On the last day of January 1919, the Soviet New Year, the poet Alexander Blok smashed up his father-in-law's desk. 'Symbolic action', Blok recorded pithily in his diary. Michael Gordin's book helps to explain the action's symbolism and its violence. Blok's father-in-law, the desk's first owner, was the greatest of Russian chemists, Dmitrii Mendeleev, who died in 1907 at the age of 73. Mendeleev had put himself at the centre of imperial Russia's bickering groups of scholars and officious bureaucrats, its astonishing industrial ambitions and mystical reveries, its Slavophile factionalism and enlightened Westernising aspirations. Trotsky would lecture on his relationship to dialectical materialism, while Lenin, who read his chemistry textbook as a student, would encourage Mendeleev's daughter to finish a laudatory biography of the nation's hero. As a historian of Romanov science and politics, Gordin persuasively reads the writing table's fate at Blok's hands as a telling response to the pervasive image of the solitary visionary, a turn in the early years of Bolshevik power from the old regime's industrious elitism to the collectivist future.
LRB 7 July 2005 | PDF Download