When Terrorists Become State Leaders, Part II

Soviet Russia's "Red Terror" has much to teach us about the current crisis in Egypt.

[Editor's note: The following is the second 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 I of chapter 8 appeared in our previous issue.]

The escalating terror demanded constant expansion of “manpower of the Cheka . . . from some 2,000 men in the mid-1918 to over 35,000 six months later.”73 The Bolsheviks partly solved their problem of filling the staff vacancies by recruiting aggravated national minorities—Armenians, Jews, and Latvians—many of whom had previously been involved in the struggle against Russian imperial domination.  Lenin favored them strongly as “more brutal and less susceptible to bribery” than “soft Russians.”74 He also sought the expertise of “professionals”—the jobless Okhrana employees.  Ironically, some of them excelled in their Cheka work side by side with their former prisoners—the ex-terrorists.

For professional terrorists whose primary occupation before 1917 was bloodletting, the revolution presented an opportunity to return from their places of imprisonment or foreign exile and apply themselves once again to what they did best.  Most of them did not know any other trade; they were experts in serving prison terms and, once out, in killing—quite in the spirit of Nechaev’s dictum:  a true revolutionary “knows only one science: the science of destruction.”75 After the Bolshevik takeover, they joined and often led the provincial and district bureaus of the Cheka, worked in the revolutionary tribunals, and after 1922, in the repressive organs of the GPU (State Political Administration).76Dzerzhinskii and his two Moscow Cheka associates, Latsis and Mikhail Kedrov had been involved in extremist practices against tsarist authorities and the bourgeoisie.77 In the periphery, especially in the Urals, where they had carried out expropriations, the Bolsheviks were most successful in reassembling their old bandit-like cadres.  After 1917 Lenin trusted them with terror-related tasks of special importance, including the execution of the imperial family and murder of Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich Romanov.78

Former SRs, Maximalists, anarchists, and other terrorists also volunteered as perpetrators of the Red Terror.  Despite rife harassment of fellow-radicals, they held on to a vanishing hope to preserve a united revolutionary front by proving their loyalty to Lenin’s regime.  Alongside with the Bolsheviks, they built the Soviet machinery of repression—soon to become the instrument of their demise.79

The Bolsheviks were not alone to blame for raging brutality in Russia after their takeover and especially during the ensuing Civil War; the Red Terror may be compared with an array of atrocities perpetrated by the Whites.  Yet, the difference between the Red and the White forces was as fundamental as it was between the tsarist state and the terrorists:  an army does not come to fulfill a need for a new way of life; it is not a road to salvation.”  It “is an instrument for bolstering, protecting and expanding the present,” whereas the ideological movement comes to destroy it.  “Its preoccupation is with the future:”80 in the Bolshevik case, with Communist apocalypse and deliverance.  To overlook the familiar trap of moral equivalency would be to disregard that, pursuing the millennial prophesy,

Lenin's government used terror as a method of social engineering.  The Whites had never cherished a goal of recasting Russian society.  . . .  The Communist terror on the other hand was part of a grand design to eliminate entire social groups of the population by violence, as obstacles to what the Communists called socialism.  . . . The Red Terror . . . established and routinized the practice of 'processing' entire social strata of people without regard to personal guilt or lack thereof.81

Lenin's repressions were ideology-based and theory-justified, applied to entire groups which the party in power labeled ideologically impure.  “Proletarian repression in all its forms, beginning with executions . . . is a method of molding the communist man from the human material of the capitalist epoch,” elucidated Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin.82 And according to Left SR Isaac Steinberg, Commissar of Justice already during the initial months of the Soviet rule, terror was an all-encompassing "system . . . a legalized plan of the regime for the purpose of mass intimidation, mass compulsion, mass extermination. . . .  The concept keeps on enlarging until . . . it comes to embrace the entire land, the entire population”83 because any person or “group not controlled by the Party is, actually or potentially, an enemy.”84

