In the Shadow of the Red Banner

The Bolsheviks survived their founding crucible, and they spread. Over the course of the last century, Lenin’s missionaries and converts slaughtered more than 100 million souls from the face of this world, while repressing countless others.

By Adam C. Sykes l November 7, 2017

Accursed days: so pronounced Ivan Bunin as the red Bolshevik mare rode roughshod over White army officer and muzhik alike. The centennial of the 1917 revolution dawns, yet the apocalyptic reality perceived by Bunin and many others recedes behind the fog of memory. In fact, discussions of white supremacy and Nazism have relegated Bolshevism to a cloistered section of both the scholastic and popular mind. Russian studies prove no exception. The trailblazers rush to study Putin’s Russian: some as political aspirants, others with a post-modernist fervor. Others enthusiastically immerse themselves in the world of Russian literature—where the preeminence of either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky poses the greatest existential question. Today, scant few study the god who failed, as he hides in the shadow of defaced workers’ monuments and behind rusting statues of Lenin.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 posed an existential crisis to the world, just as much as its preceptor of 1789 and its disciple of 1933. However, the fanatical sans-culottes could not complete their program for want of the industrial slaughterhouse; the pagan white lions of National Socialism collapsed because their fuehrer’s strategic blunders outdid his incompetence as a thinker. Yet, the Bolsheviks survived their founding crucible, and they spread. Over the course of the last century, Lenin’s missionaries and converts slaughtered more than 100 million souls from the face of this world, while repressing countless others. All who died in an effort to line Aristotle, St. Paul, and Adam Smith before the same firing squad and liquidate them in the name of progress and utopia.

Yet, the bloody quest for the Communist paradise does not necessarily frighten the contemporary progressive mind. Lenin’s invectives against imperialism find an eager rejoinder on numerous college campuses. Alexandra Kollontai’s crusade against sexual mores evokes admiration amongst the partisans of sexual liberation. Stalin’s collectivization and forced industrialization even galvanizes a few to condemn caricatures of greedy capitalist Westerners. If not defending a specific persona, the modern Left joins in the apologist’s creed: “The ideas are fine. They were implemented poorly.” Free of exploitation, resplendent in equality, and promising the self-actualization of every member of the commune—the ideal socialist society radiates and attracts those yearning for physical and political transcendence here on earth. Even if the goal is not achieved, the nobility of the goal seems to imply the nobility of the quest. Subscribing to this worldview, many progressives will label the Soviet experiment tragic because it sacrificed its noble ideal in a fruitless attempt to stave off the American war machine.

On this gory centennial, many progressives would obviate the responsibility of the Soviet empire and say that guilt rests equally (if not more so) on the American side. Both sides saw irresistible opportunities in the world, built empires, and wrought havoc. Such obfuscation distracts from the slaughters that commenced within the Communist world in the name of Communism. Marx promised that the experiment would unfold organically, and that the workers would seize the state as the exploited class. Yet, the insurrections of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871 both collapsed and old legal and political superstructure endured. Lenin theorized that with a revolutionary vanguard—directing the masses and conscious of the designs of History—would overcome past failures and realize the Marxian vision. Yet, the Bolshevik party succeeded in their coup and survived the Russian Civil War, but admitted a strategic defeat in restoring limited private enterprise in the NEP (New Economic Policy) and in abandoning the hated forced requisition policies of War Communism. Twice utter failure ensued, but a third failure was not to be.

From his red throne, Stalin saw enemies, infiltrators, saboteurs—all lurking within the country and even the very Party itself. While Marx and Lenin faltered, Stalin would not yield. Unflinching military resolve and indiscriminate coercion of all resistance: truly, Stalin held, this will lead to Communism. Unleashing fervent patriots and the NKVD secret police upon the land, Stalin’s minions destroyed the peasant world and built the kholkoz, abolished the NEP and instituted the Five-Year Plan, and chained criminals to class enemies to harvest the bounty of the Siberian steppe. Stalin succeeded, but his example established that only blood and terror fueled the Soviet experiment. When Brezhnev’s gerontocracy flinched from Stalin-grade diesel, the socialist state approached its doom.

This chain of Communist terror, as it evolved from Marx, to Lenin, to Stalin, did not transpire despite the fact that the experiment was socialist, but “because it was socialist.” So, Martin Malia transcribed his epitaph upon the Communist obelisk. Malia’s astute observation of the Soviet experiment cries out to the world—man is not to be ordered by the vanity of sophists, economists, and calculators. The progressive radicals cry that we might build a new society if we transcend culture, religion, gender norms and draft upon a tabula rasa. Nevertheless, there will always exist people who resist such grandiose ventures. The preface upon the tabula rasa will be written in their blood; but the essay from the veins of the faithful. A grim centennial indeed.

In good company, Bunin fled from those accursed days that followed 1917. As old literary talent dispersed, the Bolshevik promoted a novel “proletarian” literature. Of all these proletarian bards, Demyan Bedny lapped up the first blood of the Communist crusade. In his crude verse, the spirit of 1917 flaunted its pure, unmitigated form:

“Death to the vermin! Kill them all, to the last!
And having finished off the damned vermin,
Liberated from the yoke of the lordly horde,
One by one, by regiments, by squads,
Join our brotherly ranks!”

Quoting this same poem, historian Richard Pipes expressed his relief that time condemned Demyan Bedny to the backwaters and sewers of literature; perhaps one day, contemporary Communist sympathies will join him.

Adam C. Sykes specializes in Russian language and literature. He is Assistant for Academic Affairs at the Institute of World Politics and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.