A view from 2017:

A his­to­rian looks at the cru­cial cult of the Soviet Union

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Stanislav Kulchyt­skyi

His­to­rian Stanislav Kulchyt­skyi looks at Vladimir Lenin as the cru­cial cult of the Soviet Union

Lenin’s works have been printed in 125 lan­guages and 653 copies. Lenini­ana, mean­ing all the lit­er­a­ture about Lenin, is im­pos­si­ble to count. Yet, it is worth not­ing that al­most all of it had as its ob­ject of anal­y­sis or pro­pa­ganda not a real his­toric fig­ure, but a mythol­o­gized and can­on­ized Leader. Af­ter the Soviet Union col­lapsed, the flow of the worth­less apolo­getic works stopped. But works on Lenin con­tin­ued to ap­pear. These are most of­ten viewed from a pre­de­ter­mined per­spec­tive, pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive.

The fig­ure of Lenin is fad­ing grad­u­ally in the Rus­sian pub­lic opin­ion. This year’s sur­vey by Le­vada Cen­ter dis­cov­ered the top five his­toric ac­tors that are the most pop­u­lar among the Rus­sians. These in­cluded Joseph Stalin with 38%, Vladimir Putin with 34%, Alexandr Pushkin with 34%, Vladimir Lenin with 32% and Peter I with 29%. In a sim­i­lar sur­vey of 2012, Lenin and Peter I were sec­ond and third with 37% while Stalin was lead­ing with 42%.

The in­dex of pop­u­lar­ity on which Le­vada’s as­sess­ments are based is not worth much as it al­lows peo­ple like Putin on the top. Even if the real weight of a his­toric fig­ure should be as­sessed by his in­flu­ence on the his­tory of hu­mans re­gard­less of whether that in­flu­ence was neg­a­tive or pos­i­tive.

It is im­pos­si­ble to eval­u­ate Lenin’s fig­ure in a short text. This ar­ti­cle, how­ever, pro­vides in­di­vid­ual de­tails, small at first glance, that can help one shape that eval­u­a­tion.


The fu­ture leader in­her­ited di­verse na­tional tra­di­tions. The au­thors of mul­ti­ple pseu­dore­searches on him now tend to play on this fact. Lenin’s pa­ter­nal great-grand­fa­ther, Vasiliy Ulianov, had been a serf re­leased un­der a pledge to pay a sort of tax. He bought him­self out of serf­dom long be­fore the re­spec­tive law was abol­ished. Lenin’s grand­fa­ther, in a late mar­riage to the daugh­ter of a Chris­tian­ized Kalmykian, had two sons. His fa­ther went to the Kazan Uni­ver­sity and be­came a state coun­cilor, an equiv­a­lent of the gen­eral, and got a hered­i­tary no­ble ti­tle.

On Lenin’s ma­ter­nal side, his great-grand­fa­ther was a wealthy Jewish mer­chant who got mar­ried to a Swedish woman. His grand­fa­ther grad­u­ated from the St. Peters­burg Med­i­cal Sur­gi­cal Academy and got bap­tized to marry later a Ger­man. He ob­tained a hered­i­tary no­ble­man ti­tle in 1847 and bought the vil­lage of Kukushkino with the serfs in Kazan Gu­ber­nia. His wife had five girls, in­clud­ing Lenin’s fu­ture mother Maria. Af­ter his wife had died, Lenin’s grand­fa­ther en­tered into a civil mar­riage with her sis­ter Ka­te­rina von Essen who had no chil­dren of her own.

Lenin spoke French and English thanks to his ed­u­ca­tion re­in­forced by his long stay in the re­spec­tive lan­guage en­vi­ron­ments. But his mother tongue in his child­hood years was Ger­man. For­eign re­searchers of Lenin’s ge­neal­ogy dis­cov­ered that his fam­ily along the Ger­man line in­cluded Hitler’s field mar­shal Wal­ter Model, Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Hasso von Man­teuf­fel, a com­man­der of the tank di­vi­sion SS Großdeutsch­land, and Ger­man Pres­i­dent Richard von Weis­säcker. With rep­re­sen­ta­tives of var­i­ous groups in his fam­ily, Lenin never missed a chance to men­tion his hered­i­tary no­ble ti­tle in his cor­re­spon­dence with the Tsar’s of­fi­cials.

In the first years of his un­der­ground ac­tiv­ity, Lenin used many pseu­do­nyms. The N. Lenin one emerged in De­cem­ber 1901 and be­came his sec­ond last name.

In July 1903, a con­ven­tion of Rus­sian so­cial-democrats opened in Brus­sels where Lenin and his long-time ally Julius Mar­tov had sharp dis­agree­ments. When the del­e­gates of the Bund (the Gen­eral Jewish La­bor Bund in Lithua­nia, Poland and Rus­sia in­tend­ing to be­come a newly cre­ated party, in vain) left the con­ven­tion, the sup­port­ers of Lenin pre­vailed in terms of num­bers and rushed to call them­selves bol­she­viks.


Un­like Leon Trot­sky who, af­ter the 1905 Bloody Sun­day Mas­sacre im­me­di­ately got to St. Peters­burg, Lenin had not ar­rived at the rev­o­lu­tion-en­gulfed Rus­sia un­til Novem­ber 1905. He set­tled down in Kuokkala, a town in Fin­land 60km from the then Rus­sian cap­i­tal that was good be­cause there was no po­lice sur­veil­lance there. The de­feat of the rev­o­lu­tion sent Lenin into mi­gra­tion again. World War I caught him in Poronino, a sum­mer house town near Krakow. The po­lice ar­rested him in the near­est prison in the town of Nowy Targ. The door of the prison cell was opened thanks to the pro­tec­tion from Vic­tor Adler, the leader of Aus­trian so­cial-democrats. When asked whether he firmly be­lieved that Ulianov (Lenin) was the en­emy of the statist gov­ern­ment by then Min­is­ter of the In­te­rior, Adler re­sponded: “Oh, yes, stauncher than Your Ex­cel­lency!”. Lenin, how­ever, left the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire and set­tled down in Switzer­land.

When a new rev­o­lu­tion kicked off in Rus­sia, the em­i­grants in Switzer­land faced a prob­lem of how to get to their coun­try. Lenin was not go­ing for a by­pass sea trip. On the one hand, he was afraid of Ger­man sub­marines. On the other hand, he be­lieved that the En­tente Pow­ers would try to pre­vent the lead­ers of so­cial­ist par­ties from get­ting into Rus­sia as they would un­der­mine the army. There­fore, he de­cided to or­ga­nize the trip from Switzer­land to Rus­sia by rail through Ger­many. The po­si­tion of the Cen­tral Pow-


ers in these is­sues would un­der­stand­ably be op­po­site to that of the Al­lies. The for­mal­i­ties of the Rus­sian em­i­grants’ trip through Ger­many in a sealed train were agreed with the as­sis­tance of the Ger­man so­cial-democrats. Wil­helm II per­son­ally saw to make sure that no dif­fi­cul­ties would arise. The Ger­man mil­i­tary lead­er­ship proved ready to let the em­i­grants pass through the Ger­many army units on the front­line, were they de­nied en­trance to Swe­den.

On April 16, 1917 (April 3 un­der the Ju­lian cal­en­dar), Lenin ar­rived in Pet­ro­grad. Ever since, his life had been in­ter­twined with the life-chang­ing de­vel­op­ments that boiled in the rev­o­lu­tion-en­gulfed coun­try. Lenin’s in­tel­lect, tac­tic and strate­gic skills played the cru­cial role in these de­vel­op­ments.


The essence of the con­cept of the com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion de­vel­oped by Lenin can be out­lined in two sen­tences. Firstly, a party dictatorship aimed at the com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion, i.e. the party of the bol­she­viks, was to be es­tab­lished in the coun­try un­der the guise of the dictatorship of pro­le­tariat. Se­condly, the com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion had to be car­ried out through re­forms im­posed by the dic­ta­to­rial gov­ern­ment.

Sim­i­larly to his pre­de­ces­sors in the Rus­sian revo­lu­tion­ary move­ment, Lenin did not wish to use ex­otic meth­ods of con­spir­acy and in­di­vid­ual ter­ror to gain state power. His party had to come to power on the wave of the rev­o­lu­tion and mask its dictatorship as that of the pro­le­tar­i­an­ized masses. Lean­ing on the pro­le­tariat was a nat­u­ral thing for the party that based its plat­form on the need to liq­ui­date pri­vate own­er­ship of prop­erty. Only those who were los­ing noth­ing in the rev­o­lu­tion be­cause they had noth­ing could be­come its al­lies.

