Commentary Magazine


Lenin, by Dimitri Volkogonov

From the Finland Station

Lenin: A New Biography.
by Dimitri Volkogonov.
Translated and edited by Harold Shukman. Free Press. 599 pp. $30.00.

Though his has been an unusual career, the life story of Dmitri Volkogonov epitomizes and explains much that has happened to the Soviet Union and Communism.

As he told us in his biography of Stalin (1989), Volkogonov’s father was executed when he was a child, and his family was banished to Siberia. For his Russian readers, Volkogonov did not need to specify the date or the alleged offense that led to his father’s death. Certainly most of his countrymen would know that the time was somewhere between 1937 and 1940, and that, like 99.9 percent of those purged, the elder Volkogonov was innocent of any real crime. They also would have understood that very likely the Volkogonovs were simple folk. Had the father been a prominent “enemy of the people,” his wife would have been sent to a camp, his children placed in an orphanage and quite possibly arrested themselves upon reaching adulthood.

Somehow, despite his father’s fate, Volkogonov was allowed to enter a military school, and his career flourished after Stalin’s death: three-star general and head of the Army’s political department are among the ranks he achieved. As the preceding suggests and as he himself acknowledges, Volkogonov remained throughout a loyal Communist; Stalin’s death was seen as a national calamity by young Lieutenant Volkogonov in 1953.

It was only with glasnost that the blinders began to fall from his eyes. His biography of Stalin went far beyond the then-still-current official equivocations about the tyrant and euphemisms like the “cult of personality.” Volkogonov’s portrait was that of a mass murderer and sadist whose only interest was personal power, unencumbered by any ideological or patriotic inhibitions. This was in contrast to Gorbachev who, as late as 1987, while acknowledging Stalin’s crimes, still proclaimed him a great military leader and hailed collectivization as a grandiose feat of social engineering.

For a Western student of Soviet history, little fundamentally new could be found in Volkogonov’s book on Stalin. But his access to closed archives enabled him to fill in some horrifying details. For example, he estimated the number of those “repressed” between 1937 and 1941 alone at about five million, with a million and a half of them executed.

Although Volkogonov was demoted to the directorship of the Military History Institute not long before his biography of Stalin was published, in at least one key respect the book remained within the prevailing Soviet orthodoxy: it portrayed Lenin as a benevolent if not infallible genius. The root of Stalin’s crimes was held to be his departure from the straight and narrow path to socialism as prescribed by the Founder. And Volkogonov also defended the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, in the traditional Soviet manner, as a necessary response to the Western powers’ obvious intention to push Hitler eastward (an explanation that never managed to explain satisfactorily why Britain and France declared war on Germany after its invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939).

Volkogonov’s subsequent biography of Trotsky (1992), however, represented a greater departure. Trotsky was given an equal if not indeed a major share of the credit for the mechanics of the October Revolution and winning the civil war. Though he was unsparing in his criticism of Trotsky’s authoritarian temperament and misdeeds, one could detect a twinge of sympathy in Volkogonov’s treatment of his subject: could a man who hated Stalin and was so much hated by him have been completely bad?

Now, in his latest work, Volkogonov departs even farther from the old Soviet orthodoxy. Lenin, whom he eulogized only four years ago, is now cast as a cruel and querulous fanatic. “Thanks chiefly to Lenin’s efforts, the Bolsheviks succeeded in convincing the Russian people that the path to happiness lay through lawlessness, arbitrary rule, and violence.” For Volkogonov now, as for Solzhenitsyn, it is Lenin rather than Stalin who is mainly responsible for the evil inherent in Communism. “By his actions Lenin taught Stalin his ruthlessness, his implacability, his cunning, his purposefulness. . . .”

This book is not so much a biography in the strict sense of the word as, to use a notorious Stalinist term, an “unmasking.” Volkogonov’s animus against anything connected with Lenin and Communism is so great that it extends to the private lives of his one-time heroes. For example, the book presents Lenin as using party funds to lead a life of near-luxury as a political émigré. In fact, Lenin’s material circumstances were quite modest while abroad (though he did indulge in such unproletarian diversions as mountain climbing, bicycling, and attending the theater) .