Whereas we commonly assume that fear became a dominant factor of Russian life only during Stalin's reign of terror, contemporaries remembered otherwise: "the new regime mowed people right and left without discriminating much" between the guilty and the innocent, and already during the early months of the Soviet rule people lived in terror of random house searches, arrests, and imprisonment, affirmed writer Mikhail Osorgin.85“There is no such sphere of life in which the Cheka would not be required to have its penetrating eye,” a high-posted Bolshevik official explained.86 The apparent absurdity of repression was, in fact, an important element in Lenin's effort to create an atmosphere of total intimidation; “the more irrational the terror, the more effective it was, because it made the very process of rational calculation irrelevant, reducing people to the status of a cowed herd.”  The frightened people in power thus sought to undermine the humanity of those under their control and to intimidate them “in order to reassure themselves of the legitimacy, strength, and longevity of their regime.”87

The more invested revolutionaries are in the realization of an all-encompassing vision, the less is the cost of life, notes Camus; “in an extreme case, it is not worth a penny.”88Consumed by the totality of their project, Lenin's associates did not feel the need to embellish their actions or conceal the extent of repressive policies.  “We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia's population,” declared Grigorii Zinov'ev in mid-September 1918.  "As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them.  They must be annihilated."89

The Red Terror did not end with the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War--as it would have, had it been a reluctantly-adopted weapon of self-defensive and not a quintessential component of the coercive regime.  A Communist writer called terror “a costume,” which, like a mask, could be stored away “to be taken out again in case of need.”90 Although the Bolsheviks did put a stop to “the indiscriminate massacres of 1918-19, they made certain to leave intact the laws and institutions which had made them possible."  Indeed, already by 1920, "Soviet Russia had become a police state in the sense that the security police, virtually a state within the state, spread its tentacles to all Soviet institutions."  In addition to a growing staff of investigators, interrogation officers, guards, and other prison personnel, the secret police relied on the Armies of the Internal Security of the Republic, which by the middle of 1920 consisted of nearly a quarter of a million men.  Aside from its other duties, this internal army guarded concentration and forced labor camps, of which by the end of that year there were 84 with approximately 50,000 prisoners.  Only three years later, the number of camps increased to 315 with 70,000 inmates.  When Stalin—former chief of the Bolshevik combatants in the Caucasus—emerged as undisputed master of Soviet Russia in the late 1920s, “all the instruments which he required to resume the terror on an incomparably vaster scale lay at hand."91

Perhaps even more significantly, masses of people were accustomed to violence:  “We are no longer frightened by the mysterious and the once unfathomable Death, for it has become our second life.  We are not moved by the pungent smell of human blood, for its vapors saturate the air that we breathe.  We are already not shuddered by the endless rows marching to the execution, for we have seen the last tremors of children shot in the streets; we saw mountains of mutilated and frozen victims of terrorist madness. . .  We are accustomed. . .  This is why, facing the triumphant Death, the country is silent. . . Its poisoned soul is incarcerated by Death.”92 Then, as the state itself became the instrument of Stalin’s Great Terror, nothing stopped it from inflicting death for death’s sake.

* * *

Many Western intellectuals, including such notables as George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Dreiser, Bertolt Brecht, and Louis Aragon, were mesmerized by Communist Russia in its darkest hour of Stalin’s terror--to the point of not noticing millions of his victims--imprisoned, purposely starved, exploited, and remolded into automatons to satisfy the needs of triumphant tyranny.  These great skeptics, who took no idea for granted, extolled the Soviet paradise and fell short of discerning the Big Lie for lack of powers other than mental, despite Lenin allegedly dubbing them “useful idiots of the West.”  Conversely, they used their intellect with utmost dexterity--as a shield—not to allow into consciousness and not to “admit to themselves or anyone else that the millennial experiment in which they had invested so much (intellectual) energy could have failed.”93

