The Legacy of Vladimir Lenin

New Revelations about Lenin

During the dramatic years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of the Soviet union, the name of Vladimir Lenin continued to be revered as it had from the day he died in 1923. Gorbachev often defended his own reform efforts of restructuring (Perestroika) and openness (Glasnost) by identifying Lenin as “an ideological source of Perestroika.”

While the details of Joseph Stalin’s brutal reign were being uncovered in full view of the reading population, prompted by Gorbachev’s denunciation of Stalin in October 1987, the reputation of Lenin remained unblemished in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev contributed to Lenin’s deification by issuing accolades such as the following:

The works of Lenin and his ideals of socialism remained for us an inexhaustible source of dialectical creative thought, theoretical wealth and political sagacity. His very image is an undying example of lofty moral strength, all-round spiritual culture and selfless devotion to the cause of the people and to socialism. Lenin lives on in the minds and hearts of millions of people (Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, Harper and Row, 1988, p. 11).

I have met many educators in Russia who still think in these terms. While they are critical of Stalin’s dictatorship, they consider him to be an aberration, not a true disciple of Lenin. For man of them, Lenin is still the true hero of the Revolution of 1917, a revolution that overthrew an oppressive statist government.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accession to power of Boris Yeltsin in 1991, the view of Lenin articulated by Gorbachev is undergoing major change. Secret documents located in the KGB headquarters in Moscow, carefully marked “to be preserved forever,” have now been opened and a clearer picture of Lenin and the early years of the Bolshevik regime is emerging.

“Priest of Terror”

The most startling revelations about Lenin were his direct ties to the brutal policies of the first five years of the Bolshevik regime. “At the heart of Lenin’s strategy was the aim of destroying the old order, the norms and ingrained customs of Russian life. He initiated a policy of violence against millions of people, and himself took a daily hand in applying the measures, giving advice and instructions on how the policy should be carried out” (D. Volkogonov, Lenin: A New Biography, Free Press, p. 196).

Volkogonov documents how “Lenin’s orders and exhortations streamed out of the Kremlin, all of their varied contents boiling down to one essential consideration: achieve your aim at any cost, regardless of losses” (p. 201). While in the popular mind, the concentration camp system or GULAG and the purges of the 1930s are commonly associated with the name of Stalin, Volkogonov proves that “the true father of the Bolshevik concentration camps, the executions, the mass terror and the ‘organs’ which stood about the state, was Lenin” (p. 235).

In the middle of Volkogonov’s study of Lenin, the author adds a poignant personal note which summarizes the heart of his new biography. “For twenty-five years after the Twentieth Congress [in which Khrushchev first denounced Stalin] the Russian people asked themselves where Stalin had acquired the cruelty which he inflicted on his fellow countrymen. None of us—the present author included—could begin to imagine that the father of domestic Russian terrorism, merciless and totalitarian, was Lenin” (p. 363).

Lenin’s Attacks on the Intellectuals

In Lenin’s judgment, every facet of Russian society must serve the revolution and for that reason revolutionary education and “agitation” stood at the top of the list. It was imperative, therefore, that intellectuals be brought under Party control and that their writings serve the interests of the Bolshevik leadership. Intellectuals had to be screened immediately and those who refused to serve the revolutionary cause exiled or imprisoned.

The full force of Lenin’s feelings about Russia and its intellectual leadership are graphically illustrated by the following remarks in a letter to the Russian writer Maxim Gorky: “The intellectual forces of the workers and the peasants are growing and getting stronger in the struggle to overthrow the bourgeoisie and their accomplices, the intellectuals, the lackeys of capital, who think they’re the brains of the nation. In fact, they’re not its brains, they’re its shit” (Volkogonov, p. 361).

Building a One-Dimensional Society

The radical character of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Bolshevik regime that came to power as a result created consequences that are not easily ameliorated. “Bolshevism destroyed everything in Russia, starting with the weak and ineffective Provisional Government, followed by private property, the peasant commune and the church. Everything connected with Lenin was anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-reformist, anti-human, and anti-Christian. There can scarcely have been another man in history who managed so profoundly to change so large a society on such a scale.”

Under Lenin’s leadership, “The immoral became moral, the base became the elevated, catastrophes were proclaimed as great achievements.” With his dedicated group of professional revolutionaries, Lenin went about the task of “turning over all of Russia,” creating a “one-dimensional society with a one-dimensional personality” (p. 329).

Sober Expectations about Reform in Russia

Lenin’s legacy, which until recent years was lauded by Russian leaders, even leaders of the democratic reform movement, has now been exposed for what it really is. No society quickly recovers from a legacy as destructive as this. Post-Communist transitions are going to be long, tortuous processes, and those of us in the West who are partners in the reform process need to prepare for a long-term relationships. Steps toward building democratic institutions where pluralism, tolerance and freedom of conscience is guaranteed must be measured in generations, rather than years.