Ninety-nine years ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and, after a few months of weak parliamentary rule, the Bolsheviks seized power. We call that seizure the Russian (or October) Revolution, but it might better be designated the Bolshevik coup d’état. A party of 10,000 people gained control of an empire occupying one-sixth of the earth’s land area.

From the start, they made up for their small numbers with outsized violence. If at first their executions of liberals, socialists, workers who showed independence, and peasants from whom grain was seized at gunpoint seemed like a short-term necessity, it soon became evident that the violence would never stop. In fact, it was to grow, with Stalin proclaiming “the intensification of the class struggle” when Bolshevik control had long been total.

The Bolsheviks made up for their small numbers with outsized violence.

Eventually some eighteen countries were to fall under Communist rule. In 1999, Time magazine proclaimed Einstein the “man of the century”—the person who “for better or worse most influenced the last 100 years”—but Einstein did not remotely affect so many lives as Lenin. Bolsheviks were never very good at material inventions, but they excelled at political technology, inventing an entirely new system we call totalitarian. As they say today, it went viral. There is still no vaccine.

Of course, lots of conquering groups have annihilated or enslaved other groups—just think of the Trojan war or Tamerlane’s mountains of skulls—but no form of government had ever been so brutal to those it regarded as its own people. Soviet Russia was far crueler than its tsarist predecessor, which had long been proverbial as “the gendarme of Europe.” Between 1825 and 1905, the tsars executed 191 people for political reasons—not for mere “suspicion” as under the Soviets but for actual assassinations, including that of Tsar Alexander II. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn remarked that between 1905 and 1908 the regime executed as many as 2,200 people—forty-five a month!—“calling forth tears from Tolstoy and indignation from Korolenko and many, many others.” By comparison, conservative estimates of executions under Lenin and Stalin—say, twenty million from 1917 to 1953—yield an average of over ten thousand per week. That’s a tsarist century every few days.

Western public opinion has never come to terms with the crimes of Communism. Every school child knows about the Holocaust, Apartheid, and American slavery, as they should. But Pol Pot’s murder of a quarter of Cambodia’s population has not dimmed academic enthusiasm for the Marxism his henchmen studied in Paris. Neither the Chinese Cultural Revolution nor the Great Purges seem to have cast a shadow on the leftists who apologized for them. Quite the contrary, university classes typically blame the Cold War on American “paranoia” about communism and still picture Bolsheviks as idealists in too great a hurry. Being leftwing means never having to say you’re sorry.

In 1997 Stéphane Courtois published (in French) The Black Book of Communism, an anthology in which experts document, country by country, how many people Marxist–Leninists killed. With suitable academic equanimity, contributors ask whether the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians, or the deportation of all Chechens to central Asia that took the lives of one person in three, qualifies as “genocide.” The only sign of real emotional urgency occurs in Courtois’s introduction, which breaks intellectual taboos by drawing parallels with Nazism, questioning Socialists’ frequent alliances with Communists, and, above all, wondering why intellectuals continue to apologize for Communist murders.

Being leftwing means never having to say you’re sorry.

Some figures speak for themselves. The volume’s scholars estimate twenty million deaths in the ussr, sixty-five million in China, two million each in Cambodia and North Korea, 1.7 million in Mengistu’s Ethiopia and other African countries, and so on, to a total of about one hundred million. (Eerily, the chief revolutionary in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed predicts that the cost of perfect equality will be “a hundred million heads.”) So far as I can tell, these estimates are understatements. For example, the most authoritative study of Stalin’s war against the peasantry in the early 1930s, Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow, arrives at a figure twice the one in this volume. The difference between the two estimates—the margin of error—equals the number of Jews killed by the Nazis.

By contrast, Nazi deaths are estimated at twenty-five million. Of course numbers aren’t everything, but one might imagine that it would be reasonable to compare the two systems. In intellectual circles, however, such comparisons taint not Communists, but the person who makes them.

Our knowledge of Bolshevik horrors expanded dramatically when, after the fall of the Soviet Union, its archives were opened. Jonathan Brent and Yale University Press brought out volume after volume of chilling documents, but public opinion did not noticeably change. How many readers of The New York Times know about its role in covering up the worst of Stalin’s crimes and earning a Pulitzer Prize (still unreturned) for doing so?

I understand being so carried away by Communist ideals that one denies or justifies millions of deaths. What amazes me is that people and publications who have done so still feel entitled to criticize others from a position of moral superiority. Courtois offers several explanations for such moral failures, but ultimately gives up.