The Rus­sian Em­pire was more than half a cen­tury be­hind its Euro­pean neigh­bors in terms of the rev­o­lu­tion. For this rea­son, the ob­jec­tive devel­op­ment of mar­ket re­la­tions pushed the masses of peo­ple op­pressed by the tsarism (jointly with the bour­geoisie) to the fore­front of the rev­o­lu­tion, not the bour­geoisie that had the sup­port of the im­pe­rial lead­er­ship. This pre-de­ter­mined the or­ga­ni­za­tional weak­ness of all po­lit­i­cal par­ties in­volved, in­clud­ing the bol­she­viks. They could not put the ac­tiv­ity of the sovi­ets (“peo­ple’s coun­cils”), the self-or­ga­nized en­ti­ties of the in­sur­gent masses, into some frame­work. Both Lenin, and the top tsarist of­fi­cials whose task was to pre­vent a rev­o­lu­tion were tak­ing this into con­sid­er­a­tion. In an early 1913 let­ter to writer Maxim Gorky, Lenin noted: “A war be­tween Aus­tria and Rus­sia would be very use­ful for the rev­o­lu­tion (in the en­tire Eastern Europe), but it is un­likely that Franz Joseph and Niko­lasha could do us such a plea­sure.” Mean­while, for­mer In­te­rior Min­is­ter Piotr Durno-

vo warned Ni­cholas II in Fe­bru­ary 1914 about the dan­ger of war with Ger­many. If the war failed mil­i­tar­ily for Rus­sia, it would lead to so­cial tur­bu­lence, Durnovo as­sumed: “Rus­sia will be thrown into end­less an­ar­chy the out­come of which is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine.”

When the rev­o­lu­tion started, the bol­she­viks did not join the camp of the revo­lu­tion­ary democ­racy. In a di­rec­tive for the party fel­lows re­turn­ing from em­i­gra­tion, Lenin for­mu­lated his tac­tics in a few words: full no-con­fi­dence to the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment, no closer ties with other par­ties and arm­ing the pro­le­tariat. He did not rely on a pos­si­bil­ity of peace­ful trans­fer of power to the bol­she­viks. As early as April 1917, the units of Red Guards bol­she­viks started ap­pear­ing in Pet­ro­grad, Moscow, Odesa, Kharkiv and other big cities. Soon af­ter Lenin re­turned from em­i­gra­tion, Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment leader Alexan­der Keren­sky ex­pressed will­ing­ness to meet with him to es­tab­lish co­op­er­a­tion. The bol­she­vik leader de­clined the meet­ing.


We have now come to a seem­ingly strange ques­tion: was Lenin a com­mu­nist?

It is pos­si­ble to state only two un­de­ni­able facts. One is that he cre­ated a party based on the foun­da­tions of “demo­cratic cen­tral­ism”, i.e. full sub­or­di­na­tion of the lower ranks to the up­per. In the hands of the lead­ers, such party was a use­ful tool of get­ting and keep­ing power. The sec­ond fact is that he had in­vented an own for­mula for es­tab­lish­ing po­lit­i­cal power back in 1905, when the sovi­ets of work­ers’ deputies first emerged, that was an equiv­a­lent to au­toc­racy in terms of the full­ness of power it gave. This for­mula had three key as­pects:

— max­i­mum sup­port to the sovi­ets in tak­ing over state power;

— squeez­ing ri­val po­lit­i­cal par­ties out of the sovi­ets to make sure that they are only com­prised of the bol­she­viks and the sym­pa­thetic non-aligned deputies;

— pre­serve or­ga­ni­za­tional in­de­pen­dence of the sovi­ets with­out merg­ing them with the party of the bol­she­viks.

The main­stream devel­op­ment of the hu­man­ity went through the trans­for­ma­tion of the tra­di­tional state headed by the monarch as the bearer of sov­er­eign power into a con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy or a demo­cratic repub­lic where the holder of sov­er­eign power was so­ci­ety. In crises, grass­roots power could come to the sur­face that would be able to es­tab­lish to­tal con­trol of so­ci­eties. That was how fas­cism emerged, fol­lowed by na­tional-so­cial­ism later. In Rus­sia, the first re­place­ment to come on the his­toric arena was the bol­she­vism based on Lenin’s for­mula of power wrapped in the guise of com­mu­nism.

Why did bol­she­vism gain this de­cep­tive guise of com­mu­nism? Why did Lenin use the revo­lu­tion­ary Marxism of the Man­i­festo of the Com­mu­nist Party era (1847) as an ide­o­log­i­cal wrap for his for­mula of power?

In their Man­i­festo, the young rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies Karl Marx and Friedrich En­gels called for the es­tab­lish­ment of pro­le­tariat dictatorship and giv­ing the means of pro­duc­tion ex­pro­pri­ated from pri­vate own­ers into the hands of the peo­ple. These calls were doomed to fail from day one: un­struc­tured hu­man com­mu­ni­ties, such as classes, so­ci­eties and peo­ples, were un­able to ex­er­cise dictatorship or own means of pro­duc­tion, un­like the struc­tured en­ti­ties, such as par­ties, states and so on. The “sci­en­tific com­mu­nism” of the founders of Marxism was as utopic as the ear­lier com­mu­nist doc­trines.

