Lenin tilled soil for future purges

April 10, 1994|By Antero Pietila

During Stalin's terror and afterward, the following belief gained currency in the Soviet Union: If only Lenin had lived, all the internecine bloodletting and suffering would have been avoided.

In his sweeping and magnificent 1990 study, "The Russian Revolution," Harvard historian Richard Pipes demonstrated how Lenin was the father of the future Stalinist madness. In his new "Russia under the Bolshevik Regime," Dr. Pipes sets the stage for the tragedy to come -- Stalin's purges, first of his revolutionary comrades and rivals and then a wholesale slaughter of millions of people.

To anyone who wants to understand fully today's Russia, the two Pipes volumes -- plus his earlier "Russia Under the Old Regime" -- are must reading.

Even though some archival material is still unavailable, it is hard to think that further revelations will substantially add to our understanding of the birth and early development of the Soviet Union.

The seeds of terror were planted almost instantly: As the young Bolshevik regime instituted the draft and started pressing soldiers of the former Imperial Army into service in the civil war, Trotsky issued a decree in September 1918 that was to guide Soviet jurisprudence for decades. In a return to the medieval Russian practice of collective responsibility, he made "fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives and children" personally liable for the loyalty of those joining the Red Army.

A number of other practices of "socialist legality" were introduced in the military those early days that would later be applied to all areas of society and would continue until Stalin's death in 1953 or beyond. Among them: If an officer merely acted in a suspicious manner, he was to be treated as guilty and shot.

Similarly, in some units, the commanders and political comissars were empowered to execute, without trial or any other formality, "troublemakers" and "self-seekers." As suspicions rose, so did squealing. Anything -- from relative wealth or status to skills or success -- could be used by the envious to get rid of enemies.

Class war was one of the basic tenets of Bolshevism. Class was defined not only by wealth but also by upbringing and education. "It was not the least of Russia's tragedies that for the population at large, the acquisition of an education above basic literacy made one an outsider and, as such, a potential enemy," Dr. Pipes writes.

In later years, as the terror abated, this early bestiality was forgotten or discounted by many in the West. So was the fact that until a series of unsuccessful coups in Hungary and Germany, the communists truly believed they could take over the whole world. As such a sweeping revolution was just a matter of time, any actions that would advance the end goal were permissible.

Typical was an observation by Grigory Zinoviev, a close associate of Lenin's, in 1919:

"The movement advances with such dizzying speed that one can confidently say: in a year we shall already forget that Europe had to fight a war for communism, because in a year all Europe shall be communist. And the struggle for communism shall be transferred to America, and perhaps also to Asia and other parts of the world."

This book covers Russia's post-revolutionary period from the civil war to the death of Lenin in 1924. So much happened during those formative years of communism that Dr. Pipes has organized his chapters topically: "The Civil War," "Communism for Export," "New Economic Policy," "Culture as Propaganda," "The Assault on Religion" and so on.

This is quite a bit of tough terrain. For the most part, Dr. Pipes succeeds admirably. There are also problems: The chapter devoted to the civil war in particular is marred with bad errors of fact and dates.

There are rewards in this chapter, however, including bone-chilling accounts of pogroms conducted by the White side as well as by the Red.

The pillage was so violent that Dr. Pipes writes:

"In every respect except for the absence of a central organization to direct the slaughter, the pogroms of 1919 were a prelude to and rehearsal for the Holocaust. The spontaneous lootings and killings left a legacy that two decades later was to lead to the systematic mass murder of Jews at the hands of the Nazis: the deadly identification of communism with Jewry."

Dr. Pipes devotes considerable attention to the attraction of communism to Jews and how that enflamed the anti-Semitism that has been such a potent factor in Russian history. "For most Russians the appearance of Jews coincided with the miseries of communism and so was identified with them," he observes.

Perhaps for that reason, "Bolsheviks of Jewish origin not only did not think of themselves as Jews but resented being regarded as such" and "invariably chose Russian names, never Jewish ones" when engaged in revolutionary underground work.

Referring to the Russianized adopted name of Trotsky -- who was born with the last name of Bronstein -- the chief rabbi of Moscow once noted that "it was the Trotskys who made the revolutions and the Bronsteins who paid the bills," according to Dr. Pipes.

Although all this happened about seven decades ago, understanding the formative years of Soviet communism is essential for interpreting what is happening today in Russia. There are such direct links between the past and the contemporary as people's behavior and superstitions.

Those include the legendary Russian capacity to exhibit fatalism. Referring to the civil war years, Dr. Pipes quotes a foreign observer as noting of a typical Russian conduct in face of disaster, "When in distress, the women would cry and the men take to drink."

Mr. Pietila is an editorial writer for The Sun and its former correspondent in Moscow.

Title: "Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime"

Author: Richard Pipes

Publisher: Knopf

-! Length, price: 588 pages, $35

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