Remembering history: The embrace of Russia and Communism

One hundred years ago, Russia's czar was overthrown and Communism began its reign. It was not good then, nor now.

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Painting of Lenin addressing Bolsheviks in October 1917 that hangs in the Bejing Musuem

WASHINGTON, March 13, 2017 — One hundred years ago, Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown by a people tired of war, the Tsar and aristocratic landowners.

The common laborers, people not recognized as having any value other than their ability to work, were suffering at the hands of the upper class. On March 7, growing awareness of the autocracy’s political ineptitude, the military failures of World War I, and food shortages sparked strikes in the capital of Petrograd. These spread into riots, military units began to mutiny, and on March 15, Nicholas was forced to abdicate on his own behalf and on behalf of his son.

State power passed to a provisional government formed in the Imperial parliament, or Duma, while a network of soviets (workers’ councils) held the allegiance of the lower classes and, crucially, the militias. The chaos of the joint Provisional Government-Soviet rule opened the gate for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to take power the following October, creating a Communist state in Russia.

In Moscow, no celebrations are planned to mark the centennial of revolution. The country remains divided over Communism’s legacy. Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and author of the book “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin,” points out that, “Vladimir Putin cannot compare himself to Nicholas II, nor to Lenin, nor to Kerensky because that is not Russian history to be proud of. In terms of 1917, nothing can be used as a propaganda tool.” 


Communism’s toll was a heavy one. “The Black Book of Communism,” an 846-page academic study, holds Communism responsible for the deaths of between 85 million and 100 million people worldwide. It estimates that the ideology claimed 45 million to 72 million in China, 20 million in the Soviet Union, between 1.3 million and 2.3 million in Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Vietnam, 1 million in Eastern Europe and 150,000 in Latin America.


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For most of the 20th century, many intellectuals in the West insisted on disassociating Communism from the crimes committed in its name. Western academics, clergymen, journalists and literary figures not only did not resist Communist tyranny, but embraced it, defended it and apologized for it.

When Bertolt Brecht, creator of the modern propaganda play, visited the Manhattan apartment of American philosopher Sidney Hook in 1935, Stalin’s purges were just beginning. Hook, raising the cases of Zinoviev and Kamenev, asked Brecht how he could bear to work with the American Communists who were trumpeting their guilt. Brecht replied that the U.S. Communists were no good—nor were the Germans either—and that the only body that mattered was the Soviet party. Hook pointed out that they were all part of the same movement, responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of innocent former comrades.

Brecht replied:

“As for them, the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.” Hook asked, “Why, why?” Brecht did not answer, Hook got up, went into the next room and brought Brecht his hat and coat. During the entire course of Stalin’s purges, Brecht never uttered a word of protest. When Stalin died, Brecht’s comment was: “The oppressed of all five continents … must have felt their heartbeats stop when they heard that Stalin was dead. He was the embodiment of all their hopes.”

In a July 1954 interview with “Liberation,” French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who had just returned from a visit to Russia, said that Soviet citizens did not travel, not because they are prevented from doing so, but because they had no desire to leave their wonderful country.

“The Soviet citizens,” he declared, “criticize their government much more and more effectively than we do.” He maintained that, “There is total freedom of criticism in the Soviet Union.”

Another intellectual defender of tyranny was Lillian Hellman, the American playwright. She visited Russia in October 1937, when Stalin’s purge trials were at their height. On her return, she said she knew nothing about them. In 1938 she was among the signatories of an ad in the Communist publication “New Masses” which approved the trials.

Hellman supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, saying, “I don’t believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone is weepy about. I’ve been there and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me.” There is no evidence that she ever visited Finland, and her biographer states that this is highly improbable.

The American Quaker H.T. Hodgkin provided this assessment: “As we look at Russia’s great experiment in brotherhood, it may seem to us some dim perception of Jesus’ way, all unbeknown, inspiring it.”

New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches from the Soviet Union in the 1930s. In 1931, when Soviet leaders engineered a famine in Ukraine, Duranty visited the region and denied that starvation and death were rampant. “There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be.”


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On August 23, 1933, Durany wrote in the Times, “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda … The food shortage which has affected almost the whole population last year … has, however, caused heavy loss of life.”

Duranty did not blame Soviet policy for those deaths. Americans did not get the truth in his dispatches, but lies, and their influence was widespread. When he received the highest honor in journalism, the 1933 Pulitzer Prize, the prize committee cited his “dispassionate, interpretive reporting of the news from Russia.”

The citation declared that Duranty’s dispatches, which the world now knows to be false, were “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity.”

Duranty was only one of many correspondents and writers in the 1920s and 1930s who fed their readers in the West a steady diet of disinformation about the Soviet Union.

