There is a general consensus that Stalin was a sadistic tyrant. But the ghost of his predecessor remains “handshakeworthy” on the left hand side of the political spectrum. The SWPLy bobos of Seattle, who would not have been long for the Communist world, erected a statue to him in the city center. The New York Times “celebrated” the centenary of the Russian Revolution with odes to the Bolsheviks’ progressivism on the environment, sex, and race (not that Terell J. Starr with his strange ideas of how the USSR “centered the Russian slav” would appreciate it).
Westerners, at least, have a good excuse for subscribing to the self-serving Trotskyite belief that Stalin “betrayed” Lenin’s revolution – after all, the bacillus that Germany unleashed upon Russia during its moment of weakness and disarray did more than anyone else to derail De Tocqueville’s prophesy and ensure that the 20th century would be an exclusively American one.
And yet, as of the centenary of Red October, 56% of Russians – up from 40% in 2006 – maintained a positive view of the grandfather of this dismal experiment. To this day, Lenin’s pyramid-like tomb occupies the center of Moscow, the heart of Russia, as if he was a Pharaoh of old – though perhaps that is ironically appropriate, in light of his zealous drive to drag Russia into the Communist future instead depositing it in a world with the ethical norms of the 3rd millennium BC.
There is thus no better and no more urgent time to consign the “Communist fable of a Lenin supposedly gentler than Stalin” (as Stephen Kotkin put it) to its well-deserved place in the dustbin of history.
Who was Lenin?
The brother of a terrorist. In the totalitarian state that he built, which operated by blood guilt, this would have been as good as a death sentence. Fortunately for Lenin, he lived in the Russian Empire, not the USSR.
Lenin’s “administrative exile” to Siberia – a rite of passage for Russian revolutionaries – might as well have been a holiday. He brought along his mother, wife, and even hired a maid to keep house (how bourgeois). He whiled away his time in Siberia fishing, hunting, and corresponding with other revolutionaries. Needless to say, consequent Siberian vacations would not be near as fun for the 3,777,380 people convicted under the Soviet “counter-revolutionary” articles implemented under Lenin and his successors from 1921-53.
A student who never finished university, a lawyer who never plied his trade. After Siberia, he would spend most of the next seventeen years in European exile, writing articles for low-circulation journals that alternated between rehashing Marx and Engels, engaging in disputes with fellow Marxists who were famous in narrow circles, and penning bromides against “reactionary” Russia from the comfort of London and Geneva, much like latter day liberal Bolsheviks such as Garry Karparov and Ilya Ponomarev today.
Supported and inspired terrorist attacks on Russian police and state bureaucrats. Around 4,500 Tsarist officials were murdered just in 1905-1907. Bolshevik propaganda about “Bloody Nikolashka” aside, only around 6,321 people were executed for all offenses (including purely criminal ones, like murder) in the Russian Empire from 1825-1917. The Red Terror that Lenin would unleash in response to the assassination of just one Bolshevik functionary would claim two orders of magnitude more lives.
Zealotry aside, Lenin wouldn’t be Lenin without a side dish in treason.
Supported Japan in the Russo-Japanese at the 3rd Congress of the RSDRP.
From an article in January 1905:
The proletariat is hostile to the bourgeoisie and all aspects of the bourgeois order, but his hostility does not absolve him from the duty of differentiating between historically progressive and reactionary representatives of the bourgeoisie. It is entirely understandable that the more consistent and decisive representatives of international revolutionary Social Democracy, Jules Guesde in France and Hyndman in England, expressed without reservation their sympathies towards Japan, for its role in destroying Russian autocracy.
On the outbreak of World War I, Lenin happened to be in Krakow, where he was arrested by the Austro-Hungarian authorities as an “enemy alien.” Fortunately, an Austrian socialist leader was there to vouch for him, assuring them that he was no spy, but a “bitter enemy” of Russia and a proponent of Ukrainian separatism. He was dispatched to Switzerland in early September, where he would continue scribbling away.
Letter to Shlyapnikov, 1914:
For us Russians, from the point of view of the laboring masses and the working class of Russia, there can be absolutely no doubt that the lesser evil would be the defeat of Tsarism in this war. For Tsarism is 100 times worse than Kaiserism.
