The Bolshevik plague that began in Russia was the greatest catastrophe in human history.
Armed Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace in Petrograd—now St. Petersburg—100 years ago this week and arrested ministers of Russia’s provisional government. They set in motion a chain of events that would kill millions and inflict a near-fatal wound on Western civilization.
The revolutionaries’ capture of train stations, post offices and telegraphs took place as the city slept and resembled a changing of the guard. But when residents of the Russian capital awoke, they found they were living in a different universe.
Although the Bolsheviks called for the abolition of private property, their real goal was spiritual: to translate Marxist-Leninist ideology into reality. For the first time, a state was created that was based explicitly on atheism and claimed infallibility. This was totally incompatible with Western civilization, which presumes the existence of a higher power over and above society and the state.
The Bolshevik coup had two consequences. In countries where communism came to hold sway, it hollowed out society’s moral core, degrading the individual and turning him into a cog in the machinery of the state. Communists committed murder on such a scale as to all but eliminate the value of life and to destroy the individual conscience in survivors.
But the Bolsheviks’ influence was not limited to these countries. In the West, communism inverted society’s understanding of the source of its values, creating political confusion that persists to this day.
In a 1920 speech to the Komsomol, Lenin said that communists subordinate morality to the class struggle. Good was anything that destroyed “the old exploiting society” and helped to build a “new communist society.”
This approach separated guilt from responsibility. Martyn Latsis, an official of the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police, in a 1918 instruction to interrogators, wrote: “We are not waging war against individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. . . . Do not look for evidence that the accused acted in word or deed against Soviet power. The first question should be to what class does he belong. . . . It is this that should determine his fate.”
Such convictions set the stage for decades of murder on an industrial scale. In total, no fewer than 20 million Soviet citizens were put to death by the regime or died as a direct result of its repressive policies. This does not include the millions who died in the wars, epidemics and famines that were predictable consequences of Bolshevik policies, if not directly caused by them.
The victims include 200,000 killed during the Red Terror (1918-22); 11 million dead from famine and dekulakization; 700,000 executed during the Great Terror (1937-38); 400,000 more executed between 1929 and 1953; 1.6 million dead during forced population transfers; and a minimum 2.7 million dead in the Gulag, labor colonies and special settlements.
To this list should be added nearly a million Gulag prisoners released during World War II into Red Army penal battalions, where they faced almost certain death; the partisans and civilians killed in the postwar revolts against Soviet rule in Ukraine and the Baltics; and dying Gulag inmates freed so that their deaths would not count in official statistics.
If we add to this list the deaths caused by communist regimes that the Soviet Union created and supported—including those in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia—the total number of victims is closer to 100 million. That makes communism the greatest catastrophe in human history.
The effect of murder on this scale was to create a “new man” supposedly influenced by nothing but the good of the Soviet cause. The meaning of this was demonstrated during the battle of Stalingrad, when Red Army blocking units shot thousands of their fellow soldiers who tried to flee. Soviet forces also shot civilians who sought shelter on the German side, children who filled German water bottles in the Volga, and civilians forced at gunpoint to recover the bodies of German soldiers. Gen. Vasily Chuikov, the army commander in Stalingrad, justified these tactics in his memoirs by saying “a Soviet citizen cannot conceive of his life apart from his Soviet country.”
That these sentiments were neither accidental nor ephemeral was made clear in 2008, when the Russian Parliament, the Duma, for the first time adopted a resolution regarding the 1932-33 famine that had killed millions. The famine was caused by draconian grain requisition undertaken to finance Soviet industrialization. Although the Duma acknowledged the tragedy, it added that “the industrial giants of the Soviet Union,” the Magnitogorsk steel mill and the Dnieper dam, would be “eternal monuments” to the victims.
While the Soviet Union redefined human nature, it also spread intellectual chaos. The term “political correctness” has its origin in the assumption that socialism, a system of collective ownership, was virtuous in itself, without need to evaluate its operations in light of transcendent moral criteria.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, Western intellectuals, influenced by the same lack of an ethical point of reference that led to Bolshevism in the first place, closed their eyes to the atrocities. When the killing became too obvious to deny, sympathizers excused what was happening because of the Soviets’ supposed noble intentions.
Many in the West were deeply indifferent. They used Russia to settle their own quarrels. Their reasoning, as the historian Robert Conquest wrote, was simple: Capitalism was unjust; socialism would end this injustice; so socialism had to be supported unconditionally, notwithstanding any amount of its own injustice.
Today the Soviet Union and the international communist system that once ruled a third of the world’s territory are things of the past. But the need to keep higher moral values pre-eminent is as important now as it was in the early 19th century when they first began to be seriously challenged.
In 1909, the Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev wrote that “our educated youth cannot admit the independent significance of scholarship, philosophy, enlightenment and universities. To this day, they subordinate them to the interests of politics, parties, movements and circles.”
If there is one lesson the communist century should have taught, it is that the independent authority of universal moral principles cannot be an afterthought, since it is the conviction on which all of civilization depends.
Mr. Satter is the author of “Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union” (Yale).
Appeared in the November 7, 2017, print edition as ‘100 Years of Communism—and 100 Million Dead’.