Few men had a larger impact on the 20th century than Lenin, yet in all of my formal education he received no more than a passing mention. The accessible and balanced "Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror" started to fill in this egregious blank space in my mental map. Lenin's philosophy can be summed up as "the ends justify the means" and Sebestyen's excellent biography forces us to confront the terrible consequences of this idea. As architect of the Russian Revolution, Lenin is responsible for human suffering on a scale unmatched by almost anyone else in history. Yet for him, it was largely theoretical - he only saw three dead bodies in his whole life. Sebestyen's heavily researched book lends depth to this complex and tragic man who "desired the good... but created evil."
Lenin's personal life surprised me. I would never have guessed that his favorite book growing up was "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or that he loved reenacting the American Civil War (always taking the side of the Union!) with toy soldiers. He was an avid reader and chess player. His domestic life was irregular, to say the least. He was part of a ménage à trois, and his lover (Inessa Armand) exercised a major influence on him.
As he grew up, he became a complete workaholic (17+ hours a day) and prolific writer (over 10 million words in his lifetime). His capacity for intellectual effort and organizational management was astounding - in line with that of Alexander Hamilton, Robert Moses, and John D. Rockefeller. Given the chaos of the time, it's remarkable that he ran as tight of a ship as he did. It probably didn't hurt that his HR strategy was to threaten to "line up and shoot" underperformers.
Sebastyen expertly guided me through the bewilderingly complicated cast of characters in the chaos of the Russian Revolution. I was surprised by how much of a shitshow it was. Half the reason the revolution succeeded was because "most of the people didn’t care which side won." The murder of the Russian royal family was particularly brutal and sloppy. Yet the intrigue and violence surrounding the revolution snared the whole world in its web. The whole German "sealed train" scheme continues to give rise to conspiracy theories and the British gave over 100 million pounds (in 1917 dollars!) of aid to the anti-Bolshevik Whites. And in a wild twist, the leader of the Whites, Alexander Kerensky, ended his life as a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution!
What will stick with me most from this book are Lenin's failures. Tactically, he made the classic dictatorial blunder of muddled succession planning. But more importantly, his strategy of "the ends justify the means" imposed terrible suffering upon the Russian people. In many ways, this core guiding principle is the opposite of Western law in which we consider a man innocent until proven guilty. In Lenin's world, it was "better that 100 innocent people are killed than that one person who is a danger to the Revolution remains free and a potential threat." Sebestyen's biography won't let us look away from the results of this philosophy.
I want to end this review with a Lenin quote that sounds eerily modern - I wouldn't be surprised at all to read this in a Facebook post today. Let us not forget the past.
Our morality is new, our humanity is absolute, for it rests on the ideal of destroying all oppression and coercion. To us, all is permitted, for we are the first in the world to raise the sword not in the name of enslaving or oppressing anyone, but in the name of freeing all from bondage... Blood? Let there be blood, if it alone can turn the grey-white-and-black banner of the old piratical world to a scarlet hue, for only the complete and final death of that old world will save us from the return of the old jackals.
Putin’s grandfather, Spiridon, was Lenin’s cook after the Russian Revolution,
Lenin would very probably have regarded the world of 2017 as being on the cusp of a revolutionary moment. He matters now not because of his flawed, bloody and murderously misguided answers, but because he was asking the same questions as we are today about similar problems.
In his quest for power, he promised people anything and everything. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly. He identified a scapegoat he could later label ‘enemies of the people’. He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything: the ends justified the means. Anyone who has lived through recent elections in the supposedly sophisticated political cultures of the West might recognise him. Lenin was the godfather of what commentators a century after his time call ‘post-truth politics’.
He built a system based on the idea that political terror against opponents was justified for a greater end. It was perfected by Stalin, but the ideas were Lenin’s. He had not always been a bad man, but he did terrible things. Angelica Balabanova, one of his old comrades who admired him for many years but grew to fear and loathe him, said perceptively that Lenin’s ‘tragedy was that, in Goethe’s phrase, he desired the good…but created evil’. The worst of his evils was to have left a man like Stalin in a position to lead Russia after him. That was a historic crime.
He spouted Marxist theory constantly – ‘without theory there can be no revolutionary party’, he famously said. But a point he made far more often to his followers is frequently ignored – ‘theory is a guide, not Holy Writ’.
One of the surprises while researching this book was to find that nearly all the important relationships in Lenin’s life were with women.
Prologue - The Coup d’État
‘There are decades when nothing happens – and there are weeks where decades happen.’ Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, The Chief Tasks of Our Day, March 1918
They let them through thinking they were merely two harmless old drunks. Marxists are not supposed to believe in luck, accident or happenstance, but rather explain life through broad historical forces. Yet the second most influential Bolshevik leader in 1917, Leon Trotsky, said simply that if Lenin had been arrested, or shot, or had not been in Petrograd, ‘there would have been no October Revolution’.
At the top of the stairs he found Trotsky, head of the Military Revolutionary Committee, the man in charge of planning the coup.
The Bolsheviks might easily have failed if at certain key moments they had met some slight resistance. In reality the ‘plot’ was the worst-kept secret in history.
They won because the other side, the Provisional Government and its backers – a coalition of the centre-right, liberals and moderate socialists – were even more incompetent and divided, and because they didn’t take the Bolsheviks seriously until it was too late. But mainly it was because most of the people didn’t care which side won. In fact, few people realised anything significant had happened until it was all over.
The timing of the insurrection was crucial to Lenin’s political strategy. Since the Tsar had fallen seven months earlier power had been shared uneasily between a series of coalition governments, which had grown successively weaker, and the Soviets. In Russian the word ‘soviet’ means simply ‘council’, and they were hastily elected delegates of workers and soldiers who claimed that they had instigated and led the Revolution in February that brought down the Romanov autocracy.
Lenin’s plan was to overthrow the government and claim that he was acting on behalf of the Soviets. Real power would lie with him and the Bolsheviks, but keeping the Soviet on board gave him political cover and a semblance of popular support.
Along with the Cossacks, there were 220 officer cadets from the Oranienbaum Military School, forty members of the Petrograd Garrison’s bicycle squad and 200 women from the Shock Battalion of Death. From an armed force of nine million Russians, this was all the Provisional Government could muster to protect the capital – and themselves.
The ‘storming of the Winter Palace’ – centrepiece of the Russian Revolution – was so sloppy that the American journalists John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant were able to stroll into the building during the afternoon without being stopped.
At 3 p.m. Lenin could delay no longer. He appeared before the Congress of Soviets at the Smolny and brazenly declared a victory, though the government had not yet fallen, the ministers were not arrested, nor was the Winter Palace in Bolshevik hands. This was the first big lie of the Soviet regime.
Most people in Petrograd did not know a revolution was happening. The banks and shops had been open all day, the trams were running. All the factories were operating as usual – the workers had no clue Lenin was about to liberate them from capitalist exploitation.
In Soviet mythology for decades to come, the Revolution was portrayed as a popular rising of the masses. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Others headed straight for the Tsar’s wine cellar, one of the finest in the world. It contained cases of Tokays from the age of Catherine the Great and Château d’Yquem 1847, Nicholas II’s favourite. ‘The matter of the wine…became critical,’ recalled Antonov. ‘We sent guards from picked units. They got drunk. We posted guards from Regimental Committees. They succumbed as well. A violent bacchanalia followed.’ He called the Petrograd fire brigade to flood the cellar with water, ‘but the firemen… got drunk instead’.
