September 11, 2016


The house is on fire! : On the hidden horrors of Soviet life. (Gary Saul Morson, September 2016, New Criterion)
Eventually some eighteen countries were to fall under Communist rule. In 1999, Time magazine proclaimed Einstein the "man of the century"--the person who "for better or worse most influenced the last 100 years"--but Einstein did not remotely affect so many lives as Lenin. Bolsheviks were never very good at material inventions, but they excelled at political technology, inventing an entirely new system we call totalitarian. As they say today, it went viral. There is still no vaccine.

Of course, lots of conquering groups have annihilated or enslaved other groups--just think of the Trojan war or Tamerlane's mountains of skulls--but no form of government had ever been so brutal to those it regarded as its own people. Soviet Russia was far crueler than its tsarist predecessor, which had long been proverbial as "the gendarme of Europe." Between 1825 and 1905, the tsars executed 191 people for political reasons--not for mere "suspicion" as under the Soviets but for actual assassinations, including that of Tsar Alexander II. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn remarked that between 1905 and 1908 the regime executed as many as 2,200 people--forty-five a month!--"calling forth tears from Tolstoy and indignation from Korolenko and many, many others." By comparison, conservative estimates of executions under Lenin and Stalin--say, twenty million from 1917 to 1953--yield an average of over ten thousand per week. That's a tsarist century every few days.

Western public opinion has never come to terms with the crimes of Communism. Every school child knows about the Holocaust, Apartheid, and American slavery, as they should. But Pol Pot's murder of a quarter of Cambodia's population has not dimmed academic enthusiasm for the Marxism his henchmen studied in Paris. Neither the Chinese Cultural Revolution nor the Great Purges seem to have cast a shadow on the leftists who apologized for them. Quite the contrary, university classes typically blame the Cold War on American "paranoia" about communism and still picture Bolsheviks as idealists in too great a hurry. Being leftwing means never having to say you're sorry.

In 1997 St├ęphane Courtois published (in French) The Black Book of Communism, an anthology in which experts document, country by country, how many people Marxist-Leninists killed. With suitable academic equanimity, contributors ask whether the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians, or the deportation of all Chechens to central Asia that took the lives of one person in three, qualifies as "genocide." The only sign of real emotional urgency occurs in Courtois's introduction, which breaks intellectual taboos by drawing parallels with Nazism, questioning Socialists' frequent alliances with Communists, and, above all, wondering why intellectuals continue to apologize for Communist murders.

Some figures speak for themselves. The volume's scholars estimate twenty million deaths in the ussr, sixty-five million in China, two million each in Cambodia and North Korea, 1.7 million in Mengistu's Ethiopia and other African countries, and so on, to a total of about one hundred million. (Eerily, the chief revolutionary in Dostoevsky's novel The Possessed predicts that the cost of perfect equality will be "a hundred million heads.") So far as I can tell, these estimates are understatements. For example, the most authoritative study of Stalin's war against the peasantry in the early 1930s, Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow, arrives at a figure twice the one in this volume. The difference between the two estimates--the margin of error--equals the number of Jews killed by the Nazis.

Posted by at September 11, 2016 8:21 AM