A century ago, on December 30, 1922, Russia signed treaties with Ukraine, Byelorussia (now Belarus), and Transcaucasia (combining Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) to form the Soviet Union. The latter continued to expand, reaching its apogee after swallowing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as part of Moscow’s booty from the Hitler-Stalin pact.
Of course, the 1922 treaty was not really the start of the USSR, but rather, the end of the beginning. The Russian Revolution, meaning Bolshevik, rather than liberal, came more than four years before. It was sparked by the scribbles of the idiot fantasizer Karl Marx, who was by all accounts a rather unpleasant fellow — historian Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals: From Marx to Tolstoy to Sartre to Chomsky is well worth reading. Who imagined that men of action as well as intellectuals would treat seriously the rantings of an obscure philosopher who ended up stateless and living in the United Kingdom, the fount of both parliamentary government and market economics, most notably Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations?
What Marx concocted with bore little relation to human reality, but unfortunately provided a template for use of brutal violence to engage in social engineering on a national and even global scale. Wrote Johnson:
Marx, then, was unwilling either to investigate working conditions in industry himself or to learn from intelligent working men who had experienced them. Why should he? In all essentials, using the Hegelian dialectic, he had reached his conclusions about the fate of humanity by the late 1840s. All that remained was to find the facts to substantiate them, and these could be garnered from newspaper reports, government blue books and evidence collected by earlier writers; and all this material could be found in libraries. Why look further? The problem, as it appeared to Marx, was to find the right kind of facts: the facts that fitted.
The death toll from his ivory tower phantasmagoria was enormous. No one knows how many, of course: who could keep up with the sheer numbers murdered to punish past authorities, consolidate power, exact revenge, or deter potential future resistance? Even more prolific was the killing to remake society and create a new man (and woman). You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, went the saying, and communist regimes applied that rule with enormous liberality. Forced industrialization, agricultural collectivization, and ideological campaigns killed at wholesale levels, tens of millions of people each in Russia and China, millions of people in others, such as Cambodia, and thousands elsewhere.
Russia led the way.
In 1914 an earnest simpleton, Tsar Nicholas II took his ramshackle, rickety empire into war. Maladroit policies of his cousin, the German Kaiser, had pushed the Russian Empire into an alliance with republican France, as odd a couple as the French monarchy and the revolutionary American colonies. Russia wagered the lives of its large male population for geopolitical gains in the Balkans and Black Sea, but, alas, early successes on the Eastern Front were superseded by the disaster at Tannenberg. Russian forces could win against the even more decrepit Austro-Hungarians but were no match for the German army.
By early 1917 the Russian people were desperate for food. Peasants wanted land. Most of all, people, especially an army whose soldiers were treated like cheap cannon fodder, wanted peace. Past professions of faith to a despotism organized to benefit the court and its acolytes, but no one else, finally gave way to demands for change. On March 15, 1917, the tsar abdicated. He was superseded by liberals, not Bolsheviks. The war continued, but there remained hope for the birth of a new Russia.
However, the Provisional Government insisted on continuing the war, the one issue which united most of the country — against. The minister of war and then prime minister Alexander Kerensky even organized another military offensive, which gave Vladimir Lenin and his radical communist faction the moment they were waiting for. With the St. Petersburg garrison afraid that it also would be ordered to the front, sure to die in a battle for nothing any rational person would fight for, the Provisional Government was essentially unprotected.
The Bolsheviks staged a coup and, amazingly, survived nearly five years of civil war. It was a bitter, brutal conflict in which quarter was seldom given. The “Whites” were divided between liberal revolutionaries and traditional monarchists. The Entente powers, as well as Japan and U.S., intervened half-heartedly on the side of the Whites. However, no one was more vicious and determined to triumph than the communists. To concentrate on their main task, defeating domestic enemies, the Bolsheviks signed a humiliating defeat to Germany — which ultimately was overruled by the allies after Berlin sought an armistice. And when Lenin & Co. emerged victorious in October 1922, the way was open to formally constitute the Soviet Union.
After creating a death state in the name of the proletariat, Lenin died early, in January 1924, after multiple strokes. That opened the way for Joseph Stalin. Born in Georgia in 1878, he dropped out of seminary, became a political activist, met Lenin in 1905, and returned from Siberian exile after the March 1917 revolution. Energetic and ruthless, he was underestimated by the others, especially Leon Trotsky — who, despite looking a bit like a frazzled, distracted university professor, was a determined revolutionary who led the attack on dissident sailors at the Kronstadt naval base and served as head of the Red Army during the civil war.
Stalin was a brilliant infighter, making a series of ever-changing alliances, defeating and ousting Trotsky, left-wing Leninists Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, and right-leaning — meaning he opposed the rapid shift to total state economic control and collectivization — Nikolai Bukharin. By 1929 they were out of power and Trotsky was in exile overseas. Within a decade came the Great Terror, during which Stalin had executed the latter three after grand show trials. Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico in 1940. Along the way hundreds of thousands of other dedicated communists died and more were sent to the Gulag. Only Lenin’s memory remained as history was rewritten and photos were airbrushed, to highlight Stalin’s greatness.
