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The Education of a True Believer: Exploring Lev Kopelev's Book About His Radicalization Into Communism

Lex Fridman: Can you actually put words to the kind of dragon that you're fighting? Is it communism?

Jordan Peterson: It's the spirit of Cain... to become self-conscious it to... have the scales fall from your eyes... you now have to labor to prevent the catastrophes of the future. That's work. Work is sacrifice. Sacrifice of the present to the future. It's delay of gratification. It's maturity. It's sacrifice to something and in the spirit of something...

[Unlike Abel], Cain's sacrifices are rejected so he gets resentful, enough resentment to call God out... God says what Cain least wants to hear... you're not making the sacrifices you should and you know it... sin crouches at your door like a sexually aroused predatory animal and you've invited it in, to have its way with you. God basically says, 'you have allowed your resentment to preoccupy yourself and now you're brooding upon it and generating something creative, new, and awful all possessed by the spirit of resentment. That's why you're in the miserable state you're in.'

Cain is so incensed by this... and instead of changing, kills Abel and then Cain's descendants are the first people who make weapons of war. That's the eternal story of mankind and it's playing out right now, except at a thousand times the rate.

How do we make sense of the reality that people get sucked into ideologies, follow evil authoritarian leaders, and seem to mindlessly follow cult leaders?

I'm no exception, as I've had my journey through political radicalization.

“Destructive people think Cain is their Savior.“ - Jordan Peterson

I believe we are all dormant radicals. For most Americans, at least in recent history, that dormancy was not disturbed. But now that we seem to be in an era of extremism, it's becoming more prominent and likely that we have friends and family who fall under the spell of leaders or ideologies.

How do we make sense of it and effectively navigate the dynamics?

There is no clear-cut answer, but I did stumble upon a book that had some interesting insights. It's called The Education of a True Believer, by Lev Kopelev. Here's the official description of the book.

"In this book, Lev Kopelev chronicles his early eager absorption of and his final tragic disillusionment with Soviet propaganda, recalling events from his carefree Jewish childhood in Kiev to his imprisonment in a labor camp."

Lev was a victim of communist propaganda and he shares his story. What got me the most interested in the book was its original title, which differs from the English version. The literal title is, And He Created An Idol for Himself.

The word idol struck a cord because it seems to be the core idea that makes sense of things. When we make something an idol, we are making that thing our god. We are placing our faith in that storytelling idol and their story. The story becomes primary. All other considerations, moral and factual, are secondary.

I stumbled upon the following insightful small commentary about the book a year or so ago. I can't find the source, so if you stumble upon it, please let me know.

"Lev Kopelev, who was born in 1912 and whose conscious memory more or less dates from the time of the formation of the Soviet state, deals in this volume with the period of his adolescence and early manhood. His reminiscences, which describe his growing up in the Ukraine in a Jewish family amid Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, and Germans, are spirited and frequently make absorbing reading. A concluding chapter, "The Last Grain Collections (1933)," treats an insufficiently known episode which cost the Ukraine millions of victims.

The original Russian title of the book, I sotvoril sebe kumira (And He Created an Idol for Himself) (Ann Arbor, 1978), suggests even more clearly than the English title that Kopelev intends to discuss his gradual enthrallment by Marxist-Leninist ideology. By his own account, Kopelev did not succeed in shaking off the "spell" until well into the 1960s."

In reading the book, I found the author didn't go deep enough into unwrapping the dynamics and his falling under the spell as I hoped. But there were still plenty of gems discovered in my read, nonetheless, and of which I've shared below.

In my own experience, people are afraid of fascism or communism, but not always both, which leads them to back up into the arms of the other. We keep guard of the front door while the other sneaks in the back door.

So while this book commentary explores the dangers of communist radicalism in the Soviet Union, the underlying ideas and principles can help us regardless of where it comes from or what form it takes.

the education of a true believer book cover

Book Excerpts: The Education of a True Believer

This book commentary will be different than other ones I've done. For this post, I'm simply sharing quotes that stuck out to me below and labeling them by topic. I don't have them organized by chapter or page number, so it's simply a flow of quotes I collected.

The book is quite difficult to find in print, but you can read it online for free at the Internet Archive here.

