Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
“Russia will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of 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 child-visionaries of Fatima — Lucia dos Santos, 10 years old, and her cousins, 9-year-old Francisco and 7-year-old Jacinta Marto — this warning is something many of us witnessed in our lifetime.
So 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 festering for decades, but it was World War I that brought down the tsar and brought to power the Bolsheviks. (Think of them as the political ancestors of the Communists). Most of us have a vague memory from our high school history class of World War I being, 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 the war reports that 59.5 million soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing. Germany suffered the heaviest casualties—more than 7.1 million. The armies of the Empire of Austria-Hungary followed with a little over 7 million casualties. And Russia’s losses totaled more than 9.1 million—about 76 percent 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 more than 100 ethnic groups. And it was all ruled by one man—Tsar Nicholas II. 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’ people were peasants and workers who had no education, no access to a doctor, no decent housing. They froze during the harsh Russian winter and were underfed all year long. Nonetheless, Nicholas resisted all appeals for reform. In response to political unrest, he did at last and with bad grace, permit 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’ deepest convictions, so on whim he opened and shut down the Duma, then re-opened and shut it down, again and again.
When war came, Russia’s fledgling industries could not turn out high-quality weapons and supplies the army required. (At the start of the war, Russia had a standing army of 1.5 million. At the war’s end there were 5 million in the field).
In addition to inadequate factories, the Russian railway system was limited, making it difficult to get troops to the front and supplies of food to the cities. Nonetheless, in 1914 the Russian people rallied around their tsar. Of course, to keep that spirit of national unity alive, Russia needed victories on the battlefield, and Russian patriotism started to wane as reports came in from two early battles, Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, where Russia lost 250,000 men.
As the war dragged on, as casualties at the front mounted, unrest at home became more intense. In large cities such as Moscow, Kiev and Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg—it had been changed because Petersburg was a German name) it was becoming nearly impossible to find food and fuel. By 1917 in Petrograd, something so simple as bread was rationed—one pound of bread per adult per day. There was no ration for children. If there were children in the household, the adults would have to share their loaves.
As the situation at the front and at home became worse and worse, factory workers organized into what we would call political action groups. Thousands of miles away, soldiers in the trenches did the same. Workers went on strike, soldiers refused to obey the commands of the officers. In the cities, demonstrations turned into riots that lasted for days. In Petrograd, rioters set fire to the headquarters of the secret police and the courts, and hunted down police officers. The military units that garrisoned the city broke into factions, with troops loyal to the tsar firing on their comrades who called for revolution.
By February 1917, with the cities and the 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 that Nicholas’ only son, 12-year-old Alexis, would become tsar, but Nicholas abdicated on behalf of Alexis, too. The boy suffered from hemophilia, a secret the family kept from the Russian government and the Russian people. The doctors doubted that Alexis would survive to adulthood, so Nicholas abdicated in favor of his younger brother, Michael. But Michael refused to be tsar. And so a coalition of reformers from the Duma created the Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky. He was not a radical or a revolutionary; Kerensky wanted Russia to be a republic, along the lines of Great Britain or the United States. But Kerensky and his government made a disastrous decision: they declared Russia would continue fighting the war.
Any popularity Kerensky’s government may have enjoyed plummeted. Two months later, in April, Lenin returned to Russia after years of exile in Switzerland. He brought with him about three dozen fellow revolutionaries. A throng of workers, soldiers, and sailors turned out to welcome him home. Lenin promised land for peasants, food for all, and the withdrawal of Russia from the war. Backed up by radicalized workers and members of the military, in October 1917 Lenin and his Bolsheviks seized power. Kerensky, fearing his life was in danger, fled the country.
To assure that his new government would be dreaded and obeyed, Lenin adopted an empire-wide program of oppression, violence, and terror, which he called “revolutionary justice.” He mocked the idea of democratic government and assumed absolute power. Lenin became a Communist tsar. He formed a new secret police called the Cheka that executed anyone suspected of opposing the revolution—between 1918 and 1922, the Cheka killed tens of thousands; 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 that ranged 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, Bolsheviks murdered aristocrats, wealthy merchants, successful peasant farmers, and Christians, Jews, and Muslims, both laity and clergy. After a little more than a year in power, Lenin personally ordered the slaughter of Tsar Nicholas, his wife, and their five children.
From Russia, Lenin’s successors exported their revolution to nations around the periphery of the old Russian Empire. Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the little republics that became known collectively as Yugoslavia. Even such far-off lands such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan—22 nations in all—fell to what became known as the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. And in every place they occupied, the children of Lenin brought in a system of brutal repression, hopeless poverty and aggressive atheism that 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, has a great deal to suffer as Communism infiltrated nation after nation.
According to The Black Book of Communism: Crimes Terror and Repression, first published in France in 1997 and then in an English edition produced by Harvard University Press, Lenin’s forces killed hundreds of thousands of anti-Bolshevik workers and peasants, engineered a famine that took the lives of 5 million people, and murdered tens of thousands in labor camps. Under Stalin, more than 690,000 individuals suspected of being political opponents were killed in the Great Purge, and on his orders 2 million well-to-do peasants known as kulaks were killed. In total, during the 74 years of its existence, the Soviet Union is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of at least 21 million.
What Our Lady said to Lucia and her two cousins at Fatima came true in ways more horrible than the world in 1917 could have imagined. Yet Mary balanced her dire prediction with a promise: she would triumph, and Russia would be converted from its official atheism.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, in religious life at least, there have been signs of hope. In 1991, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz met with Sister Lucia at her convent in Portugal. She was astonished when he told her he was the Catholic archbishop of Moscow. Time and again she asked him, “Is it true?” Once she was convinced, Sister Lucia said, “So, it means the prophecy of Fatima is fulfilled.”