A Resource for Teachers (Inserted on 9/28/2010)
Introduction Posted in 2008
Memoirs and autobiographies often help us to gain insight into historical events. This is true for contributions by well-known personalities, such
as Winston Churchill and Charles DeGaulle; it is often true for contributions of common people. The diary of Anne Frank, for example, is an important
testimony of a Holocaust victim; the memoir of Guy Seger--an ordinary Wehrmacht soldier--sheds light on conditions under which Germans were defeated
on Hitler's Eastern front, after 1942. And how can I forget George Orwell? His "Homage to Catalonia" is a superb description of the Spanish Civil War.
Those trying to understand the collapse of communism in both the USSR and other East European countries might be interested in my own testimony "Diary
of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality." The book is freely available on-line at:
I am also the author of "Hell on Earth: Brutality and Violence Under the Stalinist Regime." Extensive extracts from that book are also freely
available on-line at:
What is Communism?
1) What is Marxism? This question will probably be answered in different ways by different students. Here is how I answered it recently: "Everyone who
believes that proletarian dictatorship is needed after the overthrow of capitalism, to improve social conditions, is a Marxist. The idea of proletarian
dictatorship unites all kinds of communists: Stalinists, Trotskyites, Leninists, etc. Anarchists are not Marxists because they are against any form of
state (capitalist or proletarian). But all communists are Marxists and all Marxists are communists."
The failure of Bolsheviks, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is a very powerful argument against Marx's idea of proletarian dictatorship. But
some disagree, saying that the theory is good but was not applied properly. They blame Stalin. Marx, if he were alive, would try to explain the Soviet
reality in terms of economic factors, not in terms of the despotic inclinations of an individual ruler. He would either modify or reject a theory whose
predictions were contradicted by objective reality. Accepting selected facts--those which are consistent with the theory--and rejecting other facts,
is not scientific.
2) The term Socialism also means different things to different people. When I was young I was taught that Socialism is a form of proletarian dictatorship.
That political system, we were told in Poland, is a transition between capitalism and communism. But that is not how the term is often used in America
today. My impression is that American Socialists reject Marx's idea of proletarian dictatorship; they believe that social conditions can be improved via
progressive reforms (not by revolution). In other words, they are not Marxists.
Other Questions Worth Asking
1) Section 4.5 of "Hell on Earth" contains the results of a survey of 439 students from Montclair State University. It illustrates their limited
familiarity with Stalinism. How can this be explained? Chapter 7, of the same book, presents a discussion of Stalinism among professors at the same
university. It illustrates a wide range of points of view. One professor defended Stalinism; he believes that what Stalin did was necessary. Do you
agree with his opinion? What would you say if you participated in that debate? Section 3.7, of the same book, describes the so-called communist morality.
Try to identify essential differences between it and moral codes based on religions. Also ask what students think about the purpose of moral systems,
and about their efficiencies.
“Hell on Earth” was written for people whose familiarity with Sovet history is very limited. A set of 45 discussion questions, with references to
specific pages, is available on-line at:
2) My autobiography also contains topics worth discussing. Section 15.9, for example, compares two totalitarian ideologies--Nazism and Stalinism. What
do they have in common? How do they differ from each other? What additional similarities and differences are worth emphasizing? Are genocide's
avoidable? What can be done to protect the world population from highly destructive ideologies?
3) I was aware of many episodes of Soviet brutality and injustice. This did not prevent me from becoming an active communist in Poland. How can this be
explained? This question was asked in Chapter 16 of my on-line autobiography. But I was not able to answer it. Abandoning religious beliefs and becoming
an atheist is common; the opposite evolution, described in my book, is probably much less frequent. How can this be explained? In my opinion, the second
kind of transformation is more difficult than the first. How can this be explained?
4) I am neither historian nor social scientist. Does this make my general observations less valuable? Most sections of my autobiography can lead to
productive discussions. But this will probably not be enough. A teacher should deepen the discussion on the basis of his or her knowledge, and on the
basis of what students learn from other resources.
1) Preparing a good discussion is usually more difficult than preparing a good lecture, even when one is familiar with the subject matter. This is
probably true in all disciplines. The outcome of a discussion based on reading will depend on how many students read the assigned material. To promote
reading a teacher might ask for a short written summary of what was assigned. One page should be sufficient, but students should submit the summaries a
day or two before the discussion. Another device is to ask selected students to be ready to answer specific questions, for example, also one or two days
before the meeting.
2) Equally important is the proper handling of unexpected questions and comments. There is nothing wrong in saying "I do not know how to answer this
today." Years ago one would say "we will address the issue at the next meeting." But today one can also say "I will post the reply at our class web
site." Having a bunch of "ready to be asked" questions can also be very useful, especially when discussion does not develop on its own. Personally,
I have nothing against occasional questions being addressed to individual students, rather than to the entire class. The main goal--promoting critical
thinking about the current topic--should always be kept in mind; slight deviations from the original plan are most often acceptable.
Hell On Earth: Brutality And Violence Under The Stalinist Regime
by Ludwik Kowalski,
Wasteland Press; Shelbyville, KY, 2008
The book (ISBN # 978-1-60047-232-9) can be ordered at www.amazon.com
or at a bookstore, such as Barnes and Noble or Borders.
Topics worth discussing (pages refer to the printed version of the book):
1) Page VIII
What is the inner voice motivating people to speak out about genocides?