Walking out of the chamber was a fatal mistake, as many admitted soon afterwards. ‘We made the Bolsheviks masters of the situation,’ said Sukhanov, an opponent of Lenin. ‘By leaving the Congress we gave them a monopoly on the Soviets. Our own irrational decisions ensured Lenin’s victory.’
At around 5 a.m., with the opposition about to stage their walkout into oblivion, the Bolsheviks’ most spellbinding orator, the brilliant, vain and ruthless Trotsky, made one of the most famous speeches of the twentieth century. The uprising ‘needs no justification’, he said. ‘What has happened is an insurrection, not a conspiracy… The masses of the people followed our banner. But what do they [pointing to the other socialists] offer us? We are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom?, I ask. To those who have left us we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go – into the dustbin of history.’
To those who encountered him for the first time he did not seem like a revolutionary who would create a new kind of society and transform history, said John Reed. ‘He was a short, stocky figure, with a big head set down on his shoulders, bald and bulging little eyes, a snubbish nose, wide generous mouth, and heavy chin. Dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers were much too long for him. Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob… A strange popular leader – a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colourless, humourless, uncompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncrasies – but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms. And combined with shrewdness, the greatest intellectual audacity.’
Chapter 1 - A Nest of Gentlefolk
In the five years before 1917 he wrote many more letters to Inessa Armand – on personal and political matters – than to anyone else. Their correspondence and her diaries were censored for nearly seventy years until the Communist state that Lenin founded collapsed.
Lenin was petulant, ill-tempered and irascible, especially as he grew older, but his mother was the one person he never complained about to anybody, the only one to whom he always showed unqualified love.
Maria Alexandrovna Blank was born in 1835 in St Petersburg. Her father was an eccentric, a martinet and – a fact kept strictly secret by the Soviet authorities after Lenin’s death – a Jew. He had been born Sril (the Yiddish form of Israel) Moiseyevich (Moses) Blank in Odessa, but while studying medicine he converted to Orthodoxy and changed his first name and patronymic to Alexander Dmitriyevich. He travelled widely in Europe after qualifying as a doctor and married the daughter of a wealthy German merchant, Anna Groschopf. She was a Protestant. Under the restrictive religious laws of Tsarist Russia, his wife was required to convert to the Orthodox faith, but she refused and brought up her six children as Lutherans.
Lenin’s mother, although nominally Lutheran, seldom went to church. His father was religious and ensured that the children were brought up Orthodox in a traditional Russian manner.
Ilya revered Alexander II, the ‘Tsar Liberator’ who emancipated the serfs in 1861 and launched a series of other modest measures to modernise the Romanov autocracy. After he was assassinated in 1881 by terrorists from the People’s Will revolutionary group Ilya Ulyanov wept for days.
Lenin was almost certainly unaware of his partially Jewish ancestry.
If Lenin had known, he would probably have been relaxed about the revelation. As he once told the writer Maxim Gorky, ‘We do not have many intelligent people. [Russians] are a talented people. But we are lazy. A bright Russian is nearly always a Jew or a person with an admixture of Jewish blood.’
Chapter 2 - A Childhood Idyll
He was the loudest and worst-behaved child in a well-ordered family.
All the children were encouraged by both parents to read widely, in a permissive way that would have shocked Ilya Ulyanov’s more conservative civil service colleagues. For most of his early teens Vladimir’s favourite book was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an early influence on him pre-dating Marx or any of the Russian radicals. He kept the novel by his bedside for many years.
Indoors, the children, even the older ones, loved to play with toy soldiers. Vladimir always chose the American side and took the part of Abraham Lincoln, or the Union generals Grant and Sherman.
The game Lenin loved throughout his life, though, was chess.
He became a serious player who could give the top names in Russian chess a decent game.
Under the Russian autocracy, where no politics were permitted, the rulers were scared of allowing Russian children to read some of the masterpieces of Russian literature. Very little poetry was taught. Pupils were discouraged from reading most of the great modern Russian writers – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol – because at one time or another they had all faced problems with the Tsarist censors.
Strict silence was enforced during homework hours and time was set aside each day for serious reading.
By a curious twist of fate – it was such a backwater town – Alexander Kerensky was also from Simbirsk. He attended the same school, though they did not know each other, as he was eleven years younger than Lenin.
Chapter 3 - The Hanged Man
The Ulyanovs were shunned by bourgeois Simbirsk. The dignitaries of the town who a year or so earlier had attended the funeral of Vladimir’s father no longer visited. Long-standing family friends who came to play chess with Ilya, and since his death with Vladimir, no longer called. This triggered the vitriolic, sometimes uncontrollable, loathing for liberals and ‘middle class do-gooders’ that he would henceforth show until his dying day. ‘The bourgeois… they will always be traitors and cowards,’ he declared with monotonous frequency from now onwards. Politics is personal – and this was personal. A young boy who rarely thought about politics became radicalised almost overnight.
Chapter 4 - The Police State
Around 85 per cent of the Russian population were peasants, the muzhiks, who were still essentially without civil rights at all, though some advances in their legal status had been made since the abolition of serfdom in 1861.
Nearly 20,000 ministers, provincial governors, senior civil servants and top army officers were assassinated by revolutionary groups in the last twenty-five years of Tsarist rule.
It was surprising how many of the terrorists were women – at a time when even the idea of Votes for Women in Western Europe or the US had barely yet become an issue of debate.
The structure of the police state had been established under Nicholas I in the 1820s. He built an entire organ of government – the Third Section of the Administrative Department – to combat subversion. Essentially it was a secret service of the monarch, whose interests were seen as different from those of his subjects. Laws protecting property or the lives of other Russians were handled by a separate policing system. The Third Section, which in the 1880s became the Okhrana, had draconian powers to detain people without trial and send them to ‘administrative exile’ in Siberia and the Arctic wastes at any hint of ‘political crimes’. Its power and scope were unlike anything elsewhere in Europe. It became the model for the Cheka, the NKVD and the KGB in the Russia of the future – or indeed the FSB of the post-Soviet era.
The biggest and most dangerous of these groups was Narodnaya Volya, whose principal theorist and leader was the charismatic Sergei Nechayev, on whom Dostoyevsky based Verkhovensky, the nihilistic central character in The Possessed.
Many historians have argued that the reason Soviet-style Communism developed as it did is that Lenin tried to import a Western creed and philosophy to a backward country, as Russia was. Rather, the opposite is true. Lenin transformed a set of European ideas into a very Russian creation. His version of Marxism – its intolerance, rigidity, violence and cruelty – were forged from Lenin’s experience as a nineteenth-century Russian. Lenin’s Bolshevism had deep Russian roots.
Chapter 5 - A Revolutionary Education
So he educated himself, quietly in the countryside. ‘Never later in my life, not in prison in Petersburg or in Siberia, did I read so much as in the year after my exile to the countryside from Kazan,’ he said later. ‘This was serious reading, from early morning to late at night.’
But the work that influenced him most profoundly was a novel, What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, a man whom he idolised.
As farming wasn’t working his mother suggested another career. She persuaded him to read for the law and qualify as an advocate. He was barred from attending a university but was permitted to take the exams as an external student at St Petersburg University, and was allowed to go to the capital to do so. He crammed a four-year course into twelve months and passed top of his year, obtaining the highest marks in all fourteen papers. It was a phenomenal achievement intellectually – and in one of the Russian ironies he would delight in, he got the country’s most brilliant law degree while the organs of the police were keeping him under surveillance as a potential lawbreaking subversive.
Chapter 6 - Vladimir Ilyich – Attorney at Law
He was never slovenly or careless about appearances, as the archetype of the Russian revolutionary from the pages of, say, Conrad was supposed to be. He was extremely well ordered and tidy, nearly to the point of obsession – the adjective ‘anal’ as commonly used today might have been coined for him.
