This article was originally published on April 4, 2017 at the Register.
“Russia will spread its errors throughout the world, provoking wars and persecutions against the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated.
Of all the messages Our Lady gave to the three visionary children of Fatima – Lucia dos Santos, 10, and her cousins, Francisco, 9, and Jacinta Marto, 7 – this warning is something that many we witnessed in our lifetime.
As we celebrate with joy the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Fatima, we also recall with horror the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
Revolution in Russia had been brewing for decades, but it was World War I that overthrew the Tsar and brought the Bolsheviks to power. (Think of them as the political ancestors of the communists). Most of us have a vague memory from our high school history class that World War I was, at the time, the bloodiest of all wars. As is the case with such a sweeping statement, it becomes more real when we look at the numbers. The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on war reports that 59.5 million soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. Germany suffered the heaviest losses – over 7.1 million. The armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire follow with just over 7 million casualties. And Russia’s losses amounted to more than 9.1 million, or about 76% of all troops mobilized by the Russian high command.
In 1914, the year the war began, the Russian Empire stretched from Poland to the Pacific Ocean, from the Arctic Circle to Afghanistan. It covered one-sixth of the globe and was home to over 100 ethnic groups. And everything was ruled by one man, Tsar Nicholas II. The Russian tsars had always been autocrats, absolute rulers who held all the power in the empire. The Tsar had ministers and advisers, but there was no Russian legislative assembly, no constitution, no concept of civil rights.
The overwhelming majority of Nicholas’s residents were peasants and laborers who had no education, no access to a doctor, no decent housing. They froze in the harsh Russian winter and were starved all year. Nevertheless, Nicholas resisted all calls for reform. In response to the political unrest, he eventually reluctantly allowed the formation of the Duma, Russia’s version of Parliament or Congress. But he never liked it. The concept of power sharing went against Nicholas’s deepest beliefs, so on a whim he opened and closed the Duma, then reopened and closed it, again and again.
When the war came, Russia’s fledgling industries could not produce the high-quality weapons and supplies the military needed. (At the start of the war, Russia had a standing army of 1.5 million. By the end of the war, there were 5 million in the field).
In addition to inadequate factories, the Russian rail system was limited, making it difficult to get troops to the front and supply food to cities. Nevertheless, in 1914, the Russian people rallied to their Tsar. Of course, to keep this spirit of national unity alive, Russia needed battlefield victories, and Russian patriotism began to wane as reports came in of the first two battles, Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. , where Russia had lost 250,000 men.
As the war dragged on, the losses at the front increased, the unrest at home became more intense. In big cities such as Moscow, kyiv and Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg – it had been changed because Petersburg was a German name), it became almost impossible to find food and fuel. In 1917, something as simple as bread was rationed in Petrograd – one pound of bread per adult per day. There was no ration for the children. If there were children in the household, the adults had to share their breads.
As the situation at the front and in the country grew worse and worse, the factory workers organized themselves into what we would call political action groups. Thousands of miles away, the soldiers in the trenches did the same. The workers went on strike, the soldiers refused to obey the orders of the officers. In cities, protests turned into riots that lasted for days. In Petrograd, rioters set fire to the headquarters of the secret police and the courts, and chased down policemen. The military units that garrisoned the city split into factions, with troops loyal to the Tsar firing on their comrades who called for revolution.
By February 1917, with the cities and army in open revolt, it was clear that the Tsar and his government were no longer in charge of the empire. To restore order and preserve the monarchy, Nicholas’ ministers insisted that he abdicate. They expected Nicolas’ only son, 12-year-old Alexis, to become Tsar, but Nicolas also abdicated in Alexis’ name. The boy suffered from hemophilia, a secret the family hid from the Russian government and Russian people. Doctors doubted Alexis would survive to adulthood, so Nicholas abdicated in favor of his younger brother, Michael. But Michael refused to be Tsar. This is how a coalition of Duma reformers created the provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky. He was not a radical or a revolutionary; Kerensky wanted Russia to be a republic, on the model of Great Britain or the United States. But Kerensky and his government made a disastrous decision: they declared that Russia would continue to wage war.
Any popularity the Kerensky government might have enjoyed has crumbled. Two months later, in April, Lenin returned to Russia after years of exile in Switzerland. He brought with him about three dozen other revolutionaries. A crowd of workers, soldiers and sailors came to welcome him to his home. Lenin promised land to the peasants, food for all, and Russia’s withdrawal from the war. Supported by radicalized workers and soldiers, in October 1917, Lenin and his Bolsheviks took power. Kerensky, fearing that his life was in danger, fled the country.
To ensure that his new government would be feared and obeyed, Lenin adopted an empire-wide program of oppression, violence and terror, which he called “revolutionary justice”. He scoffed at the idea of democratic government and assumed absolute power. Lenin became a communist czar. He formed a new secret police called the Cheka which executed anyone suspected of opposing the revolution – between 1918 and 1922 the Cheka killed tens of thousands of people; the exact number is not known. In 1918, Lenin ordered the construction of the first forced labor camp, large enough to hold up to 20,000 prisoners ranging from political dissidents to religious believers.
His government confiscated private property, first looted and then destroyed countless churches and monasteries. With Lenin’s full approval, the Bolsheviks murdered aristocrats, wealthy merchants, prosperous peasants and Christians, Jews and Muslims, secular and clergy. After just over a year in power, Lenin personally ordered the massacre of Tsar Nicholas, his wife, and their five children.
From Russia, Lenin’s successors exported their revolution to nations on the periphery of the former Russian Empire. Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the smaller republics that collectively became known as Yugoslavia. Even countries as far afield as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan – 22 nations in all – fell to what became the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. And wherever they occupied, the children of Lenin introduced a system of brutal repression, hopeless poverty and aggressive atheism which manifested itself in the cruel persecution of Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims. . As Our Lady predicted, seven popes, from Benedict XV to St. John Paul II, have much to suffer as Communism has infiltrated nation after nation.
According to The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror and Repression, first published in France in 1997, then in an English edition produced by Harvard University Press, Lenin’s forces killed hundreds of thousands of anti-Bolshevik workers and peasants, caused a famine that claimed the lives of 5 million people and murdered tens of thousands in labor camps. Under Stalin, more than 690,000 people believed to be political opponents were killed in the Great Purge and, on his orders, 2 million wealthy peasants known as kulaks were killed. In total, during the 74 years of its existence, the Soviet Union would have been responsible for the deaths of at least 21 million people.
What Our Lady said to Lucia and her two cousins at Fatima came true in a more horrifying way than the world in 1917 could have imagined. Yet Mary balanced her terrible prediction with a promise: she would triumph and Russia would be converted from her official atheism.
Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, at least in religious life, there have been signs of hope. In 1991 Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz met Sister Lucia in her convent in Portugal. She was surprised when he told her he was the Catholic Archbishop of Moscow. Over and over she asked him, “Is that true? Once she was convinced, Sister Lucy said, “So that means the Fatima prophecy has been fulfilled.