FRom Maoist militance to exposing the crimes of Communism.
Stéphane Courtois on rebellion, militancy, scholarship, and how he came to publish one of the most important books of the XX century.
Stéphane Courtois — his generation's perhaps most thought-provoking historian — not only studied some of the biggest utopian ideas of the XX century, but lived them too: from leading university revolts and stockpiling weapons in early Seventies, to learning how to be a scholar, and to finally becoming a prime authority on Communism.
What remains constant throughout his path are curiosity, passion, and sincerity that put their stamp on all of his major endeavors. An author of over 30 books, now an Honorary Director of Research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, he is most widely known for The Black Book of Communism — a seminal compendium of the atrocities of Communism which he co-wrote and edited, and which caused an international furor when it was first was published in 1997.
The book sold over a million copies, has been translated into 26 languages, and forced Communist and ex-Communist officialdom admit to things that were denied before. Legendary Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky once called the book "an everlasting must-have" and advocated for it to be studied both in the East and in the West.
In a series of conversations with Professor Courtois which took place in Paris in January 2022, Nicolas Miletitch charters his interviewee's progress from the 1960s French student movements to painstaking research and study of the ideology which to this day continues to haunt the world.
Nicolas Miletitch: Was history an important part of your family upbringing or was it an interest that you developed later, in the course of your studies?
Stéphane Courtois: I don't come from a background of historians. My grandparents on both sides were secular teachers in the countryside, and my father worked in a bank. I wanted to study history, but my father said to me: "That doesn't lead anywhere. You're going to study law." So I enrolled in the Faculty of Law of Nanterre University in 1967. And then 1968 arrived, when I fell into the circle of Cohn-Bendit and company.
A student revolt began in March 1968 at Nanterre University. It quickly spread among the workers, leading to two months of violent demonstrations and strikes that paralyzed the country and threatened the government of General De Gaulle. Events of May 1968 became the most important social movement in France in the 20th century.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit was one of the far-left leaders of the student uprising in France in 1968, the organizer of the Movement of 22 March, a group of predominantly anarcho-communist persuasion, which also included Trotskyists. He later became a member of the French and German Green parties. In 2002 he became a co-chairman of the Greens/ European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament.
N.M.: Was this the beginning of your involvement in Maoism?
S.C.: In Nanterre, in 1968, it was the Movement of 22 March that was at the forefront of events. In this movement, there were anarchists, like its leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, some situationists, and militants of the UJCML (Union des Jeunesses Communistes Marxistes-Léninistes) which gave birth to a group that was at first called Vive le Communisme and then Vive la Révolution.
This group was Anarcho-Maoist, something that theoretically cannot exist. There were in this group ultra-Stalinist Maoists, former members of the French Communist Party (PCF) and young people like me, without any particular foundation, who were rather anarchist. All that functioned in an unbelievable ideological mess. It is also from this group that the Movement for Liberation of Women in 1970, and then the Homosexual Front of Revolutionary Action were born.
Front homosexuel d'action révolutionnaire (Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action) was a free movement which emerged in Paris in 1971 as a result of an alliance between lesbian feminists and gay activists. FHAR are known for beginning to draw attention to gay rights in the 1970s after the 1968 student and worker uprisings that did not raise women's and gays' issues. They advocated for "the overthrow of the bourgeois and heteropatriarchal state" and "the inversion of chauvinistic and homophobic values."
From 1968 to 1971-1972, I was a full-time Maoist activist. Until 1972, I ran a large Maoist bookstore in Paris, called La Commune. Among other things, I published all the pamphlets of the Black Panthers. As Vive la Révolution was the "correspondent" of the Black Panthers in France, we even had a visit in 1970 from the Black Panther "Foreign Minister" Connie Matthews, who was walking around Paris with her armed bodyguards.
N.M.: Were Maoist militants at the time preparing for armed struggle in France?
S.C.: The armed struggle is still the great taboo to this today! Among the Maoists, there were two groups that were preparing for it: Gauche Proletarienne and Vive la Révolution. Vive la Révolution had fairly close relations with Lotta Continua, which was preparing the armed struggle in Italy.