Another interesting tidbit is that his story takes place in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union. In light of Russia's invasion, it was another interesting intersection of history with relevance to the present.

Let us dive in.

Public Fascade Versus Behind the Scenes: Hearing Germans Were Vicious But Seeing They Were Kind

“...finally it became clear that the Germans were by no means vicious. When our fat Sanya took a spill on the slippery sidewalk and began to bawl, a German soldier who was passing by said


cheerfully, lifted him up, snapped his fingers cleverly, and whistled so loudly that Sanya immediately shut up. And I was convinced that the Germans were good people who were not only for the Tsar but for all of us.”

But I, from the age of ten, was convinced that the Germans were the most cultured people in the world and the best friends of Russia, and the German monarchy was the fairest form of government.”

Lev grew up in a Jewish family, so this perspective is a wild one.

Oliver Stone once interviewed Vladimir Putin, and he later talked about his experience as such a positive one. He was treated so well and had such a great experience, that it shaped how he saw and talked about Putin, often defending and providing cover for horrible words and actions from Putin and Russia. That persisted even in 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine. This came to mind when I read the quote above because of how our personal experience can override the larger story unfolding. Often, we think people who do evil are different than us, but in day-to-day life, it can be surprising to discover how similar we all are or how kind people can be at moments.

Abusers are often nice people to everyone they are not abusing. So knowing wolves can be in sheep's clothing, we need to have a more sophisticated way of evaluating, otherwise, we risk giving bad people protective cover for continuing their bad behavior.

As a Christian, this is one of the reasons I shared universal reasons for believing that Jesus resurrected; because my personal experiences might point to falsity. Our personal experience undergirded by universal reasoning is the strongest reason of them all.

Glad for Prayers But We Don't Need People Who Believe in God

“Next to her, I felt myself a man made wise by life and science, strong and bold. But secretly, without even admitting it to myself, I was glad she had promised to pray for me. You never know, it might come in handy....”


“And carrying a bag of chow. Grigory Ivanych received every one of them himself and asked: You, now, who might you be, who's your dad, why do you want to go to war? And every time he asked the last question: You believe in God? And if the guy says I do, then Grigory Ivanych would say: Then you're no good for me. Even if the guy was a hero to look at, had a horse and a weapon, he didn't take him. Go, he would say, to someone else. Because here's the way it is with me: I'm a good judge of people, and when I know a man, I know what to expect from him, what to ask. But if he has God, then I can't know what God'll order him to do. In my division there can only be one god—the commander."

It's such an interesting contrast, to dismiss God but secretly hope he's there and that he's watching over us. What's that about?

The author hoped for God to be there, even if he was slowly purging this belief from himself. Ivanych wanted complete allegiance to the commander with no risk of allegiance elsewhere and above. Complete obedience and loyalty to was a priority over any other allegiances. This is why religious people who embrace political allegiances need to be aware, that once these leaders have power, the religious folks are soon purged.

If there is anything this latter part of the quote indicates, is how clear-eyed this guy was about what he wanted from his group and who would detract. Our utmost allegiances drive our behaviors. As the original Russian title indicates, these idols drive our behavior.

Immunity To the Depth of Cruelty

“Therefore, even though I did become a sincere adherent of Stalin, I still did not turn into a full-fledged little Stalinthat is to say, a funky completely without principle, without conscience, ready to perform any base deed. And never could I believe in my heart or in my mind that we had more enemies than friends, that our task was not to convince ideological opponents but to kill them. For this saving grace, which kept me from reaching the final stage of spiritual and moral degradation, I am indebted to many good people, many good books, many beneficial forces including my childish enthusiasm for Esperanto.” page 120

Someone I know, a few years back, told me that he was in a community that included flat earthers (those who believe the earth is flat). Because of his background in science, and the work he did over his career, he was immune to accepting this belief. He knew too much for it to take hold. That struck me and has stuck with me ever since. It comes to mind when I read the quote here. 

What we are taught and personally understand, are powerful proactive tools. One of the most effective ways to deal with the firehose-of-falsehoods propaganda is to proactively address it before it comes.

