Stalin’s Soviet Monastery

A New Interpretation of Russian Politics

by Jim Curtis (Author)
©2020 Monographs 252 Pages


In Stalin’s Soviet Monastery Russian scholar Jim Curtis integrates innovative work in linguistics, anthropology, and media theory to develop a holistic analysis of Russian society that includes a theoretically based rationale for ignoring ideology in favor of cultural dynamics. While the young Iosif Djugashvili, later known as Joseph Stalin, was studying to be a priest in an Orthodox seminary, he took on the role that defined his political career, that of a sadistic elder who imposed fiendish vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience on hapless Soviet citizens. As an exercise in historical anthropology, Stalin’s Soviet Monastery emphasizes the role of myth and ritual in Russia, a society with strong residual orality. The imitation of Christ is called passion-suffering, a practice that helps to explain the widespread acquiescence to Stalin’s practices. Stalin was intensely interested in literature, and his favorite author was Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Some passages in Dostoyevsky’s work anticipate key features of Stalinism. An Afterword discusses the development of Russian society after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Figures
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One A New Discourse on Method
  • Chapter Two Searching for Stikhiinost’ and Anticipating Doom: Some Continuities in Modern Russian Culture
  • Chapter Three Contextualizing Stalin’s Career
  • Chapter Four Russian Cultural Thematics and the Cults of Lenin and Stalin
  • Chapter Five Anticipations of Stalinism in Three Major Works by Dostoyevsky
  • Chapter Six “Reflection” Theory, Monism, and the Literary Jeremiad in Russia
  • Afterword. What Happened to Stalinism after 1991?
  • Bibliography
  • Index


I remember distinctly the moment when the idea of this book occurred to me, although in a way that was still too vague to formulate, and would remain vague for many years.1 It was in the fall of 1965, and I was a graduate student in Russian literature at Columbia University. In a class on Common Slavic, Professor George Shevelyov made a comment about Old Church Slavonic, the language used for early Orthodox texts. He said that since the existing monuments (as they are called in Russian), that is, texts, were primarily Biblical and patristic in nature, Common Slavic had a limited vocabulary. I knew that that was a profoundly important point, and it has taken me from then until now to state what was important about it. At the time I had no idea that Old Church Slavonic would eventually lead me to an analysis of Joseph Stalin’s use of power, but it did. I can briefly describe this process as follows.

I now understand that since Old Church Slavonic played a formative role in the development of Russian culture; it bequeathed its limited vocabulary to Russian culture as a whole. Russia has had, and still has, a limited discourse system. (The long-term effect of Marxism was to make an already limited discourse system even more limited.) This fact raises numerous questions, such as this one: “Has Russia had such a robust literary censorship because it has a limited discourse system, or does it have a limited discourse system because it has had a robust literary censorship?” Moreover, Old Church Slavonic was written and read in monasteries, ←xi | xii→and this statement about the cultural system of the monastery eventually led me to the larger consideration of the monastery as a key to the cultural system of Russia as a whole.

The monastery has exceptional importance in Russia because Orthodox Christianity is essentially a monastic religion that emphasizes ritual over theology. Because of the absence of a robustly developed theology in Orthodoxy, Western scholars have not given it its due importance in Russia, and of course Soviet scholars could not have done so even if they had wanted to. Yet discussing Russian and Soviet history without reference to the Orthodox Church is like discussing Italian history without reference to the Catholic Church. Stalin’s Soviet Monastery proposes to rectify this key omission.

As so many people have said, Russia is different from the West; a major cause of those differences is that in the West the Protestant Reformation, and then the French Revolution, greatly weakened both the practical and the symbolic importance of monasteries. These momentous historical processes had a secularizing effect. Sometimes these secularizing processes occurred as a result of popular uprisings, and sometimes by royal fiat, as when King Henry VIII of England ordered the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541.