I first grasped what Stalinist life was like during a course I took with Wolfgang Leonhard, the child of German communists who was brought up in the ussr, defected to Yugoslavia, and wound up teaching Russian history at Yale. His autobiography, Child of the Revolution, tells a story, set during the Great Purges, about some families in a communal apartment who are awakened at 4 a.m. (the usual time for arrests) by a peremptory banging at the door. Finally one old man, with less life left to lose, answers, disappears into the corridor, and at last returns. “Comrades, relax!” he explains. “The house is on fire!”

Jörg Baberowski’s new book, Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, also provides a lot of good material for appreciating Russia under the Great Helmsman, Father of Nations, and Coryphaeus of Science.1 Delivering a toast on the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power, Stalin declared: “We will destroy each and every enemy, even if he was an old Bolshevik; we will destroy all his kin, his family. We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes, his thoughts!—threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!” Even when the tsars imprisoned or executed revolutionaries, they never thought of arresting their spouses, children, grandparents, and cousins as well. And note Stalin’s insistence that not just wrong actions but improper thoughts merit “destruction.” Georgy Arbatov, adviser to five general secretaries of the Soviet Communist Party, observed that “the main code of behavior” was “to be afraid of your own thoughts.”

“Comrades, relax! The house is on fire!”

The goal was to change both nature and human nature. The Marxist “leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom” meant that everything would be subject to human redesign. At the end of Literature and Revolution, Trotsky asserted that “the present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores cannot be considered final.” People “will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and sturgeons.” In discussions of Russia’s unprecedented environmental degradation, people speak of “grouse and sturgeon” thinking.

The “new man” will also redesign himself. He will “master his own feelings,” rendering them perfectly “transparent,” and at last create “a higher biologic type . . . a superman.” Trotsky’s book concludes with a promise that “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”

Is it any wonder that the lives of untransformed people counted as nothing? Apologists for the ussr have often claimed that, however regrettable the cost, the Bolsheviks had no choice if they were going to industrialize rapidly and defeat the Nazis. This excuse is nonsense. To begin with, the bloodiest event of all, the artificially induced famine during the war against the peasants, took place before Hitler came to power, and mass killings of whole groups dated to the regime’s first months. It is also hard to see how industrialization was helped by the massive arrest of the “bourgeois specialists,” which included just about everyone who understood how specific industries worked. And how was the war effort to be aided by targeting the army officer corps during the great purges of 1936–38? As Baberowski notes, “almost nothing remained” after more than ten thousand Red Army officers were arrested. In April 1938 the head of the “special department” of the Fifth Mechanized Corps dutifully reported that “100 percent of the command personnel in the corps and all its brigades” had been arrested. This was the one sort of production quota that was actually met. Is it any wonder that the Soviet army collapsed when the Germans invaded?

Apologists also suggest that there really were a lot of enemies of socialism. But people were arrested not just for conspiring against (or thinking negatively about) the regime. Quotas were issued for each region—Baberowski concludes that more than a million people were killed by quota—and local officials often filled them either arbitrarily or with the homeless, the blind, and amputees. In March 1938 the nkvd (the secret police) executed 1,160 people in Moscow with physical disabilities. Kliment Voroshilov, who occupied many top positions, argued for arresting abandoned children. “Why don’t we have these rascals shot?” he asked. “Should we wait for them to become grown-up criminals?” What’s more, two dozen whole ethnic groups were forcibly deported to Central Asia. After Stalin ordered the arrest of all Poles, the Polish section of the Comintern and the Polish Communist party had to be disbanded since they had no members.

Death was not the worst of it. One of Baberowski’s leitmotifs is the suicide of officials expecting arrest in order to escape interrogation, which involved torture. When the original Politburo members Zinoviev and Kamenev did not immediately confess to treason, Stalin wrote to his secret police chief: “You are performing poorly, Genrikh Grigorievich. One must torture them so that they finally tell the truth and reveal all their ties.” Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin all referred to any squeamishness about such methods as (to use Trotsky’s phrase) “the most pathetic and miserable liberal prejudice.” Writing to the Kirghiz Party leader, Stalin threatened “extreme measures” if he did not immediately abandon “liberalism towards enemies of the people.”

Leonhard reports that some people would confess to palpably absurd crimes in the hope that Stalin would someday order a review of each case and recognize obvious innocence. One person confessed to trying to sink the Soviet navy by throwing rocks into Leningrad harbor, while a chemist admitted revealing an important formula to the Germans, H2SO4, or sulfuric acid.