Oppressor Hatred

“The pain of injured nationalist feelings was reborn as a hatred for other ethnic groups, for everyone who spoke the language of the oppressors, for everyone related to the "hereditary enemies, our neighbors."’

Because the oppressor is bad, ideology is so prevalent in today's society, this is an interesting anecdote to read. We can learn from history and also prevent it from repeating. It's an insightful line into how quickly we can stack the foundational bricks for an evil ideology. And wow, we can feel good, believing we are doing good from that ideology.

Barbarity and Cruelty

“But I convinced myself and others that the main thing had remained unchanged, that all our ills, malefactions and falsehoods were inevitable but temporary afflictions in our overall healthy society. In freeing ourselves from barbarity, we were forced to resort to barbaric methods, and in repulsing cruel and crafty foes, we could not do without cruelty and craftiness.”

Restraint is important. We often think we are better than we are. Kamil Galeev, who posts on X about Russia, says the following, which also ties into the quote above about immunity to evil.

"Also many tend to exaggerate how good "we" really are, seeing "our" behaviour as resulting from our own innate virtues rather than from external systems of incentives, formative experiences, or cultural programming. Had they been different, "our" behaviour could be different, too." - Kamil Kazani

Greater Than Oneself

“And at the same time it was precisely these stubborn dreams which remained alive, because I did not fear, but instead honestly desired to identify myself with the regime of Stalin's great empire.”

I can relate to this draw, as I think most people can, at some point in their life. After moving to Atlanta in 2005 and going through all the life struggles, it was in 2017 when we started attending Gwinnett Church (part of the North Point church network). I finally got to the point that I was tired of trying to build my own thing and wanted to be part of something greater than myself. As a Christian, our ultimate allegiance is to God, and his kingdom, but often that yearning gets hijacked and directed by nefarious actors.

And when that happens, it makes it harder to leave, because we're walking away from this greater mission. To walk away, we may need a bigger story.

Rejecting Responsibility & Logical Ends

“Five years later, when several million Ukrainian peasants had died of starvation, Skrypnik shot himself. And at the same time Khvylevoi put a gun to his head. It must have been that they couldn't stand the awareness of their own responsibility for everything that had happened in the Ukraine, the awareness of their complicity with those forces that were producing ever fresh disasters. The two were posthumously vilified as "bourgeois nationalists" and "enemies of the people."

But in 1928 both of them—talented, courageous, tested in political and literary argumentation never suspected where they were headed, where they were leading their comrade friends and comrade opponents. And to me and people like me, such assertions as "the Purishkeviches ought to be shot" seemed entirely natural mere polemical expressions.”

It's hard to take responsibility. Even harder to embrace extreme ownership. We tend to do the opposite. This gets even harder when the consequences of our choices have been more severe for others.

I'm a futurist, so I tend to think about where my beliefs and actions will take me. After I moved to Atlanta, I had gone partially down a radical road and my life was in chaos. I looked down the road I was heading and there was only destruction at the end of it, so I turned around. It's my journey and studying history that has me sending out warnings of the logical ends of Trumpism.

Rumors, Doubt, & Thought Policing

“We were told that the Trotskyites and other heretics were no longer permitted to come out openly against the victorious general line, against the CC. They had begun to operate as "silent sap," spreading rumors in secret, arousing doubt with a whisper.

And we were convinced that we must become more vigilant, turn a sharp eye, a sharp ear and a sharp nose toward anyone who might be suspected of such intentions and to check every public statement, every printed word, with critical acumen.

Thus, hardly noticing it ourselves, we were prepared—ideologically, psychologically and morally—for a new regime of censorship, increasingly harsh and niggling. And we became the voluntary censors of our comrades, of ourselves.

Some obeyed without a moment's reflection.”

This reminds me of the idea in cults, called a self-sealing system. The base idea is creating a belief structure that cannot be challenged. If it's done well, the challenges will actually further entrench people into the belief system. Most recently, Trump has embraced rhetoric to further alienate people who have not fully committed to his regime. But, it's not isolated to Republicans. Democrats play the game too.

The True Believers

“But there were also among us some genuine true believers, self-effacing zealots of "pure" ideology. And they also listened with prejudiced ears, read with prejudiced eyes, to determine whether the words of that big blowhard or that meek and modest author concealed some harmful, pernicious little thought, some sneaky hint, some provocative omission...

