One hundred years ago today, November 7, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin overthrew the newly established Russian republic and its provisional government with the help of disaffected soldiers from the Petrograd garrison and sailors from the nearby Kronstadt naval base. The next day, November 8, Lenin installed himself and his Marxist Bolshevik cronies as the new government of Russia, dubbed the Council of People’s Commissars. Barely a shot had been fired; the number of people killed in the Bolshevik coup in the Russian capital would hardly fill a Cadillac Escalade. But from that day until today, Lenin’s legacy would be the single most lethal political system ever devised.
A year after seizing power Lenin would change this system’s name from Bolshevism to Communism, and as we reflect on the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the salient fact to remember is that it has been 100 years of hell — of revolution, oppression, starvation, mass murder, genocide, and terror without historical parallel.
It’s quite simple, really: From the Soviet Union and Mao’s China to Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Castro’s Cuba, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, untold millions were shot or killed by the agents of an oppressive totalitarian system aiming at total control and the elimination of “class enemies” or any form or even thought of opposition. Many millions more were slowly starved to death in Communist-generated mass famines that were either the result of deliberate engineering (Stalin’s Great Famine in Ukraine) or spectacular mismanagement of the food supply (Mao’s Great Leap Forward and modern-day North Korea). Tens of millions more survived, forced to live under the thumb of a vicious and unrelenting police state in a state of perpetual psychological fear and material poverty. They’re still suffering today.
This is not to even mention those who have spent the last century fighting to keep their countries free from Communism, in places like Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, Greece, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, and Russia itself. Nor does it account for the tens of thousands of military men and women of the free world — Americans chief among them — who would suffer and die in the jungles of Vietnam and on the frozen mountain slopes of Korea to halt Communism’s advance.
And that is just the system’s quantifiable human toll. For nearly five decades during the Cold War, Americans and Europeans had to live in the shadow of nuclear holocaust, as our leaders were forced to confront the possibility that the only way to defeat Communism and the Soviet Union might be unleashing the most unimaginably destructive weapons ever created, and reducing civilization to a burned-out pile of ashes in which, as the saying went, “the living would envy the dead.” For those decades we all had to live with the thought of the unthinkable, in a tense nuclear stand-off that managed to keep the Soviet Union at bay until it finally collapsed in 1992.
Yet a centenary review of Lenin’s legacy is still not complete. Lenin’s whole rationale for seizing power that day, and for creating the Soviet police state over the next year, was that through terror and violence he could force a new, better order to emerge. He lived by the same maxim that Karl Marx did, the quotation from Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust: “Everything [that] exists deserves to be destroyed.” Today, it’s the de facto motto of those groups whose commitment to terror and violence is, like Lenin’s was, rooted in that dark corner of the human psyche where totalitarianism merges into nihilism: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their brethren.
Lenin and his successors all declared war on civilization. That war still goes on in different places and in different ways. It’s the Hundred Years’ War of modern times, one none of us can afford to lose.