After his visit to Moscow in 1937—the date still a Russian euphemism for oppression and terror—Lion Feuchtwanger said that in the East he had “seen the magnificent” and witnessed true justice.94 What is it that united him with other “political pilgrims,” writers and journalists, followers in the footsteps of a Stalin apologist, The New York Times’ Walter Duranty, who had nothing but praise for state terrorism in Cuba, Albania, North Korea, Vietnam, and China?  Chomsky, while calling for the “denazification” of the United States, insisted that the people in Cambodia probably did not regard “the austere standard of hard manual labor” as “an onerous imposition” of the Khmer Rouge regime, which in 1975-1978 claimed 1,650,000 lives—one of five citizens. We should consider whether to treat this figure as an “extensive fabrication of evidence”95 or as evidence for intellectual hypocrisy to defend a “lofty cause.”

Fascination with oppressive regimes in far-away lands serves as “the foil” for the intellectuals’ frustration with “the existential meaninglessness” of their world, concomitant self-hating guilt and variants of the Stockholm syndrome.  Disappointed with the liberal path to salvation, the political pilgrims succumb to their self-destructive longing to identify with Sartre’s aggressive visionary “supermen,” who allegedly “exercise a veritable dictatorship over their own needs” and “roll back the limits of the possible.”96In their travelogues of Soviet Russia, they did “record a kind of pilgrimage to the Mecca of revolution.”97 Today they are awestruck with the power of radical Islam that collides with every value sacred to humanism, yet holds another promise of deliverance.  The prophecy is encapsulated in Foucault’s endorsement of Iranian fundamentalism, in which he saw potential for “political spirituality.”  Muslims comprise “a core constituency of the Left” in many European countries.98 Overwhelmingly secular, its adherents are attracted to any higher cause of redemption and the holy “unity of mankind, irrelevant under which banner—red or green.”99

* * *

The fatal attraction of Communism—“the opium of the intellectuals”100--was that it was messianic.  Its atheism notwithstanding, it contained an enormous potential of an avowedly scientific prediction championed as faith and venerated.101 Concealed beneath a veneer of orthodox Marxism, discernable was the revolutionaries’ deeper goal that lay in the realm of the existential:  to find the ultimate answer to a pivotal quandary of being—its transience and finality, to overcome the inevitability of demise.  Nathan Leites considers the extremist mindset in the context of a distinctively “Russian horror of death against which Bolshevism reacts.”102 Broader than a specifically national rejoinder to the dread of extinction, we are dealing with the communist secular metaphysics and its response to mortality.  It was to be overpowered via a brilliant paradox, entailing the elimination of the individual—the source of the predicament.

“Alone—free—the human being is always defeated.  It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures.”  But, Orwell outlines the totalitarian alternative in 1984, if the man “can make complete, utter submission . . . if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party,” then “the death of the individual is not death.”  The notion is only tenuously related to mysticism, insinuated and popularized in the famous line from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar:  “To conquer death, you only have to die.”  Yet, the momentous nihilist invention repudiated the age-old spiritual path of personal deliverance to uphold collective eternity--at the dire price for the individual.  The issue of mortality would simply be extraneous as one’s identity ceased to exist, his corporeal “I” fused with “a common destiny,” and dissolved in the eternal “group mind.”103

The Bolshevik conspiracy in power sought to expand infinitely the concept of “a group,” to encompass millions of “others,” transforming each into a selfless cell in a gigantic and everlasting state organism.  “I am happy to be a particle of this power,” acknowledged Maiakovskii.  He obsessed about dying all his life, displaced anxiety by “numberless murders in his poetry,” espoused the communist non-being and, “old by the age of thirty,” surrendered to death by suicide.104