What did it feel like to someone who was not a sadist to be a mass executioner? Vodka was provided, but even that could not banish the thought that today’s executioners were tomorrow’s victims, just as the nkvd chief Yagoda was executed by his successor Yezhov, who in turn met the same fate. Anyone made head of an nkvd branch during the great purges was in mortal danger. Baberowski quotes from the memoir of one proud nkvd officer:

From my first salary I bought myself a new suit. . . . Our work was no picnic! Whenever someone wasn’t dead immediately, he fell over and squealed like a pig. . . . You weren’t allowed to eat anything beforehand. . . . You shoot with the right hand, you see . . . I pushed through my demand for a massage of the right arm and the right index finger twice a week with my superiors. We were given certificates. . . . I have a whole cabinet of these certificates, printed on the best paper. . . . Everyone had only one thought: . . . we too. . . . I always had a packed plywood suitcase under my bed . . . and pistol under my pillow. To put a bullet in my head. . . . They will call Stalin a great man someday. The hatchet outlives its master.

For understandable reasons, in Holocaust and Gulag literature, we hear the voices of victims but not of the countless perpetrators. Solzhenitsyn observes that while in stories for children it is understandable to portray evildoers as people who tell themselves “I cannot live unless I do evil!,” in real life “that’s not the way it is! To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.” One of the achievements of Svetlana Alexievich, the most recent literary Nobel laureate, is to capture the voices of perpetrators and let us appreciate the humanness of those who commit inhuman acts. When in her books killers sound like ordinary people, even like ourselves, it is unspeakably sad.

“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good.”

If only Baberowski could think as well as he narrates! In terms of argument, this book is hopeless: usually shallow, sometimes incoherent, often self-contradictory. In his introduction, Baberowksi explains that when Yale University Press asked for a translation of his German study of Stalin, he found himself changing his mind and altering the text so much it was really a new book. Is this why so many passages apparently contradict each other?

Baberowksi contends that to understand the horrors of Stalinism all one needs to understand is Stalin himself. “Stalin gave Stalinism more than his name. Without him it would never have existed.” And yet Baberowski gives us ample indication that the brutality dated from the Revolution itself. Long before Stalin came to power, Lenin explicitly instructed local Bolsheviks to “introduce mass terror” to forestall opposition. When the Turks approached Baku, Baberowski notes, Lenin ordered the city burned to the ground and “the fate of the civilian population was not considered.” Zinoviev remarked that it was necessary to kill ten million of Russia’s hundred million people. In short, Baberowski concludes, “The civil war [of 1918–20] was a dress rehearsal for Stalinism” and “without the violent experience of the civil war there would have been no Stalinism.” By the same token, he tells us that Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture, which took the lives of millions, “was the last act in a drama that had begun in 1917.” If so, the conditions of Stalinism were already there for any unscrupulous leader to exploit.

At one point Baberowski insists that Stalin approved of each and every killing: “he expected perpetrators to seek his permission before killing anyone whose death he had not explicitly ordered.” At another he tells us that officials often “anticipated his every wish and committed murders with preemptive obedience.” In the Caucasus, such “preemptive violence” entailed wiping out whole villages and exterminating entire clans. On the one hand, Baberowski tells us that Stalin was insane, a psychopath, and on the other that the killing “was by no means the product of a deranged mind. It was all very much calculated” by Stalin.

Baberowski seems to think that sadism testifies to an “emotional indifference” to the feelings of others and an inability to empathize, but the very opposite may be the case. No one takes pleasure in torturing a stone: the whole point is to see another person, someone like ourselves, writhe in agony. The narrator of Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, a novel based on his experience in a prison camp, describes the “thrill” experienced by sadistic guards as a sensation of “unlimited mastery of the body, blood, and soul of a fellow man made of the same clay as himself, a brother in the law of Christ.” Conducting purges in the Caucasus, Stalin’s henchman Babirov liked to have people tortured in his presence, and Stalin himself told Kamenev that his “greatest pleasure” was “to choose one’s victim, make one’s plans, exact proper revenge, and then go to bed.” That doesn’t sound like “indifference” to me.

If there is a core argument to this book, it is that none of this can be blamed on Marxism-Leninism. Believe it or not, such assertions are not a strained attempt to apologize for Marxism. Baberowski believes that no ideas ever motivate violence. “To men of violence . . . ideas are only a means of legitimizing their lust for murder to those for whom violence is not a natural course of action. Neither Stalin nor Yezhov were guided by Marxism or its promises when they had people arrested, tortured, and killed. . . . It had absolutely nothing to do with the writings of European Marxism.” For Baberowski, ideas are not just a relatively minor factor, they have “absolutely nothing” to do with what happens. “Reasons and legitimizations play absolutely no role,” he insists elsewhere; they are just means of coping with meaningless violence. Since these statements pertain to all violence anywhere, they cannot be derived from the evidence, but represent an advance philosophical commitment.

