The Man Who Started a Pandemic

Vladimir Lenin’s 150th anniversary is a reminder of the cost of deadly idealism

Cathy Young May 2nd. ARC.

With the COVID-19 pandemic sucking up much of public discourse, an anniversary of an event whose echoes still affect history went almost unnoticed this spring. April 22 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin — the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the founder of the Soviet state. There is some irony in the fact that coronavirus-related restrictions made the commemorations of this date in post-Soviet Russia even more low-key than they would have been otherwise. (Only a few dozen communists defiedMoscow’s lockdown to place flowers at Lenin’s tomb.) After all, Lenin’s chief legacy was a political plague that not only put entire nations under a full-time lockdown but killed as many as 100 million. It’s not for nothing that Winston Churchill famously compared him to a deadly infection when he wrote, of Lenin’s German-aided return from exile in the spring of 1917, that the Germans “transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

As the father of the Soviet state, Lenin is, in some ways, more legend than man. For online “tankies,” he is the mythic hero of Soviet posters. For conservatives, he is the ultimate bogeyman, the source of fake quotes about socialized medicine as a commie plot.

Meanwhile, at a time of renewed interest in socialism and communism on the left, many leftists in places like Jacobin magazine see Lenin as the “good communist” to Joseph Stalin’s “bad communist” — the revolutionary wrongly maligned as an authoritarian. Indeed, Lenin’s birthday this year was marked on Twitter by New York State Senator Julia Salazar, a member of the new crop of young progressive politicians.

The “Lenin good, Stalin bad” formula was also popular among Soviet reformers, both in the late 1950s-early 1960s and in the late 1980s. It was wrong then; it is wrong now. To be sure, Lenin is a figure of more nuance than Stalin. But as independent Russian historian Nikita Sokolov recently told Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Lenin’s only consistent position throughout his political career was that “he was a fundamental believer in violence as the solution to any problem.” And while he sometimes regarded liberalization as expeditious, he fundamentally regarded freedom as a nuisance.

As someone who was born in the Soviet Union and lived there until the age of 16, I grew up in the shadow of an extraordinary Lenin cult whose magnitude is difficult to imagine. (Imagine George Washington, Jesus and Santa Claus rolled into one.) I was lucky enough to be free from this cult in my early years, since unlike most Soviet children I was never in day care and my parents were closet dissidents who kept me away from state propaganda; this blissful ignorance led to a small fiasco when, at the age of four or five, I found myself in a shop that had a Lenin bust on a shelf. “Grandma!” I shouted. “Who is that weird little guy and why did they put him up there?” Grandma quickly hustled me out of there.

I don’t recall if I learned anything about the “weird little guy” until I started first grade at the age of seven; but once in school, he was unavoidable. Every classroom had a portrait of Lenin (in addition to the bust in the school lobby and another one in the auditorium for concerts and other events). There were also posters with Lenin quotes like “Learn, learn, learn!” In first grade, all Soviet schoolchildren joined the ranks of “Little Octobrists” and got a badge depicting a curly-haired Young Volodya; in third grade, that was followed by membership in the Young Pioneers and a badge with grown-up Lenin.

There were also endless stories and poems about Lenin. There were tales of young Volodya Ulyanov, brave and clever beyond his years and always willing to stand up for truth and righteousness. There were tales of Lenin the tireless fighter for revolution. There were tales of Lenin the wise and merciful leader (“the most humane of men,” according to a much-quoted line from a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky) who had a boundless love for children. The “Lenin and children” theme was a staple of Soviet art, with unmistakable similarities to the iconography of Jesus. “All the children in the world love Lenin/Because Lenin truly loved them all,” said a verse in a song about a group of children meeting with Lenin. (It was not until years later, in the United States, that someone pointed out to me the parallel to “Jesus loves the little children.”)

Some of the Lenin material intended to show his great humanity had a rather disturbing subtext. One such story was the tale of Lenin and the stoveman, adapted into a poem by Alexander Tvardovsky. It goes like this: In the early 1920s, when he is already the head of the Soviet state, Lenin is taking a stroll in the village where he has a summer home. A villager — the local pechnik, or stove maker and repairer— spots him walking across a meadow and yells at him for trampling freshly mowed hay. Then he learns that the man he just cussed out was Lenin and goes home terrified. A few weeks later, two military men in a horse-drawn cart show up and ask the stoveman to come with them. His wife bursts into tears, telling him he’s about to pay a heavy price for his rudeness. But instead of taking him to prison, the visitors take him to Lenin’s house: It turns out that Lenin needs his stove fixed, that’s all. Relieved, elated and overwhelmed by Lenin’s generosity, the stoveman does the job and the two have a long heart-to-heart chat over tea. In other words … Lenin did not have the man shot or sent to prison for being rude to him! Hallelujah!

(This story always reminded me of a rather mean-spirited Lenin joke making precisely that point. An old Bolshevik gives at a talk at a school, sharing his memories from the revolutionary era. “Lenin was an amazing man,” he says. “Such a kind man! And such a friend to children! One day, he was shaving and this little boy kept hanging around and bothering him. Finally, Lenin says to him, ‘Listen, kid, beat it or you’ll be sorry.’ Didn’t even slash him!”)

