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Vladimir Illich Ulyanov (later known as Lenin) was born in Simbirsk, Russia, on 10th April, 1870. His father, Ilya Ulyanov, a local schools inspector, held conservative views and was a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Lenin was deeply influenced by the revolutionary political views of his older brother, Alexander Ulyanov, who introduced him to the ideas of Karl Marx.
Lenin was educated at the Simbirsk Gymnasium. His headmaster was Fyodor Kerensky, the father of Alexander Kerensky. Although Lenin despised the conservative views of his teachers he still managed to do well in his examinations.
At the of seventeen Lenin read the utopian novel, What is to be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Along with Alexander Ulyanov and Karl Marx, Chernyshevsky was the greatest influence on his early political development. In 1887 Lenin's brother, Alexander Ulyanov, a member of the People's Will, was executed for his part in the plot to kill Tsar Alexander III. As the brother of a state criminal, attempts were made to stop Lenin from entering university. Eventually he was allowed to study law at Kazan University.
While at university Lenin became involved in politics. After one protest demonstration he was arrested and taken to the local police station. One of the police officers asked: "Why are you rebelling, young man? After all, there is a wall in front of you." Lenin confidently replied: "The wall is tottering, you only have to push it for it to fall over." Lenin was now expelled from Kazan University and so he went to St. Petersburg and studied as an external student. After passing his law exams in 1891, Lenin started practising law in Samara.
Lenin returned to St. Petersburg in 1893. He continued his involvement in politics and in 1895 went to Switzerland to meet George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Vera Zasulich and Lev Deich and other members of the Liberation of Labour group. When Lenin returned to Russia, Lenin and a group of friends, including Jules Martov and Nadezhda Krupskaya, formed the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class.
In 1896 Lenin was arrested and sentenced to three years internal exile in Siberia. His close colleague, Nadezhda Krupskaya, joined Lenin in Shushenskoye and they married in July, 1898. While living in exile Lenin wrote The Development of Capitalism in Russia, The Tasks of Russian Social Democrats, as well as articles for various socialist journals. Lenin and Krupskaya also translated from English to Russian, The Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism by Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb.
Released in February, 1900, Lenin, Nadezhda Krupskaya and Jules Martov decided to leave Russia. They moved to Geneva where they joined up with George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod and other members of the Liberation of Labour to publish Iskra (Spark). The paper was named after a passage from a poem: "The spark will kindle a flame". Others who joined the venture included Gregory Zinoviev, Leon Trotsky and Vera Zasulich. Another revolutionary, Clara Zetkin, arranged for Iskra to be printed in Leipzig. The newspaper now became the official journal of the Social Democratic Labour Party, an organization that attempted to unite all socialist groups in favour of the overthrow of the autocracy in Russia.
In 1902 Lenin published a pamphlet, What Is To Be Done? where he argued for a party of professional revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of Tsarism. He continued to argue the case for a small party of activists with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters at the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party held in London in 1903.
His long-time friend, Jues Martov, disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Martov won the vote 28-23 but Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks. Lenin now lost control of Iskra and therefore launched his own newspaper, Vperyod (Forward).
Lenin's supporters in the Social Democratic Labour Party included Gregory Zinoviev, Joseph Stalin, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Mikhail Frunze, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Gregory Ordzhonikidze, and Alexander Bogdanov. Whereas George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Vera Zasulich, Irakli Tsereteli, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan supported Jules Martov.
Lenin came under attack from the Marxist philosopher, Rosa Luxemburg. In 1904 she published Organizational Questions of the Russian Democracy, where she argued: "Lenin’s thesis is that the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party. It should have the right to appoint the effective organs of all local bodies from Geneva to Liege, from Tomsk to Irkutsk. It should also have the right to impose on all of them its own ready-made rules of party conduct... The Central Committee would be the only thinking element in the party. All other groupings would be its executive limbs." Luxemburg diagreed with Lenin's views on centralism and suggested that any successful revolution that used this strategy would develop into a communist dictatorship.
Lenin returned to Russia during the 1905 Revolution but unlike Leon Trotsky and the Mensheviks, he made little impact on its development and failed to gain much support from the emerging trade union movement. In 1907 Lenin abandoned hope for an imminent armed uprising and called on Bolsheviks in Russia to participate in the elections for the Third Duma.
Lenin also spent a great deal of time finding ways of raising money for the party. He secured large donations from Maxim Gorky and Sava Morozov, the Moscow millionaire. This was not the main source of income. The armed hold-ups of Bolsheviks gangs provided much more. One raid on the Tiflis Post Office raised 250,000 roubles. The gang used bombs during the robbery and several people were killed. When George Plekhanov, one of the leaders of the Mensheviks, heard that the Bolsheviks were behind the robbery he declared: "The whole affair is so outrageous that it is really high time for us to break off all relations with the Bolsheviks."
Lenin, and his two loyal assistants, Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, used this money to print revolutionary literature and newspapers such as Zvezda. Some money was used to gain control some of the unions that were emerging in Russia's main industrial cities. One of Lenin's agents, Roman Malinovsky, was elected as general secretary of the St Petersburg Metalworkers' Union.
In 1911, Lenin, Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and other Bolsheviks moved to France and settled in a small village just outside of Paris. They were joined by Inessa Armand. According to Nadezhda Krupskaya: "She (Inessa) was a very ardent Bolshevik and soon gathered our Paris crowd around her." They set up a Bolshevik Party School where agents were trained before returning to Russia. They also made plans to capture control of the Social Democratic Labour Party at the conference to be held in Prague in January, 1912. This move was unsuccessful and the party split and after that date the Bolsheviks maintained a completely separate existence from the Mensheviks.
At the Prague conference in 1912 Lenin suggested that Roman Malinovsky should join the Bolshevik Central Committee. Some party members opposed this move, claiming that there were rumours that Malinovsky was an Okhrana agent. He refused to believe the charges and advocated that Malinovsky should also be a Bolshevik candidate for the Duma. After being elected in October, 1912, Malinovsky became the leader of the group of six Bolshevik deputies. Malinovsky became known as an eloquent and forceful orator. Before making his speeches he sent copies to Lenin and S. P. Beletsky, the director of Okhrana.
Inessa Armand became very close to Lenin. According to Bertram D. Wolfe, the author of Strange Communists I Have Known (1966): "She had a wider culture than any other woman in Lenin's circle (at least until Kollontay became an adherent of his during the war), a deep love of music, above all of Beethoven, who became Lenin's favorite too. She played the piano like a virtuoso, was fluent in five languages, was enormously serious about Bolshevism and work among women, and possessed personal charm and an intense love of life to which almost all who wrote of her testify."
Others like Angelica Balabanoff thought that she became too much a follower of Lenin: "I did not warm to Inessa. She was pedantic, a one hundred per cent Bolshevik in the way she dressed (always in the same severe style), in the way she thought, and spoke. She spoke a number of languages fluently, and in all of them repeated Lenin verbatim."
After being elected in October, 1912, Roman Malinovsky became the leader of the group of six Bolshevik deputies. Lenin argued: "For the first time among ours in the Duma there is an outstanding worker-leader. He will read the Declaration (the political declaration of the Social Democratic fraction on the address of the Prime Minister). This time it's not another Alexinsky. And the results - perhaps not immediately - will be great."
