It began with a simple train ride. A century later, it would prove to have derailed all of history and resulted in the most brutal display of political butchery ever seen in the sorry saga of humanity. The Russian Revolution of 1917 changed everything. In its most pedestrian effect it crushed the Romanov dynasty, killing Nicholas II, and ended the tradition of czarist rule. Russia was no longer imperial. But, in its more devastating effect, with the rise of the Bolshevik regime, all the world–and the human soul–was in peril.
Social unrest and popular disenchantment with the Russian Empire had been at a steady simmer long before 1917. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 would feed into the postponed industrialization of Russia. In the twenty years leading up to 1910, the population of Russia’s major cities had nearly doubled. Profound social and political changes, exacerbated by food shortages due to poor harvests and unpopular foreign wars, and fueled by overcrowding and destitution, kindled the discontent of the newly formed cohort of Russian industrial workers. In 1905, the tinder ignited.
Workers marched upon the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to make demands against the government. Imperial forces fired upon them. The Bloody Sunday Massacre led to riots and crippling strikes throughout Russia. While Czar Nicholas II offered some social reforms in a feeble effort to assuage the popular frustrations, nothing much really changed. Russian entry into the First World War would prove the Empire’s final undoing. The war effort accelerated food and fuel scarcities, exacerbating the trauma of an already desiccated economy.
Conditions further deteriorated until February, 1917 (by the Julian calendar, which Russia used until 1918). Demonstrators demanding bread were once again gunned down in the streets. But, though shot down, the protesters would not stand down, and the resolve of imperial troops, war-weary and no longer supportive of the czar, wavered and broke. The czar abdicated. In a few months he would be executed with his family. The provisional government began a series of liberal reforms but, against the popular will, continued the war effort against Germany. Vladimir Lenin pounced.
Having returned by train from exile in Switzerland, Lenin set about galvanizing the discontent of Russian soldiers, peasants, and workers. The October Revolution (again, by the Julian calendar), was really an essentially bloodless coup d’etat (if you’re keeping track, this means the October Revolution was neither in October nor was it a Revolution). What followed, however, was indisputably a brutal civil war. Lenin’s Red regime would eventually overcome their opposing forces, but only after committing massive atrocities to purge political opponents among the civilian population. The Soviet era, birthed in butchery, had begun.
Harvard professor Richard Pipes, as Paul Kengor reminds us in his essay in the forthcoming fall issue of Providence, called Lenin’s revolution “arguably the most important event of the twentieth century.” He added: “It is my considered judgment that, had it not been for the Russian Revolution, there would very likely have been no National Socialism; probably no Second World War and no decolonization; and certainly no Cold War.” I’ll just let that provocative teaser rest right there. For Kengor’s excellent, and entirely reasonable, reflection on why such an extraordinary suggestion is feasible you’ll have to check out the next issue—it releases next month, so now’s a wonderful time to subscribe, if you haven’t already.
For the moment, it’s enough to remember the costs of this grim centennial. One might strive to cast the motives of the Lenin revolutionaries in the best of light. By 1923 Lenin himself, in his Testament, had expressed remorse over the way things had gone, lamenting in particular the dictatorial power that characterized the regime. But while he might have had regret, he couldn’t have been surprised. His own actions had set the tone for Soviet, and far-flung, disaster.
The history of Soviet Communism draws up a list of individual charges against the regime that totals perhaps 20 million innocent lives. Such a staggering death toll is rivaled only by the fascists, who, depending on which numbers you accept, were responsible for roughly the same number of non-combat deaths. The Soviet dead are surpassed only by the 65 million slaughtered in communist China. Add to that the millions more killed by communist regimes in Vietnam, north Korea, Cambodia, and elsewhere and one recognizes the malevolent pattern: communist regimes have indeed been a boot stomping on the face of humanity. Not just humanity in general of course. No, the communists mostly eat their own.
