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 9/11, 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 9/11 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.
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