Malinovsky was now in a position to spy on Lenin. This included supplying Okhrana with copies of his letters. In a letter dated 18th December, 1912, S.E. Vissarionov, the Assistant Director of Okhrana, wrote to the Minister of the Interior: "The situation of the Fraction is now such that it may be possible for the six Bolsheviks to be induced to act in such a way as to split the Fraction into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Lenin supports this. See his letter (supplied by Malinovsky)".
Rumours continued to circulate that Roman Malinovsky was a spy working for Okhrana. This included an anonymous letter sent to Fedor Dan about Malinovsky's activities. When Elena Troyanovsky was arrested in 1913 her husband wrote a letter claiming that if she was not released he would expose the double agent in the leadership of the Bolsheviks. S. P. Beletsky later testified that when he showed this letter to Malinovsky he "became hysterical" and demanded that she was released. In order that he remained as a spy Beletsky agreed to do this.
According to Bertram D. Wolfe in 1913: "He (Malinovsky) was entrusted with setting up a secret printing plant inside Russia, which naturally did not remain secret for long. Together with Yakovlev he helped start a Bolshevik paper in Moscow. It, too, ended promptly with the arrest of the editor. Inside Russia, the popular Duma Deputy traveled to all centers. Arrests took place sufficiently later to avert suspicion from him... The police raised his wage from five hundred to six hundred, and then to seven hundred rubles a month."
Another Bolshevik leader, Nikolai Bukharin, became convinced that Malinovsky was a spy. David Shub has argued: "There was a wave of arrests among the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Among those rounded up was Nikolai Bukharin... Bukharin, then a member of the Moscow Committee of the Bolshevik Party, had distrusted Malinovsky from the start, despite the latter's assiduous attempts to win his confidence. For Bukharin had noticed several times that when he arranged a secret rendezvous with a party comrade, Okhrana agents would be waiting to pounce on him. In each case Malinovsky had known of the appointments and the men whom Bukharin was to meet had been arrested."
Bukharin wrote to Lenin claiming that when he was hiding in Moscow he was arrested by the police just after a meeting with Malinovsky. He was convinced that Malinovsky was a spy. Lenin wrote back that if Bukharin joined in the campaign of slander against Malinovsky he would brand him publicly as a traitor. Understandably, Bukharin dropped the matter.
Nadezhda Krupskaya later explained: "Vladimir Ilyich thought it utterly impossible for Malinovsky to have been an agent provocateur. These rumors came from Menshevik circles... The commission investigated all the rumors but could not obtain any definite proof of the charge." Instead of carrying out an investigation into Malinovsky, Lenin launched an attack on Julius Martov and Fedor Dan, who he accused of acting like "gossipy old women".
In 1913 Lenin and Nadezhda Krupskaya moved to Galicia in Austria. He organized a conference of Bolshevik leaders in Zakopane in August. It was later discovered that of the twenty-two men who attended, five, including Roman Malinovsky, were Okhrana agents.
In the autumn of 1913, Inessa Armand joined Lenin in Galicia. According to Angelica Balabanoff, Inessa and Lenin were now lovers: "Lenin loved Inessa. There was nothing immoral in it, since Lenin told Krupskaya everything. He deeply loved music, and this Krupskaya could not give him. Inessa played beautifully his beloved Beethoven and other pieces... He had had a child by Inessa." This story is also supported by the testimony of Alexandra Kollontai.
Nadezhda Krupskaya wrote about her relationship with Inessa Armand in her book, Reminisces on Lenin (1926): "In the autumn (of 1913) all of us became very close to Inessa. In her there was much joy of life and ardor. We had known Inessa in Paris, but there was a large colony there. In Krakow lived a small closely knit circle of comrades. Inessa rented a room in the same family with which Kamenev lived... It became cosier and gayer when Inessa came. Our entire life was filled with party concerns and affairs, more like a student commune than like family life, and we were glad to have Inessa... Something warm radiated from her talk."
In 1914 another Bolshevik leader, Nikolai Bukharin, became convinced that Roman Malinovsky was a spy. David Shub has argued: "There was a wave of arrests among the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Among those rounded up was Nikolai Bukharin... Bukharin, then a member of the Moscow Committee of the Bolshevik Party, had distrusted Malinovsky from the start, despite the latter's assiduous attempts to win his confidence. For Bukharin had noticed several times that when he arranged a secret rendezvous with a party comrade, Okhrana agents would be waiting to pounce on him. In each case Malinovsky had known of the appointments and the men whom Bukharin was to meet had been arrested."
Bukharin wrote to Lenin claiming that when he was hiding in Moscow he was arrested by the police just after a meeting with Malinovsky. He was convinced that Malinovsky was a spy. Lenin wrote back that if Bukharin joined in the campaign of slander against Malinovsky he would brand him publicly as a traitor. Understandably, Bukharin dropped the matter.
In June 1914 Lenin published an article in Prosveshchenie: "We do not believe one single word of Dan and Martov.... We don't trust Martov and Dan. We do not regard them as honest citizens. We will deal with them only as common criminals - only so, and not otherwise... If a man says, make political concessions to me, recognize me as an equal comrade of the Marxist community or I will set up a howl about rumors of the provocateur activity of Malinovsky, that is political blackmail. Against blackmail we are always and unconditionally for the bourgeois legality of the bourgeois court... Either you make a public accusation signed with your signature so that the bourgeois court can expose and punish you (there are no other means of fighting blackmail), or you remain as people branded... as slanderers by the workers."
Roman Malinovsky resigned from the Duma on the outbreak of the First World War and against the orders of the Bolsheviks he joined the Russian Army. He was wounded and captured by the German Army in 1915 and spent the rest of the conflict in a prisoner of war camp. Surprisingly, in December 1916, the Bolshevik newspaper, Sotsial Demokrat, reported that Malinovsky had been "fully rehabilitated" for his past crime of "desertion of his post".
Lenin was appalled by the decision of most socialists in Europe to support the war effort. He now devoted his energies to campaign to turn the "imperialist war into a civil war". This included the publication of his book, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Along with his close collaborators, Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Lenin arranged for the distribution of propaganda that urged Allied troops to turn their rifles against their officers and start a socialist revolution.
Lenin argued that "the slogan of peace is wrong - the slogan must be, turn the imperialist war into civil war." Lenin believed that a civil war in Russia would bring down the old order and enable the Bolsheviks to gain power. This brought him into conflict with Rosa Luxemburg. In 1915 Luxemburg published the highly influential pamphlet, The Crisis in the German Social Democracy. Luxemburg rejected the view of the Social Democratic Party leadership that the war would bring democracy to Russia: "It is true that socialism gives to every people the right of independence and the freedom of independent control of its own destinies. But it is a veritable perversion of socialism to regard present-day capitalist society as the expression of this self-determination of nations. Where is there a nation in which the people have had the right to determine the form and conditions of their national, political and social existence?"
Luxemburg also pointed out that Germany was also fighting democratic states such as Britain and France: "Germany certainly has not the right to speak of a war of defence, but France and England have little more justification. They too are protecting, not their national, but their world political existence, their old imperialistic possessions, from the attacks of the German upstart." To Luxemburg, this was an imperialist war, not a war of political liberation.
In the pamphlet Rosa Luxemburg quoted Friedrich Engels as saying: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” She added: "A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism.... The world war today is demonstrably not only murder on a grand scale; it is also suicide of the working classes of Europe. The soldiers of socialism, the proletarians of England, France, Germany, Russia, and Belgium have for months been killing one another at the behest of capital. They are driving the cold steel of murder into each other’s hearts. Locked in the embrace of death, they tumble into a common grave."
