Lenin then set the repressive foundation of the brutal Soviet state. He was no idealistic dreamer whose good intentions were betrayed by his successors. In 1921, he declared: “We do not promise any freedom or democracy.” His revolutionary colleague Leon Trotsky frankly declared: “We were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life.’”
Lenin died in 1924, leading to a bitter succession battle, won by manipulative Joseph Stalin. Under him, millions died, including many of his supporters. Although revolutionary fervor had dissipated, the USSR staggered along, murdering and impoverishing its people, until December 1991. The Soviet flag finally was lowered from the Kremlin for the final time.
Yet the legacy of the Russian Revolution lives on. Scholars figure that communism killed between eight and sixty-one million Soviet citizens; fifteen to twenty million seems most accurate. Stalin mixed murder and famine. His Great Terror made killing routine, with the dictator approving endless lists of victims for execution. His henchmen were desperate to find ever more enemies to satisfy his paranoia: simply inquiring as to the fate of a loved one who’d been detained could result in one’s own arrest and death.
Estimates of the total number of dead due to communism—not counting from wars—run from eighty-five million to upwards of two hundred million. Not only are accurate numbers scarce, but researchers disagree over whether indirect deaths should be included: communist rulers both murdered promiscuously and implemented policies that resulted in mass death—through famine, for instance. The hardship, including poverty, starvation, oppression and inhumanity, is incalculable. Equally brutal was the assault on the human spirit. Marxism as adapted by Leninism squeezed the very life out of people.
Thankfully, as a governing force Marxism is largely dead. A few nominally communist states remain, but most aren’t real or serious. China is essentially fascist. North Korea is a modern version of an ancient Asian monarchy, masked with revolutionary rhetoric. Cuba is edging away from genuine communism. Yet the authoritarian spirit remains alive on the left, even in the West.
History is a long series of what-ifs. What if Gavrilo Princip had missed when he shot at the royal couple? What if European statesmen had been more determined to prevent war? What if the czar had followed his instincts and kept Russia out of the war? What if the Provisional Government had negotiated peace with Germany? What if Lenin had been left exiled in Zurich?
Communism almost certainly would not have taken over Russia, transforming the twentieth century for the great ill of mankind. But, unfortunately, we must confront the consequences of actual history, rather than what-ifs—including the birth of the Soviet state a century ago.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon).
Image: Communist supporters lay flowers at the statue of Lenin to mark the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in the south Russian city of Stavropol November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko