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[Editor’s note: The following is the first half of chapter 8 of Anna Geifman’s powerful new book, Death Orders, which exposes the chilling parallels between Soviet and Islamic terrorism. Unfortunately, as Professor Geifman explains, events unfolding today in Egypt are all too familiar, harkening back to the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917. Part II of chapter 8 will appear in our next issue.]
We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.
–Bolshevik Commissar of Justice Nikolai Krylenko
–Lev Trotsky´s telegram to comrades in Astrakhan´, March 1919
The first time in history terrorists seized control of a state in 1917–in Russia, the birthplace of modern political extremism. There, adherents of a totalist ideology, men with extensive radical background and subversive experience, set out to rule by way of genocidal “Red Terror” against designated “class enemies.”1 A similar situation developed next in Afghanistan, where the Sunni Islamist Taliban held power from 1996 to 2001, relying on state-sponsored violence against “enemies of Islam´. In recent years, Hamas has been using similar methods for consolidating Islamist rule in Gaza. Radical Shiite Hezbollah has made major advances in controlling Lebanon. Present-day dramatic events in Cairo are alarming indeed: are Egypt´s own jihadists to imitate the terrorists-come-to-power scenario? The concern is valid especially because Egyptian developments over the past two weeks seem to replicate—sometimes to astonishing detail—the initial events of the 1917 revolution in Russia. Is Egypt to emulate a fateful twist of transitory politics in a far-away land hundred years ago, where following the collapse of the autocratic regime, the extremists usurped control via a coup that toppled the ineffectual provisional government? Since then, the cardinal feature of the newly-established Soviet rule was its dependence terrorist mentality and on unremitting state-sponsored political violence. Terror manifested itself immediately after the Bolshevik takeover and escalated into sanguinary years of the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921 and beyond.
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Lenin and his associates relied on the pre-1917 terrorist mentality and practices while building their “Communist paradise.” Aside from defending expropriations as legitimate methods of revolutionary fundraising, prior to the Bolshevik takeover, Lenin had urged his followers to establish armed combat detachments for the purpose of killing the gendarmes and Cossacks and blowing up their headquarters. Since 1905, he also advocated the use of explosives, boiling water and acid against soldiers, the police, and supporters of the tsarist regime.2 Throughout the empire the Bolsheviks took part in terrorist activities, including those of major political significance, such as the 1907 murder of celebrated poet and social reformer Count Il’ia Chavchavadze, arguably the most popular national figure in turn-of-the-century Georgia.3
Having taken over the Russian administration, Lenin and Trotsky labeled opponents of violence “eunuchs and pharisees”4 and proceeded to implement government-sponsored machinery of state terror—projecting the conspiratorial and semicriminal nature of the Bolshevik fraction onto the new dictatorial regime. The Bolsheviks endorsed a policy they called the “Red Terror”—an instrument of repression in the hands of the revolutionary government– as a precondition for success in a seemingly visionary endeavor by a handful of political extremists to establish control over Russia’s population. For this purpose, the Bolsheviks must to “put an end once and for all of the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life,” Trotsky proclaimed.5
In their rhetoric, Lenin’s followers presented the Jacobin policies as a model for their own version of La Terreur, and themselves as descendents of the French radicals. “Each Social Democrat must be a terrorist à la Robespierre, Plekhanov was heard saying, and for once Lenin was in full agreement with the Menshevik’s plan: “We will not shoot at the tsar and his servants now as the Socialists-Revolutionaries do, but after the victory we will erect a guillotine in Kazanskii Square for them and many others.”6 In the Bolshevik view, terrorization from above was also an expedient tool in restructuring the traditional society in accordance with the Marxist doctrine.