Such was Ilya Frid, and such I tried to be.

All this I have written down, making my way through a thicket of old and not so old recollections, often oppressive, sometimes shameful... It's not easy, it's painful to look through them at former friends and mentors, at myself as I was then. It's not easy to resurrect and even more difficult to explain with impartiality (less partiality is possible) our thoughts, feelings, perception of people and events at that time.”

While I can relate to the zealot comment, I'm grateful I never got caught up in such a movement as this, where so many people were hurt, tortured, and killed. Reading the Gulag Archipelago, it was scary to hear all the stories of neighbors turning on each other and stool pigeons everywhere. Imagine living in that type of paranoid culture, where everyone around you is your enemy.

Disagreement as Crime

“We were conditioned by the courts, by propaganda and by psychological manipulation to regard any disagreement with the powers as a crime. "Ideologically harmful" opinions noted down in a private diary or expressed in a conversation, religious views, dreams of national independence, longings for freedom of speech and, to be sure, any connections with relatives, friends or colleagues living abroad constituted a direct threat to the state and provided weighty proof of one's complicity in even more horrendous malefactions-wrecking, spying, terrorizing.”

I've seen and heard many stories of this from the political left. I've personally experienced it from the political right. When you speak out against Trump's Republican dogma, the true believers do not like it and have tried to shame me or bully me into submission to their party line.

I love respectful dissent. I want a strong argument and counter-argument so I can make the best judgment on the options. I'm not interested in shutting down good-faith discussions.

Conflating Struggles

“The grain front! Stalin said the struggle for grain was the struggle for socialism. I was convinced that we were warriors on an invisible front, fighting against kulak sabotage for the grain which was needed by the country, by the five-year plan. Above all, for the grain, but also for the souls of these peasants who were mired in unconscientious-ness, in ignorance, who succumbed to enemy agitation, who did not understand the great truth of communism...

We did not consider them opponents or feel like hostile aliens among them. For in every village we found comrades, like-minded people.”


“For what, against whom and how exactly we should struggle at any given moment was determined by the party, its leaders. Stalin was the most perspicacious, the most wise (at that time they hadn't yet started calling him "great" and "brilliant"). He said: "The struggle for grain is the struggle for socialism." And we believed him unconditionally.”


“He didn't say a word about the threat of famine. Instead, he repeated again and again that the class struggle was intensifying, and those who were "inclined to the counterrevolutionary theory of the weakening of the class struggle and the withering away of the class struggle ... [were] degenerates and double-dealers who should be driven out of the party." Virtually the only conclusion to be drawn from his report was an appeal for "revolutionary vigilance."’

I've concluded that conflating plights wrongly is one of the most nefarious acts someone can do as a leader. To falsely persuade people our plight is their own, is downright evil. It taps into people's core beliefs and tempts them in ways that are almost impossible to resist.

We all have agency and a choice to respond, but like a child turning down free candy, it can be hard to resist that which we've conditioned ourselves to believe for years and decades. Beware of anyone who says anything like the above or that someone is absorbing the wrath of your enemies to protect you. They may very well just be a criminal trying to get you to protect them.

Fanaticism Soothes The Doubts

“Some sort of rationalistic fanaticism overcame my doubts, my pangs of conscience and simple feelings of sympathy, pity and shame, but this fanaticism was nourished not only by speculative newspaper and literary sources. More convincing than these were people who in my eyes embodied, personified our truth and our justice, people who confirmed with their lives that it was necessary to clench your teeth, clench your heart and carry out everything the party and the Soviet power ordered.”

Fanatacism is a spell that is hard to break. I'm not sure it can be broken outside of a harsh reality check. But when the fanatics are in power, they can use that power to keep reality at bay for a long time while creating enormous consequences for those not in power.

The pathway to truth is to allow the doubts to creep in and let the cognitive dissonance do its work. It's scary, but important.

Deception Debt

"But Goethe is right: 

“And if the truth may cause us harm,

It still is better than a lie.

And if it may inflict a wound,

My friends, that wound our cure provides.”

The power and importance of truth. How we ought to love truth over tribe. When we value tribe over truth, we embrace the lie. And the lie has accruing consequences, even if we have enough power to delay consequences from unfolding. Justice comes. Let us be the type of people who embrace this justice and truth upfront, even when there are short-term consequences.

Ideological Salvation

“We were raised as the fanatical adepts of a new creed, the only true religion of scientific socialism. The party became our church militant, bequeathing to all mankind eternal salvation, eternal peace and the bliss of an earthly paradise. It victoriously surmounted all other churches, schisms and heresies. The works of Marx, Engels and Lenin were accepted as holy writ, and Stalin was the infallible high priest.

Factories, mines, blast furnaces, locomotives, tractors, work-benches, turbines were transformed into objects of a cult, the sacramental objects blessed from on high. "Technology solves everything!" Men genuflected to these objects in poetry, prose, painting, film, music…”

The cult leader and a cult around technology. Billy Graham gave a TED talk where he discussed this idea, and how technology won't solve our core human issues. He also talks about how every generation has to relearn the lessons. In many ways, technology can solve our problems, but it can also amplify them in negative and terrible ways.

Reinterpreting Reality

“The instincts of a power-hungry man lent an analytical sharpness to Stalin's limited, primitive, doctrinaire thought and suggested to him sufficiently effective ways to interpret and "reinterpret" reality.”

We see reality through the story we tell ourselves. That story does not have to be true. When we embrace the lie, we become the lie. If our leader becomes the lie, and we follow them blindly, we participate in bending reality.

Large enough, we create a bespoke reality. But while that twist is happening and when that twist snaps back, we won't escape the consequences.

Control & Crisis Magnified Power

A centralized hierarchical state, it would seem, requires obedient and effective mechanisms of control. However, our party and state powers were imbued from the very outset with a fruitless rigmarole and bureaucratic runaround. At every crisis their power was magnified many times, as the irresponsible "higher-ups" shifted the responsibility for their inept orders onto the disconcerted "lower-downs," and then the diligent executives were punished for the oversights of their superiors.”

This sounds so much like the many companies I've worked with. The problems are not new or unknown, but when they manifest at a national level in powerful countries, the consequences are much more severe.

Don't Believe Your Eyes

“The party drove out a man who had overstepped his authority, an "overbender," a perpetrator of the incipient famine. This gave credence to the other decisions and other reprisals taken against those declared guilty of all the misfortunes.

And so we continued to believe our rulers and our newspapers.

We believed, despite what we ourselves had seen, learned, experienced.”

There is importance to staying grounded in reality, and not getting so caught up in alternate understandings of reality we operate inside, that we lose sight of reality altogether. We have to integrate our personal experiences into the larger story so that we can move towards a more complete one.

Lies & Deception

“In my memory the pain and horror of 1933 and 1937 had not grown cold. I remembered, knew and to a certain extent understood how he had schemed, how he had deceived us, how he had lied to us about the past and the present, when together with Hitler we had routed and divided up Poland, when we had waged a shameful war on Finland. And nevertheless I believed him all over again, as did comrades. I believed him more than at any time in the past.

Because, perhaps, at that moment I first felt a spontaneous, emotional attachment to him. Before there had been only respect, cold and calculated, at times timid: he was such an inscrutable, unpredictable, forbidding and cruel man. Respect was all I could manage for someone I considered a brilliant "boss," the best of all possible leaders of my country and all the good forces of the world.”

It's hard to stop believing a liar we've placed our trust in. Even when we know they are lying. The deeper we go into the lie, the harder it is to get out even when we detect something is wrong and even when we know we need to.

Often, it's not until losing power and losing it big that we can begin to escape the grasp of this allure.

Breaking the Connection

“This belief and even heartfelt devotion could not easily be broken.

It was not broken even by many years of prisons and camps, the many new nightmares of postwar imperialism, the reprisals against entire peoples, against former prisoners of war, against "henchmen of the Tito clique," against "cosmopolites," against "recidivists."

Several years were required after the first disclosures of "the cult of personality," years during which I determinedly reflected on my own recollections, wrenching from myself "drop by drop" the world view and world conception, the ideology and psychology of a slavish doctrinaire myth-making, before I could finally begin to understand what an ugly little pygmy I had imagined to be a handsome giant, how irremediably disastrous our—my—dialectical illusions and blind faith had been.”