Lenin disagreed with this desire to bring the First World War to an end and sent Inessa Armand to the International Socialist Bureau conference in Brussels "to do battle with such large figures" such as Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, George Plekhanov, Leon Trotsky, Julius Martov, Emile Vandervelde and Camille Huysmans. As Bertram D. Wolfe pointed out: "He counted on her mastery of all the languages of the International, her literal devotion to him and his views, her steadfastness under fire."
In September 1915, Nicholas II assumed supreme command of the Russian Army fighting on the Eastern Front. This linked him to the country's military failures and during 1917 there was a strong decline support for his government. The country's incompetent and corrupt system could not supply the necessary equipment to enable the Russian Army to fight a modern war. By 1917 over 1,300,000 men had been killed in battle, 4,200,000 wounded and 2,417,000 had been captured by the enemy.
The war also had a disastrous impact on the Russian economy. Food was in short supply and this led to rising prices. By January 1917 the price of commodities in Petrograd had increased six-fold. In an attempt to increase their wages, industrial workers went on strike and in Petrograd people took to the street demanding food. On 11th February, 1917, a large crowd marched through the streets of Petrograd breaking shop windows and shouting anti-war slogans.
On 26th February Nicholas II ordered the Duma to close down. Members refused and they continued to meet and discuss what they should do. Michael Rodzianko, President of the Duma, sent a telegram to the Tsar suggesting that he appoint a new government led by someone who had the confidence of the people. When the Tsar did not reply, the Duma nominated a Provisional Government headed by Prince George Lvov.
The High Command of the Russian Army now feared a violent revolution and on 28th February suggested that Nicholas II should abdicate in favour of a more popular member of the royal family. Attempts were now made to persuade Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich to accept the throne. He refused and on the 1st March, 1917, the Tsar abdicated leaving the Provisional Government in control of the country.
Lenin was now desperate to return to Russia to help shape the future of the country. The German Foreign Ministry, who hoped that Lenin's presence in Russia would help bring the war on the Eastern Front to an end, provided a special train for Lenin and 27 other Bolsheviks to travel to Petrograd. The journalist, Harold Williams rejected the idea that Lenin could play an important role in affairs: "Lenin, leader of the extreme faction of the Social Democrats, arrived here on Monday night by way of Germany. His action in accepting from the German government a passage from Switzerland through Germany arouses intense indignation here. He has come back breathing fire, and demanding the immediate and unconditional conclusions of peace, civil war against the army and government, and vengeance on Kerensky and Chkheidze, whom he describes as traitors to the cause of International Socialism. At the meeting of Social Democrats yesterday his wild rant was received in dead silence, and he was vigorously attacked, not only by the more moderate Social Democrats, but by members of his own faction. Lenin was left absolutely without supporters. The sharp repulse given to this firebrand was a healthy sign of the growth of practical sense of the Socialist wing, and the generally moderate and sensible tone of the conference of provincial workers' and soldiers' deputies was another hopeful indication of the passing of the revolutionary fever."
Ariadna Tyrkova, a member of the Constitutional Democrat Party, commented: "He (Lenin) was a Marxist for whom the theory of the class-struggle was an irrefutable dogma, entitling its adepts to hold in contempt all scruples of conscience and all demands of logic. From his youth his revolutionary work was characterised by the spirit of cold intrigue and by the cruel arrogance of a man convinced that he was the bearer of absolute truth, and, therefore, absolved from all moral obligations. Ambitious and domineering, utterly unscrupulous in his choice of means, Lenin acted upon the principles of Divide et impera and sowed discord among his own party. It was he who broke up the party into the two factions of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the beginning of the twentieth century. The difference between those factions lies chiefly in their tactics, or rather in their moral standard."
When Lenin returned to Russia on 3rd April, 1917, he announced what became known as the April Theses. Lenin attacked Bolsheviks for supporting the Provisional Government. Instead, he argued, revolutionaries should be telling the people of Russia that they should take over the control of the country. In his speech, Lenin urged the peasants to take the land from the rich landlords and the industrial workers to seize the factories.
Albert Rhys Williams got to know Lenin during this period. He later argued: "He was the most thoroughly civilized and humane man I ever have known, as nice a one as I ever knew, in addition to being a great man." Williams was convinced that the Bolsheviks would become the new rulers: "The Bolsheviks understood the people. They were strong among the more literate strata, like the sailors, and comprised largely the artisans and labourers of the cities. Sprung directly from the people's lions they spoke the people's language, shared their sorrows and thought their thoughts. They were the people. So they were trusted."
Lenin accused those Bolsheviks who were still supporting the Provisional Government of betraying socialism and suggested that they should leave the party. Some took Lenin's advice, arguing that any attempt at revolution at this stage was bound to fail and would lead to another repressive, authoritarian Russian government.
Joseph Stalin was in a difficult position. As one of the editors of Pravda, he was aware that he was being held partly responsible for what Lenin had described as "betraying socialism". Stalin had two main options open to him: he could oppose Lenin and challenge him for the leadership of the party, or he could change his mind about supporting the Provisional Government and remain loyal to Lenin.
After ten days of silence, Stalin made his move. In Pravda he wrote an article dismissing the idea of working with the Provisional Government. He condemned left-wing members of the government such as Alexander Kerensky and Victor Chernov as counter-revolutionaries, and urged the peasants to form committees to prepare to takeover the land for themselves.
On 8th July, 1917, Alexander Kerensky became the new leader of the Provisional Government. In the Duma he had been leader of the moderate socialists and had been seen as the champion of the working-class. However, Kerensky, like his predecessor, George Lvov, was unwilling to end the war. In fact, soon after taking office, he announced a new summer offensive.
Soldiers on the Eastern Front were dismayed at the news and regiments began to refuse to move to the front line. There was a rapid increase in the number of men deserting and by the autumn of 1917 an estimated 2 million men had unofficially left the army. Some of these soldiers returned to their homes and used their weapons to seize land from the nobility. Manor houses were burnt down and in some cases wealthy landowners were murdered. Kerensky and the Provisional Government issued warnings but were powerless to stop the redistribution of land in the countryside.
Lenin welcomed these developments and it became clear to Alexander Kerensky that the Bolshevik posed a real threat to his government. On 19th July, Kerensky gave orders for the arrest of Lenin as well as Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, and Alexandra Kollontai. The Bolshevik headquarters at the Kshesinsky Palace, was also occupied by government troops.
A Bolshevik spy in the Ministry of Justice discovered what was going to happen and Lenin was able to escape to nearby Finland where he was hidden by a secret socialist, the Helsinki chief of police. While in Finland Lenin completed State and Revolution. In the book Lenin explained his ideas of the kind socialist government he would like to see in Russia.
After the failure of the July Offensive on the Eastern Front, the prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, replaced General Alexei Brusilov with General Lavr Kornilov, as Supreme Commander of the Russian Army. The two men soon clashed about military policy. Kornilov wanted Kerensky to restore the death-penalty for soldiers and to militarize the factories.
Lavr Kornilov responded by sending troops under the leadership of General Krymov to take control of Petrograd. Alexander Kerensky was now in danger and was forced to ask the Soviets and the Red Guards to protect Petrograd. The Bolsheviks, who controlled these organizations, agreed to this request, but Lenin made clear they would be fighting against Kornilov rather than for Kerensky.
