The defining moment of the October Revolution, as Soviet propaganda wished the world to see it. Like so much else in the Soviet version of history, it is a false picture.
As a student of Russia, I find it impossible to ignore the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which took place this past Tuesday, Nov. 7. Below, I will explain why I believe this October Revolution1 brought about one of the most significant – tragic and evil – events in human history, the 74-year rule by the Soviet Communist Party over a country that at the time of its collapse in 1991 covered roughly one-sixth of the planet’s land area and was home to about 5 percent of all humanity.
Before I discuss the horrifying legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution, let me talk about the roots of my interest in Russia and, particularly, the Soviet Union. Perhaps it will explain why, in this blog, I keep coming back – here, here, here, here, here and elsewhere – to experiences I had in the USSR both as a student and an American diplomat.
In a sense, my interest in Russia was born in the fertile ground that had been plowed starting when I was an 8-year-old stamp collector. Among the many foreign stamps I’d see in those days were quite a few from Germany that bore a portrait of Adolf Hitler. His baleful visage made enough of an impression on me that I asked my father who he was. Dad’s explanation was my introduction to the Holocaust. This would likely have made a big impression on most children my age, but its impact on me was all the greater in light of the fact that, as a Jew, I belonged to a group that Hitler had done his utmost to annihilate, including countless relatives of my own, the siblings, cousins, etc. of my grandparents, who had fled Czarist Russia early in the 20th century. It was not very long after this awakening that I learned that fellow Jews in Israel – including other relatives who had managed to escape the Holocaust – were then under repeated murderous, cross-border attacks by their Arab neighbors.2
Together, these facets of recent and current history created in me a loathing of violence by malevolent governments. They underlay the interest in current events I began to develop when I became a regular newspaper reader in the seventh grade3 and started rooting for the “good guys” in any number of international situations – e.g., the revolutions and coups that overthrew dictators like Marcos Perez Jimenez (Venezuela, 1958), Fulgencio Batista (Cuba, 1959), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic, 1961) and “Papa Doc” Duvalier (Haiti, 1971).
Discovering Russia at Yale
After I went off to college in the fall of 1962, I discovered Russia. At the time, I had intended to major in one of the hard sciences or engineering so I could follow my father’s example and do something in life that would provide people with some tangible benefit. As it turned out, I found that doing well in science was not so easy – for me, at least. So by the end of my second year I’d taken up a different major: Russian area studies.
The process began in my freshman year when, still thinking I’d major in chemistry or physics, I needed to choose a foreign language in which to qualify. At Yale in those days, the choices for a science major were limited to French, German or Russian. German, Hitler’s language, was out of the question. And after an hour of repeating Bon jour, madame in an introductory class, I decided, with all the hubris of youth, that French would be too easy and that I could always learn it some day.4 My roommate was taking Russian, so I decided to give it a try too. As it turned out, the best marks I got that year were in Russian. I came within a whisker of flunking both chemistry and calculus.
The next year I had to take a history course. Which one? I’d studied American history repeatedly in grades K-12 and was looking for something more exotic. I’d heard that the Russian history course was both interesting and an “easy A.”5 Since I needed to strengthen my academic standing – I was still determined to take a shot at physics – and because Russian history seemed to nicely complement Russian language, I signed up.
That course changed my life. It was not merely interesting. Taught by two outstanding professors, Firuz Kazemzadeh and Ivo Lederer,6 it was fascinating. I was riveted by many of the incredible stories they told, going all the way back to the Primary Chronicle of more than a thousand years ago. Learning about the times of Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible and the incredible “Time of Troubles” that followed the latter’s death was breathtaking. But most eye-popping of all was learning about the despot who overshadowed every one of his predecessors, Josef Stalin, and the astonishing bloodshed and suffering he unleashed during his three-decade reign, 1924-53.
Over the next two years I took a range of courses about Russia – e.g., in political science, the Soviet economy, the sociology of the Soviet Union, Russian literature, Russian intellectual history, the history of Eastern Europe. I continued studying the language as well.
Three Seminal Books
Among the many books I read during that time were three works that particularly sharpened my understanding of the Soviet Union: Smolensk Under Soviet Rule by Merle Fainsod, Child of the Revolution by Wolfgang Leonhard and Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I could write individual blog posts about each of them. Suffice it to say that, together, they paint an utterly damning portrait of one of the cruelest, bloodiest regimes in the history of the planet.
I did not enter Yale as an anti-Communist, but by the time I graduated, I had discovered that the Soviet Union was no less vile than Hitler’s Germany – quite a revelation for a Nazi-hating Jew.
As I approached graduation, it occurred to me that people I might someday meet, whether in connection with my then still uncertain career path or simply as private individuals, might suppose that as a Russian-area-studies graduate of a first-rank university, I might be more of a Soviet “expert” than I felt I had any right to be considered. So to further strengthen my expertise, I enrolled in the master’s degree program in Soviet area studies at Harvard.7
There, I took more courses and did major research papers for two giants in the field, historians Richard Pipes and Adam Ulam. My paper for Prof. Pipes concerned the role of the district soviets (councils) that had sprung up around Petrograd following the abdication of the czar in February 1917.8 After a study of the available minutes of these councils and other original sources, I concluded that the Bolshevik overthrow of the Provisional Government on Nov. 7, 1917, was not – as the Bolsheviks portrayed it – an uprising in whose organization these grass-roots representatives of the soldiers, sailors and workers of the city might have been expected to play a key role. It was, historians now universally acknowledge, a coup d’etat plotted by a small group headed by Lenin. As Leon Trotsky famously put it, “Power was lying in the street, and we picked it up.”