Lenin’s ac­tions leave an im­pres­sion that he un­der­stood the utopian na­ture of “revo­lu­tion­ary Marxism”. Yet, he de­clared com­mit­ment to it in words. Mean­while, he la­beled prag­matic Western Euro­pean so­cial-democrats who stopped re­fer­ring to them­selves as com­mu­nists af­ter the 1848-1849 rev­o­lu­tions yet re­mained Marx­ists as re­vi­sion­ists and de­fec­tors.


From day one, Lenin’s for­mula of power had noth­ing com­mu­nis­tic about it. But dis­guis­ing it as a com­munes­tate (as per Lenin’s own phras­ing) helped to pro­vide ide­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to the expropriation of so­ci­ety by the state, i.e. to sup­ple­ment po­lit­i­cal dictatorship with eco­nomic dictatorship. The con­cept of pro­le­tariat dictatorship and com­mu­nity own­er­ship as in the Man­i­festo went from utopia to re­al­ity as the for­mula of power in­vented by Lenin com­bined an un­struc­tured com­mu­nity (so­ci­ety) with a struc­tured one (party).

The Soviet Rus­sia saw the dictatorship of the Com­mu­nist Party lead­ers es­tab­lish it­self un­der the guise of the pro­le­tariat dictatorship. These lead­ers also es­tab­lished es­sen­tially pri­vate own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion and nat­u­ral re­sources, pre­sent­ing it as com­mu­nity own­er­ship.

Shortly upon his ar­rival in Pet­ro­grad, Lenin for­mu­lated the April Th­e­ses, the plat­form of the Bol­she­viks. The doc­u­ment out­lined the party’s ac­tions to take over the power: Bol­she­vik so­cial-democrats had to re­name their party into the Com­mu­nist Party, pass a new plat­form that would be com­mu­nist in essence, build a “com­mune state” and es­tab­lish a new Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tional.

The Bol­she­viks had their own slo­gans in the rev­o­lu­tion. Yet they re­al­ized, al­beit not im­me­di­ately, that they had to bor­row the slo­gans of the sol­diers’ and work­ers’ sovi­ets as the most in­flu­en­tial po­lit­i­cal player. “We rec­og­nize no sep­a­rate peace with the Ger­man cap­i­tal­ists and are not en­ter­ing any talks,” Lenin de­clared at the I All-Rus­sian Congress of Sovi­ets in June 1917. He had been pro­mot­ing the slo­gan “Let’s turn the im­pe­ri­al­is­tic war into civil war” from the very be­gin­ning of the world war. At the end of Au­gust, how­ever, he took over the peo­ple’s de­mand to stop the war im­me­di­ately.

When the party of SRs (So­cial­ist Revo­lu­tion­ary Party) in­cluded the de­mand of the peas­ants for equal dis­tri­bu­tion of farm­land in June 1917, it faced sharp crit­i­cism of the Bol­she­viks. The lat­ter wanted to pre­serve large man­u­fac­tur­ing in the coun­try­side shaped as soviet com­mu­nity farms based on the con­fis­cated land­lord as­sets. In Au­gust, how­ever, the Bol­she­viks ex­pro­pri­ated the “Land to the peas­ants” slo­gan of the SRs, and ini­tially the peas­ants. The coun­cils of soldier deputies were com­prised pri­mar­ily of peas­ants, the work­ers were mostly em­ployed at de­fense fa­cil­i­ties. The tsarism had col­lected the peas­ant masses, al­ways dis­persed thanks to their work­ing con­di­tions, into mil­i­tary units, gave them weapons and taught them to use it. For the first time in his­tory, peas­ants in sol­diers’ uni­forms be­came the most in­flu­en­tial power in the rev­o­lu­tion.

“Fac­to­ries to work­ers”, a pop­u­lar slo­gan among the work­ers, was sup­ported by the Bol­she­viks from day one. But the lat­ter in­ter­preted it dif­fer­ently. The work­ers’ deputies de­manded that the fac­to­ries were trans­ferred into col­lec­tive own­er­ship of the staff. Af­ter Lenin came to power, he de­clared the fol­low­ing: “It is a huge dis­tor­tion of the foun­da­tions of soviet power and full re­jec­tion of so­cial­ism to di­rectly or in­di­rectly le­git­imize the own­er­ship of spe­cific pro­duc­tion by the work­ers of a re­spec­tive fac­tory or re­spec­tive pro­fes­sion.”

