Tag Archives: Lenin

Friday book # 43: Lenin, the man behind the mask

Unlike most of my books, I can remember exactly where I read this week’s one, Ronald Clark’s 1988 biography of Lenin. It was in late 1989 or early 1990, when I was an infantry officer in the British army and my company had been sent to spend a week on ‘site guard’ at a depot somewhere in Germany. It wasn’t a particularly onerous duty. Apart from leading an occasional patrol around the perimeter, there wasn’t much for the officers to do, so I took Lenin along to while away the time. The available options for entertainment were a) read about Lenin or b) join the boys in watching the same German porn movies over and over again. Being a nerd, I chose Lenin, though it came with an interesting sound accompaniment from the video player in the room next door.

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Friday book # 42 : Three who made a revolution

Natalia Poklonskaia made news again this week by denouncing Trotsky and Lenin, along with Hitler and Mao Tse Tung, as ‘monsters of the twentieth century’. The leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Ziuganov, called the equating of Lenin and Hitler ‘an absolute provocation’. Personally, I don’t have any objection to what Poklonskaia said, though I do wonder why she left Stalin out. Collectively, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin did untold harm. Coincidentally, this week’s Friday book is a biography of the ‘three who made a revolution’, although a better title might be ‘Three who ruined Russia’.

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Memory wars

Following the recent kerfuffle in Russia over a statue of Ivan the Terrible, the issue of monuments continues to make headlines. Two differing approaches to historical memory are on display. Both create their own historical distortions. By eradicating monuments of an entire era, one paints that era as bad in every single way. By sanctifying an autocratic ruler, the other whitewashes the imperfections of the past.

According to the Ukrainian television station Espreso TV, the last remaining statue of Lenin in Ukraine, located in the town of Novgorod-Severskii, has been taken down. There were once more than 2,000 Lenin statues in the country. As a result of a 2015 law prohibiting communist memorials and symbols, Ukraine is now Lenin-free.

Meanwhile, a bell-tower dedicated to Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, was formally opened in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, on Tuesday. Attending the opening was Duma deputy and former chief prosecutor of Crimea Natalia Poklonskaia, who has acquired something of a reputation as a monarchist, and whose idea the bell tower was. Poklonskaia told reporters that, ‘For me, my colleagues and friends, this isn’t simply a bell tower, but an entire church. And this church is not simply a building but a holy one, in which will be carried out, with full rights, all the services and liturgies as laid down in the church canons.’

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Natalia Poklonskaia pays homage to Nicholas II

The first story illustrates an approach to historical memory which is destructive and coercive; the second an approach which is constructive and voluntary. If there is one thing the participants can agree on, it is that they aren’t fans of communism. But as these examples show, the victors of today’s memory wars aren’t always the victors of tomorrow’s.

Friday book #20: Russian Revolution

Next on my shelf is a small book (84 pages) by Richard Pipes, entitled Three Whys of the Russian Revolution. The questions which Pipes asks are:

  • Why did Tsarism fail?
  • Why did the Bolsheviks triumph?
  • Why did Stalin succeed Lenin?

Roughly speaking, his answers are as follows:

  • The Tsarist state was weak and unable to cope with the strains of the First World War.
  • The Bolsheviks didn’t triumph because they had majority support (they didn’t), but because they were more determined, more organized, and more ruthless than their opponents.
  • Stalin’s ascent was inevitable. Rather than distorting Lenin’s legacy, Stalin carried it to its logical conclusion.

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Autonomy v. Sobornost’

Vladimir Putin recently shocked a lot of people with an unscripted denunciation of Lenin. This should not have come as such a surprise. Although Western commentators often describe Putin as an ex-KGB agent keen to restore the Soviet Union, in reality he has repeatedly made it clear that he regards communism as a failed model of development which brought Russia mostly harm. You can’t be a fan of both Ivan Ilyin and Lenin.

What interests me is the specific reason Putin gave for denouncing the former Soviet leader. According to Interfax (with a little help in translation from my research assistant Oxana):

Vladimir Putin spoke sharply about the ideas and actions of Vladimir Lenin in an exchange with Mikhail Kovalchuk … who recited Boris Pasternak’s poem ‘High disease’,  in which the author analyzed the October Revolution. The poem went: «As I saw him in waking life, I thought, I thought, I thought endlessly what right did he have to be so bold and speak on everyone’s behalf».

«The answer was: he ruled the minds and through them, he ruled the country», continued the poem, which Kovalchuk used to suggest that academia should be able to rule the minds in particular areas.

«I agree that minds should be managed. The important thing here is to make sure that these ideas yield good results, as opposed to what Vladimir Lenin ended up with. Because at the end of the day, these ideas led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were a lot of ideas like autonomy, etc. They laid an atomic bomb under the building named Russia and it went off. And suddenly no need for any world revolution. That was the extent of Lenin’s management of ideas» — said Vladimir Putin as a closing remark of the meeting.

It is clear from this that Putin blames the collapse of the Soviet Union on the federal system introduced by Lenin after the revolution. In Putin’s eyes, it seems, Russia is rightly a multinational but unitary state. The loss of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is highly regrettable, and the concept of ‘autonomy’ is to blame.

Now compare this to a speech given by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on 22 January to mark Unity Day (Den’ sobornosti). In his speech Poroshenko said,

Sobornost’, dear compatriots, is a unitary state structure. It is a categorical prohibition of the import of ideas of federalism which are destructive and unacceptable for Ukraine. Sobornost’, at the end of the day, is when at the decisive moment of colossal trials, like now, right and left, conservatives and liberals, cosmopolitans and nationalists, put behind them any type of ‘ism’ which divides them, and stand side by side for the sake of Ukraine.

As a historian, I find his emphasis on sobornost’ curious. Poroshenko claims to lead a government dedicated to Westernization. But sobornost’ is the essence of Slavophilism, which is normally seen as standing in direct opposition to Westernization. The concept’s originators, Ivan Kireevsky and Aleksey Khomiakov, viewed sobornost’  as encapsulating the sense of spiritual community which supposedly distinguishes collective-minded Russians from individualistic, atomized Westerners. If sobornost’ really is the quality which Poroshenko seeks for Ukraine, he’s not actually a Westernizer at all.

And, then there is Poroshenko’s statement about federalism. We are often told that Ukraine has made a ‘civilizational choice’ to reject Russia and Putin, and all that they supposedly stand for. In fact, it seems as if Putin and Poroshenko are in absolute accord about what a state should look like.