Another note on the private side of things: some of Lenin’s previous biographers (including myself) have cast doubts on the long-whispered story of a liaison with Inessa Armand; Lenin seemed incapable of any passion, except for revolution, and his public views on sex were distinctly Victorian. But having had access to materials hitherto withheld by the prudish Soviets, Volkogonov presents strong, if circumstantial, evidence that Lenin and Armand were, literally, comrades in arms.

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Many a Western intellectual who, while rejecting Communism, still sees Lenin’s personal saga and the October Revolution surrounded by a heroic aura will be perplexed at this sober account by a former believer who now regards both Lenin and the Revolution as unmitigated disasters for Russia and the world. Indeed, the author’s revulsion now embraces the entire ideological and historical ballast of Communism, including the idea of socialism itself.

What accounts for this passionate assault on the old verities from a man who so recently was singing Lenin’s praise? True, in the course of his research Volkogonov was able to acquaint himself with a large quantity of previously inaccessible materials by and about Lenin which added little to the Soviet founder’s image as a benefactor of mankind. But there was no need for fresh revelations or newly opened archives to discover that Lenin was a firm believer in terror, and utterly heedless of what his policies cost in human lives. There was enough testimony on those counts even in the carefully edited works published during the Soviet period.

Volkogonov’s resentment of his erstwhile idol is attributable, one suspects, to the shock produced by the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991. He traces the root causes of that crash to the imposition of Communism on what had been unambiguously the Russian empire. Lenin, he asserts, “had shown his contempt—to put it mildly—for Russia and the Russians.” In the Soviet Union, “The national feeling of the Russians was suppressed, and the build-up began of the centrifugal forces that would one day smash the Union.”

Here it is difficult to agree with Volkogonov. By creating a centralized, authoritarian state, Lenin had ensured, though perhaps not consciously, that it would be dominated by its major ethnic group. And Stalin, though a Georgian, quite consciously and openly substituted Russian nationalism for Communist ideology as the main psychological prop of the Soviet regime. In lamenting the fall of the Union, Volkogonov, a Russian patriot, unwittingly demonstrates how much in fact the USSR was thought of as Greater Russia. Russians were clearly held by the regime to be “more equal” than other nationalities, not only politically but also culturally.

To be sure, it was not only anti-Russian sentiments that led the Soviet Union to split asunder; indigenous nationalism also played a part. Even before the abortive 1991 coup, when the Union began to crumble, many of the local non-Russian Communist bosses, until then submissive servants of Moscow, hastened to refashion themselves as nationalists in order to retain and increase their power.

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Accurate as it is in most respects, Volkogonov’s portrait occasionally lacks nuance; Lenin’s political evolution is not the rigid straight line that Volkogonov has drawn. In the years before World War I, Lenin was not yet the fire-breathing revolutionary who declared, when the German Socialists voted for war credits in 1914, that Russian Marxists should cast off the very name of socialist “like a soiled child’s shirt” and work for a revolution. And Lenin, the ferocious advocate of terrorism in 1918-22, as he lay dying from his final illness, was aware of the considerable substratum of Russian chauvinism underlying Communism; he also criticized Stalin and Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, as being no better than their czarist predecessors (would that that were all) in their brutality and disregard of the non-Russians’ rights.

But Volkogonov is essentially correct when he portrays Lenin as a great teacher of intolerance. The bulk of those who joined the Nazis before 1933 were thugs and social misfits. For the most part, the same cannot be said for those who became Bolsheviks before 1917. While not necessarily idealists (a much misused term in American parlance), they joined what was one faction of a social-democratic party out of genuine conviction. Few of them could have imagined that “Bolshevik” would become synonymous with one-party rule, dictatorship, and terror.