Within a few days Bolsheviks had enlisted 25,000 armed recruits to defend Petrograd. While they dug trenches and fortified the city, delegations of soldiers were sent out to talk to the advancing troops. Meetings were held and Kornilov's troops decided not to attack Petrograd. General Krymov committed suicide and Kornilov was arrested and taken into custody.
Lenin now returned to Petrograd but remained in hiding. On 25th September, Kerensky attempted to recover his left-wing support by forming a new coalition that included more Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. However, with the Bolsheviks controlling the Soviets and now able to call on 25,000 armed militia, Kerensky's authority had been undermined.
Morgan Philips Price, a journalist working for the Manchester Guardian, watched Lenin and Leon Trotsky closely during this period: "Lenin struck me as being a man who, in spite of the revolutionary jargon that he used, was aware of the obstacles facing him and his party. There was no doubt that Lenin was the driving force behind the Bolshevik Party... He was the brains and the planner, but not the orator or the rabble-rouser. That function fell to Trotsky. I watched the latter, several times that evening, rouse the Congress delegates, who were becoming listless, probably through long hours of excitement and waiting. He was always the man who could say the right thing at the right moment. I could see that there was beginning now that fruitful partnership between him and Lenin that did so much to carry the Revolution through the critical periods that were coming."
The Bolsheviks set up their headquarters in the Smolny Institute. The former girls' convent school also housed the Petrograd Soviet. Under pressure from the nobility and industrialists, Alexander Kerensky was persuaded to take decisive action. On 22nd October he ordered the arrest of the Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee. The next day he closed down the Bolshevik newspapers and cut off the telephones to the Smolny Institute.
Leon Trotsky now urged the overthrow of the Provisional Government. Lenin agreed and on the evening of 24th October, 1917, orders were given for the Bolsheviks began to occupy the railway stations, the telephone exchange and the State Bank. The following day the Red Guards surrounded the Winter Palace. Inside was most of the country's Cabinet, although Kerensky had managed to escape from the city.
The Winter Palace was defended by Cossacks, some junior army officers and the Woman's Battalion. At 9 p.m. the Aurora and the Peter and Paul Fortress began to open fire on the palace. Little damage was done but the action persuaded most of those defending the building to surrender. The Red Guards, led by Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, now entered the Winter Palace and arrested the Cabinet ministers.
On 26th October, 1917, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets met and handed over power to the Soviet Council of People's Commissars. Lenin was elected chairman and other appointments included Leon Trotsky (Foreign Affairs) Alexei Rykov (Internal Affairs), Anatoli Lunacharsky (Education), Alexandra Kollontai (Social Welfare), Felix Dzerzhinsky (Internal Affairs), Joseph Stalin (Nationalities), Peter Stuchka (Justice) and Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko (War).
As chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, Lenin abolished private ownership of land and began distributing it among the peasants. Banks were nationalized and workers control of factory production was introduced. He also closed down the Constituent Assemby and began banning political parties such as the Cadets, Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries.
On 8th November, 1917, John Reed spent time with Lenin: "A short, stocky figure, with a big head set down in his shoulders, bald and bulging. Little eyes, a snubbish nose, wide, generous mouth, and heavy chin; clean-shaven now, but already beginning to bristle with the well-known beard of his past and future. Dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers much too long for him. Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been. A strange popular leader 'a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colourless, humourless, umcompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncracies - but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms, of analysing a concrete situation. And combined with shrewdness, the greatest intellectual audacity."
Several of the communist leaders in Germany, including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested and imprisoned during the First World War. While in prison Luxemburg wrote The Russian Revolution, where she criticized Lenin for using the dictatorial and terrorist methods to overthrow the government in Russia. "Terror has not crushed us. How can you put your trust in terror."
Once again this work showed that she was opposed to the activities of the Bolsheviks. She quotes Leon Trotsky as saying: "As Marxists we have never been idol worshippers of formal democracy.” She replied that: "All that that really means is: We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom – not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy – not to eliminate democracy altogether."
Rosa Luxemburg went onto argue: "But socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class – that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people."
Lenin also demobilized the army and announced that he planned to seek an armistice with Germany. In December, 1917, Leon Trotsky led the Russian delegation at Brest-Litovsk that was negotiating with representatives from Germany and Austria.
Trotsky had the difficult task of trying to end Russian participation in the First World War without having to grant territory to the Central Powers. By employing delaying tactics Trotsky hoped that socialist revolutions would spread from Russia to Germany and Austria-Hungary before he had to sign the treaty.
After nine weeks of discussions without agreement, the German Army was ordered to resume its advance into Russia. On 3rd March 1918, with German troops moving towards Petrograd, Lenin ordered Trotsky to accept the terms of the Central Powers. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty resulted in the Russians surrendering the Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic provinces, the Caucasus and Poland.
The decision increased opposition to the Bolshevik government and General Lavr Kornilov now organized a Volunteer Army. Over the next few months other groups who opposed the Soviet regime joined the struggle. Eventually these soldiers who fought against the Red Army during the Civil War became known as the Whites.
Those that joined the White Army included the Cadets, who wished to continue the war against the Central Powers. Some Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries that were opposed to the dictatorial powers of the new regime also joined the resistance. Others who opposed the Bolsheviks included landowners who had lost their estates, factory owners who had their property nationalized, devout members of the Russian Orthodox Church who objected to the government's atheism and royalists who wanted to restore the monarchy.
The White Army initially had success in the Ukraine where the Bolsheviks were unpopular. The main resistance came from Nestor Makhno, the leader of an Anarchist army in the area. Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, led the Red Army and gradually pro-Bolsheviks took control of the Ukraine. By February, 1918, the Whites held no major areas in Russia but it was not until late 1920 that the Civil War came to an end.
On 2nd November, 1918, Roman Malinovsky crossed the Russian border and turned up in Petrograd. He visited the Smolny Institute, the Bolshevik headquarters, on three days running, demanding to be taken to see Lenin. On the third day, Gregory Zinoviev saw him and ordered his arrest. He was taken to Moscow for trial and Nikolai Krylenko was appointed as prosecutor.
Vladimir Burtsev interviewed Malinovsky and he told him: "When the Revolution triumphed in Germany and Russia and the possibility of participating prominently in political activities was lost to him forever, he decided to go back and die, rather than to flee into the obscurity of an Argentina or a similar place of refuge. Of course, he could have committed suicide, but he preferred to die in the view of everybody, and had no fear of death."
At his trial Roman Malinovsky admitted he had been a spy and commented: "I am not asking for mercy! I know what is in store for me. I deserve it." After a brief trial was found guilty and executed that night. The historian, Bertram D. Wolfe, has asked the following questions: "How much did Lenin know of Malinovsky's past? Why did Lenin exonerate Malinovsky in 1914, against the evidence and against the world? Why did he rehabilitate him in 1916? Why did Malinovsky return to Russia when Lenin was in power? Did he count on Lenin? Why did Lenin then not lift a finger to save him?"
Inessa Armand contracted cholera and died at the age of forty-six on 24th September 1914. Angelica Balabanoff recorded that: "Lenin was utterly broken by her death... He was plunged in despair, his cap down over his eyes; small as he was, he seemed to shrink and grow smaller. He looked pitiful and broken in spirit. I never saw him look like that before." Alexandra Kollontai added: "He was not able to go on living after Inessa Armand. The death of Inessa hastened the development of the sickness which was to destroy him."