Article in “Social Democrat,” March 1915:
The only correct proletarian slogan is to transform the present imperialist war into a civil war. This transformation flows from all the objective conditions of the current military disaster, and only by systematically propagandising and agitating in that direction can the workers’ parties fulfil the obligations they undertook at Basle. That is the only kind of tactics that will be truly revolutionary working-class tactics, corresponding to the conditions of the new historical epoch.
Article in “Social Democrat”, November 1916:
Whatever the outcome of this war, it is those who say that the only possible socialist way out of it is through a civil war of the proletariat for socialism, who will be proven right. It is those Russian Social Democrats, who said that the defeat of Tsarism and its complete military destruction is the lesser evil.
Letter to Suvarin, December 1916:
Our party has rejected Tolstoy’s teachings, and pacifism, by proclaiming that socialists must work to turn the current war into a civil war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.
But he was growing despondent: In January 1917, he told a socialist gathering that “we old-timers may not live to see the decisive battles of the coming revolution.”
Fortunately for Lenin, he got a big break with the February Revolution, the elite led coup against the Tsarist regime. Soon after, the Germans arranged for him, along with other Bolshevik activists, to be transported to Russia in a “sealed train” (actually sealed in propaganda only; in practice, there were plenty of stop-overs). It is worth noting that the guy who arranged this, the German Communist Fritz Platten, also tried to enlist Socialist Revolutionary exiles for the purpose of destabilizing Russian. To their credit, none of them accepted, not wishing to be associated with Lenin’s overt treason.
Once he was in Russia, Lenin began to implement his program of “revolutionary defeatism.” First proposed at the Zimmerwald Peace Conference in 1915, publication of the doctrine was squashed by the German Foreign Office, on the fear that its contents would let the Okhrana justify mass arrests of Russian socialists. This didn’t sway Lenin from repeating it in his April Theses, whose slogan “down with the war” and call for the abolition of the Russian Army was so radical than even the Bolsheviks’ newspaper, Pravda, initially refused to print it.
All this was sustained in large part thanks to German money. In 1917, a grand total of around 50 million gold marks were transferred to Lenin’s party in Petrograd (this translates to an amzing $1 billion in today’s currency). This helped fund the Bolshevik printing presses, and there are numerous accounts of money being handed out for protests against the Provisional Government throughout 1917 (all standard features of modern color revolutions). This was all done with the firm knowledge that the Bolsheviks served the interests of Germany. Parvus, aka Israel Gelfand, said in a meeting with the German ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1915, “The interests of the German Imperial Government are identical with those of the Russian revolutionaries.” The second key intermediary, Alexander Kesküla, was a one-time socialist who had become a hardcore Estonian nationalist; his motivations for working with Germany were, in his words, simple: “Hatred of Russia.”
To Lenin belongs the dubious honor of carrying out the world’s first color revolution, and its color was red.
Russian Constituent Assembly election, 1917: Brown = Social Revolutionaries; Red = Bolsheviks; Green = Regional SR’s; Yellow = Local parties.
Rejected the results of the last democratic election in Russian history until 1990 because he didn’t like that the Bolsheviks only won 24.5% of the vote.
Any direct or indirect attempt to consider the Constituent Assembly from a formally legalistic point of view, from within the framework of bourgeois democracy, without taking into account the class struggle or civil war, is treason against the proletariat and a defection to the worldview of the bourgeoisie. It is the duty of revolutionary Social Democracy to warn everybody against this error, which a considerable number of Bolshevik leaders are prone to, apparently unable to properly assess the October Revolution and the tasks before the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Even Rosa Luxemburg, criticizing Lenin for his ultra-liberal attitudes towards small nationalisms, pointed out the irony:
One is immediately struck with the obstinacy and rigid consistency with which Lenin and his comrades struck to this slogan, a slogan which is in sharp contradiction to their otherwise outspoken centralism in politics as well as to the attitude they have assumed towards other democratic principles. While they showed a quite cool contempt for the Constituent Assembly, universal suffrage, freedom of press and assemblage, in short, for the whole apparatus of the basic democratic liberties of the people which, taken all together, constituted the “right of self-determination” inside Russia, they treated the right of self-determination of peoples as a jewel of democratic policy for the sake of which all practical considerations of real criticism had to be stilled. While they did not permit themselves to be imposed upon in the slightest by the plebiscite for the Constituent Assembly in Russia, a plebiscite on the basis of the most democratic suffrage in the world, carried out in the full freedom of a popular republic, and while they simply declared this plebiscite null and void on the basis of a very sober evaluation of its results, still they championed the “popular vote” of the foreign nationalities of Russia on the question of which land they wanted to belong to, as the true palladium of all freedom and democracy, the unadulterated quintessence of the will of the peoples and as the court of last resort in questions of the political fate of nations.