Building on the notion of “motiveless terror” of the 1905 era, the Bolsheviks launched their campaign of state-sponsored coercion against groups of individuals designated as “class enemies” of the proletarian dictatorship, with extermination now being “class based.” In one of the first references to their new course, on 2 December 1917, Trotsky declared before a revolutionary gathering: “There is nothing immoral in the proletariat finishing off the dying class. This is its right. You are indignant . . . at the petty terror which we direct against our class opponents. But be put on notice that in one month at most this terror will assume more frightful forms, on the model of the great revolutionaries of France.”7
State terror as an ideological weapon the Bolsheviks justified as a rejoinder to a wide range of anti-Soviet activity allegedly perpetrated by a myriad of their internal and foreign enemies–Russian reactionaries, interventionists, and counterrevolutionaries of various leanings–all supposedly out to destroy the communist regime. The “accusation of terrorism . . . falls not on us but on the bourgeoisie. It forced terror on us,” Lenin claimed the exigency for killing in self-defense, echoing the paranoid defensiveness of the terrorists during the underground period.8 In reality, he had planned mass repressions a decade before he has had a chance to introduce them as a state policy, as early as 1908 dreaming of “real, nation-wide terror, which reinvigorates the country.”9
The Bolsheviks established their notorious political police, the Cheka (Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage), months before any organized opposition to the Soviets had had a chance to develop.10 The Cheka began its operations formally, if secretly, almost immediately after the Bolshevik takeover — on 7 December 1917, and would soon become a primary instrument of the Red Terror, in accordance with Lenin’s pronouncement in the following month: “if we are guilty of anything, it is of having been too humane, too benevolent, towards the representatives of the bourgeois-imperialist order.”11 By the first half of 1918, after the Cheka had already had its debut in repression, “counterrevolutionary organizations . . . as such were not observed,” acknowledged its deputy director, Iakov Peters, known as “Peters, the Terrorist.” 12 At the same period, in June 1918, the first Cheka head, “Iron Feliks” Dzerzhinskii declared that terror was “an absolute necessity,” and that the repressive measures would go on in the name of the revolution, “even if its sword does by chance sometimes fall upon the heads of the innocent.”13
Originally, the Bolsheviks had envisaged the Cheka as an investigative, rather than repressive agency; its primary function was to gather intelligence and prevent offenses against the state. Having no official judiciary powers, the Cheka was legally required to leave prosecution, indictment, and final sentencing of political offenders to the new Soviet courts, the so called revolutionary tribunals, introduced in late November 1917.14 But the tribunals’ tendency to linger on proprieties threatened the efficiency of Lenin’s envisaged rule “unrestricted by any laws.” As a solution, the Bolshevik leadership extended the Cheka’s original mandate. Whereas its central offices in Petrograd and Moscow temporarily abstained from executing political nonconformists, on 23 February 1918, Dzerzhinskii urged provincial and district cadres to set up local Cheka bureaus, arrest counterrevolutionaries, and “execute them wherever apprehended.” Enemies of the revolution would be “mercilessly liquidated on the spot,” the authorities announce publicly.15
Accordingly, the Cheka bureaus in the periphery began to resort routinely to summary judiciary procedures. Unlimited by even the most cursory legal norms, they meted out arbitrary, often impetuous and unwarranted punishments, including death sentences.16 Their primary focus at the moment was on combating economic felony, such as “speculation,” which “encompassed practically any independent commercial activity,” and “sabotage,” i.e. refusal of technical experts and professionals to offer their services to the Bolshevik-controlled economy.17
In July 1918 the Bolsheviks massacred the Russian imperial family— a dramatic episode of primary psychological significance, which took place six weeks before Red Terror was inaugurated as an official policy. The Soviets relegated responsibility for the decision to murder of the Romanov family in Ekaterinburg to local revolutionary activists. In truth, the secret order to execute former tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children, a valet, cook, parlor maid, and family doctor was issued in the Bolshevik headquarters in Moscow and carried out by a special Cheka squad. It was not for nothing that Lenin was a great admirer of Nechaev, the expert in bonding a subversive group with the accountability for a collective crime. Lenin, too, understood that when his party was in danger of being abandoned by many vacillating supporters blood would “cement its deserting following.” Trotsky supported Lenin’s decision as “not only expedient but necessary. The severity of this punishment showed everyone that we would continue to fight on mercilessly, stopping at nothing. The execution of the Tsar’s family was needed not only to frighten, horrify, and instill a sense of hopelessness in the enemy but also to shake up our own ranks, to show that there was no retreating, that ahead lay either total victory or total doom.”18 From then on, the extremists had to sustain slaughter; otherwise, in their own eyes, past bloodletting would be meaningless and deplorable.
On August 30, 1918, Moisei Uritskii was assassinated as the head of the Cheka in Petrograd. As a questionable coincidence, on the same day government sources issued an announcement about an attempt on Lenin’s life in Moscow. The Bolsheviks interpreted these attacks as a coordinated action of a large-scale conspiracy—an unfounded assumption that elicited their instantaneous and inundating fear. Panic-stricken, Lenin’s followers mitigated their apprehension by unleashing a mass campaign of violence. The Red Terror did not begin but dramatically magnified at this time, encompassing retaliation and revenge, marked by infinite cruelty–against real, alleged, and potential adversary: “Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies by the scores of hundreds, let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritskii . . . let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie–more blood, as much as possible.”19
Under such pretext, after 30 August 1918 the Bolsheviks no longer bothered to conceal brutality. The Cheka arrested civilians randomly and executed them arbitrarily in a sweeping effort to liquidate class enemies—a loosely-defined category that the Bolsheviks continuously expanded. A prominent Cheka officer Martyn Latsis made a newspaper declaration: “Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.”20 Soon, the Soviets developed a favorite “counter-counterrevolutionary measure”–hostage-taking.