The absence of the Protestant Reformation in Russia involves more than religion and religious rituals. The Protestant Reformation was related to the rise and spread of such crucial interrelated social phenomena as the spread of literacy, the growth of individualism, and the rise of private enterprise.2 The fact that these phenomena occurred much later and much more slowly in Russia than in the West is directly attributable to the close association of government power and religion, an association that Protestantism, and all that it implies, never had the critical mass to dissociate in Russia. Nevertheless, Russian leaders like Peter the Great and Vladimir Lenin often proclaimed and carried out policies that had secularizing effects similar to those associated with Protestantism. This internal contradiction explains a great deal about the difficulties of exercising political power in Russia.

Stalin’s Soviet Monastery

More specifically, understanding the crucial role of the monastery and monasticism in Russia life also explains a great deal about the career of the man whom the world knows as Joseph Stalin. He was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on December 18, 1878, in the Georgian village of Gori, and died in Moscow on March 5, 1953. (The name Stalin is derived from stal’, the Russian word for steel.) We can integrate this powerful man and his long career into the evolutionary flow ←xii | xiii→of Russian history by emphasizing the formative role of the period of four years and nine months that he spent in the 1890s studying to be a priest in the Orthodox Seminary in Tbilisi, in his native Georgia. I will argue in more detail later that when he achieved enormous power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he acted as the sadistic elder of a monastery; in effect, he imposed the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience on the Soviet Union, which can be more accurately described as Stalin’s Soviet monastery. I thus define Soviet history as a form of revolutionary monasticism, a revolution carried out as a way of bringing monastic principles out beyond the wall of the monastery and incorporating them into the practice of Russian politics. The internal contradictions implied by the term revolutionary monasticism, which caused so much violence and suffering, are a particularly intense version of the long-standing contradiction inherent in the exercise of political power in Russia, a matter about which I will also have more to say. In general, Russia has responded to the demands of modernization created by the Protestant Reformation in various dysfunctional ways.

For most of his career, Stalin remained behind the wall of the Kremlin, just as the elder of a monastery would remain inside the wall of his monastery. With the obvious exception of symbolic occasions like the annual May Day parade, Stalin made relatively few public appearances and speeches. He delegated the role of speech-making and the promulgation of policies to surrogates such as Andrey Zhdanov, preferring to define these policies in general terms. He spoke the word, and left exhortation and persuasion to others. Thus, this systemic analysis of his career emphasizes the contextualizing effect of the historical role of the wall of the monastery and what I will call the monological word of the leader/elder.

Stalin was a single individual; Stalinism was a widespread social phenomenon. Stalin lived, and Stalinism unfolded, in an evolving social context that included many people such as artists who were more sensitive to social trends than politicians. Moreover, Stalin himself was more interested in art than in economic policy, so a general discussion of both Stalin as a person and Stalinism as a social phenomenon must include artists, and give due attention to what artists thought and what they created.

Standing Traditional Interpretations of Russian Politics on Their Head

This interpretation of both Stalin and Stalinism does to traditional interpretations of Russian politics what Marx was said to have done to Hegel. It was a commonplace among the early Bolsheviks that Marx had stood Hegel on his head. ←xiii | xiv→Analogously, the argument of this book stands the traditional interpretation of Stalinism, and by implication, Russian politics as a whole, on its head. If the traditional interpretation of Soviet history says that the society was determined, in one way or another, by political ideology, then Stalin’s Soviet Monastery argues that political ideology was itself determined by society, which is the proper subject of historical investigation. It therefore examines what anthropologists call enculturation, the process by which children acquire the linguistic and other skills that enable them to function in the society as adults, as a key to Stalin’s use of power. The subject of the book is therefore the creation of Stalinism, the events and principles that led up to it, as well as Stalin’s personality and policies. Stalin took advantage of Lenin’s glaring weaknesses as a political thinker, so Stalinism derived from Leninism. Some details about the rise of Leninism are therefore essential for an understanding of Stalinism as a socio-cultural phenomenon, which was a culmination of age-old Russian traditions and folk beliefs that requires broad-ranging discussions that draw on a variety of sources.

