Murderers’ Row, Soviet-style

George Weigel

One hundred years ago, on November 7, 1917, Lenin and his Bolshevik Party expropriated the chaotic Russian people’s revolution that had begun eight months earlier, setting in motion modernity’s first experiment in totalitarianism. The ensuing bloodbath was unprecedented, not only in itself but in the vast bloodletting it inspired in wannabe-Lenins over the next six decades. And still the Leninist dream lives on: in a hellhole like North Korea; in the island prison, Cuba; in what ought to be one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, Venezuela. Lenin and his disciples created more martyrs in the twentieth century than Caligula, Nero, and Diocletian could have imagined. And yet, somehow, communist bloodbaths have never drawn the continuous, unambiguous, and deserved condemnation visited upon other tyrannies.

The horrors Lenin let loose have rarely been as powerfully captured as in Anne Applebaum’s new book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. In her earlier, Pulitzer Prize-winning study, Gulag, Applebaum demonstrated that the slave-labor camps of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “archipelago” were not incidental to the Soviet enterprise, but an integral part of it, economically and politically. Now, Anne Applebaum makes unmistakably clear that the Holodomor, the terror famine in Ukraine that took some four million lives in 1932-33, was artificially created and ruthlessly enforced by Lenin’s heir, Stalin, to break Ukraine’s national spirit while providing the faltering Soviet economy with hard currency from agricultural exports. Or to put it more simply: Stalin starved some four million men, women, and children to death for ideological and political purposes.

That mass murder could take place on this scale was due to the fact that the fires of utopian, revolutionary conviction incinerated many consciences. Here, for example, is the chilling, post-Holodomor testimony of one communist activist who helped implement the catastrophic destruction of peasant agriculture in Ukraine and its replacement by ideologically-correct collective farms: “I firmly believed that the end justified the means. Our great goal was the triumph of communism, and for the sake of the goal everything was permissible – to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work, everyone who stood in the way. And to hesitate or doubt about all this was to give in to ‘intellectual squeamishness’ and ‘stupid liberalism.’”

In the moral universe of Bolshevism, two plus two could indeed equal five – or seven, or three, or whatever the Revolution required.

And so, like slavery, genocide was baked into the Soviet system. Yet as Ukrainians by the thousands slowly starved to death, their bodies consuming themselves to the point where emaciated people simply fell, dead, on the streets or along the roadside, “Soviet exporters,” Anne Applebaum reports, “continued to ship [out of the country] eggs, poultry, apples, nuts, honey, jam, canned fish, canned vegetables, and canned meat…that could have helped to feed Ukraine.” But then doing so would have meant recognizing the humanity of those whom Stalin dismissed as “former people,” the members of “moribund classes.” The starvation of millions was not, Applebaum concludes, an indication that Stalin’s policy had failed; rather, “it was a sign of success.” The Revolution defeated some of its most-feared enemies, one by one, through the hour-by-hour agony of state-imposed and state-enforced starvation.

As repellant as Stalin’s Leninist morality of revolution was, the tacit acquiescence in this mass, artificial famine by western reporters who knew what was afoot in Ukraine but wrote nothing about it, so as not to jeopardize their Kremlin sources and their cushy lifestyles in Moscow, was equally revolting. Here, the chief villain remains the odious Walter Duranty of the New York Times, a principle agent of the cover-up of the Holodomor that continued well into the 1960s – and that is being revived in Putin’s Russia today, as part of its propaganda war against a now-independent Ukraine. Duranty’s morals are neatly summed up in one of his 1935 dispatches: “It may be objected that the vivisection of living animals is a sad and dreadful thing, and it is true that the lot of [those] who have opposed the Soviet experiment is not a happy one,” but “in both cases, the suffering inflicted is done with a noble purpose.”

Perhaps the Times, to mark the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, could renounce Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize, in a small gesture of repentance.

COMING UP: Which Reformation? What Reform?

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Despite the formulation you’ll hear before and after the October 31 quincentenary of Luther’s 95 theses, there was no single “Reformation” to which the Catholic “Counter-Reformation” was the similarly univocal response. Rather, as Yale historian Carlos Eire shows in his eminently readable and magisterial work, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450 – 1650, there were multiple, contending reformations in play in the first centuries of modernity.

There was the reformation of European intellectual life led by humanists steeped in the Greek and Roman classics: men like the Dutchman Erasmus (whose scholarship deeply influenced those who would become known as “Protestants” but who never broke with Rome) and Thomas More (who urged Erasmus to deepen his knowledge of Greek, the Church fathers, and the New Testament in its original language). There were at least four major flavors of “Protestant” reformation – Lutheran, Zwinglian, Radical, and Calvinist – and plenty of subdivisions within those categories. There were impressive pre-Luther Catholic reformers like the archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros. There were Catholic reformers who left a mixed legacy: the French educator Guillaume Budé, for example, influenced both the Protestant reformer John Calvin and the Catholic reformer Ignatius Loyola. There was the failed Catholic reform mandated by the Fifth Lateran Council but never implemented by Pope Leo X (the first and last pontiff to keep an albino elephant as a pet). And there were the Catholic reformers, of various theological and pastoral dispositions, who shaped the teaching of the Council of Trent and then vigorously implemented its reforms.

There were, in short, multiple Reformations. Their sometimes-violent interaction created much of what became the modern world, for good and for ill.
The bad bits are the concern of Notre Dame’s Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society: A book aptly described by one reviewer as “brilliant, extraordinarily learned, eccentric, opinionated, variously wrong-headed, and utterly wonderful. “ On Gregory’s argument, among the things “The Reformation” – in this case, the various Protestant Reformations – bequeathed the modern world were hyper-individualism, suspicion of all authority, moral subjectivism and relativism, skepticism about the truth of anything, the banishment of religious thought from western academic life, and the reduction of all true knowledge to what we can know from science. That’s a broad indictment, to be sure. But amidst Gregory’s dense prose and complex presentation, serious readers will get a glimpse of how bad ideas – such as the mistaken notion of God as a willful (if infinite) being-among-other-beings – can play themselves out in history with devastating results.

The 500th anniversary of one of the emblematic acts in this cultural tsunami of Reformations should lead to a deepening of ecumenical dialogue about what these many early modern reformers wrought – and not just for the world, but primarily for the Church. That deepened conversation would do well to focus on what makes for authentic “reform” in the Church. In the Fall issue of Plough, the quarterly of the Bruderhof Community, I propose that all authentic reform in the Church must begin from a recovery of some part of the Church’s essential “form” or constitution (in the British sense), which was given to the Church by Christ. True ecclesial reform is thus always re-form. It is not something we make up by our own cleverness. It does not mean surrender to the spirit of the age. It does not involve substituting our judgment for God’s revelation. True Christian reform always involves bringing into the present something the Church has laid aside or misplaced, and making that Christ-given something into an instrument of renewal
(The full article is available here: https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/re-forming-the-church).

And how, on this quincentenary of the 95 theses, should we measure the authenticity of renewal? The evangelical criterion seems decisive here.

If the reform and renewal in question really does restore to the Church something of its Christ-given “form,” then the results will be evident evangelically – in an increased harvest of souls who have come to know the Lord Jesus, who walk in his Way, and who share the gift they have been given with others, thereby healing a broken and often death-dealing culture.

By the same criterion, empty churches, flaccid evangelization, and surrender to the prevailing cultural mores signal false reform and failed renewal, which can be dressed up in either romantic-nostalgic or progressive livery.