The radicals’ attitude toward the use of hostages shifted from People’s Will’s explicit denial of any intention to punish their enemies by kidnapping their family members, to lonely voices advocating as early as 1903 the capturing of government officials and representatives of the bourgeoisie for the purpose of using them as bargaining chips in later negotiations with the authorities.21 After 1905, revolutionaries in the Baltics did seize civilian hostages,22 and prominent Bolshevik Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich proposed to St. Petersburg Committee to grab “a couple of so grand dukes” to blackmail the authorities.23 The extremists would occasionally turn against and hurt family members to threaten their enemies; in a notable incident, the terrorists murdered the father of a police informer to use his funeral as an opportunity to assassinate the son, their real target.24
In September 1918, as an initial step of the intensifying Red Terror, the Bolsheviks shot “in reprisal” 512 hostages, most of them “high notables” of the old regime. Simultaneously, the government decreed: in order to intimidate and punish the opposition, class enemies and their relatives would be sent to concentration camps.25 By 1919 their number increased dramatically, prison camps serving as trial models for the Gulag
The practice of hostage-taking became routine. Used as slave labor, imprisoned families of counterrevolutionary suspects were also potential “execution material.” The Cheka firing squads shot these civilians regularly as a collective punishment,26 occasionally “emptying” entire prisons of inmates.27 Sometimes the Chekists did not even bother to waste the bullets, as in the Kholmogory camp, where bound prisoners were drowned in the nearby river.28 In June 1918 the public was notified that in case of a single shot at the Bolshevik supporters in Astrakhan’ “bourgeois hostages” will be executed “in 24 minutes.”29
Faced with a wave of starving workers’ strikes and peasant uprisings, the government directed its wrath against the very groups whose alleged, if more than questionable, backing had served as an argument for the Bolsheviks´ political legitimacy. In two months of terror, between 10,000 and 15,000 summary executions took place, marking “a radical break with the practices of the Tsarist regime.” In almost 100 years, between 1825 and 1917, the imperial courts issued 6,321 politics-related death sentences, not all of which were carried out.30 As we have seen, before the revolution, the terrorists came to be responsible for exactly as many casualties among state officials in a single decade, invalidating a claim that “violence, alas, was reciprocal.”31
Alienation and anxiety, so prominent in the clandestine milieu, seem to have been even more pronounced when the extremists usurped power in Russia. Escalating brutality of the extremist clique that came to exercise tenuous control over the enormous country bore a concomitant–and mounting–dread of criminals before imminent retribution. Few, if any among the Bolshevik leadership believed that their regime would outlast the two-month revolutionary experience of the Paris Commune; yet, all were determined to hold on to power at any cost—for as long as possible, until they would surely be overthrown and again forced into a position of haunted runaways.32 Psychologically, they had not changed from the underground days when, perceiving themselves as the persecuted, liable for annihilation, the radicals propelled onto the enemy their fear and belligerence. In fact, as their “power increased, so did the Bolshevik sense of danger,” perception of a looming catastrophe, and urgency to harm. “We have never made a secret of the fact that our revolution is only the beginning, that its victorious end will only come when we have lit up the whole world with these same flames,” said Trotsky, anticipating the millennial cataclysm–from Hungary to India. Having declared ruthless war on the international bourgeoisie, Lenin avowed that the wounded “wild beast” is bursting with “fierce hate . . . and ready to throw itself at Soviet Russia any minute to strangle it.”33 And if in the 1905 era the extremists did not shun from victimizing people they were allegedly liberating; as government, they did so with redoubled intensity.
Psychologist Karen Horney described the tendency to dominate “disguised in humanistic forms,” as well as the quest for power as a protection. It is “born out of anxiety” associated with feelings of inferiority, weakness, and helplessness–glaring among the extremists. It has an additional benefit “as a channel through which repressed hostility can be discharged”34 Finally, it “strengthens group identity, since the hated other can be collectively shared and collectively destroyed.” The group then “comes to see itself as exclusive, possessing a boundary the hated other may never pass or threaten . . . the border separates the pure from the impure . . . the polluted from the good,” the saints from the villains.35 The dualistic, black-and-while formula that all goodness is within, and all badness is outside inevitably had to translate into violence, in accordance with Lenin’s challenge: “each man must choose between joining our side or the other side”36 Like other variants of totalism, Bolshevism presumed the impossibility of a “third path” or neutrality:37 “One who does not sing along with us today is against us,” first official Soviet poet Vladimir Maiakovskii, eulogized Lenin’s reprisals.
