I often have Peter Hitchens in my crosshairs. I wouldn’t bother if his musings about Russia were just ignorant: popular education isn’t my task. However, I consider it my duty to counter Putin’s propaganda, for, if unchallenged, it can do harm to Britain.
Putin’s propaganda is what Hitchens, well, propagates unfailingly. Whether he does this wittingly or unwittingly is a biographical fact of interest only to his friends and family. It’s the upshot that matters.
His latest opus explains the Russian Revolution in 300 words or less. Now brevity may be the soul of wit, but not in Hitchens’s hands – certainly not when he touches upon this subject.
But do let’s allow the master to speak for himself: “Germany, funnelling gold through the sinister middleman Parvus Helphand, financed and organised the Bolshevik putsch in Russia which has ever since been wrongly called the Russian Revolution. They even arranged for the maniac Vladimir Lenin to travel to Russia.”
This passage may strike you as factually correct. And so it is, textually. However, when propaganda is spun out by an expert, it’s often not the text but subtext that carries the burden of message.
Russian chauvinists obsessed with imperial aspirations always struggle with the need to explain the Bolshevik takeover and the cannibalistic regime it produced. After all, no other major nation in history, not even Nazi Germany, has ever managed to convert the whole country into a giant concentration camp, murdering 60 million in the process.
Yet Russian imperialism isn’t just any old land grab. It’s messianic: Russia is the Third Rome, whose noble mission is to spread wide her moral purity and unrivalled spirituality.
Such a claim requires substantiation, which, alas, has always been wanting, and especially after 1917. Thus the Russian Revolution must be not just explained, but explained away.
If the Russians are so saintly, spiritual and kind-hearted, an inquisitive audience might ask, then how come they [a long list of Bolshevik monstrosities]. Anyone still with a stake in preaching Holy Russia has only one option.
He must object that the Russians had nothing to do with the long list of Bolshevik monstrosities, nor indeed with the Russian Revolution. It was shoved down their throats by aliens who somehow landed from an unidentified planet to do their dirty deed.
The two groups usually put forth as candidates for this role are the Germans and, especially mellifluous to the Russian ear, the Jews. That makes Parvus a godsend: he blends the two in his own person. That’s why he’s a pet scapegoat of Russian chauvinists, especially those who, like Solzhenitsyn, like blaming Jews.
A minor quibble: he wasn’t named Parvus Helphand, as Hitchens calls him. His name was Alexander Helphand, and ‘Parvus’ was his nom de révolution. Therefore he was Parvus or Helphand or Alexander ‘Parvus’ Helphand, but not Parvus Helphand.
However, he undeniably did the things Hitchens mentions. As an international financier, Parvus had wide connections, reaching all the way to the German General Staff. He used those to mediate the transfer of German gold into Bolshevik coffers and of Lenin to Russia.
The Germans jumped at the chance to knock one adversary out of the war and, in Churchill’s apt description, “transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia”. Yet this doesn’t mean that what the Bolsheviks then perpetrated wasn’t a Russian revolution.
With equal justification Hitchens might say the American Revolution was in fact French. France, after all, played a similar role then as Germany did 141 years later.
For the financier Parvus read the playwright Beaumarchais. The author of Figaro acted as the middle man in the transfer of arms from France to the insurgents. Without those supplies, the Continental Army would have been routed.
Not only that, but French generals, such as Rochambeau and Lafayette, actually led insurgent armies in battle. So shall we refer to that event as the French, rather than American, Revolution? Or perhaps, since that name is already taken, Gallic Revolution?
Of course not. That would be an asinine oversimplification of a complex and multifarious historical process. The Revolution came out of the whole history of the colonies, and it was indeed American – this, though France’s help was much more critical than Germany’s help to Lenin.
For, by April, when Lenin rode that notorious sealed train to Russia, the country’s statehood had already been two months since crushed by a revolution in which the Bolsheviks had had no part.
Nor did they foresee it. A few months earlier Lenin had written “we, old men, won’t see the decisive battles of the coming revolution”. It was the February Revolution that made him seek a way back to Russia – enter the German General Staff.
Hitchens has his own take on that event: “Russia (as almost everyone forgets) was a democracy at the time. Lenin crushed that freedom with German-financed bayonets.”
I’m grateful for that ‘almost’. He graciously allows that some of us are privy to a few particles of Hitchens’s own gnostic knowledge. But democracy? Freedom?
If that’s how Hitchens sees the February-October interregnum, he should really read up on it. I’d be pleased to recommend a reading list.
Then he’d learn that, though Russia had a technically democratic Provisional Government at the time, it was no more a democracy then than, say, Iraq was after 2003.
Russia’s weak, ineffectual but legal state had been smashed to pieces, and the country sank into a blood-soaked chaos. The socialist Soviets formed a kind of duopoly with the government, but neither had any real power. The Red Guards, who later unseated the Provisional Government, came together then, and they went on a rampage.
Expropriations began immediately, with most factories nationalised and effectively put out of business. Those who worked there went on strikes, but to no avail.
The paralysed countryside stopped producing – or at least delivering food to the cities. Since the tsar’s government had introduced a wartime prohibition, the peasants chose the more profitable option of converting their grain into moonshine.
The cities starved, and they were overrun by gangs – especially since the Provisional Government had opened the doors of prisons. A bacchanal of murder, rape and robbery descended, and ransacking the cities were gangs of criminals, Red Guards, soldiers and sailors (the soldiers didn’t want to go to the front and the sailors couldn’t – the German navy had sealed the Baltic ports).
There was no law enforcement left: policemen were being shot out of hand, and those who survived were in hiding. Famine started, accompanied by murderous epidemics, and upper-class ladies were swapping diamonds for some flour. Bread was in short supply, but blood flowed freely.
Such were the eight months of “freedom and democracy” that Lenin “crushed with German-financed bayonets”. German gold didn’t buy the bayonets: they came free and willing. It did buy more propaganda than the Bolsheviks were already spewing out. That certainly helped – but not as much as Russian chauvinists like to claim.
The Revolution was a larger-scale version of what Pushkin described as the “Russian riot, senseless and merciless”, and what Lenin channelled to serve his evil ends. Not to see this takes profound ignorance of history in general and especially Russian history, along with the urge to blame anyone other than the Russians.
Or else it takes a wilful attempt to preach Putin’s official line. “The German government,” continues Hitchens, “cared nothing for the fate of the Russian people, whom they casually condemned to 70 years of state-sponsored murder and oppression.”
This portrays the Russians as innocent victims, who only unleashed an orgy of violence because the Germans had told them so. But I’m particularly interested in the numeral.
Let’s see, 70 years after 1917 gets us to 1987, the cut-off point beyond which murder and oppression vanished. The Soviet Union still had four years left, but it magically stopped being murderous and oppressive.
But what’s a couple of years here and there among friends? What Hitchens really means is that there has been no murder and oppression since 2000, when Putin came to power.
Never mind hundreds of dissenting journalists and politicians murdered, imprisoned or maimed by Putin’s stormtroopers. Quashed freedom of speech. Tens of thousands killed in aggressive wars. Massive theft of Russia’s national resources, with the proceeds laundered through Western banks by Putin’s gang.
Putin is the shining light leading Russia to the democracy, saintliness and spirituality she so tragically lost through no fault of her own because of the ghastly Germans. QED.
Hitchens is at pains to disclaim regularly that he isn’t paid by any Russian institution. Possibly. But one wonders how different his writing would be if he were.