“The Conqueror’s Peace of Mind Requires the Death of the Conquered.”
Attributed to Genghis Khan, the title quote was found underlined in a book in Stalin’s library after his death. The significance to Stalin remains unknown, but it could just as easily be a mantra for almost every post-revolutionary Russian leader.
History is important because it helps us to understand the present, if not always to adequately explain it. It helps us to make sense of our world, and theorise about how and why we came to be where we are now, and even where we might be going in the future. But that can only be done in any meaningful way if we see the whole picture; by hiding or ignoring the parts that don’t fit our modern sensibilities or our understanding of ourselves, is to deny who we are and why we are what we are.
Today Putin, Trump, Xi, and other dictators and wannabes, try to obscure the past so that we see only what they want us to see. This is their way of trying to gain ascendancy over us; to limit how we think about our world, about what opinions we might reach, and how we should feel about the opinions of others.
In this two part series I look at how parallels from history often resonate. How they chime with the same chord over time, however long that may be, not always with the same frequency or clarity, but distinct patterns can be elucidated nevertheless.
I had wanted to cram this into a single post; but once I began it became clear to me that to do so would be to omit so much; so please bear with me — the journey is long, but inordinately, and always fascinating.
Even now, there is so much more to be said. So, I have divided the passage of time for the purposes of this endeavour into two parts. Part One, today, deals with Lenin, the Russian revolution — roughly the period from 1917 through 1924 — and how Lenin’s attitudes to violence, and in particular to those whom he had vanquished, began a pattern, a thread if you will, that can still be pulled today.
In Part Two, I shall follow that bloodied thread through the long years of Stalin’s regime through to Putin’s increasingly totalitarian regime today — from 1924 to the present. The grizzly thread, this common theme of violence is woven into the fabric of the reigns of all three men, and in every instance the majority of the unwilling victims have been the people of Russia and their domains.
The violence may have differed over this bloody century, the words may have evolved, the history may have moved on, but the callous attitudes of the leaders has remained remarkably similar.
Violence, of course, can take many forms. And dictators rarely get their hands dirty with the mechanics of the violence they set in motion. I doubt Lenin, Stalin or Putin has ever actually stood over someone and pulled the trigger, but each of them has done this by proxy. Not once, not twice, but time and time again, they will have set in motion orders or policies or strategies or wars that would have led directly or indirectly to the deaths of countless people.
Stalin is known to be one of the biggest mass murderers in history, but my point here, and in my next post, is not to apportion blame or count numbers; it is to illustrate how Lenin, Stalin and Putin have used their position in similar ways to destroy the lives of unknown numbers of Russian and Ukrainian people over the last century of violence in order to satisfy their own unquenchable thirst for power.
People’s revolution to totalitarian state…
If asked to name the most influential works of 19th Century Russian literature the typical responses range from ‘War and Peace’ to ‘Crime and Punishment,’ to ‘Son and Daughters,’ and there would be an argument for each of these to be sure. Yet few outside of Russia might be able to readily identify, yet alone name the book that might actually lay claim to that title.
Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s ‘What is to be done?’ is little known in the West, but is a novel that can rightly claim this honour due to ‘its effect on human lives and its power to make history.’ (1)
Widely attributed with being a major influence on the later works and thoughts of Lenin, ‘What is to be done?’ is, from my reading, more a love story than anything else, and that alone most people (in the West) might find implausible given the extreme violence of the Russian revolution more than 60 years after it was written.
The incongruity between the endearing innocence of ‘What is to be done?’ and the brute savagery of the Russian revolution is hard to reconcile on the face of it, especially given Lenin’s adoration of Chernyshevsky’s masterpiece. The two are poles apart.
Chernyshevsky was primarily a materialist who believed that social, religious and political institutions impeded individual and social development by perpetuating ignorance and stifling the scientific advancement that might otherwise help human beings to shape their social and natural environment to suit their needs as individuals, and as a society.
Drawing heavily on British ideas of utilitarianism to explain human behaviour and rejecting idealist conceptions of morality, Chernyshevsky used these ideas to show how individual interests and pleasures, along with the pursuit of self-fulfilment could still be reconciled with the material interests of a community.
The book gained a wide following among the new Russian intelligentsia who saw in its application of science and technology to the problems of 19th Century Russia a vision for how their nation could be modernised, made prosperous, to be put on a par with other modern European nations, but without the decadent liberality (as they saw it) that so weakened the moral infrastructure of much of the West.
