Thursday, September 30, 2010

Must we bury Lenin?

At our meeting with him, now–Prime Minister Putin snapped back quite aggressively when asked why Lenin is still in his mausoleum in Red Square, asking a British colleague why there is still a monument to Cromwell outside parliament in London. One of my British colleagues reacted quite huffily to this but I must say that being half Irish and remembering Cromwell’s crimes against Ireland (which today would undoubtedly be labeled genocide) I saw a good deal of truth in this--except of course that Cromwell ruled Britain 350 years ago, and not 90 years ago.
-- Anatol Lieven (via 3QD)

... Lenin continues to be difficult for Russia. It's impossible to know what would've happened had he met with a knock on the head en route to the Finland Station, but it seems likely there would've been no Bolshevik coup, and that a military regime would've taken over the reins at some point from the hopelessly fragmented, uncertain quasi-liberals. It's hard to imagine such a regime's being as bad as Stalin's, but it might have been worse than the Empire, which we tend to whitewash in retrospect. Russia was a police state under the tsars, and there is no reason to romanticize what the West knew quite well was a reactionary state.

Most Russians today probably believe, wrongly we think, that Lenin brought about the 1917 revolution. So when they think of Lenin, they think of the man who supposedy liberated them from tsarism. His death just six years after the October Revolution, and the several orders of magnitude by which Stalin incresed the terrors of Leninism, did a lot to encourage amnesia about those very real terrors.

So, given the number of things wrong with Russia today, I'm not sure I'd fault them for confusing Lenin with Washington.


  1. My brother Robert (the one who managed As Seen On TV) wanted a book about the Russian Revolution. I gave him To The Finland Station,, which does a history of Communism as an idea and ends with Lenin arriving at the Finland Station. After, oh, 6-700 pages.

    He read it. He loved it. He basically thumped me on the head for tricking him into reading a book that long about the build-up and not the revolution itself. A sort of older-brother-it's-good-for-your moment where he admitted I was right.

    Lenin's death is one of the few really interesting what-would-have-happened-with-different-timing questions of history, ranging from your pre-Finland Station question onward. I think everyone is ultimately left with visceral reactions to the principle characters, and there are very, very few points in history were that's true.

    My reaction? A puzzlement. Look at China. While its leadership didn't change hands after the revolution, there's similar history. The thoroughly efficiency at murder-- and nothing else-- looks awfully similar. Both Mao and Stalin were part of producing great famines.

    I'm going to leave it at those incomplete thoughts for now. I would certainly sooner bury Lenin than praise him.

  2. Yah, I felt I'd been a bit too sanguine (heh) about Lenin after I posted that. I imagine he's admired for "holding the country together," for instance -- but was holding the Empire together a good thing?

    What strikes me about him, besides his weird charisma and his contempt for pity, is something one gets from Wilson's book: this was a man who had studied revolution. We today are too jaded for "revolution"; to Lenin, the French Revolution was a road map, proof that it could happen, and rife with warnings of where things could go wrong. Everything that happened related somehow to the French Revolution. Maybe shooting a few thousand "kulaks" in 1791 would've saved the Revolution -- let's try it! Etc.

    And somehow, this weird little man and his cohort of third-string journalists, etc., did it. But history proved incalculable to them ... which is ironic, b/c it seems all too predictable to us now. I would love to know what on earth Lenin thought of when he thought of Napoleon. So much for the lessons of history.

  3. Where is Rebelyell, btw? He should be chiming in on a post like this.