Lenin's policy of War Communism during the Civil War created social distress and led to riots, strikes and demonstrations. After the Kronstadt Uprising he responded by introducing the New Economic Policy. Farmers were allowed to sell food on the open market and were allowed to employ people to work for them. Those farmers who expanded the size of their farms became known as kulaks. Factories employing less than twenty people were denationalized and could be claimed back by former owners.
Lenin's health declined after being shot by Dora Kaplan, a member of the Socialist Revolutionaries, on 30th August, 1918. Two bullets entered his body and it was too dangerous to remove them. In a statement she made to Cheka that night, she explained that she had attempted to kill him because he had closed down the Constituent Assembly and described him as a "traitor to the revolution."
Lenin found the disagreements over the New Economic Policy exhausting. His health had been poor ever since Dora Kaplan had shot him in 1918. Severe headaches limited his sleep and understandably he began to suffer from fatigue. Lincoln Steffens interviewed Lenin after he was shot by Dora Kaplan: "Lenin was impatient with my liberalism, but he had shown himself a liberal by instinct. He had defended liberty of speech, assembly, and the Russian press for some five to seven months after the October revolution which put him in power. The people had stopped talking; they were for action on the program. But the plottings of the whites, the distracting debates and criticisms of the various shades of reds, the wild conspiracies and the violence of the anarchists against Bolshevik socialism, developed an extreme left in Lenin's party which proposed to proceed directly to the terror which the people were ready for. Lenin held out against them till he was shot, and even then, when he was in hospital, he pleaded for the life of the woman who shot him."
Lenin decided he needed someone to help him control the Communist Party. At the Party Conference in April, 1922, Lenin suggested that a new post of General Secretary should be created. Lenin's choice for the post was Joseph Stalin, who in the past had always loyally supported his policies. Stalin's main opponents for the future leadership of the party failed to see the importance of this position and actually supported his nomination. They initially saw the post of General Secretary as being no more that "Lenin's mouthpiece".
Soon after Stalin's appointment as General Secretary, Lenin went into hospital to have a bullet removed from his body that had been there since Dora Kaplan's assassination attempt. It was hoped that this operation would restore his health. This was not to be; soon afterwards, a blood vessel broke in Lenin's brain. This left him paralyzed all down his right side and for a time he was unable to speak. As "Lenin's mouthpiece", Joseph Stalin had suddenly become extremely important.
While Lenin was immobilized, Stalin made full use of his powers as General Secretary. At the Party Congress he had been granted permission to expel "unsatisfactory" party members. This enabled Stalin to remove thousands of supporters of Leon Trotsky, his main rival for the leadership of the party. As General Secretary, Stalin also had the power to appoint and sack people from important positions in the government. The new holders of these posts were fully aware that they owed their promotion to Stalin. They also knew that if their behaviour did not please him they would be replaced.
Surrounded by his supporters, Stalin's confidence began to grow. In October, 1922, he disagreed with Lenin over the issue of foreign trade. When the matter was discussed at Central Committee, Stalin's rather than Lenin's policy was accepted. Lenin began to fear that Stalin was taking over the leadership of the party. Lenin wrote to Leon Trotsky asking for his support. Trotsky agreed and at the next meeting of the Central Committee the decision on foreign trade was reversed. Lenin, who was too ill to attend, wrote to Trotsky congratulating him on his success and suggesting that in future they should work together against Stalin.
P. P. Baloyusov, painted a picture of Fanya Kaplan's attempt to kill Lenin.
Joseph Stalin, whose wife Nadya Alliluyeva worked in Lenin's private office, soon discovered the contents of the letter sent to Leon Trotsky. Stalin was furious as he realized that if Lenin and Trotsky worked together against him, his political career would be at an end. In a fit of temper Stalin made an abusive phone-call to Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, accusing her of endangering Lenin's life by allowing him to write letters when he was so ill.
After Krupskaya told her husband of this phone-call, Lenin made the decision that Stalin was not the man to replace him as the leader of the party. Lenin knew he was close to death so he dictated to his secretary a letter that he wanted to serve as his last "will and testament". The document was comprised of his thoughts on the senior members of the party leadership.
He was particularly concerned about the growing power of Joseph Stalin: "Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has concentrated enormous power in his hands: and I am not sure that he always knows how to use that power with sufficient caution. I therefore propose to our comrades to consider a means of removing Stalin from this post and appointing someone else who differs from Stalin in one weighty respect: being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, more considerate of his comrades."
Three days after writing this testament Lenin had a third stroke. Lenin was no longer able to speak or write and although he lived for another ten months, he ceased to exist as a power within the Soviet Union.
Lenin died in Gorki on 21st January, 1924.
© John Simkin, March 2013
(1) (1) Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (1902)
An organization of workers must be first a trade organization; secondly, it must be as broad as possible; thirdly, it must be as little secret as possible. An organization of revolutionaries, on the contrary, must embrace primarily and chiefly people whose profession consists of revolutionary activity.
In an autocratic country, the more we narrow the membership of such an organization, restricting it only to those who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activities and have received a professional training in the art of struggle against the political police, the more difficult will it be to catch such an organization.
(2) Joseph Stalin met Lenin for the first time in Finland in December, 1905.
I was looking to see the mountain eagle of our fatherland, a great man; great not only in the political sense, but physically: a tall, big man; for in my youthful enthusiasm I imagined him a giant, a man of martial bearing. I saw a most ordinary looking person, rather shorter than myself - and I am only of medium stature - a man absolutely indistinguishable in any respect whatsoever from the ordinary run of mortals.
(3) Maxim Gorky first met Vladimir Lenin at the Fifth Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in 1907.
When we were introduced, he shook me heartily by the hand, and scrutinizing me with his keen eyes and speaking in the tone of an old acquaintance, he said jocularly: "So glad you've come, believe you're fond of a scrap? There's going to be a fine old scuffle here."
I did not expect Lenin to be like that. Something was lacking in him. He rolled his r's gutturally, and had a jaunty way of standing with his hands somehow poked up under his armpits. He was somehow too ordinary, did not give the impression of being a leader.
(4) Maxim Gorky letter to Vladimir Lenin in 1909.
I hold you in great esteem, moreover, I like you as a person. But you know, you are very naive in your relationship with people, and your judgment of them is poor. It seems to me, at times, that everybody is for you nothing more than a flute, that you can play on it one time or another as long as it is pleasing you.
You value the individual by the criterion of whether he is useful to you in realizing your aims, views and tasks.
That kind of measure will by necessity create around you some kind of void. This in itself is perhaps not very important, for you are a strong individual. The main thing is that this attitude will unavoidably lead you in the making of mistakes.
(5) Charles Rappaport, a French socialist, knew Vladimir Lenin before the First World War.
We recognized Lenin's achievements. He is a man of iron will and an incomparable organizer of groups. But Lenin regards only himself as a Socialist. Whoever opposes him is forever condemned by him. War is declared on anyone who differs with him. Instead of combating his opponents in the Social Democratic Party by Socialist methods, i.e. by argument, Lenin only uses surgical methods, those of bloodletting.
(6) Lenin, State and Revolution (1917)
During the transition from Capitalism to Communism suppression is still necessary; but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the state, is still necessary, but it is now a transitory state; it is no longer a state in the proper sense; for the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of the wage-slaves of yesterday is comparatively so easy, simple and natural a task that it will entail far less bloodshed than the suppression of the risings of slaves, serfs or wage labourers, and it will cost mankind far less.
