The dark and tangled legacy of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, even now, almost 100 years after his death, is still almost impossible to unravel. He is considered by many as one of the 20th century's most influential minds and boldest leaders. He's also considered one of its most dastardly villains.
The two views of the man — he is, of course, better known as Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary and communist strongman — aren't necessarily divergent.
Visionary. Political firebrand. Ruthless authoritarian. Deep thinker. Champion of the worker. Redeemer. Killer. They're all Lenin. History is still trying to understand the good and the bad.
"Can we recall, do we have the ability to really feel, in our own skin, what it was to go through the Russian Civil War, and the famine and the misery, and the thousands of deaths and terror on both sides?" says noted historian and professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Peter Kenez. He's author of "A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End," a comprehensive treatise that covers both revolution and dissolution. "[Thomas] Jefferson lived in a different age, and he had slaves. Should we judge him? All right, if you want to. But it does not help us understand who that person really was.
"In different ages, our task — not only as historians but as human beings — is not to be anachronistic."
Who Was Vladimir Lenin?
Historians often point to a particular moment that spurred Lenin (1870-1924) to become a revolutionary: his brother's execution, when Lenin was just 17, at the hands of the Russian government under Czar Alexander III.
But his rise to a true revolutionary grew with time. He associated with radicals while attending university, embracing the works of Karl Marx. He continued to push for the overthrow of the government, which eventually got him exiled to Siberia. He pushed and pushed and pushed for rebellion, through a failed revolution in 1905 and, years later, during Russia's bloody involvement in World War I.
Through his writings and in talks throughout Europe, he implored his supporters — Bolsheviks — to ignite a continentwide conflict that would pit the working class (the proletariat) against the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, resulting in a socialist Russia.
Everything came to a head with the Russian Revolution in 1917, when iron-fisted Czar Nicholas II finally abdicated and left opposing factions to duel for control of the country. Lenin returned from one of many exiles and edged out the ruling party, and the Bolsheviks grabbed power. They soon ended Russia's involvement in World War I. The Czar and his entire family were executed, possibly under direct order from Lenin.
In his quest to build a socialist country that would, in turn, morph into a communist society, Lenin was hardly in the clear. A bloody civil war between the Bolsheviks (the Red Army) and other internal factions cost millions of lives over the next several years. The Red Army was particularly brutal in its fight. Three examples of their atrocities:
- Red Terror: Thousands — the number is not clear, but it could be hundreds of thousands — of Bolshevik opponents were executed without trial as Lenin consolidated power. Many thousands also were imprisoned.
- Tambov Rebellion: When peasants rebelled against the forced confiscation of grain, the Red Army responded by shooting thousands, imprisoning thousands more and, at one point, using poison gas on the civilians.
- Famine: At least 5 million Russians died in the great famine of the early 1920s, brought on by drought, grain confiscation, poor transportation methods of shipping grain and general civil unrest. Many blame Lenin's strict policies and his general callousness toward the well-being of the poor for the millions of dead.
"Lenin never concealed his belief that the new world could only be built with the aid of physical violence," wrote Soviet military historian Dmitri Volkogonov in "Lenin," a 1994 biography. "I do not doubt that Lenin wanted earthly happiness for the people, at least for those he called 'the proletariat.' But he regarded it as normal to build this 'happiness' on blood, coercion and the denial of freedom."
Lenin in Today's Russia
Lenin and his Bolsheviks (later to be named the Communist Party) prevailed in the civil war and, in late 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR or Soviet Union) officially was formed, with Lenin and his party at the center. Lenin died just two years later in 1924 at age 53, and was succeeded in power by an even more ruthless dictator, Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
Today, thousands of Lenin statues are found throughout Russia. Even more telling, Lenin's embalmed body remains a tourist attraction of sorts, painstakingly preserved at a mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square.
"We have an interesting experiment going on now, with the issue of the Lenin mausoleum in the middle of Red Square, that is, in many ways, quite revealing," Kenez says. "There has been talk about how he should not have been put in the mausoleum, that he should have been buried — this goes back to 1924 — and, even now there are some voices saying that he should be buried next to his mother or something like that. But this is not going to happen. There is no majority of support for this position."
Instead, Lenin's body, along with the ideals of his still held by many, sits in waiting. It is history suspended, a verdict still to be rendered.
"Any changes in the mausoleum are bitterly opposed by the still-existent Communist Party," Kenez says. "That shows, at a minimum, that there is no large-scale repudiation of what Lenin stood for, and the person of Lenin, and what he had accomplished. I think that's the bottom line."
How can anyone still contend that the ruthless, uncompromising, murderous Lenin — who many blame for the millions killed by Stalin, too — is to be revered or worthy of remembrance in any positive way?
The answer may be that for all his crimes, Lenin took an agricultural-based country ruled by a monarchy and forged it into a supposedly workers-based union that became one of the world's superpowers.
For the people of Russia today, that may be enough to merit a place in Red Square.
"Now, when they look back, in 2020, what they remember was the Soviet Union was a powerful entity, and now Russia is second-rate," Kenez says. "Should people think this way? Is this the way I think about it? No. However, Americans talk about American exceptionalism, and the American Century, and America is different ... there is, I suppose, a Russian equivalent. 'We were powerful, and I recall this fondly.' I'm not justifying it. I'm trying to look into people's souls, which is always a difficult task."
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