New Directions Lecture: Mark Steinberg, “Leaping into the Open Air of History: The Russian Revolution and the Utopian Imagination”

On September 1st, Dr. Mark Steinberg, Professor of History, Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign delivered the first New Directions lecture of Fall Semester. The lecture, “Leaping into the Open Air of History: The Russian Revolution and the Utopian Imagination,” examines ideas surrounding “utopianism” as seen through the works of three radicals during the Revolution and the early Soviet era: Alexandra Kollontai, Lev Tolstoy, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Dr. Steinberg during Q&A

Dr. Steinberg during Q&A

The title for the talk comes from a quote from Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, where he says in his On the Concept of History, “The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.” This adapts the Marxist metaphor of the kingdom of necessity as it changes into the kingdom of freedom. Utopia can be understood in three ways according to Dr. Steinberg, the first is Utopia as a critique of the present, citing German Marxist Ernst Bloch, when he states that the impulse towards utopia is an impulse to venture beyond, that is towards the “not yet”. The second is Utopia as the critique of knowledge of the possible and the impossible. Again, Steinberg looks to Bloch, where the ocean of possibility is that much greater than the customary and the possibility of reality. The final way that Utopia can be understood is Utopia as critical knowledge of time. This means that utopian time is considered as separate from the conventional understanding of time itself. Utopian time is time that is stepping out of the time of reality onto its own path.

Using these understandings of utopia, Dr. Steinberg looked at the influence of utopian ideas on the work of Kollontai, Trotsky, and Mayakovsky. Kollontai adopted Marxism and the possibility of utopian ideals through the realization of the utmost possibilities in earthly reality. While different from Kollontai in ideas and understanding, Trotsky’s understanding of utopianism is that the people of the present cannot hear the sound of the future, where the utopia lies. He disagreed with the Marxist idea that utopia can be realized immediately, saying that only with time will it arrive. Mayakovsky, according to Dr. Steinberg, found that they (the revolutionaries) must destroy the old to make way for the new, the utopian ideal.

Overall, Dr. Steinberg makes the point that while maybe the realization of these utopian ideals never came to fruition, the leap towards such a future and such a world is significant enough for historians and those studying the Russian Revolution to draw our attention. The importance of this point lies not only in the contents of the argument he has made here, but also, if not more importantly, in the grand gesture towards the past and the significance and implications of attempts for change, regardless of their successes or failures. In what was a fitting lecture to kick off the 2016-17 academic year, Dr. Steinberg demonstrated the power of the attempt to change history.

Nicholas Higgins is a Masters student in the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include the development of identity separate from the Soviet identity during Glasnost’ and Perestroika, the current relations between Russia and its neighbors, especially Russia’s relations with Ukraine. He received his B.A in Philosophy and Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies from Miami University of Ohio in 2015. He is currently working on his Masters thesis, which is attempting to adapt Søren Kierkegaard‘s model of faith into a political and social model that could represent the political and social nature of the late Soviet era.

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