Americans who are not aware that the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution is now being marked are not alone. It seems that the Russians themselves haven’t heard much about it either.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, the post-communist strongman, is no Bolshevik; his interest is in an expanding empire, and he has no interest in the idea of his countrymen celebrating the violent overthrow of their rulers.
“We know well the consequences that these great upheavals can bring,” President Putin said in his state of the federation speech in December. “Unfortunately, our country went through many such upheavals and their consequences in the twentieth century.”
In an earlier speech, after disparaging Lenin, he said, “We didn’t need the world revolution.”
Accordingly, Pres. Putin decided not to declare a national holiday to mark the beginning of the uprising on March 12, 1917, or the communist seizure of control on November 7 of that year. Instead, he relegated official commemoration of the event to an academic panel. For most Russians, that will be the end of the story.
Pres. Putin’s motives are dubious — he prefers the status quo, meaning with him in charge, to calls for social justice — but his policy on the past is correct. The Russian Revolution is no cause for a holiday, any more than the eruption of Vesuvius or the Black Death.
Krushchev told the West, “We will bury you,” meaning that the youthful, vigorous world communist movement will put to eternal rest the old, decaying capitalist regimes. This, of course, did not happen. Instead, it is the legacy of Krushchev and his failed ideology that is being buried in obscure academic panels.
The benign view of Lenin and the rest of that gang as well-meaning folks who made regrettable errors — a notion now being expressed in some left-wing circles — is a delusion of the first order.
In fact, the mindset of the Stalinist gulag was already embedded in the demonizing rhetoric and ruthless tactics of Lenin. This was the man who in January 1918 called for the state to “purge the land of all harmful insects.” Those marked for “liquidation” included such harmful elements as homeowners, small businessmen, teachers and Tolstoyan pacifists.
It was this well-intentioned fellow who created the Cheka, the notorious secret police, a state within a state that carried out a program of systematic terror to keep any politically incorrect types in line — or in graves. Lenin said they should “shoot on the spot one out of every 10 found guilty of idling.” By the end of 1920, the Cheka had executed an estimated 50,000 people.
As we also know, the revolution was a calamity for the Jews of Russia. Anyone studying in yeshivah was numbered among the “idling,” and at risk of being shot or sent to Siberia for “rehabilitation.” “There can be nothing more abominable than religion,” said Lenin.
But it would be a serious mistake to think, as some apparently still do, that the abysmal failure of communism was due to the foibles of Lenin and Stalin or the technical errors they committed in applying a basically good idea.
As Stephen Spender, a writer who briefly joined the Communist Party, but then recoiled after observing its doctrine at close range, wrote:
“Human history is made by people acting on principles, not on principles regardless of the quality of the people. If the principles dehumanize men, then the society which these men make is dehumanized.”
The principle of communism which purports to offer a “scientific” solution to the ills of poverty and oppression, has always argued that the end justifies the means. Early on it became evident that this meant that those who disagree with state policy are classified as non-persons and legitimate, indeed necessary, targets for extermination.
Americans, especially the young, are ignorant of the history of communism, and do not view it with the apprehension of previous generations. A 2016 poll by YouGov showed that while millennials still saw communism “very unfavorably,” they did so at a rate (37 percent) that was significantly lower than Americans as a whole (57 percent).
The success of youth candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in making a serious run for the Democratic party presidential nomination in 2016 reflects this trend. That an avowed socialist could win 1832 delegates to the nominating convention, second to Clinton’s 2219, is shocking. Such an outcome was impossible in former years.
His popularity has only increased since then. Incredibly, a March 2017 Fox News poll gave Sanders a 61 percent approval rating, the highest among all politicians, versus 43 percent for President Donald Trump, 47 percent for Mike Pence and 37 percent for Paul Ryan.
A hundred years have passed since the Russian Revolution; there is no reason to celebrate it. But there is reason to study it, especially these days, to know the dangers it still could hold for this country.