However, the literary world created by Chernyshevsky clashed with their reality and the ponderous, one step forward, two steps backward pace of social and political reforms under Tsar Alexander II. Frustrated and annoyed at their own inability to free themselves of the strictures of Tsarist oppression many became radicalised and disaffected with the lack of a scientific approach to Russia’s many problems.
Following Chernyshevsky, they rejected liberalism as a way forward, but unlike Chernyshevsky, then resorted increasingly to violent means to achieve their aims, even murdering the Tsar Alexander II himself in 1881 in the name of the people.
Retaining a certain reverence for ‘What is to be done?’ as a moral guide and an idealised view of society, it was later cited by Lenin in a pamphlet of the same name (What is to be done?) published in 1902, on how the role and structure of the revolutionary party should be formulated.
While not violent in its content, Chernyshevsky’s radical ideas stirred violent emotions in an increasingly disillusioned intelligentsia that responded in the only way they saw that was left open to them; violence in the end became the modus operandi of the mob as they chased the dream Chernyshevsky had sketched out for them in ‘What is to be done?’
Since then the use of violence in its many forms has been a tool for almost every post-revolutionary Russian leader to maintain their elusive grip on power both within Russia and abroad.
How utopia descended into dystopia…
Written in 1863 whilst Chernyshesky was languishing in prison in the Peter-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, ‘What is to be done?’ went on to arguably influence many Russian revolutionaries and thinkers including Lenin.
Smuggled out of the prison fortress in several parts, the main character in ‘What is to be done?’ is surprisingly a woman, Vera Pavlovna, who sets up a sewing co-operative, that grows into an idyllic, philanthropic community (the word soviet in Russian actually means commune) where eventually, through the personal achievements of the characters, every aspect of life including food, shelter, education, family, social life, became catered for from within the community itself.
Often called Russia’s first feminist novel, Chernyshesky’s masterpiece is written in the highly stylised format of many great Russian novels. To Western readers it can often feel overdone, overly simplistic, stilted even, and sometimes quite childish in many of its social assumptions and interactions.
While some Russian revolutionaries dismissed the novel as unrealistic and unattainable, its message of innocent purity still touched many.
Georgi Plekhanov, one of the father’s of Russian Marxism and a Menshevik, said:
“Who has not been charmed by it, who has not become cleaner, better, braver, and bolder under its philanthropic influence? Who has not initiated the purity of the principal characters? Who, after reading this novel, has not subjected his personal striving to a severe examination?”
And it is this purity of heart that strikes one as unrealistic, but the inherent charm and attractiveness of Pavlovna’s commune still has the power to captivate even today.
And it was this idyll that inspired Lenin, who many considered had modelled himself on the puritanical, well ordered lifestyle of the self-denying revolutionary, Rakhmetev, in ‘What is to be done?’ By denying himself the pleasures of life, like Rakhmetev, Lenin believed he captured in his person the requisite hardness and ability to spill blood for political gain that was necessary to be a successful revolutionary.
But for some who knew him, this made Lenin a cold, hard-hearted man with little or no empathy for the people he wished to marshal, or for those who he wished to destroy.
Peter Struve, one time Bolshevik, and later on a prominent member of the Whites, said, “The terrible thing in Lenin was that combination in one person of self-castigation, which is the essence of real asceticism, with the castigation of other people as expressed in abstract social hatred and cold political cruelty (2).”
This was to some extent compounded by Lenin’s total lack of any direct knowledge or understanding of the way most Russians lived. When he returned from his exile to a revolutionary Russia in 1917 he had lived abroad for 17 years. He was to all intents and purposes, a professional revolutionary. He had only ever worked for 2 years in his life, and had lived off his mother’s estate for the rest of the time.
Maxim Gorky, a avowed pacifist, and someone who knew Lenin vaguely, but did not like him at all, said that it was this ignorance of the everyday suffering and lives of Russians that bred in him a “pitiless contempt, worthy of a nobleman, for the lives of the ordinary people…/…Life in all its complexity is unknown to Lenin. He does not know the ordinary people. He has never lived among them (2).”
Lenin’s was a socialist utopian vision that, for all his revolutionary fervour, never came to pass. The socialism Lenin envisaged was, to my mind, an unrealistic and unachievable dream, much like the fantasy world scripted by Chernyshevsky; a world that after Lenin’s death became a dystopian reality for the millions of Russians trampled under Stalin’s brutal regime.
Chernyshevsky’s peaceful idyll slide into violence in Lenin’s hands.
“Politics is the seedbed of social enmity, evil suspicions, shameless lies, morbid ambitions, and disrespect for the individual. Name anything bad in man, and it is precisely in the soil of political struggle that it grows in abundance.”
