‘Ленин живёт’ (‘Lenin lives’), the signs in the Soviet Union used to say. Lenin was ubiquitous. His picture looked out from posters and from the front of newspapers. Every town seemed to have a ‘Lenin street’, a ‘Lenin square’ and, of course, a Lenin statue. In the last decades of the Soviet Union, Lenin represented the good side of communist rule, as opposed to the bad side represented by Stalin. Introducing his glasnost’ and perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev, claimed to be going back to the original values of Leninism, which he said had been distorted by later Soviet rulers. Lenin was beyond reproach.
In reality, Lenin was an ideological zealot who regarded most of his countrymen with contempt, and imposed his own vision upon them with extreme violence. ‘Comrades! The kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity,’ Lenin wrote to the Bolshevik party in Penza in the midst of the ‘Red Terror’, ‘You must make an example of these people. 1) Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Seize all their grain. 4) Designate hostages in accordance with yesterday’s telegram. Do this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble, and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks, and that we will continue to do so.’ This was Lenin – a brutal despot, who brought ruin upon his country. Stalinism was not an aberration; it was a natural evolution of Leninism.
The revolution last year in Ukraine brought with it a spate of demolitions of Lenin statues. Many Ukrainians, especially those of a ‘pro-Western’ inclination, believe that Ukraine’s dismal economic and political progress since independence is a product of a ‘Soviet mentality’ which continues to exercise a powerful influence, particularly in the east of the country. Knocking down Lenin statues strikes a blow at this mentality, and clears the way for a new one.
Many other Ukrainians, however, accept the myth of the ‘good Lenin’, and view the Soviet Union as something not entirely bad. It defeated the Nazis in the ‘Great Patriotic War’; it provided jobs and security; it is a key part of who they are. Attacks on Lenin are attacks on them.
This week the former rebel stronghold of Slavyansk in the province of Donetsk made headlines again when a group of activists tried to demolish the local Lenin statue, but were blocked by a war veteran who stood in front of the monument to protect it. Ukrainian troops then told the would-be demolition team to disperse. Lenin was saved.
I cannot think of anything positive to say about Lenin, consider communism wrong in theory and disastrous in practice, and view the continuing Soviet mentality as something which Ukraine would be better off without. But I also understand that other people see things differently. Ukrainians do not have a unified comprehension of history. Some have no problem with statues of Stepan Bandera, but object strongly to those of Lenin; others the opposite. If they are to live peacefully together, they have to tolerate one another’s viewpoints, however mistaken these may be. My problem with the Lenin-smashers, therefore, is not that they dislike the Soviet Union, but that they are attempting to forcibly impose their view of history upon others when those others are not ready to accept it. Knocking down Lenin smacks of contempt of others’ most cherished beliefs.
To digress a little: as I have shown in my book Aiding Afghanistan, communist economists used to think that economic development was just a matter of capital accumulation. Provide Third World countries with capital, and their economies would grow, the theory went. After a while, the communists realized that this wasn’t the case: social and political institutions were the most important thing – successful investment was impossible if these institutions acted as barriers to growth. In Afghanistan, the communists then took this logic to mean that what was holding the country back was the existing institutions – the landlords, the mullahs, and all they stood for. They had to be smashed as a precondition for progress. So the communists went around smashing them. The result was counter-revolution. The communists’ analysis wasn’t wrong, but their solution was. The institutions were indeed a barrier to progress, but the people didn’t like seeing them destroyed and rose up in arms to stop this from happening. Attempting to force change produced war.
The Lenin demolition crews in Ukraine are somewhat similar, and symbolize the broader attitude which has produced war in that country. They may be right about the negative effects of Soviet nostalgia, but their efforts to do something about it cause more harm than good. If there is one thing worse than bad institutions it is people trying to smash them without having the agreement of others to do so. Much as I dislike Lenin, therefore, on the whole I tend to the view that, at least for now, he ought to be allowed to stay.