That, in a nutshell, is the background to the nearly lifelong interest I have had in Russia and the Soviet Union.
And that brings me to the reason I feel obliged to mark – but hardly to celebrate! – last Tuesday’s centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Off the Charts
Of the many things that make “Red October” significant is that it ushered in over seven decades of cruelty and despotism – including the off-the-charts mass murder, by deliberate government policy, of more innocent civilians than even Hitler’s genocidal toll.9 The estimates of the total number of those the Soviet state caused to perish – by execution; deliberate, man-made famine; and purposely overworking and severely undernourishing prisoners in the gulag – vary widely. But the lowest credible estimate I’ve seen is 20 million; the highest, 115 million. And I’m talking here about civilians, not the horrific military casualties of World War II. Nor am I talking about the even more horrifying toll of death at the hands of Communist governments in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and other nations that modeled their rule on what they learned from their Soviet mentors. The amount of blood on the hands of Mao Zedong alone has created a widespread consensus that he occupies first place among history’s mass murderers.
If these facts come as a shock to any readers, it’s not that they are unknown to scholars. Why then are they not more widely known even among most university-educated people in the West? There are several reasons, two of which I find particularly salient.
First, unlike the Nazi regime in Germany with which it is most appropriate to compare the Soviet Union, the West never fought a shooting war against the USSR. Our defeat of Nazi Germany was well documented – you can see films of it regularly on television. Equally well documented are the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and the Holocaust. Further, thousands of American, British and allied troops saw these horrors with their own eyes, and thousands more took part in denazification efforts following the war.
However, people in the West had no comparable exposure to the Soviet Union. During the Cold War there was anti-Communism aplenty, but it was fed to a large degree by often ham-handed propaganda that was not backed up by widespread personal experience comparable to what people had seen following the defeat of Nazi Germany. Newsreels, videos and even articles in the popular press of what was actually taking place in the Soviet Union were scarce. Some of it – notably the “reporting” by New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty in the 1930s – was actually a whitewash. To the Western public, as Winston Churchill said, the USSR remained “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
The second reason why most people in the West know little and care less about the awful Soviet regime has to do with a widespread distaste – particularly among well-educated, politically liberal people – for anti-Communism.
I had an experience in Leningrad that illustrates this. During a visit to the home of some Russian friends (whom I’d describe as people disaffected from the Soviet regime, although not outright dissidents), one of them said he believed that U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was a Communist. I was astonished. McCarthy was a notorious anti-Communist, I told him. “Why do you think he was a Communist?”
“Because he gave a bad name to anti-Communism,” my friend replied. “If he had not existed, the Soviet Union would have had to plant an agent in the U.S. who would do what McCarthy did in order to discredit anti-Communism.”
I’ve always suspected my friend knew full well that McCarthy was no Communist or Soviet agent. But I believe he was correct in believing that the USSR’s interest in discrediting anti-Communism was well, even if not deliberately, served by McCarthy. Some years later, the U.S. government’s failure to effectively justify the high human cost of prosecuting the war in Vietnam did even more – much more – to discredit anti-Communism.
The result: particularly among young, well-educated, politically liberal Americans, there has long been no appetite for learning about the horrors of the Soviet regime. It is not widely discussed or studied. It is, instead, relegated to dusty library shelves.
However, I not only studied it, I saw glimpses of it first-hand. One example: A quarter century after Stalin’s death, when I was posted to the U.S. consulate-general in Leningrad (1976-78), I spoke with someone whose son the KGB had threatened with death because of what they construed as anti-regime activity (playing soccer wearing a jersey bearing the logo of an Israeli soccer team!).
That is why I feel obliged, with this blog post, to mark the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. May the world never again experience such a horrible revolution and massive bloodletting.
- It took place on Oct. 25 according to the Julian calendar then used in Russia (and still used today by the Russian Orthodox Church).
- This was long before the “occupation” that began in 1967 as a result of Israel’s success in thwarting a coordinated war of annihilation by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
- Thank you, Mr. Herbert Beuhler.
- Bulletin: Today, 55 years later, I have yet to do so.
- In fact, it wasn’t an easy A; I earned a B. And, from watching a video of Prof. Kazemzadeh speaking many years later, I learned that George W. Bush, who graduated two years after me, got a C+ in his course! As for strengthening my academic standing, I managed to make the Dean’s List (in those days at Yale, defined as the top quarter of the class) in four of my eight semesters.
- Prof. Lederer is the source of the story about the liberation of Rome, which I recounted in this blog post.
- Prof. Kazemzadeh wrote a letter of recommendation, for which I am ever grateful.
- Later Leningrad and today, once again, St. Petersburg, the city’s original name, bestowed by its founder, Peter the Great, in honor of the saint for whom he was named.
- Hitler was an “also-ran,” following Mao and Stalin, responsible for the murders of a “mere” 18 million innocents, including six million Jews. For more information on the ghastly matter of what the late University of Hawaii political scientist R.J. Rummel termed democide, see www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/welcome.html. To learn more about the horrors of “repression” in the USSR, I recommend The Great Terror: A Reassessment and Harvest of Sorrow, both by Robert Conquest, and Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov. For a good summary of the impact of Communism not only on Russia, but also on Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan and Latin America, see The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression by Stephane Courtois et al.