At this point it may be helpful to contrast Stalin’s Soviet Monastery with Nikolay Berdyayev’s The Russian Idea, which was first published in Paris in 1946. As the title indicates, Berdyayev believed in the mid-twentieth century tendency known as the history of ideas. While his book vacillates between the abstractions of ideas and the specifics of personality, it has some historical value because it was the first synthesizing work on Russian culture to appear in the West. Although The Russian Idea does not acknowledge the Bolshevik revolution and its consequences, it does contain some suggestive formulations, such as this one: “Nihilism is a typically Russian phenomenon and it grew out of the spiritual soil of Orthodoxy. It contains the experience of a powerful element belonging to Orthodox asceticism.”3 In a key passage, Berdyaev announces, “The Russian idea is an eschatological idea of the Kingdom of God.”4 Indeed, asceticism and eschatology, the study of end things, played a key role in the development of the Soviet Union; as I will show, asceticism and eschatology appear with particular clarity in the cult of Lenin.

Stalin’s Soviet Monastery departs from traditional studies of Russian history and culture such as The Russian Idea in that it draws on innovative work in disciplines such as media theory, linguistics, and anthropology. As such, it is essentially an exercise in historical anthropology and is therefore necessarily an interdisciplinary study that emphasizes the role of art, myth, and ritual in Soviet society. Art in modern Russian society means above all literature, and therefore this book necessarily devotes a great amount of space to discussions of literature in relation to Russian society, and specifically to the exercise of power in Russian society. Literature in Russia usually means the nineteenth century classics, and I will show that the work of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, among others, tells us much more about ←xiv | xv→the inner workings of power in Russian society than people have generally realized. Much of Stalinism is implicit in the work of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, so reading the Russian classics as precursors of Soviet authoritarianism is a powerful way to achieve a major goal of Russian historical studies in general—the integration of the pre-1917 period with the post-1917 period.

Two Key Concepts

The chapters in Stalin’s Soviet Monastery are organized thematically, rather than chronologically. They draw on innovative scholarly works for general principles that I then apply to specific art works and political events. Throughout, two key concepts organize Stalin’s Soviet Monastery. The first is “interrelationships”—interrelationships between principles and specifics, between art and society, and between the world inside the monastery, and of the world outside the monastery. The second is “affinities”—affinities between pre-1917 Russia and post-1917 Russia; between Stalin and other major figures in European history; and between the Soviet Union and the United States as revolutionary regimes that relied on slavery.

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1 1. As is often the case in interdisciplinary work, it has taken me a long time to be able to articulate the appropriate assumptions for an interpretation of Stalinism, so this book has had a long gestation period. It has arisen as a series of responses to things that I’ve heard and books that I have read over half a century of engagement with Russia and things Russian. I could say, with James Billington in The Icon and the Axe, “This is an interpretive history of modern thought and culture. This book is the product of one man’s scholarship, reflection, and special interests.” (James Billington, The Icon and the Axe. An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), p. vi.) The Icon and the Axe showed me the possibilities and advantages of examining the larger structures in Russian history, and it is a pleasure to acknowledge my lasting debt to that book.

2 2. On these complex matters, see Alec Ryrie, Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World (New York: Viking, 2017).

3 3. Nikolay Berdyaev, The Russian Idea. R.M. French, trans. (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1992), 146.

4 4. Ibid., 157.


It remains my pleasant duty to acknowledge the help I received from people who read various chapters in draft form and made useful comments. These people include my friends Carolyn Gibson, and Owen Owens; and my former students, now distinguished professors in their own right, Dr. Trish Starks of the University of Arkansas, and Dr. Karl Qualls of Dickinson College. And no words can ever convey my gratitude to my wife Donna, who read the whole manuscript and made some essential editorial suggestions. This book shows the beneficent results of her work on every page.

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ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XVIII, 252 pp., 8 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Jim Curtis (Author)

Jim Curtis received his PhD in Russian from Columbia University and was Professor of Russian at the University of Missouri-Columbia for 31 years. While at the University of Missouri he received numerous teaching awards. He is the author of numerous articles and books.


Title: Stalin’s Soviet Monastery