Death Orders

The vanguard of modern terrorism in revolutionary Russia.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Anna Geifman, a Professor of History at Boston University, where she teaches classes on imperial Russia and the USSR, psychohistory, and modern terrorism. She is also Senior Researcher at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Her most recent book is Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia.

FP: Anna Geifman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Geifman: Thank you!  I am very grateful for the opportunity to share my work.

FP: Let’s start with what inspired you to write this book.

Geifman: I have written this book after having researched and published on the topic of modern terrorism for exactly 25 years.  So, Death Orders is a précis, or summation, of my position with regards to political extremism.

The turning point for me was the September 1, 2004 massacre in School No. 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia.  It is shocking how few people remember:  32 terrorists detained 1,200 pupils, their relatives, and their teachers.  There was not a chance that Russia’s president Putin would have fulfilled the terrorists’ demands; they knew this, and the purpose of their acts was to spill blood for the sake of blood spilling.  So, by no way am I exaggerating when I say that they turned the school into a mini-replica of Auschwitz.  They shot first-graders in the back as they were trying to run away.  Eventually, at least 334 hostages were killed, among them 186 children; over 700 were wounded. Death Orders shows that not 911, but the collective murder in Beslan, specifically directed against children and affecting the entire town, marks a new stage in global terrorist practices.

I have written Death Orders in Israel, one of the epicenters of terrorism.  I have had direct personal experience with what had previously been a matter of scholarly research during my work a small Israeli town of Sderot.  There, Hamas-manufactured Qassam rockets exploded in residential areas as people tried to go about their daily routines… I have written this book as an expert in my field, taking full responsibility for the validity of my sources, arguments, and conclusions.  At the same time, for me terrorism was no longer an issue that I could tackle solely as an intellectual enterprise: the Sderot experience had a major emotional impact on my life.

FP: Your subtitle states that the vanguard of modern terrorism was revolutionary Russia. Early in the book, you claim that Russia was a birthplace of modern terrorism. Share your wisdom on this phenomenon with us.

Geifman: The primary setting of this book is late imperial and early Soviet Russia—a birthplace of a new type of violence that emerged in the early 1900s.  Insurrectionists had killed their adversaries long before the 20th century, of course.  What made this campaign of terror different was its intentional murder of civilians carried out en masse.  By that time, violence had clearly lost its overwhelmingly anti-bureaucratic overtones of the earlier era.  While killing government officials, the extremists broadened the category of their enemies. Terrorists’ victims among “class enemies” soon included individuals from every social stratum, most being by no means supporters of the autocratic regime or exploiters of the poor.  Political terror carried out by anarchists, Maximalists, and other radical socialists assumed colossal proportions:  between 1900 and 1917, about 17,000 individuals were killed and wounded in 23,000 separate terrorist attacks.  Human life was cheapened and quickly lost all value.  It was as if the new wave of terrorist acts has turned from a means into a self-serving end.

So, it was in Russia that terrorism revealed its primary goal:  to maximize indiscriminate violence.  It also revealed other key attributes of modern and post-modern violence—aspects of intercontinental terrorism of the last fifty years.

Let me give an example:  subversive zealots planned to crash an airplane into a building that represented the grandeur of a hated superpower.  The year was not 2001 but 1906:  the radicals intended to use a “flying apparatus” to drop explosives on the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg residence of Tsar Nicholas II, anticipating 911 by over a hundred years.

It was in Russia that for the first time children were used for terrorist purposes.  It was in Russia where first acts of suicide terror took place.  In fact, practically all key elements of modern terrorism were already present in the early-20th-century Russia.

FP: The book introduces Robert Lifton’s paradign of “historical dislocation” as an essential prerequisite for escalation of violence. Please explain what this is about.

Geifman: Robert Lifton’s pivotal paradigm of “historical dislocation” refers to the disintegration of ethical norms and aesthetic conventions—the entire system of values, meanings, and links that bind people of one culture and sustain their psychosocial stability. Various factors caused rapid historical dislocation in Europe in the 19th century, but Death Orders describes an infinitely more painful transformation process—a true crisis of modernity—in Russia.  In the crumbling environment, scores of “dislocated” individuals starved for ideas that could give coherence to their fragmented world.  What Lifton recognized as “ideological hunger” they sought to satiate with a feverish quest for a new system of values or dogma.  Forlorn, confused, and apprehensive victims of the psychosocial crisis in Russia espoused revolution, which provided the context, structure, and semi-religious legitimization for destruction and terror as way of life.

