The ruthless revolutionary

The Unknown Lenin
November 22, 1996

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Dmitri Volkogonov had completed his Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. It was not published until glasnost made it possible in 1989, by which time he was already completing a political biography of Trotsky and planning an assault on what he called the last bastion in his mind, namely, a root and branch demolition of Lenin. All three books - but especially those on Stalin and Lenin - were based on hitherto secret archival materials to which Volkogonov had virtually unique access, first as director of the Institute of Military History until June 1991 when he was kicked out by an indignant defence minister and then as chairman of the State Declassifying Commission, a post to which he was appointed by the newly elected President Yeltsin after the abortive coup of August 1991.

Under Volkogonov's chairmanship, the commission declassified some 78 million files, which researchers should be able to find today in their respective repositories, for example state, defence, army, or party archives. The 350 Lenin unpublished letters that Volkogonov cited, either from the Lenin Archives (which hold over 6,000) or the even more impenetrable Presidential Archives, plus nearly a further 4,000, were duly transferred to the Archives of the Party Central Committee, renamed the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History. Now a selection of 113 of these has been edited by Richard Pipes of Harvard University in collaboration with a team at the former party archives under Yuri Buranov.

Since his emergence as a political figure, Lenin had a complex image in the West. He was seen by some as a brilliant revolutionary who acquired statesmanlike qualities in office, far-sighted in his negotiation of Soviet Russia"s exit from the first world war, ruthless in the civil war, but wise enough in 1921 to disengage from the costly folly of pseudocommunism and to introduce a mixed economy, and trying, lamentably too late, to correct the regime's heavy-handed treatment of the nationalities. That is one view.

Others saw him as an obsessed figure whose approach to politics and people became cemented into the foundations of the monstrous edifice of Stalinism that arose after his death - he was its precursor. Few would disagree that Lenin was an outstanding figure in revolutionary history, focused as he was solely on the goal of gaining power by whatever means when the moment arrived. There was enough published evidence, even before the doors of the Lenin Archives opened ajar, to paint Lenin in these dark colours, to show the malicious, vindictive and destructive consequences of his obsession.

Yet, at a conference on 1917 in Jerusalem in January 1988, attended by perhaps 40 specialists, most of us sat in shocked silence when Pipes presented Lenin and his "achievements" as the conscious model for Hitler's regime. Like Lenin, Hitler would secure the ideological base of his power in the persecution and ultimately the physical extermination of entire social categories, that is, classes or races; like Lenin, Hitler would exploit the cinema and the arts to take control of public consciousness, and would similarly advocate and enforce the writing of history according to a narrowly conceived political agenda; concentration camps, where inmates could not be expected to live out their long sentences, were also a Leninist invention.

Why we were shocked then, and why - I would guess - most of us would now accept Pipes's view, is a simple function of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had not only lasted a comparatively long time, and in January 1988 looked like going on lasting, but it had evolved and developed, while the Nazi regime can be seen as a nightmare interlude, however long term its consequences; Soviet official ideology was a dead letter; Nazi atrocities were associated with the latter years of the regime, while mass Soviet brutality had become a thing of the past; and by 1988 it was obvious that the regime was beginning to confront the truth of its own history; the idea of the Soviet Union as "an evil empire" was still associated with an unsophisticated American administration, and it had become a place to do business with. The collapse of the edifice exposed the rot in the foundations and the weakness of the original blueprint, and compelled intellectual reassessment.

Here we are shown the dark side of Lenin, the scheming, hypocritical, vengeful and ruthless politician who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, believed in the imminence of social revolution on a global scale, and who secretly flung vast quantities of the country's wealth into funding the communist parties of the world. As Pipes writes, the letters do not alter our, ie, his, perception of Lenin's personality and his policies, but they do cast fresh light on his motives, attitudes and expectations, and they disperse the smoke screen of self-righteousness and defensiveness in his public pronouncements to reveal him as cynical and aggressive.

Harold Shukman is lecturerin modern Russian history,University of Oxford.

The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive

Editor - Richard Pipes
ISBN - 0 300 06919 7
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 204

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