The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia
Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger Security International, 2010.
by Anna Geifman
A 21-year-old woman walks into a police headquarters, a normal occurrence most days, except for this one. Thirteen pounds of explosives and a detonating device are attached to her body underneath her clothes. But before she has the chance to blow herself up along with the building and everyone in it, she is, fortunately, apprehended.
Almost weekly, an act of suicide terrorism is announced somewhere in the world. But this barley averted attack did not occur in Gaza, Pakistan or Chechnya, or any other well-known terrorist hot spot. The lady in question was not even Muslim or a “black widow”, seeking to avenge a dead relative or to expunge her shame for her unmarried status or for alleged sexual misconduct before marriage.
The year of this failed suicide mission was 1907. The name of the young woman determined to end her existence and the innocent lives of others in such horrific fashion was Evstiliia Rogozinnikova, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in pre-revolutionary tsarist Russia. Along with numerous other socialists and anarchists, Rogozinnikova was part of one of the most sanguinary, and unknown, terrorist campaigns in modern times that, between 1901 and 1917, killed and wounded 17,000 people in 23,000 terrorist attacks.
The Rogozinnikova case is only one of the highly original comparisons that Anna Geifman, a Professor of History at Boston College, makes between the terrorist groups in tsarist Russia, primarily from 1905 to 1910, and modern-day Islamic terrorism in her remarkable and fascinating book, Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia. In her well-detailed work, Geifman maintains modern-day terrorism has its roots in the pre-revolutionary tsarist state and traces its development to the present day. Her approach to this century-old scourge is a psychohistorical one, which has led her to conclude there is no difference in mindsets between the followers of Lenin and those of Osama bin Laden, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Geifman is well qualified to write a work of this kind. As a professional historian of Russian revolutionary violence and modern terrorism, she has written the well-received books Thou Shalt Kill: Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917; Entangled in Terror: The Azef Affair and the Russian Revolution; La mort sera votre Dieu: du nihilisme russe au terrorisme islamiste (Death Will Be Your God: From Russian Nihilism to Islamiste Terrorism) and was the editor of Russia Under the Last Tsar: Opposition and Subversion. Author of several journal articles, Professor Geifman, who is originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, also teaches history of contemporary terrorism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
Geifman argues early twentieth century Russian terrorists and modern-day Islamists possess the same psychological motivations because they are thanatophiles, or people who worship death (Geifman also includes the Nazis in this group). Moving between the two time periods, Death Orders contains numerous examples of thanatophilia as the basis for modern terrorism. Although the two eras are decades apart and very different in culture and traditions, Geifman shows the terrorists’ indiscriminate and deadly violence has the same psychological underpinnings.
The terrorists themselves do not hide the fact they are death worshippers and have been very explicit about this in their statements. Islamists have often said they love death, like Westerners love life. As a further example of this depraved mindset, Geifman quotes Ali Benhadjj, the Islamist leader of Algeria, as saying: “Faith is propagated by counting up deaths every day, by adding up massacres and charnel-houses.”
From the Russian revolutionary side, a quote from a 1920 issue of Pravda reveals as well as anything else the Bolsheviks leaders’ reverence for death: “Those who replace us will have to build on the ruins, amid the deadly silence of a graveyard.”
Geifman maintains dogma has nothing to do with terrorist violence in the two principal eras studied. Many Russian revolutionaries knew little about socialist theory, while Islamist terrorists are often ignorant of the Koran’s tenets. The causes the terrorists espouse are simply the means, and a camouflage, to sustain their anti-life religion of violence and to make the blood sacrifices their God of Death demands. Similar to the Russian revolutionary and Islamist movements were India’s Thugs who murdered thousands of unsuspecting travellers as human sacrifices to their death goddess, Kali. But unlike the Thugs, in carrying out the murderous rites of their pagan religion inside of a religion, the Marixst and Islamist terrorists often sacrifice themselves.
The most disturbing part of the book has to do with the 2004 Islamist terrorist attack against the school in Beslan, in which 334 people perished including 186 children, the town’s most vulnerable inhabitants. Geifman devotes space to this act of barbarism since, with this attack, “the death-worshippers took their sacrificial destruction to a whole new level.” So many children died in a town where everyone knew each other, the attack turned Beslan into a “dead zone” where it was like “living in a cemetery.” And it is these “dead zones” the Islamist terrorists now intend to spread worldwide on a much larger scale. Governments ignore the Beslan atrocity at their peril.
Geifman maintains the Beslan attack was a natural development in modern terrorism’s century-long history. Terrorists have also taken over a school and deliberately killed children and young people in Israel. Death worshippers, Geifman believes, have to target children, since they are the essence of life, God-like in their image and innocence, and the center of every family and community. The author’s assertion can also perhaps serve as a plausible warning as to where future terrorist attacks can be expected.
Death Orders is highly significant and very relevant work to our world today. Geifman’s psychohistorical approach to analysing terrorism is unique and provides a penetrating insight into this modern day plague. Soviet historian Richard Pipes calls Death Orders a work “of great value”, while terrorism expert Steven Emerson calls it “a must read.” An original work, it is an indispensable contribution for anyone wishing to understand terrorism today.