Maxim Gorky, 20th April, 1917.
Lenin wrote pithily that, “The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution.”
“Revolution is meaningless without firing squads,” he said (3). But much of the violence was chaotic, unscripted and often out of control. When Kamenev proposed a resolution that the death penalty be abolished for example(2), Lenin flew into a rage.
“Nonsense,” he exclaimed, “How can you make a revolution without firing squads ? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself? What other means of repression are there? Prisons? Who attaches significance to that during a civil war?”
Widely thought to be something of a coward personally, Lenin had hardened himself to the use of violence to achieve political ends. Obsessed with his revolution and how to achieve its ends, Lenin was a one-dimensional character who cared nothing for the opinions of others and was wholly intolerant of dissent within the party ranks.
Indeed, so unidirectional and fixated was he, that Viktor Chernov, one of the original revolutionary leaders and founder of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party (the SR’s), wrote a rather satirical profile of Lenin in which he critiqued this side of Lenin’s character.
“Lenin possesses an imposing wholeness. He seems to be made of one chunk of granite. And he is round and polished like a billiard ball. There is nothing you can get hold of him by. He rolls with irrepressible speed. But he could repeat to himself the well known phrase: ‘Je ne sais pas où je vais, mais j’y vais résolument,’ (I don’t where I’m going, but I’m definitely going there). Lenin possesses a revolutionary cause that permeates his entire being. But to him the revolution is embodied in his person. Lenin possesses an outstanding mind, but it is a mind of one dimension — more than that, a unilinear mind…/…He is man of one-sided will and consequently a man with a stunned moral sensitivity (2).”
And that stunned moral sensitivity became much more apparent and visible following an assassination attempt on August 30th 1918.
Until that point Lenin had been a rather anonymous, faceless leader of the revolution. His name was known among the party and among other revolutionary circles, but very few of them would have recognised him personally, let alone the general public.
But as he left a south Moscow factory, Fanny Kaplan, an ex-Anarchist turned SR, shot Lenin three times, severely wounding him. Remarkably, somehow Lenin survived despite horrific injuries, his rapid recovery and return to strength becoming a propaganda coup for the Bolsheviks who hailed him as a gift from God.
“He is the chosen one of millions,” said Zinoviev, “He is the leader by the grace of God. Such a leader is born once every 500 years in the life of mankind (2).”
Within days his image was everywhere and his anonymity was gone forever, as was any lingering sense of the suffering the revolution was bringing.
Whilst the Red Terror had perhaps already begun with hundreds already having fallen victim to the fast-growing, and ever more powerful Cheka, Orlando Figes (2) points to the assassination attempt as a turning point in Lenin’s revolution, after which the Terror increased significantly which, says Figes, can be fully and graphically illustrated by two distinct events; the subsequent destruction of the left SR’s — the SR’s were divided politically into the left and right SR’s — following their uprising in July 1918, and the brutal murders of the ex-Tsar, Nicholas, and his family.
Kaplan said that she had acted alone and had tried to kill Lenin because he had betrayed the revolution, and that ‘by living longer he merely postpones the ideal of socialism by decades,’ a prophecy that for my money, came eerily, if not completely true, with the revolutionary socialist ideal never having been achieved to this day.
It was said that Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, cried upon hearing that Kaplan has been executed. ‘The first revolutionary killed by a revolutionary government.’
The first maybe, but the first of many thousands that followed. In a chilling foretaste of things to come in Russia over the next century, Kaplan was wrongly accused of being an SR activist in the thrall of Western powers. Such accusations perpetuated the growing paranoia among the Bolsheviks that they were enmeshed in a treacherous web of enemies, and that the only way to survive the onslaught was to wage civil war against those that would do harm to Russia.
The agenda was set and the Bolshevik press played along, stirring up the hatred. On 1st September the Krasnaia Gazeta wrote:
“Without mercy we kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky (assassinated in the days before Lenin was shot) let there be floods of bourgeois blood — more blood, as much as possible (2).”
The Commissariat for Internal Affairs ordered that all SR’s were to be arrested immediately, and that hostages were to be taken en masse from among the bourgeoisie and officer class, who were to be executed on the ‘least opposition.’
Whilst Lenin himself was always careful to remain logistically distant from the Terror — he didn’t for example, sign the death warrants of those to be executed — there was no doubt that he was the instigator.
From the start he encouraged the mass terror of the lower classes against the rich and the bourgeoisie with the slogan ‘loot the looters,’ writing that ‘the popular nature of the terror was to be encouraged’(2)!
