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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A French historian discusses The Black Book of Communism

Professor Stephane COURTOIS: “I was a ‘professional revolutionary’ once, for four years. It helped me to do a sober analysis of the Soviet totalitarianism’s legacy later”
24 December, 2014 - 17:57

Participants of the International Conference “How to Remove Vladimir Lenin from Ukrainians’ Heads” (Kyiv, December 12-13) included well-known French historian Stephane Courtois, professor of the Catholic Institute for Advanced Studies (ICES), director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), curator of the Communist movements and regimes’ history collection, and initiator and coordinator of The Black Book of Communism project (1997), which was once an object of considerable attention in Europe. Courtois is not only a top researcher, but also a person who has visibly grasped the totalitarian tragedy of the 20th century with his heart and mind. We met with the famous French scholar on the first day of the conference, December 12.

You have made it known more than once that your personal experience of membership in radical left-wing parties of France gave you invaluable experience that allowed you to study this political spectrum “from inside,” which then significantly helped you as a historian of totalitarianism. Could you tell us more about that?

“In fact, I had very radical anti-capitalist views in my youth (I am now 67). It should be remembered that France in general had long had a powerful orthodox leftist movement, and the ‘student revolution’ in 1968, when I first joined the political life, should be considered in this context. These events are also called the ‘youth rebellion’; I was a witness to and a participant of it. Later on, following these events, reactivation of the left movement gathered tempo, several radical and pro-Communist currents and movements formed (Trotskyist, Anarchist, Maoist, etc.). I personally took part in the Maoist movement then, was a revolutionary Maoist for several years, did not want to pursue higher education, sincerely believing it to be ‘bourgeois’ and wanting to ‘work to bring about a revolution’ in France.

“However, it was this very experience that allowed me to understand how the mechanism of the left movement in my country worked (that of the Communist party, in particular), how decisions were made there. I saw that hatred of democracy and truth was the common feature uniting these parties, these people. Some were able to leave that environment, others were not. I changed, my views changed over time as well, and it enabled me to leave this movement. I wanted to understand the ‘secrets’ of the movement, its internal ‘mechanics,’ and it was a very difficult job! Still, I would like to tell you quite frankly that for several years, I, as a ‘professional revolutionary,’ sincerely believed that Joseph Stalin did a right thing destroying Ukrainian kulaks and other ‘counter-revolutionaries.’ It is terrible, but it is a fact!”

What is your current take on the radical left movement of that time in France and beyond?

“It was a conflict between morality of most young French (Christian morality was dominant among us in the 1950s and 1960s) and morality of the sect to which I then belonged, and it was truly a sect. It was an issue of moral education. I learned a lot about it much later, when, having become an instructor myself, I held seminars for master program students on the theory and practice of communism, including terror. I had one of my students, a person of very radical views, standing up and stating the following (he was a member of a Trotskyist organization): ‘If one resolves to go for a revolution, all enemies should be totally destroyed.’”

This is Maximilien de Robespierre’s way of thinking, if we look into French history... and the Bolsheviks’ one as well.

“Yes, but wait, I will tell you what happened then. Someone asked that lad: ‘And what if one of these enemies would suddenly turn out to be your best friend – what would you do to him?’ He hesitated a few seconds, then said: ‘As an enemy, he would also have to be destroyed.’ The next question was: ‘But what if your own mother would be found in the enemy’s ranks?’ That student was silent for a few minutes, and then left the classroom with a red, agitated face, without saying a word...”

You are known in Europe as the initiator and author of The Black Book of Communism project. How did the idea of this publication emerge, how did you work on it?

“Frankly speaking, my publisher had more to do with it then. It was his idea. It occurred to him because he published a large collection of documents about the Nazi crimes some time before, in the mid-1990s. The question arose then, why not prepare a serious book about the Communist crimes? Even as late as 1995-97, France abounded in people for whom this topic was a major taboo. The publishing house called me, and asked if I could meet with their representatives (because it was not suitable for a phone conversation). They turned to me with a following proposal: we would like you to compile a book about the Communist crimes, would you agree? I was shocked, I could not give a definite answer right away, I thought about it for a few weeks before deciding that it was a very important idea, and the French reader needed such a book. Let us recall that the moment was quite favorable for this: Communist archives were beginning to reveal their secrets, intellectual climate in Europe started changing beyond recognition a few years before, as the Berlin Wall fell, and the so-called socialist community collapsed, followed by the USSR shortly thereafter. It all affected, could not help but affect, those historians who studied the Communist ideology.