He wrote and published more than ten million words in his lifetime, not counting thousands of letters to family, friends and comrades.
If he was slow to succeed as a journalist, he quickly built a reputation as a clever and sharp debater who could demolish an opponent’s argument with forensic skill. This was one of his great talents. He was a hard man to argue against, as his friends and critics acknowledged.
Chapter 8 - Language, Truth and Logic
The Ulyanov style of argument and debate was formed early and did not change significantly over the next two decades. He became better at winning his point, more confident and masterful. But he was nearly always domineering, abusive, combative and often downright vicious. He battered opponents into submission with the deliberate use of violent language which he acknowledged was ‘calculated to evoke hatred, aversion, contempt…not to convince, not to correct the mistakes of the opponent but to destroy him, to wipe him and his organisation off the face of the earth’.
Chapter 9 - Foreign Parts
Vladimir spent nearly half of his adult life outside Russia, though he didn’t leave his homeland until he was twenty-five.
One of the reasons he would spend so many of his exile years in Switzerland was to be close to his beloved Alps.
Vladimir was a highly secretive man and he grew to delight in the ‘conspiratorial’ hide and seek of the clandestine revolutionary life, the disguises and the moving to safe houses through alleyways and tunnels. It added a frisson of excitement to writing articles and researching in libraries.
Chapter 10 - Prison and Siberia
‘No one knows the kind of government he is living under who has never been in jail.’ Lev Tolstoy (1828–1910)
Vladimir’s exile ended on 29 January 1900. But one condition of his release was that he could not live in any major city or a university town in which he might corrupt students with revolutionary ideas.
In 1897 there were around 300,000 exiles scattered across Siberia, roughly 5 per cent of its total population.
Yudin sold his collection to the US Library of Congress in 1906 for US$150,000 – a fortune at the time. It remains the core of the Library’s Russian Collection.
Chapter 11 - Lenin Is Born
During his life he adopted more than a hundred pseudonyms, some of them just once or twice. It is unclear why Lenin was the name that stuck, but he soon began to favour it, though he used a few others off and on for a short while afterwards.
Lenin’s claim to leadership was based as much on his organisational acumen as a plotter as on his ability to inspire as speaker or with his pen.
He replied that he didn’t want liberals in the Party giving the Revolution tacit support: ‘The Party isn’t a ladies’ finishing school. Revolution is a messy business.’ These were some of the first words he wrote under the pen name Lenin.
Chapter 12 - Underground Lives
In order to appoint agents, to look after them, to guide them, it is necessary to be everywhere, to rush about and see them on the job. That requires a team of practical organisers and leaders but we haven’t got any, at least very few to speak of. That’s the whole trouble. Looking at our practical mismanagement is often so infuriating that it robs one of the capacity for work. The consolation is that the cause is vital and despite the chaos is growing.’
Chapter 13 - England, Their England
‘My first impression of London: hideous,’ he wrote the next day
Lenin loathed the very idea of a commune
I simply can’t… everyone has a corner in his life which should never be penetrated by anyone, and everyone should have a special room completely to himself.’
Lenin spent afternoons at the Iskra ‘office’. But every morning, when it opened, he would be at what he agreed was ‘the richest library in the world’ – the central domed Reading Room of the British Museum – where Marx had spent so much of his life.
It was a sixpenny bus ride from Clerkenwell to Highgate Cemetery, where he often went to Marx’s grave and took a short walk up the hill to enjoy the panoramic vista of the whole of London below.
Lenin’s command of English became reasonably good, though, as many recalled, he had a hint of an Irish brogue through his Russian accent. He said that he always found the English spoken by the Irish easier to understand.
Chapter 14 - What Is to Be Done?
His greatest skill in his early years was his ability to inspire optimism and hope.
The essence of Leninism is contained in his best-known work, What Is to Be Done?
Lenin had no great respect for the working classes for whom he was proposing to make the revolution. ‘The working class exclusively by its own efforts is able to develop only trade union consciousness,’ he said.
There had to be a ‘revolutionary vanguard’ of people who could protect themselves from the police, studied Marxist ideology and mastered the arts of revolutionary conspiracy.
For many Russian intellectuals like Lenin, the idea that Marxism would bring Russia closer to the West was its main attraction.
Neither side in this doctrinal dispute would have cared to know what Marx really thought about Russians. As he wrote in a letter to Engels, ‘I do not trust any Russian. As soon as a Russian worms his way in, all hell breaks loose.’
Chapter 15 - The Great Schism – Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
He missed his regular desk, L13, at the Reading Room of the British Museum, where he had spent so many mornings of satisfying hard work.
The Lenins were ‘at home’ and offered open house to Russian visitors on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, a rule designed to stop comrades dropping by at other times of the day or night.
This time Lenin won the vote and, with his characteristic mastery of tactics and presentation – spin in present-day language – he branded his followers ‘bolchintsvo’, the majority, and his opponents ‘menchintsvo’, the minority.
Trotsky responded in kind. He told a Menshevik friend nearly a decade after the split, ‘the rotten squabble, systematically inflamed by that master of such affairs, Lenin, that exploiter of any backwardness in the Russian labour movement… The entire Leninist edifice is built on lies and falsification and carries within it the poisonous source of its own disintegration.’ Lenin, he said, ‘is simply unscrupulous through and through’. His most cutting comment, as it proved to be so prophetic, was ‘when Lenin talks about the dictatorship of the proletariat… he means the dictatorship over the proletariat’.
Chapter 16 - Peaks and Troughs
Splitting the Party and splitting again, going into a political wilderness, would seem a hopeless route to take for a tiny group with little popular support. But in the long term – and Lenin was always looking at the bigger picture and the longer term – the tactic paid off. In his calculation, it did not matter so much how many supporters he had. The important thing was to have a group of people, a Party, loyal to him, of disciplined and dedicated supporters who would spread the true word.
He clearly suffered from hypertension, as his father had done: he was a stroke waiting to happen, as the arteriosclerosis in his brain established later.
Chapter 17 - An Autocracy Without an Autocrat
It is no exaggeration to say that every major decision Nicholas II took was wrong – from his choice of wife, Alexandra, who compounded his own misjudgements, to his disastrous decisions on war and peace.
Historians have on the whole been rather kind to Nicholas II, mainly because of the grisly manner of his death and the murder of his family. But he was largely responsible for his own destruction.
"An oppressed class which does not strive to learn to use arms, to obtain arms, deserves to be treated as slaves."
He said the important thing was that revolutionaries had fought in the streets and their defeat would teach them to hate their enemies: ‘the one who has been whipped is worth two who have not’.
Chapter 19 - ‘Expropriate the Expropriators’
The Party couldn’t rely entirely on donations from millionaire magnates – Russian oligarchs of a bygone age – to finance the Revolution. Money had to be found in other ways and Lenin built what was in effect a criminal gang to steal on the Party’s behalf, perhaps an original model of the Russian mafia.
Krasin chose as his chief ‘fixer’ and right-hand man Stalin, who planned and took part in a number of ‘expros’, all within the Russian empire. The various gangs they employed robbed banks, stole a large sum in cash and gold from the safe aboard the steamship Nicholas I moored in Baku harbour and attacked post offices and state railway ticket offices. Krasin planned a major operation to print counterfeit money on a clandestine press but he couldn’t find a skilful enough forger.
Chapter 20 - Geneva – ‘An Awful Hole’
In several Swiss cities signs appeared in lodging houses reading ‘No Cats. No Dogs. No Russians.’