But we knew nothing about armed struggle, so we had to turn to people who did. Who to turn to? To a big thug, with several court convictions, who knew where to get weapons, and to a former paratrooper who had taken part in the Indochina war and knew how to use those weapons.
For months I had this paratrooper staying in my house and repairing guns in my room. These guns had been provided by a friend, a thug who had spent several years in prison for pimping and armed robbery. I think he had been infiltrated in our house by the police... It was all very ambiguous.
Some of our leaders were in contact with Palestinian terrorism and some of us went to Jordan for training. Others, in contact with ETA, went to train in the Pyrenees.
We were bathed in a kind of delirious mythology of armed struggle, some had weapons, others did not... Jean-Luc Godard, in Switzerland, had manuals of armed struggle printed which were smuggled into France and which I then sold in my bookstore, such as Carlos Marighella's Manual of the Urban Guerrilla.
Jean-Luc Godard is a Franco-Swiss filmmaker, founder of the French New Wave in cinema, who had been actively involved in far-left movements since 1968. His films of the 1960s had a transformative effect on cinema worldwide. In 2010, Godard was awarded an Academy Honorary Award, but did not attend the ceremony.
Carlos Marighella was leader of the Brazilian Communist Party (BCP) until 1967 and a founder and leader of the underground organization Action for National Liberation, a group responsible for several executions. From the end of the 1950s, he was one of the main figures of the revolutionary tendency in the BKP.
The ideological muddle was such that finally everything exploded, and the decision was taken to dissolve the movement. The self-dissolution of Vive la Révolution had two main reasons: on the one hand, the leadership was impacted by feminists and gays, and on the other hand, there was the issue of the armed struggle: are we going for it or not? We were getting ready for it, but we hadn't yet taken any action. Finally, the self-dissolution put an end to the whole thing.
Vive la Révolution dissolved itself and my militancy stopped there. That's how I've left Maoism: because there was no group anymore, no leader anymore, nothing! All of it had been happening in an absolutely incredible artistic blur.
In 1972, I moved on to other things, I turned to social activism, I was organizing summer camps for underprivileged young people. In 1970 I led a big battle at the Faculty of Law at Nanterre, there was a general fight with the police, the Faculty closed for 15 days, and I got expelled from it. This surely was the greatest favor I've ever been served!
I only had to cross the campus of Nanterre University to begin to study history. There, I got very lucky because the history department of Nanterre University was at that time the most brilliant of all universities in France.
I then began to reflect on Communism in relation to my continuing militant commitment to it, asking myself questions. In fact, I was very mildly politicized when I fell in with the Maoists. And what have we been reading in the Maoist circles? We only read Mao, Lenin and Stalin! So my background in history was relatively weak.
I went back to school to study history and quickly decided to study Communism to try to understand it. I did my Master's degree on the French Communist Party (PCF) from 1939 to 1941. And when I decided to continue this work and to write a thesis on this subject, my professor sent me to see an expert on Communism, Annie Kriegel.
Annie Kriegel was a French historian, a leading expert on communism and its history. She joined the PCF at the age of 19, left the party in 1956 and devoted herself to the study of communism, becoming its ardent and knowledgeable critic. Eminent American historian Robert Paxton gave the highest praise to her book The French Communists after its publication in the United States in 1972.
I did my thesis with Annie Kriegel, on the French Communist Party during the war, which I published in 1980. This was my first book. At the time, the Communists still largely dominated the field of Communist studies with their journals, their publishing houses... One day, I said to Annie Kriegel, "We have nowhere to publish our work." So in 1982, we created the magazine called Communisme with her. I staffed its editorial board with young historians who had all come out of leftism, former Trotskyists and Maoists, and even "orthodox" ex-Communists.
Annie Kriegel played a very important role for an entire generation of historians of Communism. All the young historians who had abandoned leftism, had gone through Annie Kriegel's "filter." It was she who "decommunized" us, for the good reason that she had gone through that same itinerary, since she used to be a devout Stalinist. She had left the party in 1956, after the events in Hungary. She had then resumed her studies of history and in 1964 had written her first thesis on the history of the PCF.
