Lies, bad ideas can prove seductive

November 11, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- This past weekend brought the 80th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, which did not happen.

It did not happen because it was not a revolution. A coup d'etat took place in Petrograd -- now Saint Petersburg, ephemerally Leningrad -- at the end of October 1917. Russia still followed the Julian calendar; by our calendar the decisive events took place Nov. 6-9.

Fateful day

The leaders of the small Bolshevik party broke with the provisional government on Nov. 6. The next day their Red Guards and some soldiers and sailors took control of the city. The Bolshevik-dominated revolutionary military committee assumed power in the name of the soldiers and workers. A revolutionary government was formed on Nov. 8 and 9.

Six weeks later, on Dec. 20, the Cheka was created -- ''the extraordinary commission for the struggle against counter-revolution,'' a secret police which thereafter defended Soviet power by murdering its opponents, or sending them to Siberian prison camps.

A 91-year-old literary scholar who witnessed the events of October 1917, Dimitri Likhachev, was recently asked by the Rome daily, La Repubblica, what memories he had of them. He LTC said, ''None, because nothing particular happened worth remembering. . . . Those involved were so few that nobody noticed. On the other hand, I remember very well the February revolution.'' That was when the Duma, the parliament, refused to be dissolved by Nicholas II, and a provisional government of moderates was formed. The czar then abdicated.

''February 1917 was really something grandiose. There, you could really talk of revolution. . . . Trucks filled with armed soldiers were everywhere . . . bands of solders came and went in the cafes demanding champagne . . . military bands were playing everywhere,'' Mr. Likhachev said.

He later was sent to the Gulag, and survived the Stalinist years, he said, because he had the luck to study ancient Russian literature, ''an area in which it was hard to upset the authorities. . . . Even then, the party reproached me because there were too few citations of Stalin in my books on ancient literature.''

October coup

The only fighting during the October coup took place when the military academy's cadets resisted the Bolsheviks. Yet, few who have seen Sergei Eisenstein's great propaganda films will forget what he made of the Winter Palace seizure, presented as an epochal event in the history of mankind. However, George Kennan, writing about America's involvement in revolutionary Russia, remarked in 1956 that the seizure of the Winter Palace occurred ''because there was much disunity and vacillation among its defenders, and someone had inadvertently left the back door open.''

The mobilization of revolutionary masses, the great uprising by workers and solders, all inspired by the radiant leadership of Lenin, was largely invention. Many of those who did take part in these events, including Leon Trotsky, were subsequently edited out of the films, photos, memoirs and official histories, and ''edited'' out of existence itself by a Cheka pistol discharged into the back of their necks. (Trotsky, in exile in Mexico, was murdered with an ice-axe by a Soviet agent.)

The October Revolution was one of the astounding events in history exactly because it never happened, yet millions believed that it did, and in what it claimed to be, and even more remarkably, because its own motivation was another lie.

That was a lie about history which was believed not only by the Bolsheviks, but during the half-century to follow, by a significant part of the world's intellectual and political classes.

The Chinese and Vietnamese believed in Lenin's interpretation of Marx, and in Stalin's reinterpretation of Marxism-Leninism. They mobilized great revolutions in Asia.

Western elites proved amazingly willing to believe and act upon Leninist and Stalinist programs, and also to believe, sometimes in the teeth of eyewitness evidence, that the lies promulgated by Soviet propaganda about Soviet society, intentions, methods, and about the USSR's enemies, were all true.

This is news to no one today, but I think that we still do not take adequate account of the power of ideas, and the continuing openness of people, even intelligent and informed people, to manipulative lies.

In the former Soviet Union, and in postwar Central and Eastern Europe, as in China, obedience to the prevailing lies was, or is, enforced by the Cheka's successors or counterparts. But nobody forced West European or American intellectuals and scholars, not to speak of ordinary voters in many countries, to accept a form of historical utopianism which contradicted the common experience, and common sense.

Calling of the police

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