From my experience, we don't often leave the radical spell because we see the light. It's usually pragmatic. We're forced to by the realities we live, to move on. And it takes years and reflection to realize our downward spiral. Embracing those regrets is part of the journey, but also necessary to grow into someone of virtue.

Reasoning Less Primitively and Less Cynically

“In the war years and afterward in prison I reasoned less primitively and less cynically than in the time of my youthful radicalism. But I needed no less than two decades before I could begin to distinguish the concepts of sincerity and morality. The fanatical evildoer may be sincere, if his words and deeds match his convictions. But only he is moral who constantly checks his convictions with life, sees where the words and deeds determined by his convictions may lead (Dostoevsky).

And still later I began to realize that "the morality of a man is best expressed in his attitude toward words" (Lev Tolstoy). "The murder of the truthful word... was one of the blackest crimes committed by the decades" (Lydia Chukovskaya).”

This is such a powerful insight, and the nihilism he describes is so pervasive in our society. We need hope, but we need that hope to be grounded in what is true. When we play games with words, to avoid the central issue, we see a leading indicator that things are moving in a dangerous direction. We must have eyes that see the reality for what it is, but we must not let the despair take us over. It's only at the cross, and the resurrection to follow, that the best hope is to be found.

Idolization of Human Saviors: Unswerving Devotion

“Our century is more packed with such idols than any other since the time of Mahomet. Our forefathers revered prophets, tsars, generals, thinkers; Peter, Napoleon, Bismarck, Garibaldi, Rousseau, Nietzsche. ...

But they saw them as heroes, lawgivers, savants, not as absolute geniuses equal to God, not as leaders of all mankind, not as the initiators of new "worldwide historical" epochs. Yet Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong became precisely such idols. Their high priests, servants and servantesses attributed supernatural virtues to them, served them bloody human sacrifices, tried to impose their cannibalistic creeds on all continents. To this end they composed mythical genealogies, founded posthumous cults of imaginary prede-cessors-caesars, emperors, heroes, Marx, Engels, Lenin.”


“Nevertheless, when you come right down to it, this and a number of other such considerate actions were exceptions. The rule remained: unswerving devotion to the , the graven image I had helped to make.”

This idea is that we make people into our idols. In the ancient world, idols were created in service to their gods, which represented the things they wanted or valued most. Christianity comes around and says these idols are all subordinate to the only true all-loving and powerful God, revealed in Jesus. Our idols are how we're manipulated and controlled by other people.

In Dune: Part 2, we see a power battle ensue between the rebellion and the emperor (Spoilers). The spice fields are the idol of that world, and they are the most valuable resource to the factions. This power allows for controlling all the groups. Paul Atreides, the manipulative messianic rebel leader, is able to take power from the emperor because he was willing to destroy the spice fields and the emperor was unwilling. The spice fields were an idol Paul wielded over the emperor to take power.

In Christianity, as highlighted by the Bible project, this is embodied in the chaos dragon which ultimately wields our desire for life and fear of death to control us.

To shed our idols, we have to subordinate them to the one True God and move towards a way of life where we have nothing to lose. The Apostle Paul talks about moving to a state where death is only a doorway into the eternal plane which is good and true. And that eternal plane is one we can live on every day.

Will We Learn From History?

“History teaches us no longer to put our trust in those revelations, utopias and ideologies which promise universal bliss, proclaim the one and only possible path to this bliss and consequently make that path obligatory.

But despite the monstrous insanity, despite the suicidally pernicious forces which today rule my native land and a considerable portion of the earth, I hope that in the next century both my fellow countrymen and all the people in the world will live better, more reasonably, than we and our forefathers lived.”

History can help us. It affects us today. But we have to look at it. We have to learn from it. And we have to be humble enough to know that we are no different than our predecessors. Institutions and history can help prevent us from spiraling into the destruction of the past, but only if we come to learn and embrace them as guiding lights.

We hope for the eternal goodness ahead, but when we project that in this material world disconnected from reality, we're destined to become that which made the past so evil and hellish. 

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Book Commentary

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