Louis Fischer, who wrote for The Nation magazine, was also reluctant to tell his readers about the flaws in Soviet society. Like Duranty, Fischer glossed over the devastating famine of 1932-33.  He once referred to the concentration camp system we now know as the “gulags” as “a vast industrial organization and a big educational institution.”

In 1936, he informed his readers that the dictatorship was “voluntarily abdicating” in favor of democracy.

Liberal intellectuals who were harsh in their judgment of the American society eagerly embraced the savage dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. On the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture, author Upton Sinclair wrote:

“They drove rich peasants off the land and sent them wholesale to work in lumber camps and on railroads. Maybe it cost a million lives, maybe it cost five million, but you cannot think intelligently about it unless you ask yourself how many millions it might have cost if the changes had not been made.”

W.E.B. Du Bois, the black intellectual, said, “He (Stalin) asked for neither adulation nor vengeance. He was reasonable and conciliatory.”

When Stalin’s crimes were no longer concealed after his death, Western intellectuals moved their embrace to China’s Communist revolutionary and leader, Mao Zedong. After a visit to China, columnist James Reston wrote on July 30, 1971 in the Times that he thought Chinese Communist doctrines and the Protestant ethic had much in common. He was generally impressed by “the atmosphere of intelligent and purposeful work.”

“China’s most visible characteristics are the characteristics of youth … a kind of lean, muscular grace, relentless hard work, and an opportunistic and even amiable outlook on the future … The people seem not only young but enthusiastic about their changing lives.”

Reston also believed that young people from the city who were forced to work as manual laborers in rural areas “were treating it like an escape from the city and an outing in the countryside.”

When Mao died in 1976, the Times devoted three pages to his obituary, but only a few lines alluded to his enormous crimes against the Chinese people. It has been estimated that Mao was responsible for the deaths of 30 million to 60 million people. The Times referred to the execution of “a million to three million people, including landlords, nationalist agents, and others suspected of being class enemies.”

The Washington Post also devoted three pages to Mao, concluding, “Mao the warrior, philosopher and ruler was the closest the modern world has been to the God-heroes of antiquity.” The Post acknowledged that some three million persons had lost their lives in the 1950 “reign of terror,” but the only victims mentioned were “counter-revolutionaries.”

In his landmark study of intellectual support for communism, “Political Pilgrims,” Professor Paul Hollander writes that an important myth to be laid to rest “is the belief in the unflinching commitment of intellectuals to freedom, and particularly to freedom of expression.”  

Of the Soviet Union and other Communist societies, he writes,

“It is very clear that the absence of freedoms … hardly concerned the visitors or interfered with the attractions of these societies. To the extent that the lack of free expression was observed—and it is by itself noteworthy how frequently it was overlooked—it was excused or rationalized on the familiar grounds of temporary necessity, amply compensated for by the various achievements of the regimes concerned.”

He continues:

“Attributions of idealism and disinterestedness also call for re-examination when intellectuals move with lightning speed from vehement moral indignation and moral absolutism (generally reserved for their own society) to a strangely pragmatic moral relativism brought to the assessment of policies of countries they are committed to support … Scott Nearing, who often left his home in Maine in November rather than watch hunters kill deer, defended Soviet tanks in Budapest (in 1956) … Such misjudgments and moral double ‘bookkeeping’ (or double standards) are in part due to the readiness to believe ‘the other side.'”

The anniversary of the Russian Revolution is particularly meaningful for those  of us old enough to remember the reality of Communism. This writer spent time in Eastern Europe during the darkest days of Communist rule, visiting both the Berlin Wall and Czechoslovakia in 1969, shortly after the Soviet Union brutally marched into Prague and put down the attempts at liberalization.  Wherever one went in Czechoslovakia, the contempt for the occupying Soviet Army was clear.

At a student club I visited, when word got around that an Amrrican was on the premises, many young people came by to extend greetings. I was invited to the homes of a number of Czechs who openly declared their hostility to Communism and their desire for their country to once again join the Western world. It is fair to say that I did not encounter a single Czech who spoke well of either Communism or the Soviet Union.

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, we should remember how easily naive Westerners were eager to embrace it. Vladimir Putin, who served Communism as a KGB agent, was an eager participant in the Communist enterprise. It is interesting to observe his current reluctance to celebrate the totalitarian and imperialistic system to which he devoted much of his life. Sadly, he now seems intent upon restoring as much of the Soviet empire as he can and to destabilize NATO, the EU and our own country.

Let us hope that we do not engage in the same wishful thinking about Putin’s goals and objectives that so many in the West did about Communism.

Remembering those who naively embraced tyranny should immunize us against following such a path in the future. That is if we are willing to learn from history, something which is all too rare.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.