Then what was the cause of all these killings? Baberowski offers several incompatible explanations, among which are Stalin’s upbringing in a culture steeped in “male violence” and a celebration of “robber bands,” along with an ethic of loyalty and honor resembling that of the Mafia. “Anyone who was disloyal forfeited his honor because disloyalty was a betrayal of the most important principle of all—the unwavering friendship between men. . . . Brotherhood and the covenant of loyalty became the ideals of the Stalinist order.” And yet Baberowski also repeatedly insists that if there was one thing that could not be preserved under Stalinism it was loyalty. Even among Politburo members, everyone was ready to denounce his best friend. In fact, such mistrust was itself regarded as a positive good. Bukharin, Baberowski tells us, insisted that all good communists needed to denounce their neighbors. “We must now all become agents of the Cheka [the first name for the secret police],” he wrote. Across the Soviet Union, school children were taught to imitate Pavel Morozov, a boy who denounced his own parents.

Across the Soviet Union, school children were taught to imitate Pavel Morozov, a boy who denounced his own parents.

Set aside the fact that the “Mafia code of honor” theory contradicts the one tracing the violence to Stalin’s insanity. Male violence and criminal gangs have existed for all of human history, but what happened under Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot was entirely different from what came before. Mafiosi do not engage in random mass murder of the people among whom they live: it’s bad for business. Robber bands don’t set up forced labor camps or systematically starve masses of people. Surely something else had to be involved!

Solzhenitsyn takes the exact opposite position. Ideology makes all the difference. Why was it, he asks, that Macbeth and other Shakespearean villains killed only a few people, while Lenin and Stalin murdered millions? The answer is that Shakespeare’s villains “had no ideology”:

Ideology—that is what gives . . . the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses and will receive praises and honors.

If so, then to understand Communist atrocities we need to look at its ideology.

To begin with, Soviet Marxism rejected the very concept of human rights. Leninist ideology instructed one to think of classes, not humanity. What race was to Nazis, class was to Bolsheviks, and class origin, like race, was not something one chose. People born into bourgeois, noble, or kulak families had no more right to life than Jews or Gypsies did to Nazis.

Contrary to what liberals might presume, Soviet ethics taught one to overcome, not foster, natural sympathy for the suffering of others, which might make one hesitate to kill a class enemy. In November 1918, Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, published an article in the journal Red Terror in which he instructed:

We are not waging war against individual persons. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. During the investigation, do not look for evidence that the accused acted in deed or word against Soviet power. The first questions that you ought to put are: To what class does he belong? What is his origin? What is his education or profession? And it is these questions that ought to determine the fate of the accused.

It was no big step to extend the notion of enemy classes to enemy peoples, like the Cossacks, Chechens, or Crimean Tatars.

Soviet Marxism rejected the very concept of human rights.

No less important was the Leninist understanding of morality. Since the Party was the agent of History itself, it could not be mistaken, and so anything the party did was morally right by definition. “Morality is entirely subordinated to the class struggle of the proletariat,” Lenin declared. At the Thirteenth Party Congress in 1924, Trotsky explained:

Comrades, none of us wishes or is able to be right against his Party. The Party in the last analysis is always right, because the Party is the sole historical instrument given the proletariat for the solution of its basic problems. . . . I know that one cannot be right against the party. It is only possible to be right with the Party and through the Party for history has not created other ways for the realization of what is right.

By the same logic, truth is what the Party says it is. Georgy Pyatakov, who was twice expelled from the Party and eventually shot, wrote that a true Bolshevik is “ready to believe [not just assert] that black was white and white was black, if the Party required it.” In 1984, O’Brien proclaims this very doctrine—two plus two is really five if the Party says it is—which he calls “collective solipsism.”

Is it any wonder that those who reject human rights, treat people in terms of friendly or enemy groups, place no moral limit on action, and are certain that whatever they do is right should wind up committing colossal evil?

The idea that truth and morality have no objective basis but are simply what power says they are, is, of course, also a key tenet of many current postmodernists. Society more and more teaches us to regard each other in terms of good and evil groups. No one seems more filled with hate than those who discover it in others. Could the answer to Courtois’s question be simpler than he suspects? Maybe the reason intellectuals often speak more harshly of Reagan than of Stalin is that a substantial portion of them actually prefer Stalinism?

Today one hears that neuroscientists will soon be able to read thoughts from the outside. What would Stalin have done with such technology? Perhaps my training as a Russian specialist distorts my judgment, but as I contemplate the ideas spreading from the academy through society, I fear, a century after the Russian Revolution, a tyranny greater than Stalin’s. Comrades, the house is on fire.


1 Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, by Jörg
Baberowski; Yale University Press, 520 pages, $40.