The romance of revolution has repeatedly seduced European intellectuals and nowhere more intensely than in Russia. In the late nineteenth century, Russia became the first country in which young members of the intelligentsia, when asked their career choice, might answer “revolutionary” or “terrorist”—a choice regarded as highly honorable, albeit dangerous. Indeed, the word “intelligentsia” was originally a Russian coinage, meaning not a thinking or educated person, but one, however well or ill educated, committed wholeheartedly to socialism, atheism, and revolution. If we reflect that this group actually succeeded in taking over the state—Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were all typical intelligents—then we recognize the importance of cultural battles. We also recognize the larger significance of Russian history and literature for understanding the modern world.

By and large, the...