Having abdicated the normative purposes of sovereignty, the history of communist rule has not been rule for the common good. They obliterate—rather than cultivate—the conditions necessary for justice, order, and peace. From Lenin’s founding of the secret police, to Stalin’s Great Terror, the Soviet Union—the grand experiment of the communist will—managed its existence only by its willingness to slaughter, deport, and imprison any who strained at the totalitarian yoke.
This has meant a continuing population of victims for human beings, by nature, are made to strain at totalizing regimes. Human persons, made in the image of God, belong to communities—both concrete and abstract—which exercise what Pierre Manent called “command” over them. Such communities include the family, religious faith and faith congregations, civil societies, culture, the past, and, yes, the state. Each such community puts certain demands on us, helps us understand and pursue duties, respect limits, and make contributions to the lives of others.
But the Communist appetite for the allegiance of those who fell under its influence was total. Their government unwilling to share command, under communism, human beings were stripped of competing natural connections. The State, therefore, would compel the People to turn to it for connection, identity, and purpose. It broke its own people.
I had the privilege of living for more than a decade in post-communist Slovakia. In discussing the effects of communist totalitarianism on the human soul, friends once shared an anecdote and an aphorism with me. The story went like this: one day a man lost his entire herd of sheep to disease. With the loss of the flock, he lost everything. His children starved and died, his wife abandoned him. One miraculous day, a genie offered him the fulfillment of a single wish. The man looked across the valley at his prosperous neighbor’s rich flock of sheep and the healthy children playing in the yard of his well-appointed home. The man thought about his own lost sheep and decimated family and all he had suffered. He turned to the genie and said, “I want you to strike dead all my neighbor’s sheep.”
The aphorism is a riff on our own, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” No, my Slovak friends insisted, “here the tall grass gets the sickle.” Such mindsets are the poison fruit of totalitarianism.
The communist disdain for families is well documented. From abolishing rights of inheritance, to manufacturing building plans which broke up nuclear families in favor of communal living, to proposing the construction of “children’s towns” to which parents would turn over their children for public rearing, families were to have no place in the totalitarian dreamscape.
My own children had yesterday off from school. Partly in preparation for talking to them about today’s terrible anniversary, our family toured the Supreme Court and the Capitol Building, and observed sessions in both congressional chambers. We saw, first-hand, the give-and-take, negotiated sausage-making of our beautiful experiment in balancing ambition against ambition. However imperfectly, our founding principles grasp that human law, rooted in natural law, must appeal always to reason and not, primarily, to simple authority. We reminded our kids that the American citizenry make up the very real fourth branch of our government. We helped them to grasp, and commit to the notion, that it must be a rare occurrence when the political realm is given permission to encroach into the private sphere, the domain where, among other things, the family lives. This is not to ignore the fact that earthly governments have a vested interest in strong, natural families and, therefore, some interest in encouraging them—including in preserving political conditions of justice, order, and peace, which includes the protection of human rights and freedoms—including that of worship. Such a milieu is crucial for families to flourish.
But it is to remember, as this terrible anniversary reminds us, the possible carnage of political mission creep. Communism, like its cousin-evil fascism, took advantage of social and economic discontent, fear, and uncertainty and used its armies and police forces to surveil, invade, and corrupt the most intimate spheres of human life. And in that is a warning. As Sean McMeekin concludes in his important new The Russian Revolution:
Social inequality will always be with us, along with the well-intentioned impulse of socialists to eradicate it. Fortunately, most social reformers accept limitations on the power of government to direct economic life and tell people what they are permitted to do and say. But the Leninist inclination is always lurking among the ambitious and ruthless…If the last hundred years have taught us anything, it is that we should stiffen our defenses and resist armed prophets promising social perfection…A century of well-catalogued disasters later, no one should have the excuse of ignorance.
A cursory glance around our political dialogue, college campuses, and cities might suggest that America has some remembering to do, lest our next hundred years lead to our own grim and terrible anniversary.
Marc LiVecche (PhD, University of Chicago) is the managing editor of Providence.