Lessons we’ve learned in the century since Russia’s communist coup

The 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, which is marked on Nov. 7, is being commemorated quietly in Moscow. Today, the Russians are even more split about the legacy of this violent historic upheaval than Americans are about the Civil War. Lenin’s embalmed corpse is still on display in the Red Square, and the tyrant Joseph Stalin’s ashes are still entombed in the Kremlin wall. Their statues and busts still decorate streets and squares all over Russia.

The coup that Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky led in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) 100 years ago against Alexander Kerensky’s left-leaning government brought misery and resulted in the murder and starvation of millions.

The revolution was born out of the lethal mix of despair and destruction brought about by World War I and the witches’ brew of Leninist totalitarian ideology rooted in Marxism. Lenin, the unbending professional revolutionary, was shipped back to Russia across Europe in a sealed railcar courtesy of the German Imperial General Staff like a weapon.

But the communist triumph also fed on the incompetence of the czarist regime, and the lack of working political institutions in the Romanov Empire. Only 60 years beforehand, Czar Alexander II had finally abolished serfdom, and over 80 percent of the Russian population still lived in rural areas.

Lenin’s false promise of “Factories to workers, land to peasants, peace to the nations” boosted popular support, but in the only national democratic elections held after the Bolsheviks seized power, his party won less than 25 percent of the vote. The rest was sheer ruthlessness.

What came after the Leninist revolution was much worse than even the Romanov’s “prison of the nations.”

Lenin created the first modern totalitarian state, with the Communist party and its central government controlling everything, including food and shelter. To find out more, read George Orwell’s “1984.”

Lenin launched a campaign of terror and unleashed a civil war in Russia that killed five million people, completely destroyed the old elites, and forced two to three million entrepreneurs, clergy, nobility, scientists, and intellectuals to flee.

Lenin’s close collaborator and pupil, Joseph Stalin, launched the collectivization of agriculture and began the great purges that resulted in the starvation and death of more than 20 million people. Lenin and Stalin created the GULAG system of labor camps, which killed millions through hard labor, starvation, and executions. It was then replicated by communist regimes throughout the world.

My own grandfather David, a newspaper editor, was tortured and killed by the NKVD secret police, leaving behind a severely traumatized wife, and a nine year-old, my father. Miraculously, they escaped the GULAG camps. My grandfather’s interrogation file, which I obtained years later, bears brown blood stains and includes five draft “confessions” obviously extracted under torture, each in weaker handwriting.

The communist intellectuals in the West deliberately ignored the man-made starvation that collectivization caused in Russia and Ukraine, as well as the ethnic and social cleansing unleashed by the Bolsheviks on an unprecedented scale. The Crimean Tatars and the Chechens were brutally forced from their lands in 1944.

The Russian revolution and the rise of communism were also one of factors that triggered the rise and acceptance of Adolph Hitler’s Nazism, another totalitarian ideology of the past century, which left 55 million dead in World War II, including six million Jews (1.5 million of them children).

After Hitler broke his pact with Stalin in 1941, the West entered a wartime alliance with Stalin against the Nazis. Afterwards, the Cold War resulted in a costly and dangerous arms race, with the U.S. and the West on one side and the USSR on the other. Moscow came to dominate Eastern Europe and parts of Asia; but from Russia to Mao’s China, to Cuba to North Korea and to Venezuela, the communist economic and societal model has utterly failed.

Today, many in Russian glorify Stalin and the Soviet imperial past. Power, and the fear it engenders — not freedom, humanity, democratic institutions, and the rule of law — is what the Russian ruling elites value and respect.

The main lesson of the Russian revolution for us is to take hate seriously — spewing radical ideologies that propagate social hatred, squelching freedom of speech and ignoring the value of human life are very dangerous things. These ideologies gain traction especially when they exploit and amplify real grievances, but in the end, everybody loses.

We should never surrender to the false prophets of ethnic, religious, racial, and social hatred, be they on the extreme left, or the extreme right. We should reject purveyors of hare-brained social constructs that pit Americans against Americans, women against men, or Muslims against the rest of the world.

These extremist ideologies are deadly — at home and abroad. We should protect our freedoms not just with the force of arms, but with words and ideas, while addressing real grievances, and improving our society to prevent cataclysmic events, such as those launched 100 years ago in Russia by a bunch of bloodthirsty professional revolutionaries wrapped in slogans of “social progress.”

Originally posted on The Hill: http://thehill.com/opinion/international/359425-lessons-weve-learned-in-the-century-since-russias-communist-coup