Marxist thinkers believe that the major events of history were driven not by the actions of individual men and women but by strong, sweeping economic, social and political forces. Nothing contradicts the theory as powerfully as the life and career of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the man who led the first communist revolution and who created the first Marxist state.
If Lenin had not been in the city of Petrograd (now known as St Petersburg) 100 years ago, there would not have been a communist revolution in Russia, almost certainly no Soviet Union, and very likely no Cold War in the way that it developed throughout the 20th century as an ideological clash of civilisations offering completely alternative ways of looking at the world.
It is not only his later biographers who argue for the crucial importance – the irreplaceability, even – of Lenin in the revolutionary story. Leon Trotsky, his chief lieutenant in the 1917 revolution, made the point many times and in different ways. So, too, did many of the other leading Russian communists of the time.
In the ‘great man’ interpretation of history, held nowadays by a majority of historians in the west, a few towering figures make the weather and turn events. Among them, undoubtedly – and whether one likes him or loathes him – was Lenin, whose influence on the world since 1917 has arguably been as significant as that of anybody else.
He never fought in a battle, and commanded no armies. Instead he spent much of his life in the reading rooms of an assortment of public libraries. He held no great offices of state until his late forties, and before 1917 he had spent nearly half of his adult life as a political refugee living in humble boarding houses outside Russia. Throughout most of his wanderings as an exile in various European cities, Lenin had just a handful of followers who believed in his revolutionary message.
Yet he returned to seize power in one of the largest empires in the world, and created a kind of autocratic regime professing an idealistic socialism that was at one point imitated by nearly half of the countries in the world – from Europe to Asia, and from Africa to the Caribbean and Central America. Over many decades, millions of people would die in its name, victims of a bloody social experiment. Much of Lenin’s political style lives on still, a century after the triumph of the revolution he led.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in 1870 into Russia’s minor nobility; his father held a senior position in the tsarist civil service. Lenin was just one of the scores of aliases he used in an effort to evade the censorship of the Romanovs’ clumsy, brutish autocracy, but from around 1900 it was the one that stuck.
Unlike many other dictators, he enjoyed an idyllic childhood surrounded by a loving family. He wasn’t at all interested in politics until his 18th year when a family tragedy – the execution of his elder brother – radicalised him almost overnight. One of the enduring myths about Lenin the man (as opposed to ‘Lenin the idea’, as often portrayed by historians of both the left and the right) is that he was an icy, unfeeling, one-dimensional individual, a supremely clever tactician who thought with careful deliberation – rather in the way that, famously, he played his favourite game, chess. In fact he was a highly emotional man who flew into tremendous rages that would leave him exhausted, even prostrate. His thirst for revenge after his brother was hanged (for an assassination plot against Tsar Alexander III) motivated Lenin as powerfully as did any ideology. After his brother’s execution his whole family was shunned by polite liberal society in provincial Russia. This had a profound effect on Lenin, fuelling a hatred for the liberal bourgeoisie that never left him and which drove his politics.
Marxism was like a religion to Lenin, as it was too so many of the early believers. But Lenin was different. He was a practical man and an optimist, convinced that the socialist revolution could come in the here and now – not in the far-off future or some afterlife. Lenin is often depicted as a rigid ideologue, a communist fanatic, and this is true up to a point. He spouted Marxist theory constantly: “Without theory there can be no revolutionary party,” he would say regularly. But the sentence that followed is often ignored: “Theory is a guide, not holy writ.” When ideology clashed with opportunism, he invariably chose the tactical path above doctrinal purity. He could change his mind and his strategy completely if it advanced his goal.
Lenin founded and led the ultra-radical Bolsheviks; unlike so many other fanatics he would not allow his tiny groupuscule to remain merely a talking shop. He turned his Bolshevik Party into a disciplined, tightly knit, organised, conspiratorial, unquestioningly loyal corps of comrades. Many other revolutionaries could write as well as Lenin, though at his best he had a clarity and a compelling logic that had real force. Others were better orators and public speakers, though many people who heard him were impressed by the manifest force of his intellect. But he possessed qualities that other revolutionaries lacked: he had subtle tactical flair and a sense of timing, and he understood the nature of power, how to achieve it and what it could be used for. This is why Lenin succeeded while other revolutionaries whose names we no longer remember were discarded into the dustbin of history.
Fortunes of war
Of course, luck – or maybe some of those sweeping historical forces – played a part in Lenin’s victory, not least the outbreak of the First World War, which caused chaos in Russia; it was deeply unpopular, and prompted a crisis in the tsarist regime. Having been jailed for his revolutionary activity in 1895, then exiled in Siberia and later moving to western Europe, Lenin was in Switzerland in February 1917 when, during the first of that year’s revolutions, a series of strikes, bread riots and a mass army mutiny forced the abdication of the last Romanov emperor, Nicholas II. The Germans helped Lenin and some of his supporters return to Russia, gambling that he would seize power, make a separate peace and take Russia out of the war.