The quasi-religious nature of Lenin worship was underscored by his eternal mummified repose at the Mausoleum and the slogans that emphasized his being “forever alive,” the Communist Jesus who had achieved victory over death: “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live on”; “Lenin is more alive than all the living.”

The indefatigable Soviet jokesters made fun of that, too. In one joke, an old Jewish man writes a letter complaining about his tiny pension and shabby apartment, writes “Comrade Lenin, the Kremlin, Moscow” on the envelope and drops it in a mailbox. A few days later, he gets hauled in for a chat with the KGB. “Surely you know that Comrade Lenin is dead,” says the KGB officer. “Oh, I see how it is!” says the old man. “When you need him, he lives forever. When I need him, all of a sudden he’s dead!”

One more Lenin cult joke that has a parallel from my own experience.

The joke: A competition is announced for the best design for a monument to Alexander Pushkin, the great 19th Century Russian poet. And the winners are: Third prize, a statue of Lenin reading Pushkin. Second prize, a statue of Pushkin reading Lenin. First prize: Just Lenin.

The reality: In 1977, for the 140th anniversary of Pushkin’s death, our school had a poetry-reading competition. It had two parts: readings of poems by Pushkin, and readings of poems about Lenin. I got the second prize for a reading of a Pushkin poem. The first prize went to a girl who (but of course) read a poem about Lenin.

I don’t remember if I ever believed in the myth of the kind Grandpa Lenin; my parents started telling me early on not to believe everything I heard at school — and not to tell anyone at school about the conversations we had at home. The son of a friend of theirs nearly caused disaster when he told a teacher in kindergarten that “Papa says Lenin was a liar”; fortunately, the teacher had the decency to simply ask the parents to come in and tell them to be more careful what they say in front of the child.

But in spite of all the jokes, even many smart people who saw through most of Soviet propaganda did, to some extent, buy into the myth. One of my mother’s piano students, then about 18, developed a close friendship with my parents partly because she was looking for political confidants to discuss her growing doubts about the system and couldn’t talk to her very pro-Soviet parents; in one such conversation, she tearfully exclaimed, “But at least Lenin was good, wasn’t he? Please tell me Lenin was good!”

Some 40 years later, the folks at Jacobin or The Nation may not be crying about it, but they really, really want to believe that at least Lenin was good — or not all bad. Thus, a 2017 article by Jacob Schulman in Jacobin rejects the idea that “Lenin was an authoritarian through and through.” Schulman points out, for instance, that in “November 1917 Lenin… promoted the idea that workers’ and peasants’ organizations should be entitled to free press resources” and that the Bolsheviks spared General Pyotr Krasnov, who led troops to Petrograd in the hope of thwarting the communist revolution but surrendered when he realized he didn’t have the numbers to win. (In other words, “Didn’t even slash him.”)

But the myth of Lenin the Humane is dispelled by a remarkable (Russian-language) collection of Lenin quotes compiled by the Azerbaijani-Russian historian and former Soviet political prisoner Georgi Homizuri. Homizuri notes that, in the interests of fairness, he did not use any texts whose authenticity or attribution was at all in doubt.

Those quotes show Lenin consistently endorsing “mass terror” and dictatorship years before the 1917 revolution. In 1906, he wrote approvingly that “the scientific concept of dictatorship means nothing other than power unrestricted by any laws, unconstrained by any rules, and relying directly on violence” and that “dictatorship must be exercised not by all of the people, but by the revolutionary people.” In 1908, he wrote that one of the big mistakes of the leaders of the 1870 Paris Commune was being “overly magnanimous”: “They should have exterminated their enemies, but instead they tried to use moral suasion.”

Once the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, Lenin constantly urged ruthless reprisals against “the bourgeoisie,” “the upper classes,” “kulaks” (well-to-do peasants) and the clergy (to whom he always referred by the contemptuous terms popy or popovschina, slurs similar in spirit to “fundies” or “Jesus freaks” in American slang). He also called, no less relentlessly, for the brutal suppression of left-wing and center-left political parties including the Constitutional Democrats (“cadets”), Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), and Mensheviks (the rival Communist faction). “Our morality is derived from the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle,” he said at the 1920 Congress of the Communist Youth Union. “We say: what is moral is what helps destroy the old exploitation-based order and helps unite all working people around the proletariat which is building a new communist society.”

Lenin’s letters from that period call for hostage-taking, the detention of “undesirables” in “concentration camps,” food expropriation, hangings, and the machine-gunning of hundreds of captured “bourgeois” human shields. A 1920 note to fellow revolutionary Ephraim Sklyansky endorses a “beautiful” plan for Bolshevik operatives to make incursions into Poland while posing as “Greens” (members of Cossack and peasant guerrilla armies who opposed both the Reds and the Whites during the Russian Civil War) and “hang a bunch of kulaks, priests and landowners.” “Bonus: 100,000 rubles for each hanging,” wrote “the most humane of men.” Another letter to Sklyansky from the same period proposes “punishing” Latvia and Estonia for abetting recruitment by White Armies: “Cross the border somewhere, make an incursion at least 1 [kilometer] into their territory, and hang 100 to 1,000 civil servants and rich people.”

