Volkogonov, Dmitri Lenin
Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Lenin as History
Lenin at the turn of the century was almost a typical Russian social democrat. He was the Lenin-Ulyanov who could observe Russia from abroad and create his abstract scenarios, abuse the Tsar and send advice on how to organize revolutionary action. But he separated himself from the liberal trend in social democracy and set off on the more radical course. From the time of the 1905 revolution his attacks on the liberal intelligentsia became savage, as he saw in liberal politicians the chief obstacle to his plans. His anti-liberalism was a mark of his general antipathy to liberty as a political and moral value.
The ‘bolshevization’ of his mind then took place. It seemed as if he could not envisage himself back in Russia unless a revolution took place, yet even in January 1917 he did not believe the revolution would happen. Had it not been for the First World War and the February revolution, Lenin night have lived out his days vegetating in Zurich or Geneva. Lenin was one of the few social democrats who saw in the war an ally for his cause. It had been the chief factor of the fall of the tsarist regime, but the Provisional Government that followed did not know how to get out of it with honour. Lenin knew how to get out of it, even if there was to be no honour. He came to the conclusion that the war must be buried, even at the cost of Russia’s defeat. Indeed, he staked everything on Russia’s defeat, and went still further, calling for the war between nations to be turned into a war within nations, a civil war. This is crucially important to an understanding of Lenin: to achieve his goal he was prepared to transcend patriotism, national honour and common humanity.
When he took control of the revolutionary government, Lenin was armed only with theoretical plans, and had never governed anyone, other than his wife. He was simply helpless when confronted with the mountain of Russia’s problems. All he could think of was to confiscate, requisition and expropriate everything. To do this he needed only one device, merciless dictatorship. A mere two or three months before, he had been talking about the withering away of the state, and now he was feverishly creating an army, tribunals, people’s commissars, an inspectorate, secret departments and a diplomatic service. The new state structure could only be made to work by recourse to the despised bourgeois ‘experts’.
Lenin’s dispositions as founder and leader of the new state may have been superficial, haphazard and half-baked, but they were also harsh and cruel. He was not, in my view, the Janus he is often said to be: his character was of a piece. He was a total Bolshevik who combined in himself a number of traits which made him unique. He was committed to the revolution to the point of frenzy, and only what Viktor Chernov called Lenin’s ‘irrational common sense’ saved himself and his party in hopeless situations.148
He was willing to commit appallingly cruel acts in the name of the revolution. Although he was not personally vindictive, like Stalin, he did believe that the revolution would fail if the millstones of the dictatorship ceased to grind for a moment. While this Jacobin outlook was little better than Stalin’s brutality, it seemed to give a noble purpose, a certain revolutionary aura, to force and cruelty.
In a letter to Trotsky of 22 October 1919, Lenin wrote that the way to ‘finish off [White General] Yudenich is to mobilize another 20,000 [Petrograd] workers plus 10,000 of the bourgeoisie, put machine-guns at their backs, shoot a few hundred and put real, massive pressure on Yudenich’.149 Twenty-two years later, in the autumn of 1941, when Zhukov and Zhdanov reported to Stalin that the Germans were advancing on the defenders of Leningrad behind a living shield of Russian civilians (the old men, women and children were crying out, ‘Don’t shoot, we’re your people!’), Stalin at once signalled back: ‘My advice is don’t give in to sentimentality, bash the enemy and his accomplices in the teeth … Give the Germans and their delegates everything you’ve got, whoever they are.’150
Believing that ‘everything is moral that facilitates the victory of Communism’, Lenin readily sacrificed long-term strategy to short-term tactics. Defending the excesses of War Communism in January 1920 against the arguments of Trotsky, who was by then convinced of the need to alter course, he said: ‘We sacrificed tens of thousands of the best Communists for 10,000 White officers and it saved the country. We have to apply the same methods now, or there’ll be no grain.’151 Only when hundreds of thousands more had died from execution, hunger and above all rebellion, did Lenin yield and resort to the NEP, a solution forced on him to resuscitate the basic economy.
Lenin’s ideas for creating the just and equal Communist society were delusions, yet they also possessed their own iron logic. The Russian revolution, as he saw it, was only the beginning. Russia was only the detonator of world upheaval. He was ready to sacrifice Russia in order to trigger the continental conflagration. The campaign against Poland, which was his initiative, ‘cost the country dear’, in Trotsky’s words, and its outcome, in the Treaty of Riga, ‘cut us off from Germany and … gave a powerful impulse to the consolidation of the European bourgeoisie’. Trotsky, however, no less a Jacobin than Lenin, believed the goal was worth the risk.152 He did not mention that the senseless policy had also cost the lives of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, and reparations to Poland of more than thirty million gold roubles.153 Another symptom of this senselessness was the transfer of ninety-three tonnes of tsarist gold to Berlin only two months before Germany capitulated in November 1918.
Lenin’s dream of turning the planet red was based on false thinking bred by years of sitting in isolation and making up schemes for world Communist revolution, without taking account of ethnic, national, religious, geographical or cultural factors. He saw only class and economic motives, and the only value he was prepared to defend was power. There is no hint in any of the vast array of archival material to suggest that he was troubled by his conscience about any of the long list of destructive measures he took. Lenin was not personally vain, but he genuinely identified himself with the idea in which he believed. Because his delusions to some extent reflected universal values of social justice, he succeeded in converting them into a programme for millions of people, and imposing it by force.