What is evil? The worst atrocities committed by communist regimes may be a place to look for some answers. Hanna Arendt’s, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil addresses this same question in order to find the root of what evil is. In the bewildering and contradictory history of communism, communist mass murders and communist genocides play no small part. So, the question is: how can individuals who support an ideology that advances liberty and the rights of the working class commit heinous acts against their fellow human beings? Arendt concludes that, ‘evil’ can be as simple as when a person doesn’t possess the moral courage to stand up against wrongdoing.
Violence, terror and repression were common in the Soviet Union but not unique to it; the People’s Republic of China, The Khmer Rouge, Cuba, North Korea, The People’s Republic of Mongolia, and other communist nations have all manufactured dark periods against their own people in their histories. How were these crimes possible? Why weren't they stopped? The answers aren’t simple, but what is in plain sight is that these countries killed people in the name of communism.
During the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War, the sailors of the Kronstadt naval fortress near Saint Petersburg were considered to be at the vanguard of all three moments in Soviet history. They were crack troops who had served in the Imperial Russian Navy during the First World War only a few years earlier.
Under the authority of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the sailors of Kronstadt could be relied upon to do the hardest fighting, and they were believed to be completely supportive of the new communist state regardless of its direction. Initially, the sailors were among the first military forces to revolt against the Romanov government, but they quickly became disillusioned with Bolshevik rule. Between 1917 and 1920, the sailors had seen that the Bolsheviks had pushed other political parties out of power, imprisoned anyone who questioned or opposed the revolutions, and executed those who were considered a threat. With a growing network of secret police and government informers, the sailors now realized that a surveillance state was growing where no true freedom would exist.
While the sailors were certainly communists and socialists, almost all of them were opposed to a one-party police state. In March 1921, 15,000 sailors decided to act, and they drew up a list of 12 demands to present to Lenin’s government. The most significant clauses included: new elections to the soviets (councils), liberation of political prisoners, freedom to organize, the right to free speech and a free press, and the abolition of political party armed wings. Once these and other demands were made, the Bolshevik leadership saw this move as a threat to their power. Leon Trotsky, head of the Red Army, declared that any sailors who laid down their arms would be spared while those who continued to resist would be disarmed by force. The sailors did not back down and readied themselves to engage the Red Army.
Five days after the sailors made their demands, Leon Trotsky mobilized the local Red Army units and sent them to attack under the command of Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukachevsky. The first attack came quickly and involved about 30,000 Red Army soldiers who crossed the frozen bay ice on foot. The sailors were safely barricaded in the fortress and in their ships and easily slowed the attack. The Red Army met a murderous wall of gunfire; the attack stumbled and began to fall apart. After fierce fighting, the Red Army retreated, and the Kronstadt sailors prepared for more fighting to resume. Soon, the Red Army returned with 60,000 soldiers, and they advanced upon the naval base at night while wearing white winter camouflage. The second attack raged all night and into the following day. The Red Army soon reached Kronstadt and infiltrated the city. The rebelling sailors knew the end had come.
The leader of the rebellion, Stephan Petrichenko, and other sailors knew that although the Bolsheviks guaranteed clemency to those who surrendered, it was likely a hollow promise with deadly consequences. He and others managed to elude capture and cross the frozen bay to the safety of Finland. Those who surrendered to the Red Army were arrested, imprisoned, and executed in groups for the rest of 1921. In the end, the very idea of freedom of speech and any views that contradicted the Bolshevik view of communism weren’t tolerated. The failure of the Kronstadt Rebellion was the last chance for democracy to grow in Soviet Russia.
In Moscow, following the Stock Market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, Joseph Stalin had quietly become the single ruler of the Soviet Union and begun his first five-year plan to rapidly industrialize the country. Stalin was a pathologically paranoid former street thug who trusted no one. He saw enemies everywhere, and government officials close to him recall seeing him furiously doodling cartoons of vicious wolves all over his work papers.
This paranoia was infectious and spread throughout Stalin’s administration, ultimately bringing about the appalling Holodomor of 1933. Holodomor is a Ukrainian word that can be translated in several ways, all of which mean "to starve [someone or something] to death." It began in 1928 when Stalin began the process of collectivizing farms across the country. All livestock, surplus food, and equipment would be confiscated by the state. Once in state hands, farms would produce grain for the cities and export it to pay for the industrialization campaign. The farmers in Ukraine resented this because it felt too familiar to the serfdom they had lived under during the age of the Tsars. Many farmers and families passively resisted by killing their livestock, hiding their food, and refusing to join the collective farms. In response, Stalin labeled anyone resisting as ‘kulaks’ and began sending the NKVD secret police into the countryside to confiscate all materials by force and to arrest anyone resisting.