The Communisme magazine operated until 2013. After that, we published one book per year until 2017. In creating Communisme, we wanted to establish an academic task force to counter the French Communist Party, which was still very powerful in the academic world and in the media at the time... It was important because I've always seen the work of a historian as team work. We published all the young European researchers who were working in the field of Communism.
I was once offered a position at the Hoover Institution, but since I had just created Communisme, I declined, I thought my work lay here.
N.M.: You worked in the Soviet archives after the Perestroika...
S.C.: We had no contact with the USSR at that time. And then, all of a sudden, things started to change. Thierry Wolton, who had contacts with the USSR through his wife Natacha Dioujeva, who was rather close to the dissidents, went to Moscow in the summer of 1991 and discovered that there was a possibility of accessing archives. He came back to Paris, went to see Annie Kriegel and told her, "The archives are opening in Moscow, it is absolutely necessary to send people there, as we do not know how long they will remain open."
In the spring of 1992, Annie Kriegel went to Moscow, came back and told us, "Stop whatever you are doing, you have to go to Moscow!" I was working on something else entirely at that time, on the historical origins of French Communism in the 19th century, but Annie was perfectly right, we had to drop everything.
Three of us went to Moscow: Philippe Buton, an expert on the PCF, Laurent Rucker (one of my students who was working on the role of the USSR in the creation of the State of Israel) and me. The first time we stayed for about two weeks. The archives of the Communist International were at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, in the center of Moscow. We were received by the person in charge of the archives, Mrs. Skhakhnazarova. Let me remind you that in the USSR there was no law concerning archives. The archives were under the direct control of the Central Committee. But there was no more Central Committee! This was our chance: no law and no Central Committee!
Mrs. Shakhnazarova welcomed us very courteously, but when we told her that we had come to consult the archives concerning the French Communist Party, she said that she had no such documents and only invited us to look at the catalogs. Which catalogs should we look in? How are they organized? For three days we kept wandering around the building. Then one day, someone discreetly invited me into his office and in broken English told me that he might have something for me. He took a register out and told us where some documents concerning the PCF could be found. Realizing we had been deceived, I complained to the Director of the Institute, Kirill Anderson. That gentleman was a real historian, a specialist on the 18th century England, who spoke perfect French and English.
After hearing me out, he telephoned Mrs. Shakhnazarova and spoke to her in a rather brutal tone, and then told me, "Go and see her now." We went back to her and she gave us access to the archives where there were thousands of files... We felt like we were in Ali Baba's cave!
At that point, we started working like crazy, from the first minutes of opening until the last minutes of closing. And we kept working nights setting our notes right.
At that time, there were two systems of reproduction in the archives: photocopies (but they were very expensive, about a dollar a copy), and microfilm, which was very cheap. All the documents that we thought were absolutely essential, we photocopied immediately. We thought that at least this could be preserved, if the archives were to be closed. Nicolas Werth, who was the Cultural Attaché at the French Embassy in Moscow at the time, warned us, "The archives are open today, but they could very well close again tomorrow morning." The year was 1992 and we didn't know what was going to happen. So, everything that seemed important to us, we photocopied, the rest was microfilmed.
Nicolas Werth is a French historian specializing in the history of the Soviet Union and Stalin's repressions. Author of numerous
works, he served as Cultural Attache in Moscow during Perestroika and later became one of the co-authors of The Black Book
We were extraordinarily fortunate: the archivist in charge of the French collection, Marina, spoke excellent French and knew her archives by heart. She did us unimaginable favors. She was obviously amazed that all the work she had done throughout the years was finally going to be of used. I checked: no one before us had ever consulted these archives!
As I had done my thesis on the PCF during the war, I first of all looked for documents on this subject. And there I found all the handwritten reports of Duclos (Jacques Duclos, one of the leaders of the PCF at that time. — N.M.) and Tréand, the head of the PCF's top secret cadre service, which gave all the details of their meetings at the German Embassy with the Nazis and their negotiations with Otto Abetz (the Ambassador of the Nazi Germany in Paris during the occupation from 1940 to 1944. — N.M.) to make sure that l'Humanité (the main newspaper of the PCF. — N.M.) could again start being printed... All these documents signed by Manouilsky (Dimitry Manouilsky, a high-ranking representative of the Communist International. — N.M.) and Stalin. These were the first gems we have discovered in that Ali Baba's cave. What we have come upon was amazing. Even I had never imagined the degree of control to which the French Communist Party was being subjected.