Repressions against other political parties began as early as 28 November 1917 with the ban of the Kadets. Still supporting a parliamentary democracy, and still not realizing that the dream was over, they were the first among the liberal public intellectuals to pay for their collaboration with the extremists, who now declared them enemies of the people. From then on, Kadet publications were closed and supporters arrested. Lenin’s excuse—which he offered to simulate at least a minimal legitimacy—was that the Constitutional Democrats were not socialists.
In June 1918 the Bolshevik barred the SRs and the Mensheviks from the political process for alleged counterrevolutionary activities, and by late summer Lenin was already applying terror against former socialist comrades, many of whom were apprehended and incarcerated. Of course they were not counterrevolutionaries, Lenin frankly admitted to Swiss socialist Fritz Platten, “But that’s exactly why they are dangerous–just because they are honest revolutionists.”38 Long before the Soviets legalized the on-going practice in their Penal Code, persecution extended from renowned figures of the socialist opposition to members of their families, including children. The youngest daughter of Chernov, leader of the now-outlawed SRs, was eleven years old when she spent weeks of semi-starvation in an icy cell of the infamous Lubianka prison.39
In the first months after the Bolshevik takeover, Lenin had no choice but to put aside his dream of a single-party regime and grudgingly acknowledged the necessity to allot fractional authority to radical dissenters from the PSR–Left Socialists-Revolutionaries (Left SRs). The Bolsheviks invited them to join the coalition government, in which the Left SR received four Commissar positions. They also held high posts within the Soviet repressive organs, including the Cheka, where a Left SR representative served as its deputy director. In their effort to eradicate “counterrevolution,” the Left SR were no less extreme than their comrades, the Bolsheviks.
On July 6, 1918, two Cheka functionaries, Left SRs Iakov Blumkin and Nikolai Andreev, assassinated the German Ambassador in Moscow, Count Wilhelm von Mirbach. Lenin immediately proclaimed the terrorist act to be not only an attempt to drag the Soviet Republic into a new war with Germany, but also a motion for a full-fledged “counterrevolutionary uprising.” He proceeded to arrest approximately 450 members of the Left SR faction on charges of conspiracy and treacherous violation of the two-party alliance. Most likely, the Left SR leadership, although yielding none to the Bolsheviks in extremism, had no intention of rebelling against the coalition, but Mirbach’s assassination did give Lenin an opportunity to provoke the exchange of fire between former partners and to fulfill his underlying purpose of establishing the Bolshevik dictatorship.40
At the other end of the world nearly a century later, the extremists are following similar patterns of eliminating political rivals. On 25 July 2008, an explosive device detonated in Gaza outside the Hilal Café, frequented by leading Hamas activists. The explosion occurred next to a vehicle belonging to the militants´ commander Nihad Masbah. Along with him, the blast killed four of his comrades and a 4-year-old girl; over twenty others were wounded. Against all expectations, the Hamas leadership did not blame Israel and instead assigned responsibility for the attack to Muhammad Dahlan, former PA Authority National Security Advisor under the Fatah Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Following the explosion, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah vowed to “seek justice” and punish all guilty. Abbas repeatedly denied the allegation that Fatah was behind the terrorist act in Gaza and proposed to initiate an independent inquiry to investigate the bombing—offer Hamas promptly rejected.
Instead, the Hamas combatants immediately began to make arrests throughout the city, apprehending 160 people aligned with al Fatah. The arrests set off a wave of fighting between Hamas and Fatah factions. Over the next two days, Hamas continued its repressive operations in Gaza, arresting in total almost 200 Fatah activists. Fatah retaliated: The Jerusalem Post reported that its forces rounded up dozens of pro-Hamas politicians and sympathizers across the West Bank, including 54 people in Nablus. On 28 July Hamas banned the distribution of three Fatah-affiliated newspapers and arrested some journalists.
It was not the first or the only time Hamas combatants set out against the Fatah membership. On 17 June 2009, Fatah TV marked the second anniversary of the Hamas military takeover of Gaza by issuing a graphic video, featuring a screaming Fatah activist, drugged along on the ground and beaten by Hamas fighters with a bone-crushing bat, incited by their comrades with screams “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Great).41 It would be fair to state—which the video did not—that in the areas controlled by Fatah, its militants have treated the Hamas rivals in similar ways. 42 For the Fatah leaders “nemeses were neither the Jews nor their Zionist benefactors” but “brother Palestinians,” men who repudiated allegiance to the faction that claimed the right to Arafat’s political legacy.43
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