Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia
By Anna Geifman
Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
In her Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia (Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CO, and Oxford: Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2010) Anna Geifman argues that all major current terrorist techniques originated among the revolutionary extremists of late imperial Russia. Hers is a comparativist effort in psychohistory. The scholar focuses mainly on Russia in the late 19th and 20th century, but she also illustrates her points by referring to analogous developments virtually everywhere in the contemporary world, in particular in the Middle East.
Geifman aims to de-mythologize terrorists and revolutionaries. “I propose to examine the psychology of terrorism in conjunction with a range of contemporary reactions to the threat, acknowledged or displaced with an assortment of mental constructs and rationalizations. The purpose is to demythologize the terrorist and to divest him of the aura of an altruist ‘freedom fighter’” (s. 9). She believes that terrorists are their own victims first before they victimize others (p. 7). She notices the convergence of criminal banditry and political terrorism, thus stressing “a strong connection between political and criminal psychologies. It also provides multiple examples of terrorism as indistinguishable from banditry” (p. 8). Simultaneously, radical leaders engender a peculiar “death culture” (p. 9). Geifman has further established that revolutionary terrorists tend to receive assistance from liberals: usually moral, but also financial. The most common sources of sustenance are progressive judges and lawyers as well as journalists (p. 37). To repeat, those pathologies revealed themselves in Russia already by the end of the 19th century.
Extremism of attitudes and social polarization in Russia reached its zenith first during the Revolution of 1905. At that time the radicals no longer targeted only the representatives of the government and their ilk for assassination, but now the revolutionaries murdered also random victims. At that point, the category of accidental victims had shrunk expeditiously. All “enemies of the people” were to fear the revenge of the “people’s avengers.” There were no innocent parties anymore. All bourgeois were to be “exterminated ruthlessly.” And the “freedom fighter” was right to rob their worldly goods. This is where criminal activity converged with political action. Geifman stresses that for the extremists hard work was considered evil because it assisted “bourgeois exploitation.” On the other hand, “banditry was ‘socially progressive.’” It was precisely at this point, during the Revolution of 1905, that the extremists pioneered strategic concepts of “revolutionary banditry,” or robbing to maintain oneself in the field, and “cleansing the terrain from reactionaries,” or slaughtering traditional elites to expedite the revolution. Both planks of the revolutionary platform have served the radicals very well.
One of the indispensable measures for successful extremism is to recruit appropriate followers. According to Geifman, “Numerous recruits among Jewish workers were semi-literate in Yiddish and barely able to read simple Russian texts; they could not be expected to understand theoretical writings and certainly not the fine points of revolutionary doctrine. Many active anarchists who operated in the Pale did not know a word of Russian. Even in their mother tongues the terrorists often could not express themselves coherently, let alone formulate their reasons for involvement in the revolutionary struggle. They had great trouble verbalizing, much less defending, their ‘extremely obscure perception of the revolution’ and were unaware of the basic differences among party programs” (p. 59).
“The [Marxist Jewish] Bund’s sphere of influence was the Pale, in or near the Jewish settlements. In places like Gomel’, Bobruisk, Vil’na, and other centers of Jewish life, the ‘Bundists’ were active perpetrators of terrorist violence, although they had a hard time competing with the daily terrorist feats carried out under the black banner of anarchism. On the other hand, the Bund’s combat activities in Odessa were more successful than those of the SR’s, their chief local rivals for revolutionary glory. Like other rank-and-file SD’s [Social Democrats], the ‘Bundists’ knew next to nothing about Marxism and cared as little about party ideology; nor did they see its prohibition of terror as an obstacle to their campaign” (p. 64).
Another trick to revolution is to pick appropriate targets to radicalize, terrify, and, indeed, terrorize the peaceful population.
“Time and again, Russian extremists set off explosions in churches and threw bombs into synagogues. Jewish anarchists made a sport of taking over these houses of worship just before Sabbath – to insult the congregation. Maximalists [of the extreme wing of the Socialists Revolutionaries — SR], as well as members of the Jewish “Bund,” also offended their predominantly religious communities by occupying and using temples as strategic sites for gun battles and bombings. For their part, many Jewish families observed the traditional week of mourning (shivah) when a son or daughter joined the radicals. “Wish the ministers… would hang all these rotten guys, who only know how to throw bombs,” ranted a devout Jew. Frightened by the aggressive outbursts, the rabbis and elders of the shtetl sometimes called for the Cossacks. If the Jews solicited protection from their traditional enemies, the proverbially anti-Semitic Cossacks, the extremists’ abuse of co-religionists must have been critical indeed. Yet informed as the public was about the pogroms and other instances of mob violence against the Pale Jews, it was largely unaware of the tragic irony of the more complex situation involving the radicals. The Jewish anarchists would take over a synagogue, forcing the shtetl elders to appeal to the authorities for help. A shootout between the revolutionaries and the Cossacks would follow, and the next day, liberal newspapers would publish angry articles, condemning the “storming of the house of worship” – allegedly yet another atrocious violation of fundamental human rights on the part of the official anti-Semites” (p. 47).
The early 20th century successors of the original 19th century revolutionary fanatics were of varied caliber. Geifman studies various radicals, including Jewish ones. Basing herself on the typology of Eric Hoffer, she refers to them as “true believers.” Her discoveries concern all revolutionaries in general, even though she invokes a good number of specific examples of radicals of Jewish origin. They represented a dizzying polyopticon of attitudes impacting their particular brands of extremism. Perhaps a few had some kind of theoretical and ideological preparation for their revolution, but most did not. As a rule, the rank-and-file knew little about revolutionary dogmas. A variety of complicated reasons directed them to violence; and various justifications propelled them to fight. Sometimes the trigger happened to be a single issue; at other times intricate impulses were at work in a convoluted combination.