Finally, only Communism makes the state absolutely unnecessary, for there is nobody to be suppressed - nobody in the sense of a class, in the sense of a systematic struggle against a definite section of the population. We are not utopians, and we do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to suppress such excesses. But, in the first place, no special machine, no special apparatus of repression is needed for this, this will be done by the armed people itself.
(7) Harold Williams, Daily Chronicle (22nd April, 1917)
Lenin, leader of the extreme faction of the Social Democrats, arrived here on Monday night by way of Germany. His action in accepting from the German government a passage from Switzerland through Germany arouses intense indignation here. He has come back breathing fire, and demanding the immediate and unconditional conclusions of peace, civil war against the army and government, and vengeance on Kerensky and Chkheidze, whom he describes as traitors to the cause of International Socialism. At the meeting of Social Democrats yesterday his wild rant was received in dead silence, and he was vigorously attacked, not only by the more moderate Social Democrats, but by members of his own faction.
Lenin was left absolutely without supporters. The sharp repulse given to this firebrand was a healthy sign of the growth of practical sense of the Socialist wing, and the generally moderate and sensible tone of the conference of provincial workers' and soldiers' deputies was another hopeful indication of the passing of the revolutionary fever.
(8) Morgan Philips Price, Manchester Guardian (17th July, 1917)
There then rose upon the tribune a man whose name has been on all lips for many weeks past - Lenin. He is a short man with a round head, small pig-like eyes, and close-cropped hair. The words poured from his mouth, overwhelming all in a flood of oratory. One sat spellbound at his command of language and the passion of his denunciation. But when it was all over one felt inclined to scratch one's head and ask what it was all about.
(9) Lenin wrote a series of articles about the First World War in the Bolshevik newspaper, Rabochi Put (17 October, 1917)
The fourth year's campaign will mean the annihilation of the army and the country. There is a danger for the safety of Petrograd. Counter-revolutionaries rejoice in the people's misfortunes. The Kerensky Government is against the people. He will destroy the country. This paper stands for the people and by the people - the poor classes, workers, soldiers and peasants. The people can only be saved by the completion of the revolution and for this purpose the full power must be in the hands of the Soviets.
(10) Alexander Kerensky, speech made at the Council of the Republic ( 24th October, 1917)
I will cite here the most characteristic passage from a whole series of articles published in Rabochi Put by Lenin, a state criminal who is in hiding and whom we are trying to find. This state criminal has invited the proletariat and the Petrograd garrison to repeat the experience of 16-18 July, and insists upon the immediate necessity for an armed rising. Moreover, other Bolshevik leaders have taken the floor in a series of meetings, and also made an appeal to immediate insurrection. Particularly should be noticed the activity of the present president of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky.
The policy of the Bolsheviki is demagogic and criminal, in their exploitation of the popular discontent. But there is a whole series of popular demands which have received no satisfaction up to now. The question of peace, land, and the democratization of the army ought to be stated in such a fashion that no soldier, peasant, or worker would have the least doubt that our Government is attempting, firmly and infallibly, to solve them.
(11) Lenin, instructions issued to the Bolsheviks on 6th November, 1917.
I am writing these lines on the evening of November 6th. The situation is critical in the extreme. It is absolutely clear that to delay the insurrection now will be inevitably fatal. I exhort my comrades with all my heart and strength to realize that everything now hangs by a thread, that we are being confronted by problems that cannot be solved by conferences and congresses (even Congresses of Soviets) but exclusively by the people, the masses, by the struggle of the armed masses. We must at all costs, this very evening, this very night, arrest the Government, first disarming the Junkers and so forth. We must not wait! We will lose everything! History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating when they can be victorious today, while they risk losing much, in fact, everything, tomorrow.
(12) During November, 1917, Leon Trotsky's wife, Natalya Sedova, wrote about the events of the Russian Revolution.
I remember that on the morning of the second or third day after the uprising, I dropped into a room at the Smolny and found Lenin and Trotsky. With them were Dzerzhinsky, Joffe, and a crowd of others. Their faces were a greyish-green from lack of sleep; their eyes were inflamed, their collars soiled, and the room was full of smoke. It seemed to me that orders were being given as if by people who were asleep. For a moment I felt as if I were seeing it all in a dream, and that the revolution was in danger of being lost if "they" didn't get a good sleep and put on clean collars. I remember that next day I met Lenin's sister, Marya Ilinishna, and reminded her hurriedly that Lenin needed a clean collar.
(13) Lenin, Decree on Land (26th October, 1917)
All private ownership of land is abolished immediately without compensation. (2) All landowners' estates and all lands belonging to the Crown, to monasteries, church lands with all their live stock and inventoried property, buildings and appurtenances, are transferred to the disposition of the township Land Committees and the district Soviets of Peasants' Deputies until the Constituent Assembly meets.
(14) Lenin, Decree on Freedom of the Press (November, 1917)
The suppression of the bourgeois press was dictated not only by purely military needs in the course of the insurrection, and for the checking of counter-revolutionary action, but it is also necessary as a measure of transition toward the establishment of a new regime with regard to the press.
The re-establishment of the so-called "freedom of the press", the simple return of printing presses and paper to the capitalists - poisoners of the mind of the people - this would be an inadmissible surrender to the will of capital, a giving up of one of the most important conquests of the Revolution.
(15) Maxim Gorky, New Life (7th November, 1917)
Lenin and Trotsky and their followers already have been poisoned by the rotten venom of power. The proof of this is their attitude toward freedom of speech and of person and toward all the ideals for which democracy was fighting. Blind fanatics and conscienceless adventurers are rushing at full speed on the road on the road to a social revolution - in actuality, it is a road toward anarchy.
(16) Maxim Gorky, New Life (10th November, 1917)
Lenin and Trotsky and all who follow them are dishonoring the Revolution, and the working-class. Imagining themselves Napoleons of socialism. The proletariat is for Lenin the same as iron ore is for a metallurgist. It is possible, taking into consideration the present conditions, to cast out of this ore a socialist state? Obviously this is impossible. Conscious workers who follow Lenin must understand that a pitiless experiment is being carried out with the Russian people which is going to destroy the best forces of the workers, and which will stop the normal growth of the Russian Revolution for a long time.
(17) In November, 1917, Vladimir Lenin sent Leon Trotsky to negotiate with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk. He wrote about these negotiations in his autobiography, My Life.
It was obvious that going on with the war was impossible. On this point there was not even a shadow of disagreement between Lenin and me. But there was another question. How had the February revolution, and, later on, the October revolution, affected the German army? How soon would any effect show itself? To these questions no answer could as yet be given. We had to try and find it in the course of the negotiations as long as we could. It was necessary to give the European workers time to absorb properly the very fact of the Soviet revolution.
(18) Lenin to Leon Trotsky after hearing that the German Army had invaded Finland in February, 1918.
We must change our policy. Military action on our part would not be able to save the revolution in Finland, but it would most certainly ruin us. We will help the Finnish workers in every way we can, but we must do it without abandoning peace. I am not sure that this will save us now. But at any rate it is the only way in which salvation is still possible.
(19) In his autobiography Leon Trotsky explained why he signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty.
On 21st February, we received new terms from Germany, framed, apparently, with the direct object of making the signing of peace impossible. By the time our delegation returned to Brest-Litovsk, these terms, as is well known, had been made even harsher. All of us, including Lenin, were of the impression that the Germans had come to an agreement with the Allies about crushing the Soviets, and that a peace on the western front was to be built on the bones of the Russian revolution.