Chapter 21 - Inessa – Lenin in Love
Inessa had an incisive mind, she was beautiful, she was exciting, she was an experienced woman of the world who had few bourgeois hang-ups about female sexuality – and Lenin was smitten.
Inessa at this stage was a great admirer of Tolstoy. One of the other members of her group had the idea of writing to the esteemed writer and asking what he thought could be done about the social problem of prostitution, which was destroying the lives of so many Russian women. He had expertise in this area: as a young man he had been a famously enthusiastic customer of courtesans – and, just as famously afterwards, he had ‘reformed’ and become a moral arbiter of the nation’s conscience. He replied: ‘Nothing will come of your work. It was thus before Moses, it was thus after Moses. Thus it was, thus it will be.’ Inessa was disgusted and gave up on Tolstoy.
If she seemed to be living in harmony with her husband, she had started a love affair with another man – Alexander’s younger brother Vladimir. He was just seventeen, newly enrolled as a student at Moscow University; she was twenty-eight, the mother of four young children. In 1903 she left her husband for her brother-in-law, taking the children with her.
Lenin said that ‘most of the émigrés went to seed as soon as they arrived in Paris. Only the strongest survived. The rest were destroyed by petty feuds, domestic quarrels, poverty – and alcohol.’
Chapter 22 - Betrayals
Malinovsky was earning his money. He knew all the senior Bolsheviks in Russia and betrayed many of them, including Yakov Sverdlov, who became one of the most important Bolshevik leaders after the Revolution.
Lenin had the format of the paper worked out. He had chosen a title – Pravda (Truth); he selected a team of journalists to staff it and contribute to it. All he lacked was enough money to produce the publication. The vital funds came from a gift by Viktor Tikhomirov, who had just inherited a fortune following the death of his father, a Kazan merchant.
In its first thirty-eight issues, Pravda had a succession of thirty-six editors, all of whom were arrested. Between them they spent forty-seven months in jail.
Around the same time that Malinovsky began his double life, Yevno Azef, the leader of the Socialist Revolutionaries, the biggest terrorist organisation in Russia, behind hundreds of assassinations of government officials, had been an Okhrana agent. About to be unmasked by his comrades, he escaped to Germany in the nick of time. He died in Berlin in 1918, of natural causes.
Chapter 23 - A Love Triangle – Two into Three Will Go
Whether it was an unnamed gynaecological condition that arose after her Siberian exile, which required two months’ treatment, or her thyroid problems which had probably existed undiagnosed for years, Nadya had no children with Lenin. She rarely mentioned any disappointment, but every now and then a hint of regret would appear.
Chapter 24 - Catastrophe – The World at War
‘They cannot support an imperialist and dynastic war…they are not such rascals,’ he told Zinoviev a few days before the German socialists, carried on a wave of nationalism, voted to grant the government as much money as it needed to pursue the conflict. The equivalent parties in France, Austria and Britain did the same and Lenin was furious. ‘They have betrayed socialism…From this moment I cannot call myself a Social Democrat. I am a Communist.’
The Tsar was wildly cheered from the Winter Palace balcony when the declaration of war was made in St Petersburg, whose name had been changed to Petrograd to make it sound less German.
They lost an entire army corps at the Masurian Lakes, more than 120,000 men killed and wounded. The Battle of Tannenberg, just four weeks after the start of the war, was one of the worst ever defeats in Russian history: the entire 2nd Army was wiped out, with casualties of over 160,000. The winning general, Paul von Hindenburg, said later that ‘we had to remove the mounds of enemy corpses from before our trenches in order to get a clear field of fire against fresh assaulting Russian waves. Imagination may try to reconstruct the figure of their losses, but an accurate calculation will remain for ever a vain thing.’
By the end of October 1914 Russia had lost 1.2 million men, killed, wounded or missing, a high proportion of whom were trained junior officers and professional NCOs.
The reserves in the rear were the men who ‘were the breeding ground for mass desertion, discontent and finally mutiny which created the Revolution’. These were the men who would become Lenin’s willing accomplices.
The primitive state of communications was at the root of the military disaster. Along Russia’s long Western Front there were just twenty-five telephones and a few Morse coding machines, and telegraph communications constantly broke down. Commanders and their aides had to move around on horseback to find out what was happening at the Front – rather as in the days described in War and Peace.
Vast numbers of Russian soldiers preferred being taken prisoner to fighting. In the first year of the war four and a half times as many Russians were captured than were killed in action – 1.2 million to 270,000.
Chapter 25 - In the Wilderness
To grant equality to little pigs and fools – never.
Lenin was unapologetic. In the short term he accepted that the Bolsheviks would pay a price. But strategically Lenin was right. In the long run his consistent line against the war was a crucial factor in helping him seize power – and keep hold of it. When the mood changed in Russia and war-weariness started growing, support for the Bolsheviks increased. Lenin could plausibly argue that as he had always been against the conflict, he and the Bolsheviks could bring peace. It was the main promise to the people in 1917.
Chapter 26 - The Last Exile
In six months Lenin completed one of his longest and most interesting books, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Much is dated, but some of his ideas have resonance now: ‘Capitalism…is no longer the progressive force described by Marx’; the free market era ‘has been followed by a new one in which production is concentrated in vast syndicates and trusts which aim at monopoly control’. Giant multinational technology companies ‘freeze out other competition to forestall independent technological innovation’. Financial control ‘has passed from the industrialists themselves to a handful of banking conglomerates – the creation of a banking oligarchy’.
Occasionally he met the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, an anti-war pacifist, at the Café Odéon, where Bolsheviks frequently congregated – the Mensheviks favoured the Adler. Zweig was not impressed, wondering in later years ‘how could this obstinate little man…Lenin ever have become so important?’.
Chapter 27 - Revolution – Part One
In a famous poem, Anna Akhmatova captured the spirit: We are all winners, we are all whores How sad we are together.
His wife Zinaida Gippius, a fine poet, wrote in her diary, ‘Russia is a very large lunatic asylum. If you visit an asylum on an open day you may not realise you are in one. It looks normal enough but the inmates are all mad.’
In January 1917 an average working woman in St Petersburg would put in a ten-hour shift – and spend forty hours a week queuing for food.
The suicide rate in Russia tripled during the war years – an epidemic that affected mainly young people under twenty-eight. There was sexual licence on a previously unprecedented scale, and among the rich, divorce – rare until around 1910 – became common.
The Revolution was sparked by bread riots but it succeeded because every regiment in the Petrograd guard – the smart regiments that for centuries had been fiercely loyal to the Romanovs – mutinied. It was the famous Guards of the Preobrazhensky, Volinsky, Pavlovsky and Litovsky, known as the Tsar’s praetorians, who decided the fate of the Emperor.
Historians have often said that it had been a generally peaceful uprising. This is a popular myth that has gained authority largely because the February Revolution was genuinely supported by the vast majority of people. But it was violent. Far more people were killed in February than would die in the Bolshevik coup in October – 1,433 in Petrograd and around 3,000 in Moscow, where armed gangs roamed the streets for several days. The October coup was almost bloodless by comparison.
The sale of vodka was a state monopoly and the scale so large that the tax brought in nearly 20 per cent of the state’s income. To make up for the loss the government had to borrow yet more, adding to the already enormous debts caused by the war, and also to print money which fuelled inflation. Though rarely mentioned, the vodka ban was a big factor in the fall of the Tsarist regime; and seventy years later, when the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried to prohibit alcohol, the result was similar. It helped to bankrupt the USSR and played a major part in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Chapter 28 - The Sealed Train
‘The Germans turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed train like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.’ Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, Volume Two, 1929
The sealed train story and the wanderings of the ‘exotic’ Russian radicals became big news in Sweden. For the first time anywhere there was a picture of Lenin in a newspaper and Sweden’s quality daily Politiken carried a profile of the man who promised a revolution in Russia and, once in power, an end to the war. He was fêted wherever he went in Stockholm. He was met at the train by Carl Lindhagen, mayor of the city, who gave him breakfast, and there was a lunchtime reception for him laid on at the Hotel Regina by Swedish socialists.