In other words, a German Communist revolutionary, in practice, cared more for Russia’s territorial integrity and the democratic viewpoints of the Russian people than the man whose statues still dot the expanses of the Russian Federation.
In effect capitulated to Germany at Brest-Litovsk, ceded massive territories without military need, and betrayed Russia’s war allies.
What could have been: Map of the “Future Europe” (not like Wilhelm II would have liked it!)
As Winston Churchill wrote in his book The World Crisis (1916-1918):
Surely to no nation has Fate been more malignant than to Russia. Her ship went down in sight of port. She had actually weathered the storm when all was cast away. Every sacrifice had been made; the toil was achieved. Despair and Treachery usurped command at the very moment when the task was done.
Talk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
In December 1917, set up the Cheka. At the outset, they were predominantly staffed by non-Russians – mostly Latvians – headed by the Pole Felix Dzerzhinsky.
Anecdote about Dzerzhinsky: Before the war, he managed to get beaten up by Polish factory workers, whom he had tried to agitate against the Tsar. There must be some kind of achievement trophy for that level of fail.
But the Cheka was another matter, and no laughing matter.
In August 1918, the Cheka’s Petrograd head Moisei Uritsky was assassinated. The killer, incidentally, was one of history’s forgotten heroes, Leonid Kannegisser, who explained his motives thus:
I am a Jew. I killed a Jewish vampire, who drank Russian blood. I wanted to show the Russian people that to Uritsky wasn’t a Jew to us. He was a renegade. I killed him in the hopes of redeeming the good name of Russian Jews.
One successful assassination and one attempted assasination against Lenin was enough to kickstart the Red Terror.
The famous August 11, 1918 cable to the Communists in Penza:
Comrades! The insurrection of five kulak districts should be pitilessly suppressed. The interests of the whole revolution require this because ‘the last decisive battle’ with the kulaks is now under way everywhere. An example must be demonstrated.
- Hang (and make sure that the hanging takes place in full view of the people) no fewer than one hundred known landlords, rich men, bloodsuckers.
- Publish their names.
- Seize all their grain from them.
- Designate hostages in accordance with yesterday’s telegram.
Do it in such a fashion that for hundreds of kilometres around the people might see, tremble, know, shout: “they are strangling, and will strangle to death, the bloodsucking kulaks”.
Telegraph receipt and implementation.
Find some truly hard people
Whereas previously, mass shootings had numbered in the dozens at most, they would now climb into the thousands, once Sovnarkom authorized mass terror on September 5th. The repressions would now directly affect even other leftist groups. Local Soviets were to arrest all Social Revolutionaries, take hostages from the families of Tsarist officers, and summarily execute anyone suspected of involvement in White Guard activities.
Though statistics are much harder to come by than in the better documented Stalinist period, it is plausible that around one million Russians were killed in the Red Terror – two orders of magnitude more than what the Russian Empire was responsible in the preceeding century, and entirely comparable to the victims of Stalinism.
With zero economic education outside regurgitating Marx and Engels, Lenin implemented war communism.
Within a year, an Empire with one of the world’s highest economic growth rates became a desert, where those who could, fled, and those who could not, died of hunger and typhus. Even amidst the instability of two revolutions, industrial production had remained at 80% during 1917 relative to 1913 figures; it plummeted to around 10% by 1920, as the Bolsheviks confiscated everything from banks and factories to ordinary people’s windmills, workshops, apartments, and private savings. You have a complaint? Justice system now consists of black-leather jacketed thugs that operate on hostage taking and mass shootings. Good luck suing them.
