Karl Marx, who is usually described as the founder of modern communism, once called religion the “opiate of the people.” In his mind, religion was a scheme created by the wealthy. Religion told the poor that their reward would come in the next life, instead of in this one, keeping them happy and obedient. So, if the communist utopia Mark imagined was ever going to become reality, organized religion would need to be eliminated. Later communist leaders were clear about the best way to do this: through political terror. And in the 20th century, many of the communist revolutionaries in Europe would take this terror to horrifying levels.
In 1917, Russia was ripe for revolution. For decades, resentment against the rule of the Tsars had been growing. And the staggering losses the country was suffering in the First World War only made the political situation worse. Around 2 million men had already fallen in the fighting, with almost nothing to show for it. By February, a wave of riots forced the Tsar to abdicate the throne. Many hoped this might bring an end to the fighting, but they were soon disappointed by the new provisional government, which declared that the war would continue.
This was a time when technology was creating the deadliest weapons in history. However, the Germans soon discovered that the most dangerous weapon of all was not a machine or a chemical, it was an idea. And on April 16th, Vladimir Lenin stepped onto a railway station platform in the city of Petrograd. He had been returned from years of exile by the Germans, who hoped that the revolutionary would help overthrow the new government. They had shipped him back to the country in a tightly sealed railway car, like a deadly bacterium they were afraid would infect the people of Germany if he was allowed to get loose.
And once in Russia, he had the effect the Germans wanted. The Russian government was in a dangerous balance between the more traditional ruling classes of Russian society and socialist revolutionaries led by Lenin’s Bolshevik party. By October, the Bolsheviks launched an armed uprising that overthrew the provisional government and declared themselves to be the leaders of Russia. A peace treaty with Germany was quickly signed that gave up significant amounts of territory but ended Russia’s involvement in the First World War. However, the violence was far from over. And the Red Terror was about to truly begin.
Lenin believed that the fastest way to create a communist society was through violence and terror. And as the Civil War raged on, the Bolsheviks began targeting their political enemies for death on a huge scale. For the Bolsheviks, the goal was officially to create a new, classless society. That meant that people who were considered wealthy – in rural Russia a distinction that often meant simply owning your own farm- or symbols of the older class system, like priests, were suspect. Bolshevik leaders demanded these people be “re-educated” as good communists. Failing that, they needed to be eliminated.