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n his Kovetz Ma’amarim, Rav Elchonon Wasserman quotes what the Chofetz Chaim told him regarding the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish Communists who conducted a reign of terror against Judaism and religious Jews in early 20th-century Russia: “Bei mir iz barur az zay zenen foon zera Amalek — it’s clear to me that they descend from Amalek.”

A review in Commentary of a new history of Soviet Communist atheism (and perhaps the first ever), provides a glimpse of that time and with it, a bit of appreciation for what lies in the Chofetz Chaim’s words. The reviewer, a professor of Slavic literature named Gary Morson, opens by citing the view of inveterate atheist Richard Dawkins that “What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.”

But those words, Morson responds, display “an ignorance so astonishing that, as the Russian expression goes, one can only stare and spit… [because] atheism was central to the Bolshevik project.” The work he reviews, by Wesleyan University professor Victoria Smolkin, draws on Bolshevik-era documents and memoirs to show that the party’s goal was “to create a whole new type of human being, and the first criterion for ‘the new Soviet person’ was that he or she would be an atheist and a materialist. Bolshevik ideology demanded that religion be wiped out. Perhaps even more than constructing dams and factories, creating a population of atheists became the regime’s most important criterion of success.”

The regnant atheism did not remain in the realm of abstract theorizing; it had monstrous real-world consequences, because, Morson explains, “Bolshevik ethics began and ended with atheism.” As Lenin explained in a 1920 speech, “There is no such thing as a morality that stands outside human society. That is a fraud. To us morality is subordinated to the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle.”

Morson contrasts the Bolshevik worldview with that of anti-Bolshevik anarchist Peter Kropotkin, who argued that

revolutionaries were permitted to practice violence, but no more than necessary. His way of thinking suggests that revolutionaries must meet a burden of proof to overcome the moral law against killing…. For the Bolsheviks, there was no such moral law. The only moral criterion was the interests of the Party, and so they trained followers to overcome their instinctive compassion, which might lead to hesitation before killing a class enemy. Reluctance to kill reflected an essentially religious belief in the sanctity of human life….

The result was the opposite of Kropotkinism: Violent means were to be preferred. Everyone knew that to hesitate, even for a moment, was to reveal quasi-theological morality. The way to prove one’s atheism, then, was to be as ruthless as possible. Mercy, kindness, compassion: These were all anti-Bolshevik emotions.

That is why, starting in mid-1937, torture was used in all interrogations, not just to extract information. What objection could be raised? Ruthlessness without prompting showed that the torturer harbored no abstract moral standard, even unconsciously. It was a positive good to arrest the innocent.

Personal accounts from those years affirm that what held sway throughout Soviet society was not amorality — a vacuum of ethics — but a moral grotesquerie that lauded darkness as light and rank evil as the true good. Lev Kopelev reminisced that

along with the rest of my generation, I firmly believed that the ends justified the means. Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible — to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people…. And to hesitate or doubt about all this was to give in to “intellectual squeamishness” and “stupid liberalism”….

Another memoirist, Nadezhda Mandelstam, recalls how “the word ‘conscience’… had gone out of ordinary use — it was not current in newspapers, books, or in the schools, since its function had been taken over… by ‘class feeling.’ ” Kindness became something to be ashamed of, and positive words now included “merciless” and “ruthless,” as well as “total” (as in “total extermination”), “immediate” (as in “immediate execution”), and mass (as in “mass resettlement” or “mass terror”), along with “without exception, without compromise,” and “no halfway measures.”

One speaker at the Fourteenth Party Congress in 1925 reminisced: “Lenin used to teach us that every Party member should be a Cheka [secret police] agent — that is, he should watch and inform. If we suffer from one thing, it is that we do not do enough informing.”

Who bucked the societal consensus? According to Smolkin, it was religious believers alone who did so. “Memoirist after memoirist testifies,” the reviewer summarizes, “that in the camps the only people who consistently chose conscience, even at the cost of their lives, were the believers. It did not seem to matter whether they were Jews, Orthodox Christians, Russian sectarians, or Baptists. Well-educated atheists succumbed readily under pressure, but believers, and believers alone, did not.” And it was the recognition that they would not have had the courage to similarly stand up to evil that “often transformed people of conscience into believers.”

 

A war against G-d and any sense of ethics that flows from the reality of His existence. Celebrating cruelty and terror against the innocent as the highest good and reviling compassion as the ultimate weakness. These are precisely the elements that characterize Amalek, the sole nation to be depicted in Tanach and by Chazal as exultant in G-dlessness and founded on absolute moral nihilism.

In the end, the Soviet Union was a failed Amalekian state. For one thing, the war against religion, even when it was in high gear, was initiated by its leaders and conducted by party apparatchiks, rather than a bottom-up campaign demanded by the broad Russian populace. And indeed, it never did succeed in rooting out religious belief from that society. A 1937 survey census showed that 56 percent of respondents identified as believers.

With the advent of World War II and the resulting need to mobilize the population for the war effort, Morson writes, Stalin reversed course on anti-religious persecution, portraying himself as the Divinely anointed leader and shutting down atheist periodicals and publishing houses. And, he continues, “Despite the return of cultural repression after the War, Stalin allowed the church to flourish. How deep must the roots of belief have been for the Soviet Union to experience a postwar religious revival….” Yiddishkeit in the Soviet Union, as we know, was not nearly as fortunate.

The Bolsheviks also never quite matched Amalek in ideological purity. For the latter, nothing less than radical nihilism would do; it held a belief in only one thing in all the universe — nothing. It was enraged by the very idea of committing to a cause or ideal of any sort (other than that of obliterating those who subscribed to ideals and causes, and most of all, a First Cause).

Bolshevism, by contrast, demanded partiinost (party-mindedness), single-minded devotion to the Party, and that was its fatal flaw. An individual can be educated to suppress his basic humane instincts in service of his own selfish interests, but for how long can he be made to subordinate his own interests to those of a party, particularly a deeply corrupt one?

If, as the Bolsheviks taught, “Morality that stands outside human society… is a fraud,” eventually its followers would come to say the same and more so of any morality that demanded fealty to other humans, and truly horrible ones. Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of that basic contradiction to logic and human nature. The total defeat of the far more pernicious ideology of Amalek will not come, the Torah tells us, until Mashiach arrives.

Nevertheless, for several decades, this form of neo-Amalekism had a successful run, obliterating Judaism and Jews to an extent that has left a lasting imprint on our nation. And during that time, it provided the merest glimpse of why Amalek posed such an incorrigible threat to humanity that G-d commanded its extirpation. 

And the Chofetz Chaim captured all of this in a few words: Bei mir iz barur az zay zenen foon zera Amalek.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 730. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com