Despite not performing a single day’s worth of “productive” work in his life, Lenin loved to call all sorts of people parasites. For instance, those well-known exploiters, peasants.
From a speech in November 1919:
Peasants do not all understand that free trade in bread is a state crime. “I made bread, this is my product, and I have the right to trade with them,” the peasant argues, out of antiquated habit. But we say that this is a state crime. Free trade in grain means enrichment thanks to this bread – this is a return to old capitalism, we will not allow this, we will fight this at any price.
The death toll of war communism: 5-10 million deaths, a number that is once again entirely comparable to the Stalinist famines of the early 1930s (5-7 million) and 1946-47 (1 million), and again, an order of magnitude worse than the worst famine of the Russian Empire in 1891-92 (500,000 victims).
The ruthless grain requisitions (prodrazvyorstka) provoked the Tambov uprising, which the Bolsheviks crushed with the use of poison gas and concentration camps. Upwards of 200,000 deaths.
Finally, it would be amiss to speak of Lenin’s legacy without mentioning his attitude towards Russia and Russians in the widest sense of the word.
Although formally Russian, Lenin was in reality the métis par excellence: Around 1/4 German-Swedish, 1/4 Jewish, 1/4 Russian, and 1/4 token ethnic minority (Kalmyk).
Come to think of it – remarkably representative of 20th century Communism.
In that respect, it is perhaps of little surprise that the state he founded was based on a rather pecular mixture of socialist and nationalist principles.
From On the Question of the Nationalities, 1922:
Therefore internationalism on the part of the oppressing or so-called “great” nation (although it is great only in violence, great only as a gendarme is) must consist not only in observing formal equality of nations but also in such inequality as would be compensation by the oppressing nation, the big nation, for that inequality which actually takes shape in life. …
In these circumstances it is very natural that the “freedom to leave the union,” with which we justify ourselves, will prove to be just a piece of paper incapable of protecting people of other nationalities from the incursion of that the true Russian, the Great Russian, the chauvinist, in essence, the scoundrel and despoiler which the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There can be no doubt that the insignificant percentage of Soviet and Sovietized workers will drown in this sea of chauvinistic, Great Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.
The result: An Affirmative Action Empire, as Terry Martin styled it:
A third and final premise asserted that non-Russian nationalism was primarily a response to Tsarist oppression and was motivated by a historically justifiable distrust (nedoverie) of the Great Russians. This argument was pressed most forcefully by Lenin, who already in 1914 had attacked Rosa Luxemburg’s denial of the right of self-determination as “objectively aiding the Black Hundred Great Russians… Absorbed by the fight with nationalism in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg forgot about the nationalism of the Great Russians, though it is exactly this nationalism that is the most dangerous of all.” The nationalism of the oppressed, Lenin maintained, had a “democratic content” that must be supported, whereas the nationalism of the oppressor had no redeeming value. He ended with the slogan “Fight against all nationalisms and, first of all, against Great Russian nationalism.”
What polemicists against the Stalinist USSR’s destruction of national intellentsias in the Ukraine or the Baltics leave out is that the Bolsheviks started out with Russia’s.
Just one example: There was a Kiev Club of Russian Nationalists operating from 1908, a tea club of conservative intellectuals who promoted the theory of the triune Russian nation, which saw Malorossiyans (Ukrainians) as one branch of the Russian people. It is conceivable that in a surviving Russian Empire or Republic, these intellectuals would have helped foster the growth of a Malorossiyan identity subsumed to an overarching Russian one, as in Bavaria with respect to Germany, or even subsumed them entirely, as with the Occitans with respect to France. A fascinating what if. But this was not to be. The Bolsheviks got a list of their members on capturing Kiev in January 1919, and all 68 of their members were rounded up and shot.
The 1920s were to be a period of aggressive Ukranization, which Stalin cemented with the Holodomor.
Needless to say, Bolshevik reprisals against the Russian intelligentsia were not aimed exclusively at its overtly nationalist elements.
