Exactly one hundred years ago—in the early hours of November 7, 1917—the Bolsheviks staged a successful coup d’etat in Petrograd. “The main operations began at 2am,” Leon Trotsky remembered five years later. “Bolshevik groups occupied the rail stations, the lighting station, military and food warehouses, the water systems, the Palace bridge, the telephone exchange, state bank, major printing houses, telegraph and post office.” The taking of the Winter Palace, defended by a small detachment of young cadets, was almost irrelevant to the proceedings. By the end of that year, Vladimir Ilich Lenin and his fellow extremists were able to exploit Russia’s collapsing political and social structure and to impose control over much the country.
A massive bloodbath duly followed. One remarkable characteristic of the Bolshevik terror during the Civil War (1918-22) and in the ensuing decades was its morbid anti-Christian zeal. The effect on Europe and the world has been profound. It instilled in generations of leftist Western intellectuals the messianic sense that their lives had meaning, that dialectical materialism had the capacity to transform and redeem a fallen world. At the other end of the spectrum, it prompted the rise of fascism and national socialism. As early as 1933, astute authors commented on “striking similarities between three movements.”
From the beginning, key Bolsheviks normalized brutality on an unimaginable scale. Martin Latsis, a Latvian-born Cheka commander, advised his men not to look for incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused was guilty of anti-Soviet sedition: “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.” By September 1918 Grigory Zinoviev felt confident to announce that the Reds would carry along with them 90 million out of Soviet Russia’s population of a hundred million: “As for the rest, they must be annihilated!” According to Lenin, “a revolution without firing squads is meaningless.”
Already in its first year of power Bolshevism created a distinct forma mentis reflected in the apparatus and infrastructure of repression. By the time of the fall of the Wall, seven decades later, Lenin’s disciples of different color and hue had murdered or starved to death at least 100 million human beings all over Europe and the Third World. The persecution and martyrdom of Christians under 20th century red totalitarianism is by far the greatest crime in all of recorded history. It is several times greater than the Holocaust in terms of lives destroyed. It killed more Christians in a few decades than all other causes put together in all ages, with Islam a distant second. And yet it still remains a little known, often minimized, or glossed-over crime.
According to the reliable OUP World Christian Encyclopedia (2001), there have been many more Christian martyrs in the 20th century—over 45 million–than in all of the preceding 19 centuries of Christianity. Of that number, some 32 million were killed by “atheists” and over 9 million by Muslims. “Atheists” indicates, overwhelmingly, Bolsheviks and their disciples, cohorts and satellites. The Spanish Republic was an especially efficient Christian-killing machine. In terms of the size of the targeted population and the timespan of less than three years (July 1936-March 1939), the Compañeros did almost as well as the Tovarishchi.
Among the Bolsheviks’ victims many were slaughtered not because they were Christians-as-such, but because they were “objectively” real or potential enemies of the state, as per Latsis: officers and aristocrats, prosperous farmers (“kulaks”), artists, academics, or middle-class professionals. But there is no doubt that Christians were targeted with particular ferocity for the very reason of their faith. The Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian confessions—notably Eastern Rite Catholics—were subjected to systematic destruction on a titanic scale. In 20 years (1918-38) the number of churches that remained open in Russia was reduced from 54,000 to under 500, to less than one percent of the pre-Bolshevik total. In all some 600 bishops, 40,000 priests, 120,000 monks and nuns, and millions of laypeople were martyred in Russia in the half-century after 1918. As Pope John Paul II said at the Commemoration of 20th Century Witnesses of the Faith at the Coliseum in May 2000, the blood of Christ’s martyred witnesses is “the precious heritage . . . a patrimony shared by all the Churches and ecclesial communities.”
Bolshevik terror was for the most part depersonalized and bureaucratic, cold and “objective”—accurately reflected in Zinoviev’s or Lenin’s calm statement of intent to murder millions of men. It was also distinctly modern in its stress on the allegedly “scientific” ideology of dialectical materialism. It paved the way for the much better known Nazi crimes a generation later, which were based on equally “scientific” racial theories. But whereas no respectable commentator in today’s Western world is willing to ascribe any redeeming features to the Third Reich and Hitler, no such stricture applies to the Bolsheviks and Lenin. Postmodern bien pensants like Slavoj Zizek thus are able to write, with a straight face and impunity, that Lenin’s focus on taking power reflected “his obsession (in a good sense of the term) with opening up a ‘liberated territory,’ space controlled by emancipatory forces outside the global capitalist system”:
In view of apocalyptic prospects of our near future, from ecological catastrophes to mass migrations, one should nonetheless follow Beckett’s line: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The true utopia is the idea that, if we go on within the existing global capitalist system, we can save ourselves. So we need more than ever Lenin’s spirit of radicalism combined with ruthless pragmatism.
It would be pleasing to imagine that “Lenin’s spirit of radicalism combined with ruthless pragmatism” can be applied, with laser-like precision and finality, to Zizek and his ilk, including a Guardian columnist who only last week postdated “the degeneration of the revolution to the early 20s.” (By that time some two million Russians of the wrong class or birth had been murdered.) The Russian revolution, according to Paul Mason, “was an intervention by the masses into history, like the French before it, and it is possible to celebrate that if you also acknowledge and celebrate the fight workers put up against the fairly rapid shutdown of their freedoms that happened in the years afterwards.”
Also deserving of a touch of “ruthless pragmatism” are the organizers of an exhibition in Oxford that presents the British public with “Lenin the cat-lover.” The show “aims to explore the lives of ordinary people in the years after the uprising”: “They range from Georgian mothers being taught to write for the first time, to a photograph of smiling babies in tin saltwater baths at Nursery No 5 of the 8th Tobacco factory in Moscow—a reflection of the revolutionary zeal to properly look after and educate Russian children.” As the late Sir John Junor would say, “pass the sick bag, Alice!”