On 3rd March our delegation signed the peace treaty without even reading it. Forestalling many of the ideas of Clemenceau, the Brest-Litovsk peace was like the hangman's noose. On 22nd March the treaty was ratified by the German Reichstag. The German Social Democrats gave their approval in advance to the future principles of Versailles.
(20) Leon Trotsky wrote about the decline in Lenin's health in his autobiography, My Life.
Lenin himself was considered a man of robust health, and this health seemed to be one of the indestructible pillars of the revolution. He was always active, alert, even-tempered and gay. Only occasionally did I notice alarming symptoms. During the First Congress of the communist International, he surprised me with his tired look, the unevenness of his voice, and the sick man's smile.
(21) Victor Serge met Lenin for the first time in 1919.
Lenin was wearing one of his old jackets dating back to the emigration, perhaps brought back from Zurich; I saw it on him in all seasons. Practically bald, his cranium high and bulging, his forehead strong, he had commonplace features: an amazingly fresh and pink face, a little reddish beard, slightly jutting cheek-bones, eyes horizontal but apparently slanted because of the laughter-lines, a grey-green gaze at people, and a surpassing air of geniality and cheerful malice.
In the Kremlin he still occupied a small apartment built for a palace servant. In the recent winter he, like everyone else, had no heating. When he went to the barber's he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone to give way to him. An old housekeeper looked after his rooms and did his mending.
His manners and behaviour betrayed not the slightest inkling of any taste for authority; what showed through was only the urgency of the devoted technician who wants the work to be done, and done quickly and well.
He was neither a great orator nor a first-rate lecturer. He employed no rhetoric and sought no demagogical effects. His vocabulary was that of a newspaper article, and his technique included diverse forms of repetition, all with the aim of a driving in ideas thoroughly, as one drives in a nail. He was never boring, on account of his mimic's liveliness and the reasoned conviction which drove him.
(22) Harold Williams, Daily Chronicle (22nd November, 1917)
Lenin is an interesting figure. It is absurd to regard him as a mere German agent. I imagine that in pursuit of his ends Lenin is willing to use all available means, and if the Germans like to supply money or officers for the purpose of effecting a social revolution in Russia he gladly accepts even their services.
Mere money for his personal use could not tempt such a man. He is utterly headstrong, oblivious of realities, oblivious of what he regards as bourgeois morality, oblivious of immediate consequences. He sees only his goal, the complete and forcible establishment of Socialism in Russia.
(23) George Seldes wrote about Lenin in his book You Can't Print That! (1929)
Many people trembled when the name of the dictator was mentioned. But in dirty little offices sat little grey bureaucrats who changed Lenin's speeches when they feared he had spoken too dangerously, and in other dirty little offices sat military political police officials who bragged that they would arrest the man if he acted too dangerously.
When we said to the censors, " Lenin himself said this," they laughed. When it served their purposes they added or deleted, and sometimes they suppressed Lenin entirely. When it pleased them they arranged interviews, but for years they did their best to keep the " capitalist" journalists out of Lenin's sight. We heard him, however, at all the big congresses.
He spoke with a thick, throaty, wet voice. He was in very good humour, always smiling, his face never was hard. All his pictures are hard but he was always twinkling with laughter. Eyes bright, crowsfeet, a real, unserious face. He had a clever motion of the hand by which he could emphasize a point and yet steal a look at the time on his wrist watch. Frequently he pointed with both index fingers, upwards, shoulder high, like the conventional picture of a Chinese dancer.
He was dressed in a cheap grey semi-military uniform, a civilian transplanted into ill-fitting army-issue clothes. They were grey-black but the crease in the trousers was already giving because there is too much shoddy in the wool. The tunic, which is high like the American doughboy's, was open at the neck revealing a flannel shirt and a bright blue necktie, loosely tied. His eyes were not half as oriental as the photographs have made him, because he has full eyebrows, not merely stubs at the nose, which the pictures emphasize.
He reported on foreign and domestic affairs. He never hesitated to acknowledge defeats and failures. But he was always optimistic. My disillusion was profound. I wondered how this man, who has so little magnetism, had come to the fore in a radical environment where spell-binding oratory, silver-tongued climaxes, soap-box repartee, have been the road to success. Only once did he aim to produce a laugh, and even that had his touch of irony. "We have pruned and pruned our bureaucracy," he said, "and after four years we have taken a census of our government staff and we have an increase of 12,000."
Lenin had the greatness and the human, all-too-human sympathy to be a comrade to all, the group of fellow dictators and the peasants who loved him. In battle with his enemies he was uncompromising and without pity. He hated power, knowing its corruption. His political wisdom was great; he understood mob psychology thoroughly but was a little weak in his grasp of individual psychology; he never made a mistake in dealing with the masses but he frequently did in choosing men to share power.
(24) Victor Serge, Year One of the Revolution (1930)
Lenin arrived alone; no one escorted him and no one formed a reception party. When he came out, workers surrounded him for a moment a few paces from his car. It was at this moment Kaplan fired at him, three times, wounding him seriously in the neck and shoulder. Lenin was driven back to the Kremlin by his chauffeur, and just had the strength to walk upstairs in silence to the second floor: then he fell in pain. There was great anxiety for him: the wound in the neck could have proved extremely serious; for a while it was thought that he was dying. The wounded man's own strength carried him through. Lenin was back on his feet in around ten days.
(25) Dora Kaplan, statement made to Cheka before being executed (30th August, 1918)
My name is Fanya Kaplan. Today I shot at Lenin. I did it on my own. I will not say whom I obtained my revolver. I will give no details. I had resolved to kill Lenin long ago. I consider him a traitor to the Revolution. I was exiled to Akatoi for participating in an assassination attempt against a Tsarist official in Kiev. I spent eleven years at hard labour. After the Revolution I was freed. I favoured the Constituent Assembly and am still for it.
(26) Lincoln Steffens, Autobiography (1931)
Lenin was impatient with my liberalism, but he had shown himself a liberal by instinct. He had defended liberty of speech, assembly, and the Russian press for some five to seven months after the October revolution which put him in power. The people had stopped talking; they were for action on the program. But the plottings of the whites, the distracting debates and criticisms of the various shades of reds, the wild conspiracies and the violence of 'the anarchists against Bolshevik socialism, developed an extreme left in Lenin's party which proposed to proceed directly to the terror which the people were ready for. Lenin held out against them till he was shot, and even then, when he was in hospital, he pleaded for the life of the woman who shot him.
I referred to this, and he acknowledged it and said: "It was no use. It is no use. There will be a terror. It hurts the revolution both inside and out, and we must find out how to avoid or control or direct it. But we have to know more about psychology than we do now to steer through that madness. And it serves a purpose that has to be served. There must be in a revolution, as in a war, unified action, and in a revolution more than in a war the contented people will scuttle your ship if you don't deal with them. There are white terrors, too, you know. Look at Finland and Hungary. We have to devise some way to get rid of the bourgeoisie, the upper classes. They won't let you make economic changes during a revolution any more than they will before one; so they must be driven out. I don't see, myself, why we can't scare them away without killing them. Of course they are a menace outside as well as in, but the emigres are not so bad. The only solution I see is to have the threat of a red terror spread the fear and let them escape. But however it is done, it has to be done. The absolute, instinctive opposition of the old conservatives and even of the fixed liberals has to be silenced if you are to carry through a revolution to its objective."
He foresaw trouble with the fixed minds of the peasants, their hard conservatism, and his remark reminded me of the land problem. They were giving the peasants land? "Not by law," he said. "But they think they own the land; so they do."