At the very top, there was, of course, the execution of the Romanov family (the French revolutionaries, at least, had the decency to spare Louis XVI’s children, and the last Chinese Emperor lived out his twilight days as an ordinary citizen of Maoist China).
The cream of Russia’s intellectual elites left the country. There would be no Sikorsky Airlines, no Zworykin TVs, no Dobzhansky Institutes. Just the “philosopher’s ship” carried away names like Sergey Bulgakov, Nikolay Berdyaev, and Ivan Ilyin.
A large percentage of those who stayed out of patriotic considerations would be killed by Stalin in the late 1930s, or forced to work as cognitive slaves in sharashkas.
Those who left, a “White emigration” numbering 2-3 millions, would instead enrich other countries.
In the early 1970s, Russian-Americans had the highest median family income, highest % of college graduates (26% vs. 12% US average), highest percentage of white-collar workers relative to all other European ethnic groups in the United States.
There was an aggressive campaign against Orthodox priests, who were conflated with nationalists.
Lenin in a March 1922 letter to the Politburo:
I come to the conclusion that we must precisely now smash the Black Hundreds clergy most decisively and ruthlessly and put down all resistance with such brutality that they will not forget it for several decades.
Lenin had an exceedingly poor opinion of the great classics of the Russian Silver Age. His learned thoughts on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky:
On this topic, Lenin’s judgments were made confidentaly, said directly and sharply, without equivocation. Lev Tolstoy: On the one hand: “A mirror of the Russian revolution,” a “spirited man” who “unmasked everyone and everything,” but on the other hand, he was also a “worn-out, hysterical slave to power,” preaching non-resistance to evil. Fedor Dostoevsky: “Vomit-inducing moralization,” “penitent hysteria” (on Crime and Punishment), an “odorous work” (on The Brothers Karamazov and Demons), “clearly reactionary filth… I read it and threw it at the wall” (on Demons).
Even the Cyrillic alphabet was an expression of Great Russian privilege. As Lenin told Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet Minister of Education: “I am under no doubt that there will come a time when the Russian alphabet is Latinized… when we gather enough energy for this, all of this will be trivially easy.” This moment seemed to arrive in 1929, when a commission on the matter officially proclaimed that “the imminent transition of Russian to a single international alphabet is inevitable.”
Their arguments are too “powerful” not to cite in full:
The Russian civil alphabet is a relic of the class structure of the 18th-19th century of the Russian feudal landowerners and bourgeoisie – the structures of autocratic oppression, missionary propaganda, Great Russian chauvinism, coercive Russification, and the expansion of Russian Tsarism abroad… To this day it ties the Russian-reading population with the national-bourgeois traditions of Russian pre-revolutionary culture.
In the hands of the Soviet proletariat, a unified Latin alphabet will serve as a means of propagating the cultural revolution in the Soviet East on the basis of the socialist reconstruction of the national economy. This is why it will constitute the alphabet of the proletarian revolution in the Soviet East and a weapon of class war here, on the front of the cultural revolution. See the words of Lenin: “Latinization is the great revolution of the East).
Transition to the Latin alphabet will free the laboring masses of the Russian people from the influence of bourgeois-nationalist and religious pre-revolutionary texts. Of course, artistically and scientifically valuable literature from that period should be republished in the new alphabet.
It was none other than Stalin, who had been criticized as a Great Russian chauvinist by Lenin – and I suppose he was, at least by Lenin’s standards, if not by any other one – who put an abrupt stop to this project: “Tell [them] to stop work on the Latinization of the Russian alphabet.”
Incidentally, at this point you might be getting an inkling of the real reason why Western intellectuals like Lenin a lot more than Stalin.
It is also worth emphasizing that Lenin’s famous Testament on Stalin’s unfitness for office, contrary to its presentation as a premonition of Stalin’s capacity for tyranny – hardly a matter of concern to either man – actually arose as a result of a dispute between the two men on the nationalities policy.