The scholar stresses that some fell in with the revolutionary milieu by accident. Others were blackmailed to join or succumbed to psychological terror and manipulation. Even the children were targeted. It happened even that the revolutionaries manipulated the vulnerabilities of a Russian hermaphrodite to compel him to join their terrorist group. Some of the recruits suffered of neurosis, depression, hysteria, paranoia, and other psychological afflictions, for example Socialist Revolutionary Dora Brilliant (Brylant) or Feliks Dzerzhinski (Dzierżyński). Some of them displayed suicidal tendencies and other pathologies. Thanatophilia was frequent. More than a few combined all that with a God complex. If not outright deification, then at least some believed in a measure of religious prophethood behind their revolutionary message and justified their dastardly deeds in religious terms.
For example, a leading terrorist Egor Sazanov of the Social Revolutionary party exclaimed: “[I] want the kingdom of Christ to come to earth…. When I heard my teacher saying: take up your cross and follow me… I could not abandon my cross” (p. 140). Another of his comrades harangued her followers: “Listen, Brothers! Take up arms and follow people who summon you to battle. Follow and you will be saved. The wicked will rise against you and will marshal their forces, but be not afraid: you are many, there are hundreds of times more of you than of them, and God will be for you and help you, and those of you who will suffer or die in the struggle for justice and freedom will be called saints, and God will take their souls to himself in Heaven” (p. 140).
Such afflictions were joined often to criminal proclivities. Simply, bandits constituted a large part of revolutionary recruits, in particular during the Revolution of 1905. They joined the revolution because the radical leaders had always flattered the lower depths and parasite on their skills for illicit life in its various aspects, including the ability to hide, falsify document, prepare poisons, or carry out robberies. The most prized, however, were the lessons on deploying violence.
Skills pioneered in Russia a hundred years ago still come in handy today. We shall recount but a few examples out of many listed by Anna Geifman. For example, she invokes Lenin as the original source to exploit the handicapped in the service of the revolution:
“Not entirely original then [considering Lenin’s record of using psychologically ill persons as terrorists] would seem the idea to employ for terrorist purposes two Iraqi women with Down syndrome: the ‘crazy ladies’ were strapped with remote-control explosives and dispatched to detonate themselves in crowded Baghdad markets on the morning of February 8, 2008, killing at least 99” (p. 131).
How similar are the invectives against the “bourgeois” by Russian radical ideologues and against “the Jews” by their Islamicist counterparts? “We will fight, defeat, and annihilate them, until not a single Jew remains on the face of the Earth” (p. 164). So says Egyptian Imam Muhammad Hussein Ya’qoub. In line with that a Hezbollah imam issued the following fatwa: “We are making drugs for Satan America and the Jews. If we cannot kill them with guns, so we will kill them with drugs” (p. 87). As for justifying terror, Ali Benhadj of Algeria flatly states: “If a faith, a belief, is not watered and irrigated by blood, it does not grow. It does not live. Principles are reinforced by sacrifices, suicide operations and martyrdom for Allah. Faith is propagated by counting deaths every day, by adding up massacres and charnel houses” (p. 154).
Here comes a description of a gruesome Palestinian terrorist attack:
“A classic act, forever to remain in the annals of modern political drama, took place in Cairo on November 28, 1971: after a Black September commando gunned down the prime minister [Uafsi/Wafsi al-Tal] of Jordan in the foyer of the Sheraton Hotel, a fellow assassin, Momzer Khalifa, knelt and lapped with his tongue the victim’s blood as it flowed from Tel’s chest wounds across the marble floor” (p. 67).
In Gaza and elsewhere,
“Arab militants intimidate the civilian population under their control by ‘show trials’ of alleged Israeli ‘spies and collaborators,’ who are summarily executed by hanging or by firing squad…. Photographs show terrorists dragging mutilated bodies of would-be collaborators across the pavement, and the reaction of passerbys…. Citizens have seen worse – grisly scenes, such as a young man displaying a bloody heart he had ripped from a body of a dead compatriot, to a crowd of supporters dancing and cheering in approval. … (p. 55). During the 2009 fighting in Gaza, the use of children as human shields became the trademark of the Hamas operations – a fact that its leaders flaunt” (p. 52, 55).
And let us return to the Russian Federation with our ultimate message:
“In the chaos that followed the explosion, the survivors ran away from the school, while ‘the combatants fired at hostages, as if they were targets in a shooting gallery.’ Numerous witnesses report that to the end, the terrorists strove to inflict as much death as possible. To the last moment, they used children as shields not because they had hopes of saving themselves but solely to increase the number of casualties. Death alone was their final end” (p. 157-158).
This is about a school in Beslan, where the jihadis took several hundred children hostage, and duked it out with Russia’s inept security forces over the kids’ dead bodies on September 1-3, 2004.
Wherever the revolution rears its ugly head, we can be sure that many of the key components of terror are made in Russia by the same fanatics who overthrew a wimp liberal democratic government which had no idea how to rein in the Left after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917. And the world paid for this with a minimum 100 million victims of Communism. We should be thankful to Anna Geifman for connecting the dots for us.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 4 July 2020