He took a piece of paper and a pencil. "We are all wrong on the land," he said, and the thought of Wilson flashed to my mind. Could the American say he was all wrong like that? "Look," said Lenin, and he drew a straight line. "That's our course, but"- he struck off a crooked line to a point "that's where we are. That's where we have had to go, but we'll get back here on our course some day." He paralleled the straight line.
That is the advantage of a plan. You can go wrong, you can tack, as you must, but if you know you are wrong, you can steer back on your course. Wilson, the American liberal, having justified his tackings, forgot his course. To keep himself right, he had changed his mind to follow his actions till he could call the peace of Versailles right. Lenin was a navigator, the other a mere sailor.
There was more of this rapid interview, but not words. When I came out of it, I found that I had fertile ideas in my head and an attitude which grew upon me. Events, both in Russia and out, seemed to have a key that was useful, for example, in Fascist Italy, in Paris, and at home in the United States. Our return from Moscow was less playful than the coming. Bullitt was serious. Captain Petit was interesting on the hunger and the other sufferings of Petrograd, but not depressed as he would have been in New York or London. "London's is an old race misery," he said. "Petrograd is a temporary condition of evil, which is made tolerable by hope and a plan." Arthur Ransome, the English correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, came out with us. He had been years in Russia, spoke Russian, and had spent the last winter in Moscow with the government leaders and among the people. He had the new point of view. He said and he showed that Shakespeare looked different after Russia, and, unlike some other authors, still true. Our journey home was a course of intellectual digestion; we were all enjoying a mental revolution which corresponded somewhat with the Russian Revolution and gave us the sense of looking ahead.
(27) C. L. R. James, Stalin and Socialism (1937)
In the Testament, Lenin, as superior to his contemporaries in grasp of men as of politics, had warned the party of a probable split between Trotsky and Stalin. It was, he said, a trifle, but "a trifle as may acquire a decisive significance." Lenin believed in historical materialism but he did not underestimate the significance of individuals, and the full immensity of the consequences are visible today.
Yet, as Lenin, quite obviously saw, the immediate origin of the danger was personal. Lenin did not say so in so many words. The Testament is very carefully phrased, but all through the civil war there had been clashes between Trotsky and Stalin. Stalin, with Zinoviev and Kamenev, who supported him at first, hated Trotsky, but Stalin hated him with a hatred which saw in him the chief obstacle to his power; Zinoviev and Kamenev Stalin knew he could manage. Zinoviev on his part feared Trotsky, but feared Stalin also. He had the idea of balancing one against the other. But he went with Stalin for the time being. What manner of man was this who was so soon to usurp Lenin's position and attempt to play Lenin's part? No man of this generation, few men of any other, could have done this adequately.
Lenin, first and foremost, knew political economy as few professors in a university did. He was-absolute master of political theory and practice. He knew the international working class movement of the great countries of Europe, not only their history theoretically interpreted by historical materialism, but from years of personal experience in Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland. He spoke almost faultless German and wrote the language like a second tongue. He was at home in French and English and could read other European languages with ease. Intellectual honesty was with him a fanatical passion, and to his basic conception of allying the highest results of his theoretical and practical knowledge in the party to the instinctive movements of millions, honesty before the party and before the masses was for him essential. The range and honesty of his intellect, his power of will, the singular selflessness and devotion of his personal character, added to a great knowledge and understanding of men, enabled him to use all types of intellect and character in a way that helped to lift the Bolshevik party between 1917 and 1923 to the full height of the stupendous role it was called upon to fulfill. No body of men ever did so much, and how small most of them really were we can realise only by looking at what they became the moment their master left them. Lenin made them what they were. He was sly and manoeuvred as all who have to manage men must manoeuvre. But through all the disagreements of those years which often reached breaking-point he never calumniated, exiled, imprisoned or murdered any leaders of his party. He was bitter in denunciation, often unfair, but never personally malicious. He was merciless to political enemies, but he called them enemies, and proclaimed aloud that if they opposed the Soviet regime he would shoot them and keep on shooting them. But Trotsky tells us how careful he was of the health of his colleagues; hard as he was it is easy to feel in his speeches, on occasions when the party was being torn by disputes, a man of strong emotions and sensitiveness to human personality. In his private life he set an unassuming example of personal incorruptibility and austere living. No man could ever fill his place, but it was not impossible that someone able and willing to act in his tradition could have carried on where he left off, and all knew that Trotsky was best fitted for that difficult post. Lenin had designated him as such in the Testament. But the irony, the cruellest tragedy of the post-war world is, that without a break the leadership of the over-centralised and politically dominant Bolshevik party passed from one of the highest representatives of European culture to another who, in every respect except singlemindedness of purpose, was the very antithesis of his predecessor.
Now that Soviet communism has vaulted over a quarter-century of Stalin dominance to rest its claim to legitimate succession on Lenin alone, there is a tendency to romanticize his character. It is argued, even by some opponents of communism, that he was humane, idealistic, and so on. Yet there is little that Stalin did, except in its scale, that was not done first by Lenin. Stalin simply carried to insane extremes the crimes first sanctified by Lenin.
It was Lenin, it should not be forgotten, who devised the first terror machine, the Cheka, and put a sanctimonious sadist, Felix Dzerzhinsky, at its head. It was Lenin who ordered the murder of thousands of innocent "hostages"; dispersed the first and only democratically elected legislative body after the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Constituent Assembly; crushed the Kronstadt revolt of his own Red sailors; raised lies and falsification to prime virtues in his system.
(29) Walter Duranty, diary (26th January, 1924)
This morning I watched a group of children, aged six to eleven, pass through the Hall of Columns. Each triad of little ones had an elder child or teacher with them, all four hand in hand. With wide, astonished eyes they stared at the couch where Lenin lay. As rank after rank moved across the room past the body, their heads turned to the right as though held by an irresistible attraction. On the farther side of the hall the red carpet turned sharply at right angles leading to the exit.
Each rank of the children, and many older folks, too, went on straight ahead as though hypnotised and would have marched blindly into the wall had not the teachers been there to guide them round the corner. As it was, a guard at the corner was forced to intervene again and again, so lost were the people in their first and final contemplation of Lenin.
The effect on the children and the simpler section of the public was extraordinary - a sort of veritable hypnosis that lasted two or three minutes after they reached the street again. The sudden bright lights in the hall, the dazzling white walls, and the heady perfume of flowers doubtless were responsible in no small degree, but there was something more - mass suggestion or crowd psychology perhaps.
Most of all the children seemed struck by the utter stillness of the figure on the couch and the watchers beside it.
"Was it really Lenin," asked one little girl, "or was it only an image of him?"
'"Of course it was he," said an older friend, "but he could not move, he is dead."
"But the others standing by his bed did not move either," persisted the little one. "Were they dead, too?"
Strangely enough none of them seemed frightened. One small boy was weeping bitterly, and I asked him if he had been afraid. He shook his head.
"No," he gulped at last. "I'm sorry for poor Lenin - he looked so lonely there in the middle of the great big room with people passing around."
What is happening here emphasises the religious aspect of Bolshevism with Lenin as the central figure. How else can one explain the gigantic mass movement to see his body - a movement not of Communists and their sympathisers alone, but of the rest of the population, despite such agony of cold? The Bolsheviki can organise much, but it is not their propaganda which draws these hundreds of thousands to Lenin's feet.
© John Simkin, March 2013