Once again citing Affirmative Action Empire:
His anger climaxed during the notorious Georgian affair of 1922, when he denounced Dzerzhinskii, Stalin, and Ordzhonikidze as Great Russian chauvinists (russified natives, he maintained, were often the worst chauvinists). Such Bolshevik chauvinism inspired Lenin to coin the term rusotiapstvo (mindless Russian chauvinism), which then entered the Bolshevik lexicon and became an invaluable weapon in the rhetorical arsenals of the national republics. …
Lenin’s extreme formulation of this principle led to one of his two differences of opinion with Stalin over nationalities policy in late 1922. Stalin had supported the greatest-danger principle before 1922-1923, reiterated his support in 1923, and from April 1923 to December 1932 supervised a nationalities policy based on that principle. Nevertheless, Stalin was uncomfortable with the insistence that all local nationalism could be explained as a response to great-power chauvinism. Based on his experience in Georgia, Stalin insisted that Georgian nationalism was also characterized by great-power exploitation of their Ossetine and Abkhaz minorities. Stalin therefore always paired his attacks on Great Russian chauvinism with a complementary attack on the lesser danger of local nationalism. … Despite these differences in emphasis, Stalin consistently supported the greatest-danger principle.
Ultimately, it was Lenin’s nationality policy that more than anything else doomed his creation.
Once the socialist system – what Lenin and Co. saw as revealed truth – ran into terminal epistemic and economic failure, the Soviet carapace fell away, revealing the petty nationalisms they had nurtured all that while, and, married to the unleashed appetites of the nomenklatura, the resultant centrifugal forces blew the whole artificial contraption apart. And (Great) Russian (chauvinists), the only ethnicity without a place of their own in the Soviet communal apartment (in Yuri Slezkine’s metaphor), had no good incentives to try to keep it together.
As Vladimir Putin himself remarked in 2016:
It is right to steer the stream of thought, only we need this thought to lead to the right results, unlike in the case of Vladimir Ilyich. Because, eventually, this thought led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, that’s what it led to. There were many such thoughts: autonomation, and so on. They planted an atomic bomb underneath the building called Russia, later it blew up. Nor did we need the global revolution either. There was this thought there, too
This brings me to the final point I wish to make about Lenin: The state he built as a failure.
By extension, Lenin was not just a sadist, a Russophobe, and a tyrant.
He was also a failure.
The slogan “Land, Bread, Peace” turned into a lie as soon as it was implemented. In the end, Russia got two much bloodier wars, the Civil War and World War II, for the price of one – the one that it had as good as won by 1917, with Austria-Hungary and Turkey as good as knocked out the war. Nor was there much bread. The Civil War resulted in a famine ten times worse than than anything seen in the ancien regime, and the populations of Petrograd and Moscow declined by around 70% and 50%, respectively, as civilization went into literal reverse. And what had been an increasingly prosperous peasantry thanks to Stolypin’s reforms and the construction of a mass schooling system in the last two decades of the Empire was soon deprived of both its lands and rights under collectivization; Soviet peasants only gained the right to a passport in 1974.
The world that Lenin and his successors built was a world based on lies; lies with aggressive, impudent, and often deadly pretensions to truth, as lampooned from Koestler to Kundera.
This was a world where the fictive dictatorship of the proletariat was almost immediately replaced by an all too real dictatorship of the nomenklatura based on renewed class privileges, judicial “telephone law,” no division of powers, and but a lame parody of an electoral process.
There would be no world revolution. Apart from military conquest in Eastern Europe, and China setting off down its own demented Maoist experiment, the only other Communist takeovers would only happen in irrelevant parts of the Third World, which would quickly fall apart though not before consuming dollops of Soviet foreign aid, which it generously parcelled out even as it gained the dubious distinction of being the first industrialized country to see a sustained rise in infant mortality during peacetime. The last surviving relicts of that world, Cuba and North Korea, stand as testaments to total failure.
Even a robot realizes this.
A world that by the 1970s was a vast expanse of unproductive rustbelts, unable to compete with the capitalist world and kept afloat by an oil windfall that would peter out by the late 1980s.
A world whose own citizens abandoned it for the promise of a pair of jeans, and whose own masters ended up selling it for real estate in Monaco and Miami.
This is the world that Lenin built and which collapsed during the 1990s.
“The intelligentsia is not the brains of the nation, but its shit.” It’s as if he was talking about himself.