Back in Russia, Lenin cleverly built on that luck. He campaigned against the war, and promised land to Russian peasants, a series of new workers’ rights, and to take back control from the elite. Bankers who had profited from the war would be jailed, and the assets of the rich – “enemies of the people” – would be seized. Lenin was an adroit tactician, while the liberal Provisional Government that took over from the tsar was no match for him.
Lenin took power in a coup – not a democratic process, but then the tsar was not a democrat, and nor were several figures in the government. The test of Lenin’s leadership was not as a democratic politician. He persuaded, hectored and bullied his reluctant Bolsheviks into taking over the government when many of his comrades opposed him. Eventually they came round. That is what Trotsky, originally one of his opponents, meant by his categorical claim that if Lenin had not been in Petrograd in 1917 there would have been no Bolshevik takeover.
From the first moment after his Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, Lenin and his comrades felt insecure. He thought that power could slip away at any time, which explains so much of the 74-year history of the Soviet state. Having achieved power illegitimately, Lenin’s only real concern for the rest of his life was keeping it – an obsession he passed down to his successors. Lenin launched the ‘Red Terror’ to destroy his opponents. He established the Cheka, which morphed into the NKVD and then the KGB, imitated wherever communist regimes came to power. He allowed a freely elected parliament to sit for just 12 hours before abolishing it – perhaps a record in brevity. There would not be another elected parliament in Russia for more than 70 years.
Throughout its existence the Soviet Union identified itself with the founder of the state, both while alive and after his death. The regime that Lenin created was largely shaped by his personality: secretive, suspicious, intolerant, intemperate. Few of the more decent parts of Lenin’s character found their way into the public sphere of his Soviet Union.
The state that Lenin founded was moulded very much in his own ascetic image – but there were other aspects to Lenin, too. He wrote reams of text about Marxist philosophy, much of it now unintelligible. But he loved mountains almost as much as he loved making revolution, and wrote lyrically about walking through the countryside. One of the reasons he remained in Switzerland for so long during his exile from Russia was to be near the Alps. He lived in London for nearly two years and grew to like it, but it wasn’t close enough to a peak for him to be happy.
He loved nature, hunting, shooting and fishing. He could identify hundreds of species of plants. His ‘nature notes’ and letters to his family reveal aspects of Lenin that would surprise people who imagine him as a distant and unfeeling figure.
For a decade Lenin had an on-off love affair with a glamorous, intelligent and beautiful woman, Inessa Armand, who became a close friend of his wife. Their ménage a trois is a touching story – a rare example of a romantic triangle in which all three protagonists appear to have behaved in a civilised fashion. The only time Lenin visibly broke down in public was at Armand’s funeral in 1920, three and a half years before his own. After Inessa died, Lenin’s wife, herself childless, became in effect the guardian of his mistress’s children (none of whom were his).
A poisonous legacy
Lenin wanted power, and he wanted to change the world. He retained power personally for just over four years before failing health rendered him physically and mentally incapable. But, as he predicted that it would, the Bolshevik revolution turned the world upside down. Russia never recovered, and nor did many of its neighbours.
Lenin was the product of his time and place: a violent, tyrannical and corrupt Russia. The revolutionary state he created was less the socialist utopia he dreamed of than a mirror image of the Romanov autocracy into which he was born. The fact that Lenin was Russian is as significant as his Marxist faith. He believed, as some supporters of Russia’s current leader Vladimir Putin do today, that his country needs – indeed, has always needed – a dominant, ruthless leader: a boss or, as the Russians say, the Vozhd.
Lenin thought himself an idealist. He was not a monster, a sadist or personally vicious. In personal relationships he was invariably kind, and his behaviour reflected the way he was brought up – like an upper-middle-class gentleman. He was not vain. He could laugh – even, occasionally, at himself. He was not cruel; unlike Stalin, Mao Zedong or Hitler, he never asked about the details of his victims’ deaths in order to savour those moments. He never donned uniforms or military-type tunics, as favoured by other dictators. But during his years of feuding with fellow revolutionaries and battling to maintain his grip on power he never showed generosity to a defeated opponent nor performed a humanitarian act unless it was politically expedient.
He built a system based on the idea that political terror against opponents was justified for a greater end. It was perfected by his successor, Josef Stalin, but the ideas were Lenin’s. He had not always been a bad man, but he did terrible things. Anjelica Balabanova, one of his old comrades who grew to fear and loathe him, observed perceptively that Lenin’s “tragedy was that, in Goethe’s phrase, he desired the good… but created evil”. It remains a suitable epitaph. The worst of Lenin’s evils was to have left a man like Stalin in a position to lead Russia after him. That was a historic crime.
Victor Sebestyen is a historian and journalist whose books include Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009). His latest work is Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait, published in February 2017 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
This article was taken from issue 2 of BBC World Histories Magazine, first published in February 2017