This year marks the centenary of the founding of the Soviet Union, and with it the imposition of a communist dictatorship in Tsarist Russia and beyond. The totalitarian government that Vladimir Lenin and his party apparatchiks built is commonly associated with the terror of large-scale famine, police-state repression, gulags and assassinations. Yet, there is another noteworthy Soviet legacy: communist support for terrorist groups.
Soviet aid to terrorist organizations was a staple of Moscow’s strategy against the West and its allies during the Cold War. At the roots of this sponsorship was a desire to portray the USSR and communism as the vanguard of “liberation” in an era that witnessed the disintegration of the British and French empires. That the Soviet Union itself had engaged in imperialism since shortly after its creation was an inconvenient truth to be whitewashed in communist propaganda.
As analyst Nick Lockwood noted in The Atlantic in 2011, “Russia is the birthplace of modern terrorism,” with 19th century Russian nihilists and secret societies advocating a violent overthrow of Tsarist rule.
Groups like the “People’s Will” murdered Tsarist officials and, in March 1881, Tsar Alexander II himself. Among its more infamous members was Alexander Ulyanov – Lenin’s older brother – who was executed by the state in 1887 for a planned assassination of Alexander’s son and successor.
There was terrorism from the Russian far Right as well, with organizations like the Union of the Russian People having “compiled lists of current and former government officials to be assassinated,” as the historian Stephen Kotkin highlighted in Stalin: Paradoxes of Power.
But it was the USSR and its communist allies who helped terrorism go global.
According to The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, a book by historian Christopher Andrew and the KGB operative turned defector Vasili Mitrokhin, the “unexpected surge” of international terrorism in the early 1970s coupled with the successful backing of Sandinista guerillas in Latin America “encouraged” Moscow to “consider the use of Palestinian terrorists as proxies in the Middle East and Europe.”
By 1970, the KGB “began secret arms deliveries to the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)” – a US-designated terrorist group. In addition to the PLFP, the Soviets, the East German Stasi, the Cuban General Intelligence Directorate (DGI), Romanian intelligence services, and other communist dictatorships gave funds, training and support to various leftist terrorist networks.
THESE GROUPS, such as the Japanese Red Army, Italy’s Red Brigades, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and various German organizations all “shared Marxist philosophies, a hatred of America” and “solidarity with the Palestinians,” Lockwood notes. On the latter point, the analyst pointed out: “Palestinian groups were enthusiastic participants in Soviet terror largesse.”
This went hand in glove with the USSR’s propaganda campaign to tar Zionism, the belief in Jewish self-determination, as racism; a tool, it was said, of Western colonialist oppression.
In this fashion, the communists that had imposed autocracy and enslaved billions could be painted as “liberators” of the Third World.
Yasser Arafat, a founder of the Palestinian Fatah movement and future head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA), even received KGB training in east Moscow in the early 1960s, according to a Wall Street Journal article by Ion Mihai Pacepa, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Romania before his defection to the United States in 1978.
Together, communist-backed terrorist groups pioneered airplane hijackings and the purposeful targeting – including mass murder – of civilians. Indeed, General Alexander Sakharovsky, who headed the KGB’s First Chief Directorate that oversaw operations abroad, bragged in 1971: “Airplane hijacking is my own invention.”
According to Andrew and Mitrokhin, the Soviets ceased supporting the PFLP in the late 1970s. Other groups, however, continued to receive support and other communist dictatorships – all trained and backed by the USSR – were happy to provide it.
East Germany in particular was an avid proponent, as the American historian Jeffrey Herf documented in his important 2016 book Undeclared Wars with Israel. The country’s vicious and highly effective intelligence service, the Stasi, aided the PLO, among other groups, in carrying out “acts of war” and “international terrorism,” as its own records note.
Herf points out that East Germany served as a “transit” and “training spot” for numerous terrorists and that the Stasi, concerned about Western condemnation should their trainees carry out attacks in the West, entered into a formal agreement with the PLO: committing terrorist attacks “anywhere else” was encouraged.
The plane hijackings and massacres, such as occurred at the Lod Airport and the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, foretold much of what was to come – although the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell more than two decades ago, the Soviet legacy of terrorism remains.
Indeed, according to a September 9, 2011, US State Department cable, the Soviet-trained Cuban DGI allowed the Lebanese-based, US-designated terrorist group Hezbollah to establish “an operational base in Cuba, designed to support terrorist groups throughout Latin America.”
In his “Lessons from the Moscow Uprising,” written more than a decade before seizing power, Lenin set the course, writing of his Bolsheviks: “We stand for terror – this should be frankly admitted.”
He’s right.The writer is a Washington DC-based foreign affairs analyst. His views are his own.