Chapter 30 - The Interregnum
Prince Lvov, the Prime Minister, told Vladimir Nabokov (father of the novelist), his closest aide and Chief Secretary to the Cabinet, ‘Don’t worry about Lenin. The man is not dangerous – and, besides, we can arrest him whenever we want.’
Lurid, semi-pornographic, anti-monarchist pamphlets with titles like The Secrets of the Romanovs, The Night Orgies of Rasputin and The German Woman’s Evil Lies were instant sell-outs.
Lenin was determined to stoke up this desire for revenge and destruction, convinced it would help sweep him to power.
From the start, there was a fatal weakness in the political arrangement immediately after the February Revolution. Two rival seats of power were established – a recipe for chaos. The Duma set up the Provisional Government of Prince Lvov, which, supposedly, was a seamless transition from the Tsarist regime. But on day one the government recognised the Soviet of Soldiers’, Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies as a partner and accepted that all government measures had to be approved by the Soviet before they were put into effect.
As one of his supporters remarked, ‘for sheer political incompetence and well-meaning ineptitude, history has few more striking examples’ than the interregnum between the fall of the Tsar and the Bolshevik coup.
Chapter 31 - ‘Peace, Land and Bread’
But even some of his admirers were shocked by the crude, mob-rousing populism he displayed in the spring and summer of 1917, such as the slogan he used in most speeches, ‘Loot the looters’.
The Provisional Government’s writ never ran throughout much of provincial Russia, where law and order had entirely broken down. Hundreds of large estates throughout Russia were seized by peasants who evicted, brutalised and in many cases murdered their landowners.
Chapter 32 - The Spoils of War
Altogether, by the beginning of July they were producing forty-one publications with a circulation of nearly 350,000. ‘It was an extraordinary feat of organisation’ to get the papers up and running so quickly, said Trotsky, and it made a huge propaganda impact for the Bolsheviks. People who had barely heard of them before now knew where they stood – certainly on the issue of the war. The operation was masterminded by Lenin, but could not have happened without large amounts of money from the Germans, as part of the deal which included the ‘sealed train’ journey.
Chapter 33 - A Desperate Gamble
‘Those who make revolutions by halves are simply digging their own graves.’ François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848)
Chapter 34 - The July Days
Sailors and troops backing the Bolsheviks couldn’t understand why the Party bosses hadn’t seized power when it looked as though it was theirs: ‘Take the power, you son of a bitch, when it is offered,’ a soldier shouted in Trotsky’s direction late that afternoon.
Chapter 35 - On the Run
One night he was billeted at the home of the veteran Finnish socialist Karl Wiik, during which, he later told Nadya, he reread Jules Michelet’s vivid, beautifully written account of the Terror during the French Revolution. He often saw the Jacobins as an inspiration for the Bolsheviks.
The next few weeks showed Lenin’s great skills as a leader. If anything disproves the Marxist idea that it is not individuals who make history but broad social and economic forces it is Lenin’s revolution. He dragged his reluctant and frightened comrades with him towards an uprising most of them did not want. He used a mixture of guile, logic, bluster, threats and calm persuasion to impose his will on them.
Chapter 36 - Revolution – Part Two
Almost at dawn a vote was taken. It went Lenin’s way ten to two, with only Zinoviev and Kamenev voting against. Lenin reached across the table and picked up a pencil. There was no paper so – famously – he scrawled on a child’s exercise book the biggest decision the Bolsheviks took: ‘Recognising that an armed uprising is inevitable and the time perfectly ripe, the Central Committee proposes to all the organisations of the Party to act accordingly and to discuss and decide from this point of view all the practical questions.’
Angelica Balabanova, who hated Trotsky, once asked Lenin what had kept them apart from 1903 to 1917. ‘Now don’t you know? Ambition, ambition, ambition.’ He meant Trotsky’s ambition, not of course his own.
Later, Sukhanov saw the joke that one of the most important meetings in Russian history took place at his apartment while he was elsewhere, sleeping. It was very likely one of the biggest stories ever missed by a journalist so close to the event. ‘Oh, the novel jokes of the merry muse of history,’ he said when he realised.
37 - Power – At Last
‘Whoever has experienced the power and the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being automatically loses his own sensations. Tyranny is a habit. It has its own organic life; it develops finally into a disease… blood and power intoxicate.’ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead, 1862
The regime he created was largely shaped by his personality: secretive, suspicious, intolerant, ascetic, intemperate.
Throughout his life as a revolutionary Lenin was absorbed in the study of one subject above all others: the nature of power, how it is grasped and used, how it changes those who possess it and those who don’t. He wanted power for its own sake, as egotists do. But he genuinely believed that he was going to use it to improve the lives of the majority of people. It is how he justified the lies, the deceit and terror that followed: everything was acceptable in pursuit of the socialist dream. As Angelica Balabanova, who respected him and admired him but grew to fear and loathe him, put it, Lenin’s ‘tragedy was that, in Goethe’s phrase, he desired the good…but created evil’.
He wasn’t interested in the trappings of power and didn’t enjoy them. His aim was to impose his ideas and personality on others; to bend people to his will.
He knew the Bolsheviks would use terror and accepted it, always justifying it as necessary. But he never witnessed an execution and had no interest in hearing about one. He saw only three dead bodies in his life: his father, his sister Olga and his mother-in-law. To Lenin, the blood he would spill was largely theoretical.
On day two he began to censor the press and threatened to close down opposition newspapers.
He promised ‘incomparably more press freedom’ if the Bolsheviks had their way. On 27 October Lenin wrote a Decree on the Press which established a system of censorship run by his Party apparatchiks.
Around the same time he shocked Emma Goldman by telling her that ‘free speech is a bourgeois prejudice, a soothing plaster for social ills. In the workers’ republic, economic well-being talks louder than speech.’
Red Guards surrounded the bank while the two Bolsheviks entered the building and ordered junior clerks, at gunpoint, to open the vaults. Five million rubles were hastily stuffed into sacks – as in a heist movie. Gorbunov and Osinsky carried the bags over their shoulders, got into a waiting armoured car and took them directly to Lenin’s office. He was not there; the pair transferred the money into red velvet bags and kept guard over the swag. Osinsky was holding a cocked revolver throughout the procedure. When he returned, Lenin was beaming. The bags were put in an old wardrobe in an adjoining office and a sentry stood permanent guard. This was the first Soviet Treasury.
Kerensky remained in hiding inside Russia or in Finland throughout the Civil War that followed, hoping for a triumphal return to Petrograd. Eventually he accepted it would be unlikely to happen and left for Berlin in 1922, and subsequently Paris – the route taken by hundreds of thousands of Russian émigrés. When France fell to the Germans in 1940 he left for the US. He lived in New York, making a good income on the speaking circuit. Then he went to California and joined the Hoover Institution.
38 - The Man in Charge
Quickly the Soviet became the rubber-stamp body it would remain for the next seven decades – ‘a sorry parody of a revolutionary parliament’.
39 - The Sword and Shield
In Lenin’s words, the Cheka’s job was to ‘investigate and liquidate all attempts or actions connected with counter-revolution or sabotage, no matter from whom they come, throughout Russia’. But its functions and powers were not made public until the mid-1920s, and from the first it operated outside the law under top-secret protocols with virtually no political accountability. The Soviet had no control and neither, over the years, did Sovnarkom. It answered only to Lenin.