The documents we have found allowed us to understand many things that until then could only be perceived through historiography presented by the communists. For example, in 1936, when Thorez (Maurice Thorez, the Secretary General of the PCF from 1930 to 1964. — N.M.) was contemplating participating in the Popular Front government, which would have been the first participation of communists in a "bourgeois government," an order came from Moscow: "Niet!". The same thing happened in 1938, when Thorez wanted the Communists to participate in the new government of Léon Blum: Dimitrov (Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgarian communist, leader of the Communist International from 1934 to 1943. — N.M.) sent telegrams saying that it was out of the question. The Communist Party hasn't taken a single step without Moscow's the authorization!
When we found these secret telegrams in the archives, sent by radio, containing the exchanges between Dimitrov, Fried, Duclos... our arms went weak!
Eugen Fried, also known as "Comrade Clément", was a Czechoslovak communist. In 1931 he became representative of the Communist International in Paris and, under strict secrecy and avoiding publicity, served as the true leader of the Communist International in the 1930s, making sure party leaders remained loyal to Stalin and followed orders from Moscow.
N.M.: Secret telegrams sent by radio?
S.C.: Yes, there was a small team of secret agents of the Communist Party, with female ciphers who had been trained in Moscow in a special section of the International Lenin School, which taught radio transmitting, sabotage and espionage. Maurice Tréand, the head of the ultra-secret service of the PCF cadres, had under his command a woman who was a cipher expert, a so-called "pianist" (typist), with one or two reserve teams. There were several transmitting and receiving stations in the Paris suburbs. All this in peace time!
That's the problem with the Communist Party. We are really dealing with a Janus: there is a public facade and then there is a completely secret part of it, and this part is the Soviet networks. Ninety percent of communist militants know nothing about it, nothing at all!
That's why I've called the opening of the archives a "documentary revolution." When thousands of documents come out, you can't say that they don't exist. And these documents show an entire unknown part of the history of French Communism, that is to say, its secret part and its relations with Moscow.
N.M.: Your work in the archives led to some difficulties...
S.C.: I returned to Moscow several times to work in the archives. The last time, in December 1994, we finally got access to the secret telegrams exchanged by radio between the Communist Party and Moscow. We took notes and made a microfilm, but the microfilm never reached us. We had a network of French and Russian Communists working against us in Moscow and I am certain that this microfilm had been stolen by this network of French Communists.
In France, people who had contacts with the Communists in Moscow saw that I was going deeper and deeper into the archives and they did everything they could to prevent me from continuing my work. In an attempt to deny me access to the archives, they got an idea in 1994 to publish in Moscow an interview that I had given to the newspaper La Croix (French Catholic newspaper. — N.M.), but which they had doctored and in which they showed me saying that the archives in Moscow contained false documents. One must ask why would I go to Moscow to consult false documents?! Based on this "interview," there was a full-scale attack against me at the level of the chief directorate of the Russian archives along those lines: Mr. Courtois is a fake historian, a provocateur who should be banned from the archives.
I wasn't able to learn about this right away because I was in Paris at the time. One day, however, someone told me, and I wrote a letter to the director of the archives, attaching the authentic copy of the interview to La Croix so that they could easily see how it had been faked. The head of the Russian archives, still under Yeltsin, protected me and I was not banned from the archives. But the climate started to get really unhealthy, and when I worked in the archives I was under permanent surveillance.
One day, in Paris, I received by fax a report on "the anti-communist and openly provocative activities of the anti-communist group of Courtois - Kriegel - Buton - Wolton" and I don't know who else... giving the address where I lived!
At first I thought a friend was playing a joke on me. But the report was followed by a list of microfilms I had requested from the archives and which had not yet arrived. Then I realized that it was serious, because only I and the Russian archives knew about this list.
The author of the report was a French Communist historian, a colleague of mine... These were the methods of thugs and the KGB!
When I tried to find out who had sent me this document, I discovered that it was an ex-member of the political bureau of the PCF who, having heard about this report, felt so disgusted that he decided to forward it to me.