It is very important to say that “historical dislocation” transcends the framework of a specific culture, crossing the temporal, geographical, and ethnic boundaries. My research demonstrates the universality of this precondition for modern and post-modern terrorism in various parts of the world.  As much as Russian terrorism in its day, Islamist fundamentalism is bred by historical dislocation, or a “trauma of uprootedness.”  Like the displaced and the insecure Russian extremists hundred years ago, consigned to the periphery of the emerging modern culture, the Islamic terrorists are largely a “lost generation”, dislocated from their traditional societies, confused and miserable.  Like their Russian counterparts, they seek destruction of the world in which they are miserable.

FP: You describe perpetrators of violence as its very first fatalities.  What does this mean?

Geifman: Against their penchant to bemoan the suffering masses, Russian radicals in the early 20th-century persistently exhibited the mentality summarized by a trendy motto:  “the worse, the better”.  The idea presupposed that deterioration of the country’s domestic situation would contribute to the growing instability of the regime and thus benefit the radical cause.  Jessica Stern said correctly: terrorists “thrive on festering conflicts.”  They do so everywhere, from the Middle East and Afghanistan to Indonesia and Kashmir.

The 1881 assassination of tsar Alexander II, the only liberal on the Russian throne, was perhaps the most glaring example and symbol of “the worse, the better” tactic and its consequences.  When the tsar walked out of his palace to die on the fateful day of 1 March, he had left on his desk a completed proposal for a limited form of elective parliamentary representation—a project entailing a gigantic step in the steady course of the country’s liberalization.  Subversion would have been rendered meaningless, and the extremists’ position as self-proclaimed defenders of the common good would have become unjustifiable, had the liberal line been implemented.  As it was, Alexander III, the disheartened son and successor of the assassinated reformer, promptly reversed his broadminded policy for the sake of “tightening the system.”  Violence spared the extremists from the dreaded irrelevance.

Such is the mentality that drives terrorists to set up their headquarters and rocket launching sites near or in kindergartens and schools at times of conflict–to maximize inadvertent civilian casualties and use them to portray the enemy as “baby killers.”  A trademark of the Hamas operations during the 2009 fighting in Gaza was the use of children as human shields which the organization leaders flaunt.  The terrorists have also incorporated other uninvolved civilians into their terrorist network, having built an extensive militant infrastructure in resident and industrial areas.  Booby traps have been installed in homes, hospitals, educational institutions, and mosques; Hamas also placed snipers between buildings in which people were hiding to evade the Israelis during exchanges of fire.  A combatant planting an explosive device and then running to hide inside a building full of civilians waving a white flag has turned into a symbol of Islamist terror strategy.

Terrorist leaders persistently count on hardship as an effective propaganda device, to blame the enemy and validate violence in the eyes of the afflicted Gaza residents.  Suffering—amplified when opportunity allows—thus turns into another means to promote the cause.

FP: What do you hope this book will help achieve?

Geifman: There are several important points.  As in my previous publications, I sought to convey the idea that an archetypal terrorist is not what his comrades (and other image-makers) portray him to be—a robin hood, a fighter for a lofty goal.  Death Orders demonstrates that a very large percentage of terrorists are utterly indifferent to the ideology that supposedly drives them into battle.  Many of them are hard to distinguish from common criminals.  There is also an entire chapter devoted to terrorists as “used goods”, whose acts of suicidal terror are but camouflaged self-destructiveness.  The book creates a portrait of the terrorist as a traumatized, week, and anxious individual for whom violence, justified in ideological terms, is a self-destructive lifestyle, an alternative to his otherwise miserable life.  Before any meaningful policy may be enacted against the perpetrators of violence, we need to be very clear who we are dealing with—the misfits who are out to recast the world, in which they are misfits.

Speaking of policy:  it is certainly possible to combat terrorism and defeat it.  Russia was the first country to do this—and the book describes a rare success story of Prime Minister Petr Stolypin, who meant it when he said “You will not intimidate us!”

Most important for me was to show via comparison between modern-day Jihadism and early-20th century terrorism that both belong to the family of “fundamentalists”.  It does not matter that today’s Islamists profess devotion to Allah, whereas the Russian radicals wanted to replace religion with Marx’s “social paradise”.  This book ventures beyond politics to a less tangible sphere of existence, presenting the new type of terrorism as a “death cult” and a dark spiritual experience.

FP: Anna Geifman, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.