The Russian secret police will for ever be identified with the building the Cheka moved into the following March in Moscow – the former headquarters of the All-Russia Insurance Company at 22 Lubyanka, an address that would very soon become one of the most feared prisons in the world. It was – and is – a vast building occupying practically an entire city block. Dzerzhinsky told colleagues that one of the main reasons he chose it was the vast size of the cellar space, where noise could easily be muffled. And so it proved.
40 - War and Peace
Separate peace talks were bad enough. But the Allies were appalled and embarrassed when Trotsky published the ‘secret’ treaties the Tsar had signed with Britain and France before the war began. They showed deals were made to divide the post-war spoils when Germany was defeated: the Middle East would be carved up, Russia would get Constantinople – the dream of the Romanovs for three centuries – and France would get Alsace-Lorraine back. For Lenin these proved that the war was ‘an imperialist adventure all about colonies and plunder’.
At one point Karl Radek rose from his seat and shouted at Lenin, ‘If we had five hundred courageous men in Petrograd we would put you in prison.’ Lenin smiled and answered wearily: ‘Some people may indeed go to prison after this but if you will calculate the probabilities you will see that it is much more likely that I will send you rather than you send me.’
(see Giles Milton’s excellent Russian Roulette and Robert Service’s Spies and Commissars).
41 - The One-Party State
Russia’s first freely elected parliament – the Constituent Assembly – survived for about twelve hours. There would not be another for nearly seventy-five years.
But Lenin in power had no intention of allowing a free parliament. He may on occasions in the past have written in praise of elections. But he didn’t believe in ‘bourgeois democracy’ on principle and certainly not in practice for a revolutionary state. The dictatorship of the proletariat and the authority of the Soviet were ‘not only a higher form of democracy…[but] the only form of democracy’.
Lenin could put off the day no longer. On 5 January 1918 the Assembly gathered at the Tauride Palace. Petrograd was ‘in a state of siege’ from early in the morning. The government had declared martial law and flooded the city with troops and Red Guards. Demonstrations had been banned, but at noon around 40,000 workers, students and civil servants defied the order and began to march the two kilometres from Mars Field to the Tauride Palace on a bitterly cold and snowy day. When they reached Liteiny Prospekt, Red Guards, hidden from rooftops, opened fire. The protestors scattered and two huge banners they had been carrying – ‘All Power to the Assembly’ – lay trampled in the slush. At least ten people were killed and seventy seriously wounded.
Lenin was right about his strategy, though. There was little significant support outside the intelligentsia for the Assembly, no big demonstrations, no strikes, no mutinies in the army. ‘There was apathy among the soldiers and workers… Lenin judged correctly,’ said one of his Sovnarkom comrades.
‘But of course they will only regard the affair as an act of political terror.’ That, according to the Justice Commissar, was when he realised that under the Bolsheviks the phrase ‘political terror’ would justify a wide range of crimes.
The rich were branded ‘former people’, awarded far lower rations, and were placed at the back of the queues for bread. Some scions of great aristocratic families starved to death.
One of Lenin’s decrees codified Bolshevik ideas of ‘revolutionary justice’. At a stroke he abolished the existing legal system, though he kept the Tsarist principle that there was one system of justice for normal crimes against property and separate laws for crimes against the State. He established ‘People’s Courts’ for common criminals – essentially ad hoc mob trials in which twelve ‘elected’ judges, most of them barely literate, would rule less on the facts of a case than with the use, in Lenin’s words, of ‘revolutionary conscience’. Lenin’s hatred of the law and lawyers shone through in this decree.
Lenin had a very simple, straightforward and at least honest argument in favour of this system of so-called justice: his system was far superior, practically and morally, because it operated in the interests of the exploited classes – which justified everything. ‘For us there does not, and cannot, exist the old system of morality and “humanity” invented by the bourgeoisie for the purpose of oppressing and exploiting the “lower classes”. Our morality is new, our humanity is absolute, for it rests on the ideal of destroying all oppression and coercion. To us, all is permitted, for we are the first in the world to raise the sword not in the name of enslaving or oppressing anyone, but in the name of freeing all from bondage…Blood? Let there be blood, if it alone can turn the grey-white-and-black banner of the old piratical world to a scarlet hue, for only the complete and final death of that old world will save us from the return of the old jackals.’
When he read it the Justice Commissar, Steinberg, went to see Lenin and protested that such harsh measures would ‘destroy the Revolution’. Lenin replied: ‘On the contrary…do you really believe that we can be victorious without the very cruellest revolutionary terror?’ ‘Then why do we bother with a Commissariat of Justice at all? Let’s call it frankly the Commissariat for Social Extermination and be done with it.’ Lenin’s face lit up, according to Steinberg, and he said: ‘Well put. That’s exactly what it should be; but we can’t say that.’
Most of the old Bolsheviks saw Petrograd as a Western city in the European tradition and regarded Moscow with its onion-domed churches as the capital of Orthodoxy and Old Russia – semi-Asiatic.
Lenin dismissed their arguments. When the government moved, power and authority would move with it. ‘If the Germans in one big swoop overrun Petersburg [he nearly always referred to it by that name, or Peter] – and all of us – then the Revolution perishes. If the government is in Moscow, then the fall of Petersburg will be a grievous blow, but only a blow. If we stay… we are increasing the military danger. If we leave for Moscow, the temptation for the Germans to take Petersburg is much smaller. What is the advantage for them in taking a hungry and revolutionary city?… Why do you prattle about the symbolic importance of Smolny? The Smolny is what it is because we are in it. When we are all in the Kremlin, all your symbolism will be in the Kremlin.’
42 -The Battle for Grain
Lenin needed an enemy. So he invented a new class of Russian – kulaks, or rich peasants – whom he claimed were hoarding grain and deliberately starving the rest of the country, particularly the cities.
Before the Revolution Lenin had promised that peasants would be given land seized from the major landowners – the nobles, big industrialists and the Church. There was little talk of that after the coup.
Millions of people were leaving the cities in the hope that there would be more food in the country, which for a while there was. Petrograd lost two-thirds of its population within eighteen months.
On 23 August he wrote to the Bolshevik chiefs in Penza Province: ‘Comrades, the kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity. The interests of the whole Revolution demand it, for the final and decisive battle with the kulaks everywhere is now engaged. An example must be made. 1) Hang (and I mean hang, so the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Identify hostages… Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out [instructions]. Lenin. PS Find tougher people.’
Even by the government’s official figures the food brigades collected only about 570,000 tons – from a total harvest yield of forty-nine million tons.
The word kulak means, literally, ‘fist’ and refers to ‘tight-fisted’ people. So it was an easy transfer to suggest ‘profiteers’ and exploiters.
43 - Regicide
‘In England and France they executed their kings some centuries ago, but we were late with ours.’ Lenin, 1919
There was no public execution to give it a semblance of judicial and State authority. The monarch was allowed no opportunity to perform his final act with regal dignity. Tsar Nicholas II and his immediate family were butchered in secret by a group of thugs, some of them drunk, in a squalid basement, their remains were burned and thrown down a mineshaft – and then the men who ordered the murder lied about it.
At first the Provisional Government believed the former Tsar and Empress would seek refuge in Britain. But, having originally said the Romanovs were welcome, his cousin King George V shabbily changed his mind. He thought it would be a highly unpopular move and reflect badly on him, so he reneged on his commitment with weasel words and let Lloyd George – who was happy to allow the Romanovs to go to Britain – take the blame.