A series of deadly events soon set the famine in motion. Grain and animals were taken away, and the most skilled farmers were arrested as ‘enemies of the people.' Now, with no one to produce food and no grain seed, the Ukrainian peasants began to starve. Families who did not flee were often rounded up and sent to the Gulag. To prevent people from leaving the farms or escaping, roadblocks were set up by armed soldiers and police. In 1932 and 1933, thousands of people begin starving, and disease became rampant. A new law, straight from Stalin’s desk, decreed that anyone caught stealing food would be shot on sight. It is estimated that by 1934, four million people had died from starvation and hunger-related diseases alone. Many more perished from execution and exile. It was not uncommon for entire villages to be littered with corpses laying in the streets, and witnesses recall seeing dogs gnawing on lifeless limbs. Some people were tortured by hunger and resorted to cannibalism, either by exhuming buried victims or kidnapping children. The perverted rationale behind this manufactured catastrophe is that the Ukrainian peasants had to be liquidated to prevent them from impeding communist progress in the Soviet Union.
Most modern democratic governments have become secular while, to one degree or another, protecting the rights of religious groups and minorities. The Soviet Union broke from this practice in its earliest years and embarked on several campaigns to actually eradicate religion that ceased only when the Wehrmacht invaded in 1941. Instead of establishing a cultural and societal separation of church and state, Orthodox churches (and those of other denominations) were closed and re-purposed. Some were turned into warehouses while others were demolished.
Gloriously towering above the Moscow skyline, the Cathedral of Christ The Savior stood until it was dynamited in 1931 to free up the land beneath for a new structure, the Palace of The Soviets. Designed by Konstantin Ton and built in 1839, the Cathedral remained a thorn in the side of the communists who routinely ridiculed all religion, adherents, and clergy. The 1920s and '30s saw the closure and destruction of about 50,000 churches, leaving only a few hundred still standing and open on the eve of World War Two.
Russian Orthodoxy was the main target of the communists, but Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Judaism, and other organized religions were persecuted, as well. The anti-religious campaigns spread from Russia to the other countries of the Soviet Union, namely Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania. It was there, as it was in Russia, that priests and other members of religious clergy were executed by firing squad. The attempt at eradicating religion had the strange outcome of one religion being replaced with the Stalinist cult of personality, a pseudo-political religion that praised Stalin as a godlike superhuman who could do no wrong. In Russian Orthodox homes, traditional Christian icons of saints and the Holy Family were replaced with portraits of Stalin. ‘Stalin Museums’ also began to appear, which depicted the dictator in the most positive light while Stalin’s childhood home in Tbilisi, Georgia, was turned into a shrine.
The Great Purge was a frenzied clearing out of the Soviet government’s personnel in all branches and at all ranks with wanton violence. When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, the elite in the Soviet government began sniffing out opportunities to rise to the top. Among those were Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Mikhail Kallinin, Sergei Kirov, Nikolai Bukharin, and Joseph Stalin. Stalin proved himself to be the master politician by playing others against each other while maintaining the facade of not aspiring to the heights of power.
Through the '20s and '30s, Stalin formed alliances and broke them when it benefited him. With the help of allies in the secret police apparatus, he literally killed of his rivals one-by-one until only he and Sergei Kirov remained. Kirov was the communist party boss of Leningrad and seemed to be a close ally - even a friend - of Stalin. While it may never be known for certain, Stalin likely had Kirov assassinated to complete his consolidation of power. After Kirov’s assassination in 1935, the communist leadership underwent a purge from the top to the bottom.
Arrests took place everywhere. Red Army generals, administration officials, low-ranking soldiers, factory workers, farmers, and regular individuals were dragged from their homes and workplaces before courts. Most of the arrests were warrantless, and the accused were labeled as wreckers, provocateurs, spies, counter-revolutionaries, and Trotskyists. One by one, individuals were condemned during show trials, which were nothing more than the defendant standing before a tribunal and being attacked and screamed at.
The Great Purge crippled the Red Army and left it without a senior officer command. The purge also eradicated any officials who had been loyal to Lenin before Stalin rose to power. By stunting these two areas of the Soviet government, Stalin cemented his power by killing off politicians and soldiers who knew life before Stalin. In a final act, he filled positions with cowardly yes-men and allies who would never challenge him while also preventing any military officers from staging a coup. The purge was also a psychological weapon that was meant to confuse and terrify others into never thinking of rising against Stalin again. The propaganda of the time claimed that everyone who had been arrested was anti-communist in some way, and, to protect the Soviet State, the purge had to happen.