For me, the opening of the archives marked the beginning of the second chapter of my career as a historian. I had started in 1973 and continued until 1992, that's 20 years of work. And then I had to start all over again on a new basis. It was sensational! And without the work in the archives, we would not have written the Black Book.
The Black Book of Communism
S.C.: One day, in 1995, one of the executives of the Robert Laffont publishing house, Charles Ronsac, asked me to write a book about the crimes of Communism. After thinking about it, I realized that I could not do it alone. So I put together a team with Jean-Louis Panné, who had been Souvarine's secretary, Nicolas Werth and Karel Bartosek. The funny thing is that, as was already the case with Communisme magazine, all the contributors to the Black Book were former communists, leftists, Maoists or Trotskyists. Not a single right-wing historian!
The Black Book was a triumph, over a million copies were sold, it was translated into 26 languages... In the United States it was published by Harvard University Press. I did seminars on the book all over Europe. It shatterd a tremendous taboo.
N.M.: Was there any controversy about the comparisons between Nazism and Communism in your book?
S.C.: The comparison with Nazism is the pretext which the Communists, the leftists and some socialists have seized upon to criticize the book. But this comparison was impossible not to make. If you take the 20th century, there you have two great criminogenic phenomena: Communism and Nazism.
There is a difference in how Communism is remembered in the West and in the East. In the West, whether it is Germany, France, Belgium,
ISBN: 0674076087. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England, 1999. First published by Editions Robert Laffont, S.A., Paris, 1997.
Norway, or Italy... there is a glorious memory of Communism. Communism equals anti-fascism, resistance. Communists are on the side of justice, on the side of progress, on the side of history... Of course, this feeling is much less powerful today than it used to be. And, above all, it no longer has an impact on politics. There is a generational change. On the other hand, all over Eastern Europe after 1991, tragic memories began to come out now that the witnesses got a chance to speak. There we have not only the archives, but also witnesses!
Boris Souvarine (Lifschitz) was born in Kiev in 1895, moved to Paris around 1900, and in 1914 joined the French section of the Workers' International. He was one of the founders of the PCF. During his membership in the Executive Committee of the Comintern he lived in Moscow. In 1924 he supported Trotsky against Stalin and was removed from his posts in the Comintern. After being expelled from the PCF in 1924, he became one of the main critics of Stalinism and of the Soviet regime. He has left recorded memories of the famous Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel, and corresponded with Solzhenitsyn. He died in Paris in 1984.
N.M.: Among these witnesses, there are Soviet dissidents. Did they play an important role for you?
S.C.: The dissidents played a very small role for me. In fact, all my thoughts were concentrated on the PCF and then a little on the Communist International. I was very late in reading Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, as well as the books of Bukovsky. I discovered Bukovsky very late, but then I got to know him very well.
Charles Ronsac, one of the executives of the Robert Laffont publishing house, which published The Black Book of Communism, had also published in French Bukovsky's book Judgment in Moscow - a Dissident in the Kremlin Archives.
ISBN: 9780998041612. Ninth of November Press, 2019. Published by Editions Robert Laffont in 1995.
Ronsac told me that Bukovsky had shared with him that he wanted to access the archives to obtain evidence, and to copy documents. And Ronsac was very proud to tell me how he had obtained a small scanner, one of the very first portable scanners, which he had entrusted to Bukovsky who was thus able to scan thousands of pages.
Bukovsky did very well to rush right away because at that time there was no law regarding archives — they were open. And especially nobody knew at that time in Moscow what a scanner was!
Our first meeting with Bukovsky took place in Romania. The first translation of the Black Book was made in Romania by a group of former Romanian dissidents who created a museum and a memorial in a former prison in Sighet, a small town in the North, on the border with Ukraine. These former dissidents have created a summer University where every year a hundred or so young people gather to attend conferences and courses on human rights with various speakers.
In 1999, they invited me for the first time, and in total I went there about ten times. In 2002, they invited Bukovsky, and we spent about ten days together in
Sighet. At that time I had great contact with Bukovsky. That year, for the first time, there was a group of young Moldovans among the students. Bukovsky, who had just arrived from England where he didn't seem to enjoy himself very much, was delighted to find himself in the middle of this group of young Russian-speaking people. When he was giving his lectures, there was absolute silence in the room. The young people were completely fascinated by what he was telling them about his experiences.