For Bolshevik leader Bogdanov, “collectivism was a religion, and even promised a triumph over death,” necessarily surrogate, with the individual living “on through the memory of the collective.”  He was fascinated with blood and founded the Moscow Institute of Blood Transfusion, whose purposes were to exceed just medical: “For Bogdanov, blood is the very substance which should be exchanged between comrades and thus comradeship will flow directly into the bodies of the proletarians.” “Almost mystical” was Bogdanov’s reverence for the Communist commune, in which “workers will lose their sense of an individual ‘I’ in favor of an all-encompassing ‘we’ that will some day triumph over nature and achieve collective immortality.”105 His party colleague Martin Liadov envisaged that in the future communist society each person “will feel pain . . . if his personal interests in any way contradicted the interests of the collective.”106

Among Bolsheviks fixated on immortality was Krasin, the 1905-era expert in terror.  He predicted in 1920 that the moment “will come when science will become all-powerful, that it will be able to recreate a deceased organism" and even “to resurrect great historical figures."  Lenin death in January 1924 presented “an obvious choice;” in February, Krasin insisted that the significance of Lenin's grave would surpass that of Mecca and Jerusalem and urged the construction of a mausoleum.107 There the incarnation of Bolshevism would be preserved—we are to assume, until his next earthly life.  Lenin left us with little evidence about his attitude towards death, but in an incidental and ostensibly half-conscious statement he expressed a conviction that “those who really merit the name of a political personality do not die in politics when they die physically.”108

Hazani reflects on the universal “semi-religious quality” of the radicals’ desire to regulate the natural laws.  Here, again, the Bolsheviks carried on the tradition demarcated by the French Revolution.  Politics aside, its visionaries sought to control infinity by defining “September 22, 1792—the beginning of the first year—as the zero point of time.”  Romme’s “decreter l’eternite” aspired “to arrest the temporal flux—i.e. to conquer death.”109 To do so, the person must disappear as a conscious being:  “The more perfect individual of the future highly-cultural society will feel like one of the necessary elements” of nature, and himself “will be automatic, like nature.”110

Victorious Bolshevism, a “self-consciously secular movement” in power, replicates the larger phenomenon of “active apocalyptic millennialism.”111 Illustrative indeed is Trotsky’s belief in the impending victory over physical decay in the soon-to-be-built social paradise.  He concluded his Literature and Revolution (1924) with “a rhapsodic vision of the new man” born in communist revolt:  “Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical.  The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic.  The average human type will rise to the heights on an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.  And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”112

The Communists were proposing no less than “a salvationist religion,”113 featuring a guarantee of eternal life on earth—the issue of more than cursory preoccupation also for many Nazis, particularly in the SS.  Aside from their involvement with occult practices, fascination with black magic, uncanny forms of paganism, and pseudo-scientific experiments with reviving the deceased, the Nazi version of repudiated death presupposed a form of mystic fusion with the racially pure “body of Germany;” similarly, the Bolsheviks conceptualized self-negation within the “victorious proletarian class” as secular salvation.

The conquest of death is inseparable from the totalistic mindset, with its distinction between the faithful, the potentially immortal true believers, and the abominable, the embodiment of a designated evil.114 Thus, “Islam . . . is the only Divine way of life which brings out the noblest human characteristics, developing and using them for the construction of human society. . . . Those who deviate from this system and want some other . . . are truly enemies of mankind!”115 Against them any means are justified, as they were against enemies of the Bolsheviks, whose totalitarianism represented “the modern secular form of the coercive purity.”  The existential essence of their project barred a compromise, rendering immaterial any negotiations.  Its adherents, the “disappointed secular zealots surpassed even the most terrible forms of religious millennialism in the violence and destruction they brought to those they sought to ‘save’” by way of terror.  In the same way, across the globe “Promethean messiahs would carve the millennial kingdom onto the body social.”116


[73]  Mayer, The Furies, 235.

[74]  For example, Dzerzhinskii, a Pole, in his youth wanted to "exterminate all Muscovites" (Cited in Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 802).

