Lessons from the Red Terror About Islamist Organizations: an Interview with Prof. Anna Geifman
Prof. Anna Geifman’s 2010 book Death Orders examines mass political terrorism in pre-revolutionary Russia as a precedent for today’s Islamist terrorism. Geifman’s study of the Russian communist terror that prepared the 1917 revolution has enormous value for students of contemporary Islamist organizations.
A common sociology links the Russian terrorists and the Islamists: Russia’s “urban populace swelled from around 9 million people in the mid-19th century to about 25 million in 1913, with inhabitants of most major Russian cities increasing four- or five-fold,” leading to a “breakdown of social values.” All of Europe experienced political upheaval associated with urbanization; but, “Less prepared for the advent of modernization, the Russians were vulnerable to an even greater degree,” according to Geifman, “increasingly prone to take an opportunity to release the bottled-up rage, especially when external circumstances stimulated the expression of distress.”
I interviewed Prof. Geifman for PJ Media this week by email. The transcript of our discussion follows.
PJM: In Death Orders, you document the worst epidemic of terrorism in modern history, namely the Red terror in the dozen years that preceded the Bolshevik revolution. Few people are aware of its scope: can you cite a few key facts to set this terror wave in context?
Geifman: Late imperial Russia was one of the birthplaces of modern terrorism, which is a new type of political violence. Subversives and insurrectionists had killed their adversaries as far back as 11th century , of course, but the terror campaign to which I am referring was essentially different from assassinations that had occurred elsewhere. A hallmark of this new kind of terror, which has escalated over the past 100 years, is that its objectives have shifted from the punishment of individual adversaries and the privileged, to indiscriminate cruelty carried out en masse. And it was Russia where we first saw terrorism that expressed modern and political fanaticism, with the intentional use of violence against civilian targets for the sake of ideological purposes.
Earlier, terrorism was directed against prominent political figures, as punishment for specific deeds or policy. With Russia, terror became systematic. Between 1905 and 1907, terrorists inflicted over 9,000 casualties among officials and bystanders. By 1907, there were regions where Communist terrorists killed an average of 18 people each day. Assassinations became so commonplace that newspapers stopped reporting them. Acts of terror became more common than traffic accidents. By the most conservative estimate, terrorists killed and wounded 16,800 Russian in the years 1905-1910. All in all, in the last 17 years of Russia’s imperial regime, about 17,000 were killed or maimed in 23,000 terrorist attacks.
PJM: We identify terror today with radical Islam, yet your study shows that the motivations for terror on a grand scale have a broader source than Islam. What is it that unites Red terrorists and Islamic jihadists?
Geifman: Terrorism is a variant of a phenomenon which psychiatrist and historian Robert Lifton called “totalism." Its devotees -- anarchists, Marxists, or Islamists -- want to impose a new order based on an “all-or-nothing claim to truth.” They operate within distinctive parameters of a “theology of Armageddon -- a final battle between good and evil" -- in which the stakes are nothing less than universal salvation. As outlined in Eric Hoffer’s classic, The True Believer, such movements have mastered the art of “religiofication,” that is, converting political grievances into messianic aspirations and “practical purposes into holy causes.”
In the 20th century, this mode of structured violence has taken on a life of its own. It is no longer rooted in a a particular social context and accumulated destructive energy. It goes beyond particular social or economic problems, or adherence to a militant doctrine. Totalist ideology and its use of terror is a global phenomenon.
PJM: You have taken up an historical theme that many academics avoid. What motivated you to undertake this study?