And the blunt instrument of the Terror was the Cheka. One of the founders of the Cheka wrote subsequently:
“The Cheka is not an investigating commission, a court, or a tribunal. It is a fighting organ on the internal front of the civil war …/…It does not judge, it strikes. It does not pardon, it destroys all who are caught on the other side of the barricade.”
Again, sentiments that might just as easily be applied to Stalin’s KGB, or Putin’s FSB today.
In the early stages of the Terror the SR’s made up a large constituent part of the Cheka, perhaps acting as a brake on their more murderous minded Bolshevik colleagues. The left SR’s had also joined the Bolsheviks in Sovnarkom — the Council of People’s Commissars to form the first revolutionary government — perhaps under the mistaken illusion that they might be able to limit the abuses of power the Bolsheviks were already taking (2).
But the Bolsheviks were intent on stifling freedom, stamping on the interests of the peasantry with the grain monopoly, and severely limiting civil liberties. Lenin’s dictatorship was out of control, and with the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in March 1918, the SR’s believed the Bolsheviks had reneged on the Soviets original revolutionary principles, by making Russia a vassal of imperial Germany and ending any chance of spreading the socialist revolution westwards.
It was the last straw. The SR’s resigned from the Sovnarkom and became a noisy, vocal thorn in the side of the Bolsheviks in opposition.
During the 5th Soviet Congress that July they initiated a vote of no confidence in the Bolshevik government. When this failed they vowed to resume the revolutionary fight on behalf of the people, and then, hoping to provoke the German’s into breaking the new peace, they arranged and carried out the assassination of the newly appointed German Ambassador.
With a significant majority in the higher echelons of the Cheka, the SR’s then initiated an uprising. They held the military advantage over troops loyal to the Bolsheviks but, according to Figes, the SR’s were only ‘playing at revolution (2),’ and rather than seize the power that was theirs for the taking, they instead waited for events to overtake them by a calling for a popular uprising that never happened.
Instead of marching on the Kremlin to overthrow the government, they went to the ongoing Soviet Congress at the Bolshoi theatre. Here they were isolated, surrounded and arrested. Most were imprisoned for trial at a later date, but the majority of the leaders were summarily executed.
The SR activists were driven underground, with hundreds arrested, imprisoned or executed.
The end of the SR’s effectively took the brakes off the Terror for the Bolsheviks. The lawlessness of the Cheka reached new heights; the people began to dread the deadly knock on the door in the middle of the night; the enforced disappearances, as torture and execution without trial became commonplace. Trust between one time friends, neighbours, colleagues, even family members was eroded. All hope for the good life, dreamt of in Chernyshevsky’s socialist idyll, was extinguished.
Basic humanity became a secondary concern for Lenin next to the all-consuming power grab and the hypnotic attraction of ‘his’ revolution. The horrific executions of Tsar Nicholas II and his family on 17th July 1918, just a few days after the failed SR uprising, provides ample evidence of Lenin’s use of violence to achieve political ends.
Although written some years prior to the execution, this sentence from an essay by Lenin in 1911, has been used as a justification, or an explanation for this truly abhorrent act that took place years later.
“If in such a cultured country as England,” he said referencing the execution of Charles I, “it is necessary to behead one crowned criminal… then in Russia, it is necessary to behead at least one hundred Romanovs (3).”
Gauthier, in his critical examination of the young lives of dictators, Before Evil (3), writes plainly, “This was a brilliant man — yet one who believed gross human rights abuses ethical, a matter of course for the salvation of the world.”
The frenzied, bloodied execution of the Tsar, his wife and their children, in the basement of the Ipatiev House, was carried out as the armies of the Czech Legion and the Whites were closing in on the small town of Ekaterinburg where the Romanov’s were being held.
As to whether Lenin gave the direct order for their execution, no one knows for sure. Brandon Gauthier seems confident he did (3), whilst Robert Service (4) casts some doubt on Lenin’s direct involvement.
Sverdlov, Secretary of the Bolshevik Central Committee, had ordered a telegram sent to Ekaterinburg the night before the execution following a discussion with Lenin, but no trace of that telegram has ever been recovered, leaving some to suggest that Lenin was not involved and took no active part in this savage and shocking event.
But given Lenin’s hypnotic and dominant grip over the Bolsheviks it would seem to me unlikely that such a momentous event would have taken place without his knowledge or agreement.