[75]  “Sergey Nechayev 1869 : The Revolutionary Catechism,” http://www.marxists.org/subject/anarchism/nechayev/catechism.htm

[76]  For numerous examples see T. I. Vulikh, "Osnovnoe iadro kavkazskoi boevoi organizatsii," 7, Nic. 207-11; Pozner, ed., Boevaia gruppa pri TsK RSDRP (b), 170n; Aleksandr Sokolov-Novoselov, Vooruzhennoe podpol'e (Ufa, 1958), 39n; Kh. I. Muratov and A. G. Lipkina, Timofei Stepanovich Krivov (Ufa, 1968), 111; Soldaty leninskoi gvardii (Gor'kii, 1974), 201, 204; Soldaty leninskoi gvardii (kniga vtoraia) (Gor'kii, 1977), 310, 313, 316-17; V. Iakubov, "Aleksandr Dmitrievich Kuznetsov," Katorga i ssylka 3 (112) (Moscow, 1934):  134, 138; G. Shidlovskii, "O. G. Ellek (Pamiati starogo bol'shevika)," Katorga i ssylka 9 (106) (Moscow, 1933):  143-44.

[77]  Leggett, The Cheka, 269.

[78]  T. S. Krivov, V leninskom stroiu (Cheboksary, 1969), 110-12, 128; S. M. Pozner, "Rabota boevykh bol'shevistskikh organizatsii 1905-1907 gg.," PR 7 (42):  85; Ivan Myzgin, So vzvedennym kurkom (Moscow, 1964), 21; G. Z. Ioffe, Krakh rossiiskoi monarkhicheskoi kontrrevoliutsii (Moscow, 1977), 149-151; Nikolai Ross, ed., Gibel' tsarskoi sem'i.  Materialy sledstviia ob ubiistve tsarskoi sem'i (avgust 1918-fevral'; 1920) (Frankfurt, 1987), 586; Richard Haliburton, Seven League Boots (Indianapolis, Indiana, 1935), 120, 140; "Kommentarii V. I. Nikolaevskogo k knige L Shapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union" (1958 manuscript), p. 4, Nic. 519-30B; letter from B. I. Nicolaevsky to T. I. Vulikh dated 25 May 1956, Nic. 207-16.

[79]  For examples of former terrorists of various ideological trends using their past experience for the benefit of Soviet organs of repression, see:  William J. Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914 (London, 1975), 291; Henry J. Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia from Its Origins to 1905 (Stanford, 1972), 348; R. M. Aslamova-Gol'tsman, "Svetloi pamiati I. Ia. Bartkovskogo," Katorga i ssylka 48 (Moscow, 1928), 158-59; Zavarzin, Rabota tainoi politsii, 157; "Vospominaniia byvsh. okhrannika," Bessarabskoe slovo (1930), Nic. 203-25.

[80]  Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (Harper & Row, Publishers:  New York, 1951), 83.

[81]  Vladimir Brovkin, Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War (Princeton University Press, 1994), 408-409.

[82]  Cited in Mel'gunov, "Krasnyi terror" v Rossii, 32.

[83]  Cited in Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 793.

[84]  Leites, A Study of Bolshevism, 384.

[85]  Osorgin, Vremena, 575, 578.

[86]  Mel'gunov, "Krasnyi terror" v Rossii, 188.

[87]  Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 822.

[88]  Cited in Budnitskii, “’Krov’ po sovesti’,” 209n.

[89]  Cited in Leggett, The Cheka, 114.

[90]  Iu. M. Steklov cited in Budnitskii, “’Krov’ po sovesti’,” 207.

[91]  Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 829, 832, 836, 790.

[92]  Unnamed author of memoirs “The Death Boat,” cited in Mel'gunov, "Krasnyi terror" v Rossii, 190.

[93] Richard Landes, “Totalitarian Millennialism: The Bolshevik Apocalypse,” Heaven on Earth:  the Varieties of the Millennial Experience (upcoming in Oxford University Press).

[94]  Introduction in Lion Feuchtwanger, Moscow 1937.  My Visit Described for My Friends (Viking Press: New York, 1937).