ISBN: 9738214181. Published in 2003 by Fundatia Academia Civica.
ISBN: 9738214009. Published in 2002 by Fundatia Academia Civica.
Vladimir Bukovsky demonstrates the scanner he used to copy documents in the CPSU archives in 1992.
In 2006, I invited him to a small Catholic university in the West of France, in La Roche-sur-Yon, where I still teach a course on Communism. We had organized a conference on the GULAG, and Bukovsky came and spoke to an amphitheater full of adoring students.
We kept in touch and Bukovsky visited me in my house in Paris. We had other meetings, especially at the time when he was trying to have his book published in which he compared the European Union to the USSR. (L'Union européenne, une nouvelle URSS? published by Editions du Rocher in 2005. — Ed.) On this subject, I disagreed with him. I told him, "Volodya, you cannot compare the two things. The European Union is very bureaucratic, I agree, but it has not shot anyone so far!"
For me, Bukovsky is the only true dissident. First of all, he was never a Communist. From a very young age he broke with the system. He fought constantly and suffered absolutely terrible consequences. When he spoke at Sighet about the chemical tortures to which he had been subjected in the psychiatric hospitals, it was terrifying! He was a mighty person, very intelligent, very informed.
N.M.: How do you evaluate the current situation around Ukraine and the threats coming from Moscow? Is Russian expansionism under Putin a legacy of the Communist system?
S.C.: For me, it is the legacy of the KGB. Putin is the pure product of the KGB and I think his behavior toward Ukraine is the behavior of a KGB colonel who can't stand the idea of having lost control of Ukraine.
The behavior of official Russia since Lenin until today in relation to the Ukrainians should silence Mr. Putin! We must not forget that independent Ukraine was the first country on which Lenin declared war in December 1917. When we see the way in which the Ukrainians became the victims first of Lenin and then of Stalin, with organized starvation, the destruction of all intellectual elites, including those of the Ukrainian communists…
I never thought that the Soviet system came out of the Tsarist system. The Soviet system comes straight from Lenin's brain. The Tsarist system was much more liberal in 1900 than the Soviet Union was in 1950.
We always come back to Putin's phrase that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Putin is not a Communist, that is to say he is no longer one, but he remains a KGB man. And for the KGB people, the fundamental thing is control. For them losing control is intolerable.
There is an extraordinary thing about Putin, it is that he is in complete denial, he refuses to admit that the USSR completely lost the Cold War, and that the Communist regime was an immense absurdity which ended in total collapse, starting with the collapse of the economy. This is something he can't stomach. He is resentful and seeks revenge. One time it's Georgia, another time it's Crimea, then yet another time it's Donbass. Let us remember that when the Donbass affair started, Putin told Angela Merkel that, roughly, he could be in Kyiv in two days. He only dreams of that!
He cannot not escape his training: he only understands the relationship of forces.
We are observing a process à la Hitler: Hitler remilitarizes the left bank of the Rhine, while it is prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles. Nothing happens. He invades Austria, nothing happens. He threatens to invade Czechoslovakia, which produces the Munich Agreement. Three months later, on March 5, he broke the Munich Agreement by tearing up the famous paper that Chamberlain brandished as a guarantee of peace.
Putin is no longer very young… It almost seems like he has the whims of an old man. It's starting to sound like psychosis. Putin behaves irrationally in this matter.
Translated from the French by Natalia Ibrayeva.
Nicolas Miletitch served as the Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent in Moscow from 1978 to 1981 before having been expelled by the Soviet authorities, and led AFP as its Editor-in-Chief from 2006 to 2009. He personally carried many key dissident texts and documents to the West and is the author of two highly acclaimed documentaries on human rights in Russia: L'Histoire Secrète de l'Archipel du Goulag (The Secret History of the Gulag Archipelago) and "За успех нашего безнадежного дела" (To the Success of Our Hopeless Battle). His book Trafics et crimes dans les Balkans about the organized crime in the Balkans has been published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1998.