This week I’m on our annual March golf trip to Florida, and for my leisurely reading enjoyment I brought along the book called “Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler”, subtitled “The Age of Social Catastrophe”, by Robert Gellately, Florida State University Professor of History.
Of course, like most of us I’ve heard that Joseph Stalin was perhaps the worst mass murderer in history. But I had done very little reading about Stalin and my understanding of this period in world history was (and still is) fairly thin.
The period we’re talking about is roughly the 1920’s and 30’s. The place was Russia – the old Russian empire to be more precise, newly christened the USSR. And the main characters were Lenin, Stalin and their band of incredibly ruthless, brutal, fanatical Bolshevik comrades.
In October, 1917 after what was essentially a bloodless coup the Bolsheviks overwhelmed the government of the day and instituted a Communist dictatorship. Almost immediately Lenin (the original dictator) began stamping out civil liberties and instituting a reign of terror.
As early as mid-1918 Lenin established a new secret police called The Cheka. One of its leaders Grigory Zinoviev had this to say:
We must carry along with us ninety million of the the one hundred million of Soviet Russia’s population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated. (p.52)
In other words, Zinoviev, speaking for the Communist regime and with the encouragement of its most powerful leaders (Lenin and Stalin), was advocating the murder of 10 million of his own fellow Russians. Over the course of the next 20 years or so they did exactly that.
Difficult to comprehend
Here in the safety and comfort of our little world it is difficult to comprehend how such an attitude could be allowed to take control of an entire country the size of Soviet Russia. But it did. That it did had much to do with the chaos and uncertainty of the times. But without the incredible ruthlessness of a few fanatical leaders it never would have happened.
It has been well documented how the conditions in Europe immediately after WW I allowed for mass social control on a scale never before possible. And unfortunately for the millions of people who were killed during that period, there were just enough fanatical murderers around who were prepared to violently take control and implement their nightmarish schemes.
Stalin was perhaps the worst, although Mao who came a couple of decades later in China could well have killed more of his own people. The fact is, nobody really knows how many people died from the terror campaigns waged by Stalin (and later, Mao) on their own people. In both cases the number killed was in the millions. These people were terrorized and “annihilated” by their own countrymen.
What we do know is that safeguarding individual liberty within the framework of a pluralistic and relatively “open” and tolerant society will always be difficult and tenuous. It is not just a matter of being prepared to fight for our freedom, although that is often necessary. It is more complicated than that.
We must build institutions that are safe from being hijacked by fanatics and psychopaths. We must learn to recognize dangerous, violent “leaders” and structure our institutions so they are lost between the cracks before they have a chance to do significant harm. We must be both tolerant enough to live with attitudes we do not agree with, and diligent enough to recognize when those attitudes are incompatible with the freedoms we take for granted.