Indeed, an entry in Trotsky’s diary seems to confirm the fact. He recalled a conversation with Sverdlov, in which Trotsky asked in passing of the whereabouts of the Tsar. Sverdlov’s curt reply was that he was, “Finished!” Before elaborating somewhat, “He has been shot!”
Taken aback, Trotsky says he enquired after the family. “The family along with him!” added Sverdlov coldly.
“Why?” asked Trotsky. “Who decided this?”
“We decided it here. Ilich (Lenin) thought we should not leave the Whites a live banner, especially under the present difficult circumstances…!” After which Trotsky then considered the matter closed.
It had been Trotsky’s hope to hold a show trial, with him as a prosecutorial advocate on behalf of the state against the cringing despot Nicholas. But in the end the decision was taken, perhaps by Lenin, that to put the Tsar on trial was to give him a presumption of innocence, and therefore the Boshevik government, with the chance of being found to be morally (?) in the wrong.
Even though any trial would have been firmly fixed beforehand, merely giving the Tsar the chance to defend himself was deemed not worth the risk. As Saint-Just, the prosecutor against Louis XVI, had said, “One cannot reign innocently,” a statement that plainly rang Lenin’s bell.
In the end it came down to a simple equation. While Nicholas lived there would always be hope. Nicholas had to die in order that the revolution could live (2).
“The conqueror’s peace of mind requires the death of the conquered.”
The destruction of the Tsar and his family opened the flood gates for the Terror to begin in earnest. How many died will remain an unanswered question, but estimates range from c.100,000 up to 1.3million.
From such early, lofty ideals Lenin had stooped well below the bar. With growing famine and social unrest across Russia, and sensing time was against him, in early 1921 Lenin introduced what became known as the New Economic Policy (NEP) that allowed peasants to once again sell grain in private markets in the hope of staving off the worst ravages of famine.
Many shocked Bolsheviks were ‘aghast’ at these ‘capitalist’ reforms as George Kennan noted, and the stress led Lenin to suffer a stroke the following Summer.
The difficulty was that any sort of capitalist endeavour had, by the letter of the communist doctrine according to Lenin himself, to ‘wither away’ and ‘die,’ (5) leaving no elements of any capitalist endeavour whatsoever to exist, lest it resists or rivals the interests of a local Soviet (or commune).
But under the NEP the individual peasant was, by the very nature of their endeavour, fundamentally a capitalist, Kennan said; they were economically, a ‘private producer.’
This paradox at the heart of Lenin’s thesis was one he never lived long enough to resolve. Despite the violence of the revolution, and the theoretical need for violence to underpin the expected throwing over of capitalist societies everywhere, there was in those early days a certain pragmatic humility and resignation to the outlook of Lenin’s regime with respect to the wider world.
Whether that was borne out of a realistic summation of their economic woes and chaotic situation at home is impossible to know now, just as it is impossible to know what sort of ruler Lenin would have become had he lived to a ripe old age. Would those resigned and peaceful platitudes towards the rest of Europe and the U.S. have remained, or would Lenin’s Russia have become just as belligerent as Stalin eventually became?
It is of course, a moot point, but the speculation is productive nonetheless.
Lenin, in late 1921, with his health deteriorating rapidly following the stroke, and experiencing a vastly diminished capacity for work, became suddenly aware that death was coming for him, and so he began to make final preparations for the continuation of his revolution.
He installed Stalin as General Secretary (Gensec.) in March 1922, in the process giving him broad and sweeping powers which Stalin wasted no time using to the full.
Stalin almost immediately annexed Georgia, his natal homeland, which had seceded from the Russian empire, and imposed his iron will on the independence-minded Georgians (4).
Lenin was shocked. Perhaps realising his error in judgement, and despite a second, much more debilitating stroke, Lenin, in one of his final acts wrote a damning assessment of Stalin that demanded his dismissal. Writing with prescient wisdom he said, “I am not sure whether he (Stalin) will always be capable of using using that authority with sufficient caution (3).”
Another stroke followed shortly afterwards leaving Lenin partially paralysed. A fourth stroke followed on January 21st, 2024. Lenin died that day after having eaten heartily of broth and coffee.
Thanks for reading. I shall continue this next week with a similar examination of the reigns of Stalin and Putin.
- What is to be done? Nikolai Chernyshevsky, translated by Michael R. Katz. First published 1864, republished in the U.S. by Cornell UP, 1989.
- A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution; Orlando Figes, 2017.
- Before Evil: Young Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao and Kim; Brandon K. Gauthier, 2022.
- The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II & the Russian Revolution; Robert Service, 2017.
- State and Revolution; V.I. Lenin, First published 1917.