44 - The Assassins’ Bullets
There was an exchange of gunfire between Uritsky’s bodyguards and a young man wearing a military cadet uniform, but he got away on a bicycle.
‘We must put an end once and for all to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life,’ Trotsky said, justifying the terror.
The murder attempt was the beginning of the ‘Lenin cult’, the exaggerated praise and semi-religious worship that characterised leadership in the Communist world for the following decades – perfected later by Stalin, Mao Zedong and Kim Il-Sung but originating in the days after the threat to Lenin’s life.
45 - The Simple Life
Lenin put in a punishing seventeen hours almost every day, but he did try to return to the apartment for lunch – as he had done in Geneva or Zurich.
At Gorki, there were four bodyguards on permanent duty and a staff of three others, including a cook, Spiridon Putin, whose grandson Vladimir would decades later also become the leader of Russia.
He coined a new word for the careerist breed of new Communists, which Trotsky would steal and later use often: ‘radishes – Red on the outside, White inside’.
Lenin’s private office was as unshowy, spartan almost, as his living quarters a little way along the corridor in the Kremlin’s main government building. It was a smallish room of no more than eighteen square metres with a worn brown carpet and a potted plant in one corner. It was simply furnished. Every item – left by the Tsar – was functional, except an old clock which fell behind between three and fifteen minutes a day. Constant repairs did not help, yet Lenin insisted it stay: ‘another clock would be no different’, he said, mysteriously.
Pride of place on the desk was a strange statue of an ape sitting on a pile of books staring at an oversized human skull, representing Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Lenin’s preferred method for dealing with many administrative problems was to threaten to ‘line up and shoot’ someone.
On the whole Lenin’s taste in literature, and all art, was highly conservative and utilitarian. He had read for pleasure in adolescence and early adulthood, but rarely after that. For a well-educated, intellectually sophisticated and intelligent man of that era he was surprisingly poorly read – certainly compared to, say, the omnivorous readers Stalin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Lunacharsky among his Bolshevik clique. He knew little about painting or any of the visual arts. He enjoyed music – particularly Beethoven’s piano sonatas and, surprisingly, Wagner – but he seldom listened in case, as he had told Gorky, it would make him go ‘soft’.
Lenin acknowledged that Tolstoy was a ‘giant’ but he loathed the Tolstoyan world view, with its mysticism and pacifism.
Works by ninety-four authors including Kant, Descartes, William James, Schopenhauer, Pyotr Kropotkin and Ernst Mach were removed. ‘This tree of unknowledge was planted by Nadezhda Krupskaya under Lenin, with his direction and advice,’ acknowledged the chairman of the Central Libraries Commission later.
Lenin loathed the portrait of Novodorov in Tolstoy’s last novel Resurrection (1899), half idealistic dreamer and half ruthless opportunist revolutionary who has a lot of Lenin about him. ‘The whole of Novodorov’s revolutionary activity, though he could explain it very eloquently and very convincingly, appeared to be founded on nothing but ambition and the desire for supremacy. But, devoid of these moral and aesthetic qualities which call forth doubts and hesitations, he very soon acquired a position in the revolutionary world which satisfied him – that of leader of a Party. Having once chosen a direction, he never doubted or hesitated, and therefore was certain that he never made a mistake… His self-assurance was so great that it either repelled people or made them submit to him. And as he carried out his activity among very young people who mistook his boundless self-assurance for depth and wisdom, the majority did submit to him, and he had great success in revolutionary circles.’ How perceptive and prescient.
46 - Reds and Whites
He was not a military man, he had no experience of warfare; he had never worn a uniform. But it turned out that he had a good understanding of strategy, he was shrewd at picking efficient generals, he was a ruthless commander-in-chief, and, importantly, he possessed the gift of luck.
In the revolutionary storm that struck Russia in 1917 even out-and-out restorationists had to turn revolutionaries in the psychological sense, because in a revolution only revolutionaries can find their way.’
Altogether more than 50,000 Tsarist officers joined the Reds in the Civil War, including doctors, vets and engineers – most of them because their families were held hostage if they didn’t. They were told they would be watched by a commissar and if they did anything suspicious they would be shot and/or their families would be arrested. Only those who had relatives in Russia were recruited. Trotsky’s ‘Special Order Number 30’ of September 1918 stated: ‘Let the turncoats realise that they are at the same time betraying their own… fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives and children.’
Like Lenin, Trotsky had no military experience and had been a journalist, a pamphleteer, before the Revolution brought him power. But he was decisive, got things done by cutting through red tape and had a clear, logical mind. He was loathed by many Party members for his arrogance and hauteur, his perfectly pressed uniforms and his swagger. But nobody could deny his energy or his showmanship. He criss-crossed Russia in his special train equipped with a printing press, telegraph machines, an orchestra and a film crew and gave electrifying performances to rally often jaded and unwilling troops. He was the Red Army’s persuader-in-chief.
According to his chief aide-de-camp Kolchak’s favourite reading, which he kept by his side, was the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
There was desertion from both armies on a massive scale – more than a million in 1918 alone from the Red Army, and four million overall during the war. But about 80 per cent of Kolchak’s conscripted peasant army deserted, by far the highest proportion of any unit in the conflict from either side.
The Western Allies bankrolled the Whites with large amounts of money and arms, and lied about it. They supported the Whites’ side, but so half-heartedly that their intervention made no difference.
The British were by far the biggest financial backers of the Whites. Altogether they gave them more than £100 million, a vast sum at the time, and sent several spies to help mount plots to undermine the Bolshevik government.
The Americans lied too, principally to hide the truth from their own people, rather than to deceive the Russians. The US Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, was a passionate anti-Communist, a Cold Warrior before the term was invented. ‘Bolshevism is the most hideous and monstrous thing that the human mind has ever conceived,’ he said. ‘It finds its adherents among the criminal, the depraved and the mentally unfit.’ He wanted to help the Whites, but secretly and semi-legally. American law forbade the government granting loans to independent armies or mercenaries. Lansing wrote to Walter Page, American Ambassador to Britain, on 13 December 1917 with a scheme to get around the US Congress: ‘The only practicable course seems to be for the British and French governments to finance the…enterprise, in so far as it is necessary, and for this Government to loan them the money to do so. In that way we could comply with the statute and at the same time strengthen armed opposition to the Bolsheviks.’
Bolshevism was blamed on Jews so it was entirely legitimate to slaughter them, the White propaganda seemed to argue.
As they were being defeated by the Bolsheviks, the Whites slaughtered about 150,000 civilians.
It was a devastating blow for the Whites, whose defeat was accompanied by a mass migration from Russia. Between 1.5 and two million people left the country within two years of the Revolution, most of them educated, professional people, the intelligentsia.
When Trotsky said that while racially, yes, he was a Jew, he hated Judaism and was an internationalist, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Yakov Mazeh, observed: ‘It was the Trotskys who made the Revolution, but the Bronsteins who paid the bills.’
48 - The ‘Internationale’
The Comintern was run from Moscow and soon became a branch of Soviet foreign policy. Its founding rules stated that if members wanted to be considered Communist Parties, if they wanted any help or support from Russia, all had to be Leninist-type organisations run like the Bolsheviks. They must expel from their ranks ‘moderates and centrists’; they had to try to take over trade unions; and they had to toe the Moscow line on almost everything. In the long term this did immense harm to the idea of world revolution and set back Lenin and his successors’ dreams of spreading socialism. Portraying the far-Left parties elsewhere as stooges of the Russians played into the hands of the Right.
