Five Books: The Butcher’s Bill of the Soviet Experience
Communism kills. 100 million lost souls in the 20th century, not from war or natural causes, but from state execution. Let that sink in – 100 MILLION.
OK, now back to scholarly recommendations for books to learn about and understand this experience. Obviously, the classic work in this regard is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (originally published in 1973). The impact of this work cannot be overstated. And, it should be read by every student of civilization in the 20th century.
In addition to the official prison system that the Soviet system utilized for repression, there existed the day-to-day repression of everyday life and social interaction outside of the prison walls. But it was still a prison culture of the mind. The best book I know of to explore this is Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (originally published in 2008). The book demonstrates how daily life revolved around having to whisper to your close confidantes to hide from the prying eyes and ears of state surveillance. There were also those who you believed would be your confidantes who themselves would strategically whisper behind your back.
In one of my books on post-communism, I relay the story of Vera Wollenberger, who was a leader of the dissident group “The Church from Below” in East Germany. After the collapse of communism and German re-unification, she agitated for the Stasi to open their files as part of the reconciliation process. When her file was opened, it turned out her own husband – Knud Wollenberger – continually filed reports on her activities with the Stasi.
Think through the logic of attempting to live under such a regime.
The most comprehensive study of the archives and the death toll under communism in the 20th century is The Black Book of Communism edited by Stéphane Courtois (originally published in 1997). This is the book that establishes in excruciating detail from the archives the 90 to 100 million deaths by communist governments in the 20th century through political repression, execution, labor camps, and orchestrated famines. As I said to start this section – COMMUNISM KILLS.
Another gruesome tour through the crimes against humanity committed in the name of communism is Steven Rosefielde’s Red Holocaust (originally published in 2010), which argues that the most accurate number is 60 million. Still Rosefielde admits that there are most likely tens of millions more that we just cannot corroborate with the archival data and never will because they are lost.
Let me end this section referencing a book by Alain Besancon, that ties together the ideology, the institutional manifestations, and the terror of the Soviet experience. There are other great sweeping books in this genre, such as Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich’s Utopia in Power (1988), but if you had to read one book to make sense of the economic deprivation and political repression of the Soviet Union, and why those in the west misunderstood for so long it would be Alain Besancon’s The Origins of the Gulag (originally published 1981).
I used to kid around with my students about “nonsense speak” in writing papers, and I would give as the example someone starting a paper with the phrase, “The history of the Soviet Union is very, very, very interesting.” Of course it is, but lots of things are very, very, very interesting. But that sort of opening phrase says nothing. Do not do it. Claims in social science papers should have a bite, they should be bold, and they should be potentially wrong. Science and scholarship should “hurt” if we are wrong. “The history of the Soviet Union demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of communism as an ideal.” Now we can begin a contested conversation over a claim. We must offer conjectures subject to refutation in the dialogue with our peers.
Key to understanding Soviet Socialism is coming to grips with the claim that communism is not an ideal that humanity failed to live up to, but that communism is an ideology that is simply incompatible with humanity and human betterment. It is an ideology, as Oscar Wilde warned, that robs the soul of man, and it is an ideology, as Ludwig von Mises warned, that destroys the means of our material progress. The greatest large-scale social experiment of the 20th century was also the greatest large-scale social failure of the 20th century.
Hopefully, this reading guide will get you started on your own course of study to see what the lessons learned from this experiment are, and why we must never forget them.
Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.