“I visited Moscow in 1992, 1993, 1994 in person, long worked in the archives there, studied the history of the Communist Party of France (PCF), especially during World War II (many documents had been destroyed, but I still made some very interesting findings in the Moscow archives). I saw that from the beginning of its history, the PCF had always been an obedient Kremlin tool. In the summer of 1940, when the Nazis took Paris, contacts were established between the PCF leader and the Nazis. I call it ‘the French consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.’ In general, I must say that a lot of things that were said by the anti-Communists, and then refuted by the Communists, have turned out to be true after all!

“My next step was thinking about how exactly to organize work on this book. It was clear I could not do it on my own. I gathered a special team including experts on the history of the USSR, post-Soviet nations, Eastern Europe, China, etc...

“Interestingly, all contributors of the book, except the Pole Andrzej Paczkowski, were former Communists, and therefore, knew the history and problems of the movement from within. However, I had to find out to what extent, and how permanently, they had left the ‘magic circle’ of Communism. One contributor, the former Trotskyite Jean-Louis Margolin, was responsible for the sections dealing with history of China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Meanwhile, a leading member of our team, the eminent historian Nicolas Werth, who covered the issues of the Bolshevik Russia and the USSR, wrote a chapter based on archival sources and offering hard truths about the crimes committed by Lenin and Stalin, which, inter alia, disproved once common Soviet myth that Stalin allegedly ‘distorted’ Lenin’s legacy. Having read it, Margolin declared that he would not take part in the creation of an ‘anti-Communist book.’ Whew! What was the issue there? It was the fact that our European collective memory still contained quite contradictory accounts of Communism; France, in particular, still has living memories of Communism’s ‘glorious past’...”

The conference you are attending is dedicated to overcoming the legacy of Lenin in the minds of Ukrainians. Therefore, we cannot do without discussing the founder of Bolshevism and the USSR. What is your assessment of this figure?

“Lenin, I think, was chiefly a man of action, an ideologue of action, and no armchair scientist, unlike Karl Marx, who was the latter to a large extent. It was for the action that he created a new political tool, a so-called party of a new type, a synthesis of ‘a new type of utopia’ (Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s creation) and ‘an organization of a new type’ (first established by Sergey Nechayev). No wonder that Lenin reread Nechayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary, this Bible of sectarianism, hundreds of times on end. He was delighted with it.

“Generally, historians deal with two types of parties. The first type comprises parties that have some cultural basis and protect the interests of specific groups. Lenin, however, invented and created an unprecedented party of a qualitatively new type, a party of professional revolutionaries who put themselves above society, protecting only their own interests. Lenin and Stalin proclaimed themselves ‘defenders of toiling classes,’ but the truth is (not to mention the fact that they never ‘toiled’ themselves) that they issued infinitely brutal orders directing their underlings to massacre working people, peasants and industrial workers alike. I have seen archived orders that came from Lenin and directed executions of workers in Petrograd and Tula...

“So, if we talk about ‘overcoming’ Lenin’s legacy in the minds of Ukrainian, the most important and most difficult part of this work is liberating consciousness. A special role here belongs to ‘curing’ memory, both individual and collective. Memory makes up the basis of identity and personal identification. If you have lost your memory, you have lost your identity as well. The same applies to the collective memory. That is why the Communists sought to destroy the historical truth that could call into question their version of the ‘glorious past.’ And look at what is happening in Russia now! This is a real tragedy! Many Russians do not want to accept defeat in the Cold War, to admit that the Communist project has completely failed, and moreover, Russia has lost its superpower status for good. As for Vladimir Putin, I think many people in Europe make a grave mistake when they see him as a Russian nationalist. This is not so! In fact, he was and still is a KGB agent with an appropriate manner and scope of thinking. It is known that there is no such thing as a ‘former’ secret agent.”

What do you think about the struggle of the Ukrainian people for its freedom, against the Russian aggression, for a European future for Ukraine and democratic ideals?

“I was here in Kyiv at the Euromaidan a year ago, in late November 2013, on that night when Viktor Yanukovych announced that he would not sign the Association Agreement with the EU. I am just impressed with the courage of your people and feel exceptional respect and admiration treat for the Ukrainians’ achievements over the past year. I am in Kyiv now in order to support Ukraine to the best of my ability.”