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The Black Book of Communism, Crimes, terror, repression.

Stephane Courtois, et al, The Black Book of Communism, Crimes, terror, repression. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, third printing 2000, (French original 1997), pp. 858, $48.00 Cdn.

Communism dominated the world scene throughout the twentieth century, yet as Martin Malia in the book's foreword "The Uses of Atrocity" notes, the research of the consequences of the Marxist-Leninist phenomenon has hardly begun. We all know why: Soviet totalitarianism stood rock-like for 80 years, precluding all historical investigation on the spot; and then when it did collapse in 1989 it had already kind of petered out, with the worst excesses in Russia 20 or 30 years behind it. While the overthrow of the twelve-year-old Nazi terror in 1945 led to a thorough examination of conscience in the West, with the events fresh in everyone's mind, nothing of the kind happened in the East. Lenin statues still dot the market places of many towns, while his mummy maintains its venerable place on (former) Red Square till this day.

In the West, visitors can inspect World War II concentration camps; in the East the de-Stalinization process under Kruschev saw to it that the Gulag sites were bulldozed. Photos of the mass murders are almost nonexistent: their execution was so secretive, so vast, so efficient, so horrendous, that hardly anyone was left to tell the story. As the authors point out--much to the annoyance of some--the European and Asian Soviet terror has claimed four times as many civilian victims as the Nazi horror--100 million to 25 million.

Making use of the opening of the Soviet archives after 1989, six main scholars here survey both the European and Asian (China, etc) scene; as well as the Communist International (Spain); Poland; Central and Southeastern Europe; and the Third World (Africa, Cuba). All six authors are former Communists or close fellow travellers, making the results even more uncomfortable for current Marxist apologists. What do they find? Here are the four main points:

1) Communist regimes did not just commit criminal acts; they were criminal enterprises in their very essence (the chapters on Russia and China take the reader systematically through the various reigns of terror).

2) There never was a benign, initial phase of Communism before some mythical "wrong turn" threw it off track. On a personal note, this was exactly what undergraduates were taught at the University of Saskatchewan in the seventies when I was there. The instructor used a text by H.I. Carr, a British Communist fellow traveller, who presented Stalin as a half-Asiatic maniac who distorted the noble work of Lenin and Bernstein, alias Trotsky. In reality, all three shared the same ruthless, violent contempt for the welfare of the human individual.

3) The Red Terror cannot be explained as the prolongation of prerevolutionary political cultures. Rather, Soviet mass violence against the population was a deliberate policy of the new order.

4) Communism's recourse to "permanent civil war" rested on the so-called scientific Marxist belief in class struggle as the "violent midwife of history" (Marx's metaphor). All local Marxist regimes were marked by massive violence. When Stalin's successors began to downplay violence in their all powerful, secret police-controlled empire--the Chinese despised them for it and adopted the Great Leap Forward of 1959-1961, and again the Great Purge of 1966-1979, to outdo the Russians. The most demented spinoff of this tradition came when i Pot's Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed off two to three million people of the four-million population country between 1976-1979, in order to establish their revolution as superior to China's.

The suffering of the victims which is almost beyond description, was the result of actions at once evil and stupid, perverse and inhuman, none more so than the "collectivization" of agriculture which led to the death of four to six million people in Ukraine alone, as described on page 164:

"Forced by threats and some times torture to hand over all their meagre reserves, and lacking the means or even the possibility of buying any food, millions of peasants from these rich agricultural regions had no option but to leave for the cities. On December 27, 1932 however, in an attempt to curtail the rural exodus, liquidate 'social parasitism,' and combat 'kulak infiltration' of the towns, the government introduced new identity papers and obligatory registration for all citizens. In the face of the peasants' flight for survival, on January 22, 1933, it effectively decreed the death of millions who were starving. An order signed by Molotov and Stalin instructed local authorities and above all the GPU to ban by any means necessary the large-scale departure of peasants from Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus for the towns. 'Once these counter-revolutionary elements have been arrested, they are to be escorted back to their original place of residence.' 'The circular explained the situation as follows: The C entral Committee and the government are in possession of definite proof that this massive exodus of the peasants has been organized by the enemies of the Soviet regime, by counterrevolutionaries, and by Polish agents as a propaganda coup against the process of collectivization in particular and the Soviet government in general."'

The religious aspects of the persecution have not been touched in this volume, not too surprising in view of the authors' Marxist background. The calculation of the total number of victims in Russia is understated, because the particular author here relies on Secret police files which while thorough, are not comprehensive. Those who died outside prisons and camps were not counted (for that aspect, consult Robert Conquest's The Soviet Terror, which ranks the casualties of European Russia higher).

No modern history collection should be without this volume. It includes some gruesome pictures.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Valk, Alphonse de
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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