Commentary Magazine

The Unknown Lenin edited by Richard Pipes

The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive
edited by Richard Pipes
Yale. 204 pp. $27.50

In 1970, the Paris-based Russian-émigré journal Herald of the Christian Movement published a letter dated March 1922 from V.I. Lenin to the Soviet politburo; the journal claimed the letter had been smuggled out of the Communist party’s central archive in Moscow. At the time, the document, which contains extraordinarily brutal instructions for looting precious religious artifacts from Russian Orthodox churches and then selling them for hard currency, was widely dismissed as a forgery. Only a mind fevered by cold-war anti-Communism, it was suggested, could have concocted such outlandish words and attributed them to the great Soviet leader:

It is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy, not stopping [short of] crushing any resistance.

But the letter was genuine. Moreover, as Richard Pipes’s crisply edited collection from Soviet archives now makes plain, it spoke in the voice of the authentic Lenin: a man of ferocious hatreds and manic energy, ideologically besotted, ruthless to the core, and utterly devoid of ethical sentiments—sentiments which he contemptuously dismissed as mere “bourgeois morality.”

This book should settle, once and for all, the old argument about the relationship between Lenin’s politics and the Stalinist horrors that were to come: the latter were no aberration, but a logical working-out of the former. And The Unknown Lenin also sheds much light on a wide range of other issues connected to the Russian Revolution and its consequences.

Students of the internecine struggles within the Soviet Communist party, for instance, will find much to ponder here in Lenin’s judgments on his Bolshevik colleagues. Trotsky, Lenin’s cardinal theoretician and military genius, was (according to the master) a man “in love with the organization” who, when it came to politics, “hasn’t got a clue.” As these documents illustrate throughout, it was not Trotsky on whom Lenin relied but rather Stalin, and he did so, Pipes observes, “not only in running day-to-day government operations but also in setting major policy goals.”

Scholars (and psychologists) will likewise be intrigued by the degree to which Lenin tried to micromanage the revolution of which he was, in his own judgment, the indispensable custodian. Thus, one 1920 telegram to the provinces instructs regional authorities on the fine points of livestock production in regard to their sheep and pigs, while a 1921 telegram to the “Fuel Directorate of Tsaritsyn Province” orders the locals to ship a quantity of logs to Baku, their measurements specified to fractions of an inch.

As for foreign policy, the most gripping reading in The Unknown Lenin concerns the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-20. That conflict has been virtually forgotten in the West. In particular, Polish claims that the battle of the Vistula in August 1920 was one of the key events of contemporary history—in it, Pilsudski’s Poles broke the momentum of Tukhachevsky’s invading Red Army—have usually been dismissed as romantic nonsense. But Pipes’s documents demonstrate that the Poles had it right all along. As Lenin himself conceded in a lengthy secret speech to party officials, Poland was expected to be the entr’acte to the triumphant conquest of all of Western Europe, including England, by Soviet armed forces allied with local Communists. The Red Army’s failed invasion of Poland was thus “a turning point for the world,” bringing to an end a gigantic effort to exploit the revolutionary fervor of the German, French, and English proletariat.

In this same speech, Lenin also offered a defense of the Soviet attempt to dismantle the Versailles arrangement and destabilize the Allies by forging a coalition with German right-wing extremists—a stratagem, Pipes notes acerbically, “which was consummated two decades later in the Hitler-Stalin pact.” Given the evidence now available from party archives, that later diplomatic shocker, which paved the way for World War II, was no anomaly; Stalin was once again merely marching in the tactical footsteps of his mentor.



The documents assembled in The Unknown Lenin offer nothing less than a microcosm of the whole tawdry history of the Soviet Union: the lies; the cynicism; the state terrorism; the anti-Semitism; the persecution of dissident intellectuals; the profound animus against religion; the ubiquitous internal-security apparatus; the economic idiocy; the international subversion; the use of “medicine” to “cure” the ideologically unsound of their dubieties; the contempt for the workers in whose name the revolution was putatively organized and executed. All of this began with Lenin, and there is no escaping his responsibility for it. About that, there can no longer be serious dispute.

Indeed, after reading these documents, only one question remains: why does Russia continue to afford a place of honor in its national capital to the mummified corpse of this unspeakably wicked man, the progenitor of totalitarianism and the archetype of the political mass murderer?


About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).

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