couple of weeks before the Berlin Wall fell, I wrote:

What we are witnessing in the Soviet Union is not the end of history, but instead its resumption — and on decidedly traditional lines. All the evidence suggests that we are now moving back into an epoch that is classically historical…Ours is an era in which political ideology, liberal as much as Marxist, has a rapidly dwindling leverage on events, and more ancient, more primordial forces, nationalist and religious, fundamentalist and soon, perhaps, Malthusian, are contesting with each other…If the Soviet Union does indeed fall apart, that beneficent catastrophe will not inaugurate a new era of post-historical harmony, but a return to the classical terrain of history, a terrain of great-power rivalries, secret diplomacies and irredentist claims.

Visiting the US at the time, I was amused to find this view dismissed as apocalyptic pessimism. In think tanks, political gatherings and business conferences across the land, the fantastical notion that a new era had begun was embraced as sober realism. In line with this thinking, a number of Right-wing foundations cancelled their international relations programmes on the ground that foreign and defence policy would no longer be needed.

That a reversion to history as usual should be unthinkable testifies to the mind-numbing power of secular faith. While progressive ideologies are often divided into reformist and revolutionary varieties, the difference is not fundamental. Both rest on the faith that history is an accretive process in which meaning and value are conserved and increased.

Actually history is repeatedly punctuated by discontinuities in which what was gained is irrecoverably lost. Whether because of war or revolution, famine or epidemic — or a deadly combination, as in the Russian Civil War — the sudden death of ways of life is a regular occurrence. Certainly there are periods of incremental improvement, but they rarely last longer than two or three generations. Progress occurs in interludes when history is idling.

In the theistic religions from which the idea is derived, apocalypse means a final revelation that comes with the end of time. Elected during the Roman plague of 590 from which his predecessor Pelagius II had died, Pope Gregory the Great wrote: “The end of the world is no longer just predicted, but is revealing itself.”

But the world did not end; the four horsemen came and went, while history stumbled on. In the eschatological sense in which Gregory understood it, there is no such thing as apocalypse. But if it means the end of particular worlds that human beings have fashioned for themselves, apocalypse is a recurrent historical experience.

When you read diaries of people who lived through the revolution in Russia, you find them looking on in disbelief as the vast, centuries-old empire of the Romanovs melted into nothing in a matter of months. Few then accepted that the world they knew had gone forever. Even so, they were haunted by the suspicion that it would not return. Many had a similar experience in continental Europe when the Great War destroyed what Stefan Zweig, in his elegiac memoir The World of Yesterday (1941), called “the world of security”.

We find ourselves in an analogous time today. We will not wake up, after lockdown, in the same old world and find it just a bit worse, as the French novelist and provocateur Michel Houllebecq has asserted. (Dismissing the virus as “banal”, he observed that it is “not even sexually transmitted”. In fact recent reports suggest it may be transmissible through semen.)

Much in the way we lived before the virus is already irretrievable. Probably a vaccine will be developed along with treatments that reduce the virus’ lethality. But this will likely take years, and in the meantime our lives will have altered beyond recognition. Even when it arrives, a deus ex machina will not dispel popular dread of another wave of infections or a new virus. More than government-enforced policies, public attitudes will prevent any reversion to pre-Covid ways.

The relevant comparison here is not with previous pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, but instead the more recent impact of terrorism. The numbers killed in terrorist incidents may be small. But the threat is endemic, and the texture of everyday life has altered profoundly. Video cameras and security procedures in public places have become part of the way we live.

Covid-19 may not be an exceptionally lethal pathogen, but it is fearful enough. Soon temperature checks will be ubiquitous and surveillance via mobile phones omnipresent. Social distancing, in one form or another, will be entrenched everywhere beyond the home. The impact on the economy will be immeasurable. Enterprises that adapt quickly will thrive, but sectors that relied on pre-Covid lifestyles — pubs, restaurants, sporting events, discos and airline travel, for example — will shrink or disappear. The old life of carefree human intermingling will fast slip from memory.

Some occupations may gain in power and status. Health and care workers need more than applause for their efforts. Better pay and conditions will be demanded, and may well be achieved. Workers in other low-paid jobs and the gig economy are likely to fare more badly than before.

The impact on the “knowledge classes” will be far-reaching. Higher education operates on a model of student living that social distancing has rendered defunct. Museums, journalism, publishing and the arts all face similar shocks. Automation and artificial intelligence will wipe out swathes of middle class employment. Accelerating a trend that has been underway for decades, the remains of bourgeois life will be swept away.

As pre-Covid life fades into history, large sections of the professional classes face a version of the experience of those who became former persons in the abrupt historical shifts of the last century. The redundant bourgeoisie need not fear starvation or concentration camps, but the world they have inhabited is evanescing before their eyes. There is nothing novel in what they are experiencing. History is a succession of such apocalypses, and so far this one is milder than most.

John Gray is a political philosopher and author. His books include Seven Types of Atheism, False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism, and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia.