On the 21st January 1924 Lenin died, having killed an estimated 3 million of his people. ACRE's The Liberty Summit in Europe will bring together scholars and heroes of the anti-communist dissident movements to remember the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution Lenin led, writes Alex Fiuza.
In the spring of 1917 the Germans sent a train into Russia containing one of the most dangerous weapons in history; Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the pseudonym Lenin. The Bolsheviks he led took advantage of the Provisional Government’s continuation of an unpopular war, and fears of a military coup, to take the Petrograd Soviet from more moderate left-wing forces, and in October overthrowing the Provisional Government completely.
Like all revolutionaries, Lenin had a history. Born 1870 to a wealthy middle-class family with 5 siblings, Lenin allegedly renounced his faith shortly after his deeply religious father Ilya died of a stroke in 1886. The next year Lenin’s elder brother Alexander was executed for plotting regicide. Undeterred from his studies, Lenin went on to study Law at Kazan University, where his involvement with radicals saw him expelled, a slight he would never forgive.
Completing his degree with St. Petersburg University in 1891, he joined the Marxist Social Democrats and travelled Europe (financed by his mother) meeting foreign radicals, to return to Russia loaded with illegal revolutionary literature that promptly got him arrested for sedition and sent to Siberia from 1897-1900, after which he lived in exile in various European cities. The Revolution of 1905 saw him calling for the Bolsheviks to take control and enact "armed insurrection", "mass terror", and "the expropriation of gentry land”, although this came to little beyond harming his relationship with the socialist Mensheviks. It wasn’t until the first world war destabilised the Tsarist regime that another shot at power would emerge.
Russia was by no means a liberal society before Lenin took power. For centuries the law was the arbitrary will of the Tsar; no meaningful property rights existed, as all belonged to the Tsar; no real freedom of thought or speech existed, beyond what the Tsar would accept. Against this stunningly infertile backdrop, however, there were green shoots. The end of serfdom, the emergence of a middle class, the gradual empowerment of an elected Duma, and a stunningly swift industrialisation in the 1890s that saw Russia become the 4th greatest industrial power in just two decades were real progress. That all changed under Lenin.
Where the Tsar had demanded to be treated as God’s representative, the communist state took the place of God. Under the rhetoric of liberation, Lenin’s Red Terror plundered the rural middle class, known as Kulaks, and when they resisted it slaughtered. The urban middle classes in general, and free-thinkers in particular, suffered a similar fate. This repression was overseen by the secret service known as the Cheka, a predecessor to the NKVD and altogether more fearsome successor to the Tsar’s Okrana.
From 1918-1920 the Soviet Union was also embroiled in a civil war, fought primarily against a coalition of monarchists and democrats called the White Russians, though there were many smaller factions at play. Using their central position, their control of populous areas and their unity, as well as the lack of commitment among the Whites’ foreign backers, the Soviets outmanoeuvred and defeated their foes in a struggle that claimed 6 million lives. It was in Crimea, among the last White holdouts under Baron Wrangel, that the Soviets perfected the human wave tactics that would be used at such high cost to human life against the Nazis. A contemporaneous war against Poland ended in ignominious defeat for the Soviets, however, preventing them from rolling into a febrile Germany and ending Lenin’s dream of precipitating worldwide revolution.
On the 21st January 1924 Lenin died, having killed an estimated 3 million of his people beyond those who died in the civil war. Worse, control over the totalitarian apparatus he had built would fall to a monster. By the time it collapsed the Soviet Union had killed tens of millions of people, with estimates ranging from 40 to over 60 million dead. It aided and abetted the rise of numerous other mass-murderers, Chairman Mao most prominent among them. In modern Russia, with its shattered civil society, the cynical corruption of its oligarchs and the distinctive style of its leadership, Lenin’s legacy endures.
One of history’s ironies is that pragmatism forced Lenin to loosen the state’s grip by adopting the New Economic Policy (NEP) in response to the galloping famines communism had brought on. The NEP gave people limited rights to trade goods, and saw a measure of success while it lasted. Of course had Lenin taken this to its conclusion he would have looked to emulate the prosperity of western democracies by creating a system defined by clear property rights, free enterprise and the rule of law, but that would have been quite a step for a blood-soaked dictator.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution Lenin lead. The dark legacy of the communist system, and the developments of post-communism, will be the focus of ACRE's The Liberty Summit in Europe being held from the 7th to 9th of April in Tirana, Albania.
Alex Fiuza works with the ACRE Press Office. The content of his opinion piece does not reflect the official opinion of ACRE. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the opinion piece lies entirely with the author.