Lenin installed Angelica Balabanova as the first Secretary of the Comintern in 1919 and sent her to Stockholm to establish links with leftist groups in the West.
He supported a subsidy of US$1 million for John Reed, the American journalist, to spend on propaganda in the US.
49 - Rebels at Sea and on Land
‘Believe me. There can only be two kinds of government in Russia. Tsarism or the Soviets.’ Lenin, 3 March 1921
Senior Party critics weren’t purged, tried and executed – yet. That began later under Stalin.
The troops were repulsed for a few days but in the end it was a massacre. They were outnumbered and outgunned. Even Tukhachevsky was appalled by the carnage and surprised by the sailors’ determination to fight against hopeless odds. ‘It wasn’t a battle, but an inferno,’ he said later. ‘They fought like wild beasts. I cannot understand where they found the strength for such furious rage. Every house had to be taken by storm.’ Nearly all the sailors who survived the final assault on 16 March were summarily executed.
The terror became so routine that some people were slaughtered by ghastly mistake. At a Sovnarkom meeting in October 1919 commissars were discussing investment in railways. Halfway through, Lenin wrote a note to Dzerzhinsky asking: ‘How many dangerous counter-revolutionaries do we have in prison?’ The Cheka boss scribbled a reply, ‘around 1,500’, and returned the note to Lenin who read it, placed an X by the answer and returned it to Dzerzhinsky. That night hundreds of prisoners in Moscow were executed. Lenin had not ordered them to be shot, as his secretary, Fotieva, explained later. Sometimes he placed a cross by documents he had seen merely to show that he had read the information and taken note of it. So casual had the imposition of revolutionary justice become that this appalling error barely caused a stir of any kind.
His principle was simple: it is better that 100 innocent people are killed than that one person who is a danger to the Revolution remains free and a potential threat.
Cannibalism was common. People were storing corpses as food. One woman was caught with her child eating pieces of her dead husband. When police interviewed her she said, ‘We won’t give him up… he is our own family and no one has the right to take him away from us.’ There were several cases of mothers killing one of their children in order to feed the others.
Until July 1921 the Soviet government refused to admit there was a disaster happening, as the Tsar had done in the 1890s: the words ‘famine’ and ‘starvation’ were banned in the press on Lenin’s orders.
Hoover’s aid workers fed twenty-five million people in the Volga region alone and saved hundreds of thousands of lives before the ARA closed down its Russian efforts – prematurely. When it was revealed that the Soviets were taking foreign aid but at the same time selling its cereals for hard currency, it caused a scandal that forced the ARA teams to leave Russia, amid bitterness.
temporal as well as spiritual power. The Orthodox faith alone had the right to proselytise; it received generous state subsidies which paid most of the salaries of 45,000 parish priests and financed 100,000 monasteries. It was one of the biggest landowners in Russia.
We must seize the valuables now speedily; we will be unable to do so later because no other moment except that of desperate hunger will give us support among the masses. The confiscations must be conducted with merciless determination…the greater the number of clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing for this reason…[i.e., resisting church looting] the better. We must teach these people a lesson so they will not dare even to think of resistance for decades.’
On the other hand, the Bolsheviks raised a huge amount of booty from robbing the churches. In November 1921 alone, according to a report to Lenin, they seized 500 kilos of gold, 400,000 of silver, 35,670 of diamonds, 265 of assorted gemstones ‘and 964 other antique objects that will be weighed’.
50 - Intimations of Mortality
In October 1920 Kamenev persuaded him to sit for the sculptor Clare Consuelo Sheridan, a cousin of Winston Churchill. She was a great beauty and several leading Communist officials fell under her charms, Trotsky included. The rumour was that after he sat for her, they began an affair.
The idea of leadership cult, so alien to Marx’s or Lenin’s theories, defined the living practice of Communism.
51 - Revolution – Again
His new definition of Communism would be ‘Soviet power, plus electrification’.
Lenin saw the problem: ‘We should all be hanged for creating all this unnecessary red tape,’ he told Alexander Tsyurupa on 21 February 1922. ‘Everything around us is drowned in a filthy swamp of bureaucracy. Over-administration – madness. All these decrees: lunacy. Search for the right people, ensure that the work is properly done – that’s all that’s necessary.’
‘All the evils and hardships we are suffering from… are due to the fact that the Communist Party consists of ten per cent of convinced idealists, ready to die for the cause, but incapable of living for it, and ninety per cent of unscrupulous time-servers who have simply joined the Party to get jobs.’
He wrote a resolution On Party Unity, kept secret for many years. It banned all independent factions and groupings in the Communist Party which the Kremlin magnates did not recognise, on pain of immediate expulsion from the Party, with no appeal. ‘No faction of any sort will be tolerated,’ it said. This was to have the gravest consequences for millions of loyal Communists over the coming decades. It was the principal weapon that Stalin would use against ‘deviationists’ or anyone he perceived to be an opponent.
The Allied nations said they would end the trade blockade if Russia agreed to pay her pre-1914 debts – an important issue for Britain, especially, which was owed nearly £600 million.
52 - The Last Battle
It was his idea to make it a crime ‘not to recognise the right of the Communist system of ownership to replace capitalism and attempt its overthrow’. This became the basis for the notorious Article 58 of the Soviet Penal Code under which millions of people were killed, jailed or sent into the great maw of the Gulag over the following decades.
On 22 December Lenin dictated a frantic letter to Stalin begging him to keep his word and give him poison ‘as a humanitarian gesture’. Stalin said no and told his senior comrades of his refusal. ‘I do not have the strength to fulfil the request of Vladimir Ilyich,’ he said.
One of Lenin’s biggest mistakes was that he made no provisions for his succession.
Little in Soviet history remains so obscure as the truth behind Lenin’s so-called Last Testament – a few fragments of wishes for the post-Lenin era which he dictated, as secretly as he could, in the last months of his life.
Then, on 4 January, he summoned Fotieva to add an explosive postscript to the Testament: ‘Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings among we Communists, becomes intolerable in a General Secretary. That is why I suggest that comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from the post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to other comrades, less capricious.’
53 - ‘An Explosion of Noise’
Trotsky always maintained that he had been deliberately misinformed – by Stalin – about the date of the funeral. But he had time to get back if he had genuinely wanted to. He wrote a powerful eulogy in a newspaper, though. His absence was carefully noted, and was a major miscalculation on his part. Without a doubt it counted against his succession claims.
54 - Lenin Lives
On 26 February 1924, four weeks after Lenin’s funeral, the Marxist atheists in charge of Soviet Russia established, with no irony intended, the grandiloquently named Commission of Immortalisation.
In fact all the leadership contenders had something to lose if the Testament became public, though Stalin obviously had the most. It showed that Lenin had no real faith in any of the comrades around him.
They experimented on several cadavers of fifty-ish-year-old men brought to them from morgues and scientific institutes in Moscow. After four months they found the correct formula of glycerin, alcohol, potassium acetate, quinine chlorate and another ingredient still strictly secret at the time of writing.
She disapproved strongly when, five days after her husband died, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. She continued to call the city ‘Peter’ as she always had.
After she failed to get Lenin’s Testament circulated she continued to work at the Enlightenment Commissariat for four years, ridding Russia’s libraries of dangerous books, such as those of Kant and Spengler.
An estimated twenty million people visited the mausoleum and saw the embalmed, eerily wax-like Lenin in the eighty-five years after the crypt was opened for tourists.
Over the last ninety years many hundreds of scientists have worked on Lenin’s body, which needs constant maintenance. In 2016 there were a dozen employed part-time, and three or four full-time, responsible for maintaining Lenin’s body as part shrine, part tourist trap.