What then transformed these individuals into complacent oligarchs, henchmen of a tyrant, and, at a lower level, secret-police inquisitors, executioners, with not a trace of ideological scruple? Granted that a civil war usually numbs morals, the main answer still has to be: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Immediately after the October Revolution, the residue of social-democratic sentiment was still strong enough for several prominent Bolsheviks to oppose Lenin’s insistence on one-party government. Even after the civil war drew to a close in 1921, while voices for democracy were silenced, there was still some opposition in Bolshevik ranks to Lenin’s authoritarian ways: he was turning party members into record players, complained one delegate at the Tenth Party Congress; he was the chief bureaucrat, said another—utterances that would become unthinkable under Stalin’s dictatorship.

Still, by hook or by crook, Lenin always got his way. Even to his opponents in the party he was not only a leader but a kind of magician. Neither a military commander nor a great orator, he somehow pushed his mostly hesitant or resisting followers toward a revolutionary resolve. Against overwhelming odds, Lenin conjured up victory in the civil war. How could one disagree with his teachings about dictatorship and terror when they brought about such miraculous results? A man as instinctively decent as Bukharin was persuaded to go along with phony trials complete with death penalties for “bourgeois specialists” falsely accused of sabotage.

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Some of this book’s most interesting pages and intriguing revelations from the party archives touch on the history of the Soviet system following Lenin’s death. There, for instance, is Marshal Zhukov reading a document at the June 1957 Central Committee meeting which shows that on one day, November 12, 1938, “Stalin and Molotov ordered the execution of 3,167 senior figures.” We also get new details revealing how, even before the Moscow trials of the Bolshevik old guard in 1936-38, the defendants groveled in front of Stalin and continued to denounce one another until the last possible moment before they were destroyed. (Let us remember, however, that they begged not only for their own lives, but also for those of their families—in most cases unsuccessfully on both counts.)

Nor does Volkogonov see much that is good about Stalin’s successors. Khrushchev is praised for the courage he displayed in his denunciation, qualified though it was, of Stalin. But he is also criticized for using “Lenin to debunk Stalin, as if Lenin had not been the spiritual father of Stalin.” And we have a pathetic picture of the seventy-seven-year-old Khrushchev bravely resisting pressure from his former subordinates to repudiate his memoirs after they had been smuggled abroad.

Brezhnev is portrayed here as the epitome of the complacent Soviet bureaucrat, with his inordinate passion for decorations and awards of all possible kinds provoking amusement even within party circles. Andropov comes across as far more intelligent than his two predecessors, but also as much more of a doctrinaire Leninist. And there is Chernenko, sick and debilitated, mirroring the system over which he briefly presided.

Of the man who unwittingly contributed so much to the collapse of the whole system, Volkogonov is of two minds. Paradoxically, Gorbachev is both praised and criticized for perestroika. Reforms were obviously needed, but how could they succeed if to the last the General Secretary clung to Leninism and an idealized version of the October Revolution? Volkogonov, a strong supporter of Yeltsin, to whom he has been a special consultant, tries to dispel the Western notion that Gorbachev, prior to 1985, was a closet liberal; he quotes several of his statements before the Politburo that might well have been made by Brezhnev.

What Talleyrand said of treason under revolutionary conditions fully applies to the liberalism of individual politicians within the Soviet context: it is a question of dates. The pathos of the last phase of the Soviet era is well expressed in the Politburo discussion of the address Gorbachev was to deliver on the 70th anniversary of the Revolution. “We don’t need any kind of bourgeois pluralism,” said Gorbachev, as we learn from this book. Apparently he had even proposed to speak favorably about the Stalinist policy of liquidating kulaks during collectivization. But here Shevardnadze intervened: “I am worried about one phrase, although it is correct in principle. . . . Maybe we could drop ‘liquidating’ and find some other word.” And so they tried to change their world through new terms, new laws, new institutions, the somber past always getting in their way. As of the moment they are still trying.

That somewhat worn-out phrase, “identity crisis,” for once fits perfectly the current condition of Russia. And in grasping its complexity, one gets much help from General Volkogonov. He is a very interesting man who has written a most instructive book.

About the Author




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