2) Page VIII, 104
Are there any indications that contemporary Russian leaders are motivated by the Marxist ideology of proletarian dictatorship?
3) Pages: 2, 3, 5, 37, 64, 80, 94, 95, 96, 108, 111
Are existing estimates of the number of victims of Stalinism reliable? Suppose the total number (of executed, imprisoned and deported) was only 10 million. That would mean that one out of every 15 Soviet citizens, on the average,
had a relative who was a victim. This did not interfere with fighting of Red Army soldiers, during WWII.
4) Page 21, 61
How can we explain undeniable Soviet patriotism during WWII? Stalingrad was just as important as D-day.
5) Pages 3, 5, 15, 18
What is slavery? Why was it established in the Soviet Union?
6) Pages 87, 88
Why did the Soviet Union collapse?
7) Pages 14, 18, 21, 22, 49, 90, 95, 112
What did the two political systems of final solution, Naziism and Stalinism, have in common? What were important differences between them?
8) Page 31
How is the human impulse of hate transformed into organized murder?
9) Pages 16, 30, 31
How can we explain genocides? Are they avoidable? If not then how can we minimize their horrible consequences?
10) Pages 23
How do different countries, including Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, China, Japan and the US, deal with the legacy of crimes associated with their histories?
11) Pages 24, 25
Why do deteriorating economic conditions often lead to totalitarianism?
12) Pages 25, 26
Was terror necessary in the Soviet Union? What effect did it have on industrial productivity?
13) Page 28
Why did the Soviet Union become involved in the Spanish Civil War?
14) Page 31
How can we ensure that the power of the state, and its propaganda, will never be used again to annihilate millions?
15) Page 34
Why was ideological justification for brutalities needed?
17) Pages 35, 36, 97, 98, 100
What was socialist realism? Was it effective in the Soviet Union?
18) Pages 38, 39, 40, 41, 96
How can we explain famines in Ukraine (the bread basket of the country) and in other regions of the Soviet Union?
19) Pages 41, 42
Why was the war aginst religion stopped suddenly in 1942? Why was the holy aspect of WWII, and not its class aspect, emphasized in the Soviet Union at that time?
20) Pages 43, 44, 96
The idea of symbolic public trials, for crimes of Stalinists, was promoted by Soviet intelligencia, after 1956. Why was it not implemented?
21) Page 44
Why was the powerful secret police needed in the Soviet Union?
22) Page 44, 46, 86, 87
Why was a new kind of morality needed in the Soviet Union? How did the so-called communist morality differ from traditional morality? Was the justification of that new morality convincing?
23) Page 45
Who should be in charge of organized efforts of caging and taming the evil impulses inside us?
24) Page 6, 25, 68, 104
What is proletarian dictatorship? Was the proletariat the ruling class in the Soviet Union?
25) Page 50
Who should be eager to understand Stalinism? Why is Stalinism most often discussed by those who disagree with it?
26) Pages 60, 61
After the war, Red Army fighters, captured by Germans, were sent back to the Soviet Union. Why were so many of them enslaved in the gulag?
27) Page 61
Why are so many American students ignorant about Stalinism?
28) Pages 65, 71, 72, 77, 78, 81
How can we understand western communists who accepted ridiculous accusations against old Bolsheviks?
29) Page 67
How can we explain the Krondstadt rebellion?
30) Page 65, 70, 106
What fraction of executed old Bolsheviks, if any, were spies and Gestapo agents? Should we trust their prison and trial confessions?
31) Pages 72, 73
Was the Soviet Union a police state?
32) Page 73, 74, 75
In what sense can one say that Marxism was an instument of political power in the Soviet Union?
33) Pages 80, 81, 83, 104, 106, 110, 113, 114
What is Stalinism? What is communism? How does it differ from socialism?
34) Pages 86, 87
Why was Stalin not replaced, or eliminated, when his despotism became obvious to other Bolsheviks?
35) Pages 87, 88
Those who criticized Stalinism were often confined to mental institutions. Why is this form of punishment more deplorable than imprisonment?
36) Page 90
How can we explain recent attempts to shift the blame for Soviet atrocities from Stalin and Beria to local party apparatchiks?
37) Page 93
To what extent were deportations of entire nations (from Crimea and Caucasus regions) responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union?
38) Page 54
What role should museums, illustrating Nazi and Stalinist atrocities, play in education, especially in Germany and Russia?
* * * * * * * * * * ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS RELATED TO WWII AND OTHER THINGS * * * * * * * * * *
39) Hundreds of churches were reopened during WWII. How can this be explained?
40) Why was the first Soviet national anthem--the famous International--replaced by a new anthem, during WWII? The new song emphasized
"indestructible brotherhood of Soviet people united by great Russia." (Sojuz nierushymyj respublik sovietskich splotila na wieki velikaja Rus).
42) Why were Red Army insignia replaced with old tsarist epaulettes, during WWII?
43) Why were names of tsarist heros, such as marshals Suvorov and Kutuzov, resurected during WWII? Why were they not resurected during the winter
war in Finland (1940)?
44) What prompted Khrushchev, one of Stalin’s faightful leutenats (since 1920’s ), to condemn Stalinism in 1956?
45) What prompted Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union--this post was occupied by Stalin since Lenin’s
death--to initiate Glasnost (liberalisation, opennes) in 1980’s? What motivated him to initiate Perestroika (rebuilding
of the Soviet Union)? How do we understand the short house arrest of Gorbachev in Crimea (by hard-line apparatchiks in August 1991)?