Us­ing the soviet slo­gans, the party of the Bol­she­viks over­turned the gov­ern­ment of Alexan­der Keren­sky and es­tab­lished its dictatorship. The Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion ended with the dis­per­sal of the Con­stituent Assem­bly.


The type of the com­mune state in­vented by Lenin was rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from to­tal­i­tar­ian states of other types. A com­mune state could be de­scribed as dou­ble or triple to­tal­i­tar­ian. With its three hi­er­ar­chies of power – party, soviet and cheka – it pen­e­trated the peo­ple’s mass and de facto merged with so­ci­ety. Be­ing in­side the so­ci­ety, the Lenin-Stalin state could or­ga­nize any “all-peo­ple” move­ments it wanted: from col­lec­tive farms to Stakhanov move­ments and many oth­ers.

The avail­abil­ity of the or­ga­ni­za­tion­ally sep­a­rated Com­mu­nist Party and soviet ver­ti­cals of power (the aux­il­iary cheka ver­ti­cal was a ma­te­rial em­bod­i­ment of the lead­ers’ dictatorship) helped the Krem­lin solve a huge na­tional is­sue to ben­e­fit its in­ter­est. The lead­ers were ini­tially build­ing the oc­cu­pied Ukraine as an in­de­pen­dent state, then as an al­lied state with the con­sti­tu­tional right to leave the Soviet Union. How­ever, it had no pow­ers of its own along the Com­mu­nist Party lines and was trapped in the su­per­central­ized multi­na­tional com­mune state like an in­sect in am­ber.

Be­fore the so­cio-eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tions un­der the mis­lead­ing com­mu­nist slo­gans be­gan, Lenin set the fol­low­ing task for the soviet au­thor­i­ties: “Ev­ery­one should have bread, ev­ery­one should walk in durable shoes and non-ragged clothes, and ev­ery­one should live at a warm place.” Like a dual-faced Janus, the gov­ern­ment was show­ing the so­ci­ety its com­ple­men­tary faces: re­pres­sions in case of re­sis­tance (up to genocide) and at­trac­tive paternalism.

The ma­jor­ity of Soviet peo­ple did not view the back­bone of the com­mune-state en­trenched into so­ci­ety as some­thing alien. The so­ci­ety re­mained a liv­ing or­gan­ism and af­fected the func­tion­ing of the state ap­pa­ra­tus. All the more that the ap­pa­ra­tus was com­prised of the staff com­ing from the grass­roots masses. A huge amount of facts prove that the Soviet gov­ern­ment was tak­ing care of the peo­ple, the com­mit­ted of­fi­cials work­ing in their of­fices. Yet, a no less hug amount of facts show the ag­gres­sive face the gov­ern­ment some­times turned to­wards the peo­ple. The lead­ers that en­slaved the peo­ple with their “new type” party could be do­ing any­thing they pleased with the coun­try.


It seemed that the col­lapse of the Soviet Union and mar­ket re­forms in China were the end of the states re­ferred to as com­mu­nist. But the re­jec­tion of the com­mu­nist ide­ol­ogy did not af­fect the po­lit­i­cal essence of Rus­sia or China. This once again proves the sec­ondary role of the com­mu­nist doc­trine which the “new type” party merged with the state used to add eco­nomic dictatorship to its po­lit­i­cal dictatorship.

In to­day’s world, the eu­roat­lantic civ­i­liza­tion is op­posed by the Is­lamic world founded by Muham­mad. It is far weaker in terms of tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nomic devel­op­ment but it has the de­mo­graphic weapons: the abil­ity to in­crease its pop­u­la­tion quickly through the op­pressed po­si­tion of women. How­ever, it seems that a big­ger threat to the planet’s lead­ing civ­i­liza­tion comes from the coun­tries that have dif­fer­ent his­toric tra­di­tions and sim­i­lar so­ci­eties de­prived of sovereignty, Rus­sia and China. Hav­ing the sec­ond most pow­er­ful nu­clear arse­nal that is not con­trolled by so­ci­ety, both of these states are be­ing con­structed fol­low­ing Lenin’s for­mula of power. There­fore, Lenin’s cause is alive and will be alive for many years to come.


Lenin, good bye! It took 20 years for the in­de­pen­dent Ukraine to clear its space of the mon­u­ments to the soviet No1 idol

Lenin­ists then and now. The cur­rent friend­ship of China and Rus­sia is rem­i­nis­cent of the early 1950s im­ages. Both coun­tries pre­serve the model of the state ini­ti­ated by Lenin

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