Ironically, the appalling tsunami of murder mostly affected Soviet elites. A joke at the time had residents responding to a midnight knock at the door by the NKVD, a KGB predecessor: “You’ve got the wrong apartment. The communists live upstairs.” Wrote Stephen Kotkin in his monumental biography of Stalin:
The new elite’s apartments, cars, servants, concubines, and imported luxuries were often visible, while workers and farmers lived in hovels and went hungry. This did not mean that every ordinary Soviet inhabitant was eager for the blood of bigwigs, but few tears were shed.
Stalin made the infamous deal with Adolf Hitler, came within a whisker of losing it all in 1941 as the Wehrmacht came within view of Moscow, and then relied on allied economic support to grind down the German military, making its defeat possible. (Soviet apologists are right in pointing out that the USSR took on two-thirds of the Wehrmacht. But it was Western aid that turned the Soviet forces into a well-armed, mobile force.)
Hitler’s defeat opened up Eastern Europe for Soviet control, swallowing the nations of Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia, as well as the eastern part of Germany. (Yugoslavia and Albania ended up more independent, though still communist.) Stalin never let honor or humanity interfere with his geopolitical objectives. At the war’s end Polish resistance leaders who flew to Moscow to negotiate over the future never returned. No other country had been so betrayed: victim of a two-front assault by Germany and the Soviet Union, occupied by both Berlin and Moscow with extraordinary brutality and finality, erased from the earth, “liberated” only after resistance forces had been left to fight and die in Warsaw, and left as geopolitical spoils for a totalitarian empire at the war’s conclusion.
Eastern Europeans found Soviet “friendship” to be a bit like the Hotel California: you could never leave. East Germans in 1953, Hungarians and Poles in 1956, Czechs in 1968, and Poles again in 1981 all tried to escape communism. Moscow always said no. In the case of Hungary thousands of people died, a majority of whom were the very workers the nitwit Marx claimed to be writing to protect. The only good news was Stalin’s death in March 1953, possibly as a result of poisoning by his long-time secret police chief and executioner Lavrentiy Beria, who feared that Stalin planned another purge — since such murderfests always began with the arrest and execution of the previous secret police chief and chief henchman.
However, Beria’s maneuver, if he did orchestrate Stalin’s death, did not save him. His colleagues feared him, and his unaccountably liberal, reformist ideas, and arrested him. Although all were complicit in Stalin’s crimes the rest tried and executed Beria (or, according to some accounts, executed him first, and only later, at leisure, reported a trial, a communist trademark). Nikita Khrushchev ascended the slippery path to preeminence, liberalizing but never compromising Soviet security in the name of humanity. He ordered in the Red Army to crush the Hungarian Revolution and triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis; in 1964 he was ousted by his colleagues, led by his protégé Leonid Brezhnev. Stagnation and stasis set in. Brezhnev, the ultimate definition of an apparatchik, died in November 1982.
He was followed by Yuri Andropov, the KGB head — and ambassador in Budapest in 1956 — and Konstantin Chernenko. Neither lasted long. The degraded nature of the Soviet leadership is evident from who was honored by burial at the Kremlin. In March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev gained the Soviet Communist Party’s position of general secretary. Although the latter hoped to reform rather than end the USSR, he possessed a humane spirit and dismantled the Soviet regime’s authoritarian machinery. Most important, he kept the Red Army in its barracks rather than again using it to crush Eastern European attempts at reform. Gorbachev was the critical partner of Ronald Reagan in ending the Cold War.
It had taken more than 70 years, but the terrible detour of 1917 was finally over.
It had been so unnecessary. As the great powers of Europe were inexorably moving toward war most hideous in summer 1914, Tsar Nicholas declared: “I will not become responsible for a monstrous slaughter.” He complained to the ambassador to Russia’s ally France: “Remember it is a question of sending thousands and thousands of men to their death.” However, he ultimately gave in to the clamoring war party in St. Petersburg. He turned out to be signing death warrants not only for millions of men serving in the army, but for his own family and much of Russia’s aristocracy — and, indirectly, tens of millions of Russians after his own execution by the Bolsheviks.
And the killing did not stop there. Not only did Moscow impose communist rule on its Eastern European neighbors. The success of the Russian Revolution inspired and the Soviet Union aided others, most importantly the Chinese Communist Party, which announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Particularly horrid were the results in Cambodia (briefly named Kampuchea) and North Korea. The Citadel’s Richard M. Ebeling observed: “The entire history in the 20th century reeked of mass murder. Not one country that followed the Soviet revolutionary model in the hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 practiced anything noticeably different in form or content.” Estimates of the total dead as a result of communism — from murder, famine, war, incompetence, and more — range between 150 million and 200 million or so.
It all started a century ago with the Soviet Union. The next time a gaggle of intellectuals show up spouting fantastic schemes and promises to remake humanity and the world, the only proper response is: “Never again.” Never again sacrifice human beings by thousands, millions, and more in the false name of saving humanity.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.