[95]  Chomsky cited in Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (Transaction Publishers:  New Brunswick, NJ, 1998), XXXVIII.

[96]  Sartre cited in Landes, “Totalitarian Millennialism: The Bolshevik Apocalypse,” Heaven on Earth; Dmitrii Radyshevskii, “Liberaly za dzhikhad,”  http://www.jerusalem-korczak-home.com/np/rad/09/np167.html

[97]  Michail Ryklin, “On the Trail of Red Pilgrims,” interview to Caspar Melville, New Humanist, http://newhumanist.org.uk/1995

[98] Michael J. Thompson’s review of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson (University of Chicago Press:  Chicago, 2005), Democratiya 1 (Summer, 2005), http://www.dissentmagazine.org/democratiya/article_pdfs/d1Thompson.pdf

[99]  Radyshevskii, “Liberaly za dzhikhad,” http://www.jerusalem-korczak-home.com/np/rad/09/np167.html Individually, each also fears “exile from the community of true believers that had given his life so much purpose,” the fate of writer André Gide, a renegade Soviet sympathizer, who dared make public his disillusionment with Communism in Retour de L'U.R.S.S. in 1936  (Landes, “Totalitarian Millennialism: The Bolshevik Apocalypse,” Heaven on Earth).

[100]  Title of the French philosopher Raymond Aron’s 1955 masterpiece, L’Opium des intellectuels—an inversion of Marx's denigration of religion as “the opium of the people.”  (Cited in Roger Kimball, Raymond Aron and the Power of Ideas,” New Criterion (May 2001), http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3345/is_9_19/ai_n28839622/

[101]  Detailed discussion in Mikhail Ryklin, Kommunizm kak religiia.  Intellektualy i Oktiabr’skaia revoliutsiia (“Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie:” Moscow, 2009).

[102]  Leites, A Study of Bolshevism, 351.

[103]  Reich, ed.,Origins of Terrorism, 31, 33.

[104]  Iurii Karabchievskii, Voskresenie Maiakovskogo ("Strana i mir:" Munich, 1985), 183-184.

[105]  Cited in Eliot Borenstein, Man without Women:  Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929 (Duke University Press: 2001), 29-30.

[106]  Cited in Kirk Rodby, The Dark Heart of Utopia:  Sexuality, Ideology, and the Totalitarian Movement (iUniverse, Inc.:  New York-Bloomington, IN, 2009), 203.

[107]  Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, New Myth, New World:  From Nietzsche to Stalinism (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), 188.

[108]  Cited in Leites, A Study of Bolshevism, 137.

[109]  “Ce Romme est un métaphysicien obscur,” remarked perceptively a contemporary opponent of this effort to rule over time by “un alchemiste politique” (Edmond Biré, Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris pendant la Terreur, vol. 4 (Perrin: Paris, 1794), 51, http://books.google.co.il/books?id=jsLSAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA51&dq=decreter+l%E2%80%99eternite%E2%80%9D%2BRomme&hl=en#v=onepage&q=&f=false

[110]  E. Poletaev, N. Punin, Protiv tsivilizatsii (Petrograd, 1923), 22.

[111]  Landes, “Totalitarian Millennialism: The Bolshevik Apocalypse,” Heaven on Earth.

[112]  Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Russell & Russell: New York, 1957),  256

[113]  Donald D. MacRae, “Bolshevik Ideology: The Intellectual and Emotional Factors in Communist Affiliation,” Cambridge Journal 5 (1951), 167.

[114]  Moshe Hazani, “Apocaliptism, Symbolic Breakdown and Paranoia:  An Application of Lifton’s Model to the Death-Rebirth Fantasy,” in Apocalyptic Time, ed. Albert I. Baumgarten (Brill, 2000),29.

[115]  Syed Qutb, “The Characteristics of the Islamic Society and the Correct method for its Formation,” Milestones, http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/qutb.htm

[116]  Landes, “Totalitarian Millennialism: The Bolshevik Apocalypse,” Heaven on Earth.