Long Ago, on a November 7 Far Away . . .
Long ago in a distant land, a new social and political order arose. Many in the United States and around the world celebrated its appearance and subsequent development. It was such a modern thing. It was clear and promising evidence of human progress. It was cause for hope for the world at large.
That this new order arose in blood and horror scarcely merits mention; what new order has not risen that way? Granted, the violence probably seemed like more than a footnote to the millions whose lives were taken by bullets, bombs, and famine, and to the many millions more who loved and mourned them as sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, spouses, parents, neighbors, teachers, students, and friends. (I prolong the list advisedly.) But that wasn’t enough to disillusion Western intellectuals, among other idealists.
It Got Worse
Not many years passed before a great butcher replaced the brutal theoretician who led the Revolution in its early years. This butcher was ruthless and paranoid, and his reign gushed rivers of blood. In a sick parody of bureaucracy’s worst tendencies, he extinguished every leader, especially military leaders, whom he thought capable of becoming a rival. Every loyal subordinate with any ability was a potential traitor.
In time he made an alliance with another fearsome tyrant, perhaps the one man in the world most like him. When this ally proved his treachery by launching a massive invasion, our butcher retreated into seclusion for weeks, leaving his nation and his military without clear leadership, to face destruction.
A few million people in that nation surely would have died anyway, had he not delayed and confused the response of his own military forces, which he had already crippled. It would likely have been less than the 20 millions of his people who did perish in that war. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
My Enemy, My Farmer
Between the bloody advent of the new nation, with its subsequent civil war, and this later conflagration, other things happened at home.
The governing ideology of this nation declared that all property belonged to the state – that is, the people – and anyone who insisted on retaining what had been private property was evil and expendable. A million farmers – profiteers and enemies all, you see – were exiled or slaughtered. These happened to include the nation’s most capable farmers.
This left peasants and bureaucrats to run much of the nation’s agriculture. They knew too little of managing a farm, and the peasants resisted the smallest efforts at modernization, such as the use of tractors. The weather, too, conspired against the Revolution, and food production collapsed.
What food there was, was taken for the cities, often at gunpoint. As a result, after feeding the urban masses, millions of peasants died of starvation. But not to worry; this mostly took place beyond the outside world’s view.
A recent novel set in the period describes this picture aptly:
Most of [this nation], and for that matter the world, would be spared the spectacle of this man-made disaster. For just as peasants from the countryside were forbidden to enter the cities, journalists from the cities were forbidden to enter the countryside; delivery of personal mail was suspended; and the windows of passenger trains were blackened. In fact, so successful was the campaign to contain awareness of the crisis, when word leaked out that millions were starving . . . , the lead correspondent of the New York Times in [that nation] . . . would report that these rumors of famine were grossly exaggerated and had probably originated with [counterrevolutionary] propagandists. Thus, the world would shrug. And even as the crime unfolded, [the correspondent] would win the Pulitzer Prize. (See reference below.)
All in All
When the government born in that revolution finally collapsed under its own weight, more than seventy years after its birth, one hundred million of its citizens, give or take twenty million or so – no one really knows – had been killed.
Such horrors have happened before on the earth. They have happened since. They will happen again, always different but ever the same, often motivated and justified by a particular ideology, religious or secular. Such things seem to be happening now, but most of the carnage is conveniently out of sight, despite the worldwide 24-hour news cycle, and for us it happens – mostly — halfway around the world.
This is not a thinly-veiled parable foretelling the future path of President Trump. I do not like him, but he is far too small to fit into this picture. Nor is this a cautionary tale about the unevenly condemned crimes of the violent Left and the violent Right in contemporary America. Let’s check our quotidian politics at the door, for once. Though we seem to dishonor everything now to score cheap, transitory political points, today let us not so dishonor 100 million dead.
This is a plea to remember.
Unfortunately, we can only remember what we have once learned. If you have enough of a view of human history to know what to remember on this day, well, I wish there were many more like you.
In any case, the ruthless theoretician was Lenin. The butcher was Stalin. The treacherous ally was Hitler, and his invasion of Russia was essentially the beginning of World War II for the Soviet Union.
November 7 (a.k.a. October 25)
On November 7, 1917 – October 25 by the calendar Russia used at the time – an armed rebellion in Petrograd (later Leningrad, now and originally called St. Petersburg) became the Great October Revolution, from which the Soviet Union – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – was finally born in 1922. There were relatively few casualties on that day, but the death toll mounted after that, with civil war, purges, collectivization, and World War II.
So today is the centennial anniversary of one of modern history’s darkest days. We will mark it mostly in ignorance, I suppose. But it would be far better to remember.
If Memory Were a Mountain
I’ve been thinking that this would be a perfect day to unveil a new international counterpart to Mount Rushmore, bearing the images of President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. Together, they were an implacable force against a bloody horror that called itself the inevitable progress of history. They saw evil for what it was, called it by its name, and somehow, by the grace of God (if you ask them), helped to bring about its end. And they did it without embroiling us all in World War III.
No one offered them any Nobel Peace Prizes. There was one for Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, who instituted internal measures which – though he did not intend this – took on a life of their own and led to the empire’s demise.
Of course these three Western leaders did not act alone. Much credit is due to the peoples who found mostly peaceful ways to overthrow their oppressors. Some of these nations have since found new oppressors, but that is the way of the world.
In any case, the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union happened without civil or world war. If that wasn’t a miracle, I don’t know what ever would be.
Lest We Forget
Now neither Soviet nor Communist, Russia is in disfavor with most Americans for several reasons, but it is no longer communist. That much is good. Whether you think communism was the locus of evil in the modern world, or a wonderful idea which the Russians got tragically wrong, perhaps we all might simply pause today to mourn the birth of a many-headed monster which once spanned eleven time zones and which claimed a hundred million human lives.
Who knows what those people might have accomplished, had they not been slaughtered? We might tell ourselves that they accomplished something by their deaths too. Maybe that’s comforting. Maybe it’s even true, in the grand, impersonal scheme of things. But people don’t live out their lives in the grand scheme of things. They live out their lives in homes and neighborhoods and workplaces and families.
This is a day to remember them. If you cannot imagine 100 million, try imagining five or ten or twenty. Or even one.
Surely they deserve that, at least.
The quotation above is from an artful, somewhat fantastical recent novel, Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, which is set in the aftermath of the Revolution. I can’t give you the page number, because I’m reading it as an e-book.