What Happens when a Terrorist becomes Head of State: Lessons from the Soviet Union

My colleague Anna Geifman in Russian history has written an exceptional book on the first terrorists, child suicide bombers and all, the “revolutionaries” of late 19th and early 20th century Russia, entitled La mort sera votre Dieu: Du nihilisme russe au terrorisme islamiste [Death will be your God: From Russian Nihilism to Islamist Terrorism] (Paris, La Table Ronde, 2005). Unfortunately it’s still only in French. But she has allowed me to post some passages from the English draft which, as the Palestinian elections take place, seems worthy of meditation. [Bold passages RL]

When Terrorists Become Head of State
Do patterns of subversive political violence apply to state terrorism which a country’s government imposes from above? What happens when terrorists become state leaders?

“We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.”

Bolshevik Commissar of Justice Nikolai Krylenko

It is perhaps not accidental that for the first time in history the terrorists acquired state control in Russia, the country where modern terrorism had taken its roots. In a fateful twist of transitory politics that followed the collapse of the imperial regime, the Bolsheviks usurped power as a result of a coup that toppled the ineffectual Provisional Government in November 1917. The takeover precluded a democratic course, since a cardinal feature of the newly-established Soviet rule was its unremitting dependence on state-sponsored political violence—evident in the regime’s very origins. It manifested itself already in the first frantic weeks following the coup d’état and escalated into sanguinary years of the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921.

Lenin and his associates founded and relied on terrorist mentality and practices. The Bolsheviks zealously defended a policy they called “Red Terror”—an instrument of repression by the revolutionary government– as a pre-condition for success in a seemingly visionary endeavor by a handful of political extremists to establish control over Russia’s population. In their view, state “terror from above” was also an expedient tool in restructuring traditional society in accordance with the Marxist doctrine.

Aside from defending expropriations as legitimate methods of revolutionary fundraising, prior to the Bolshevik takeover Lenin had declared on numerous occasions that his party “never rejected terror on principle,” nor could it do so. In 1905 he had urged his followers to establish armed units, identical to the SR combat detachments for the purpose of killing the gendarmes and Cossacks; he also advocated the use of boiling water and acid against soldiers and the police. Throughout the empire the Bolsheviks took part in terrorist activities, including those of major political significance, such as the 1907 murder of celebrated poet and social reformer Count Il’ia Chavchavadze, arguably the most popular national figure in turn-of-the-century Georgia. Having taken over the Russian administration, Lenin and Trotsky labeled opponents of violence “eunuchs and pharisees” and proceeded to implement government-sponsored machinery of state terror—projecting the conspiratorial and semicriminal nature of the Bolshevik party onto the new dictatorial regime.

In their rhetoric, Lenin’s followers presented the Jacobin Terror as a model for their own version of La Terreur, and themselves –as descendents of Robespierre, who had first coined the term and glorified it “an emanation of virtue.” “Each Social Democrat must be a terrorist à la Robespierre,” Plekhanov was heard saying, and for once Lenin was in full agreement with the Menshevik leader’s plan: “We will not shoot at the tsar and his servants now as the Socialists-Revolutionaries do, but after the victory we will erect a guillotine in Kazanskii Square for them and many others.”

Expanding the notion of “motiveless terror” of the 1905 era, the Bolsheviks launched their campaign of political violence against groups of individuals designated as “class enemies” of the proletarian dictatorship, with extermination now being “class based.” In one of the earliest references to their new course, on 2 December 1917, Trotsky declared before a revolutionary gathering: “There is nothing immoral in the proletariat finishing off the dying class. This is its right. You are indignant . . . at the petty terror which we direct against our class opponents. But be put on notice that in one month at most this terror will assume more frightful forms, on the model of the great revolutionaries of France.”

In evident contradiction to their policy of state repression as an ideological weapon, the Bolsheviks justified the necessity to rely on the Red Terror as a rejoinder to a wide range of anti-Soviet activity allegedly perpetrated by a myriad of their internal and foreign enemies — Russian reactionaries, foreign interventionists, and counterrevolutionaries of various leanings — all out to destroy the communist regime. The Communists had to kill in self-defense, they claimed, echoing the paranoid defensiveness of the terrorists during the past underground period. Yet, months before any organized opposition to the Soviets had had a chance to form, the Bolsheviks established the notorious political police, the Cheka (Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage), which began its operations formally, if secretly, on Lenin’s order almost immediately after the Bolshevik takeover — on 7 December 1917, and would soon become a primary instrument of the Red Terror. By the first half of 1918, after the Cheka had already had its debut in repression, “counterrevolutionary organizations . . . as such were not observed,” acknowledged its deputy director, Iakov Peters, known as “Peters, the Terrorist.” This notwithstanding, in early June 1918, the first Cheka head, “Iron Feliks” Dzerzhinskii announced that terror was “an absolute necessity,” and that the repressive measures must go on in the name of the revolution, “even if its sword does by chance sometimes fall upon the heads of the innocent.”

To some extent, this text speaks for itself. Not all the parallels work, but substitute religion for class, and you get some interesting thoughts on the possible advent of Hamas to political power. Certainly both the Russian revolutionaries and the Muslim Jihadis share the same millennial ideological imperatives to radically remake society, the same megalomanic paranoia they readily project onto the “enemy,” and the same utter contempt for the lives of anyone who might get in the way — in other words, the key ingredients of a ruthless totalitarian state. As Laurent Murawiec wrote in a recent and illuminating study of Muslim apocalyptic, The Mind of Jihad (Hudson Institute, 2005), if the Russian terrorists’ motto was “God is dead; therefore everything is permitted,” then the Jihadist’s motto is “God wills it; therefore everything is permitted.”

Perhaps if some of our prominent public figures, like Jimmy Carter (one of our candidates for dupe of demopaths), knew a little more history, they might think twice before expressing confidence in such fatuous and unsupported hopes as the notion that when Hamas comes to power, they will become more moderate. Instead of comparing Hamas leaders to Menachem Begin, maybe Carter should compare them to the people whose ideology of contempt for human life — including the lives of their own people — is so similar. But then again, we’re such suckers for the demopaths PR

To rephrase Geifman’s opening phrase: It is perhaps not accidental that when, for the first time in history, terrorists acquired state control they created the first totalitarian state, drenched in the blood of its own citizens.

Are you listening, Condaleeza?

3 Responses to What Happens when a Terrorist becomes Head of State: Lessons from the Soviet Union

  1. Peaktalk says:


    Its been a very busy day and my plan to come up with a lengthier analysis on Hamas did not come to fruition. Not to worry of course, here are some random thoughts. Have we been here before? Are we…

  2. […] its goals, bring freedom. On the contrary, the only clearly parallel case, that of the Communist revolutionari […]

  3. […] to achieve its goals, bring freedom. On the contrary, the only clearly parallel case, that of the Communist revolutionaries and their early use of terror before taking power indicates a direct link between early behavior and the extermination of tens of millions of […]

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