Lenin’s letters from 1921 include an order to shut down the All-Russian Famine Relief Committee, which had incurred the Bolsheviks’ displeasure by being too independent. One of its leaders, economist Sergei Prokopovich, was to be arrested and held for at least three months for a speech criticizing the Soviet government, while other Committee members were to be deported to different provincial towns, “preferably away from railroads,” and kept under surveillance. (Shortly afterward, Prokopovich was forced to emigrate with his wife and fellow Committee leader, journalist and activist Ekaterina Kuskova.)

Another letter gives a curt response to a petition from the Russian Academy of Sciences for the release of Mikhail Tikhvinsky, a prominent chemist and petroleum engineer who had been arrested on charges of sending reports abroad about the state of Russia’s oil industry: “Tikhvinsky was not arrested ‘by accident’; chemistry and counterrevolution are not mutually exclusive.” (In fact, Tikhvinsky had already been shot by the time the petition was received.)

Another revealing passage on Homizuri’s page comes from Lenin’s August 5, 1921 letter to the revolutionary Grigori Myasnikov, who had circulated a brief demanding the liberalization of the Bolshevik regime and freedom of speech for all political viewpoints.

“Freedom of the press for everyone including monarchists and anarchists…” Very well! But, excuse me, all Marxists and all workers who have reflected on the four-year experience of our revolution will say: what kind of freedom of the press? what for? for which class?

We don’t believe in “absolutes.” We laugh at “pure democracy.”

“Freedom of the press” emerged as a great universal slogan from the end of the Middle Ages until the 19th Century. Why? Because it was an expression of the progressive bourgeoisie, i.e. of its battle against priests and kings, feudal lords and landowners.

No country in the world has done or is doing as much to liberate the masses from priests and landowners as the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic]. This goal of “freedom of the press” is one that we have fulfilled and are fulfilling better than anyone in the world.

Freedom of the press in the RSFSR, surrounded by bourgeois enemies from the entire world, would mean freedom of political organizing for the bourgeoisie and its most loyal servants, the Mensheviks and the SRs.

… We have no desire to commit suicide, and so we’re not going to do that.

Around the same time, Lenin made a concession to reality and ushered in the New Economic Policy, which allowed a degree of free enterprise and trade (and revived Russia’s economy amidst starvation and riots). But this does not mean he envisioned long-term — or even short-term — liberalization. In a February 1922 letter to Dmitry Kursky, the People’s Commissar for Justice, Lenin stressed that the new conditions made it especially important to “step up repressive measures against political enemies of the Soviet government and agents of the bourgeoisie (especially Mensheviks and SRs)” and conduct speedy trials that would demonstrate swift and harsh punishment. What’s more, he wrote, each staffer of the Commissariat for Justice should be rated on such measures as: “How many merchants did you send to the firing squad, or to some other punishment that isn’t child’s play (as usually happens in Moscow under the very nose of the ComJust), for abusing the NEP?”

In March, Lenin made his agenda even clearer in a letter to fellow Politburo member Lev Kamenev. “It is a great mistake to think that the NEP put an end to terror,” he wrote. “We will bring it back yet, including economic terror.”

At the end of that year, Lenin left his government post due to ill health; all of his political activity came to an end after a stroke that left him paralyzed and virtually unable to speak in March 1923, though he lingered on until January 1924. Would Soviet history have developed differently if he had lived longer and remained in good health? No doubt it would have. But the USSR would still have been a totalitarian state founded on mass murder and repression.

One piece of writing from Lenin not featured in Homizuri’s collection was a 1919 letter to his onetime close friend, the writer Maxim Gorky, who had written to him expressing concern about Bolshevik terror and specifically about repressions against the intelligentsia. Lenin responded by sneering at the non-communist intelligentsia (“They’re not the brain of the nation — they’re shit”), with a particularly nasty tirade at the progressive Russian-Ukrainian writer Vladimir Korolenko who had denounced both Red and White terror in the Civil War. “A pitiful philistine trapped by bourgeois prejudices!” thundered Lenin, accusing Korolenko of being insufficiently opposed to the slaughter of millions in the “imperialist war” while “moaning and sobbing” over “the deaths of hundreds of thousands in a just civil war against landowners and capitalists.” (In fact, Red Terror alone probably killed about 1.2 million in 1918–1921.) “No, there’s no harm in keeping such ‘talents’ locked up for a few weeks if it’s necessary for the prevention of conspiracies,” Lenin concluded.

It should be noted that while Lenin loathed the “bourgeois” educated classes from which he himself came, his love for the masses was very conditional. One of his main contributions to Marxist theory, after all, was the idea that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was to be carried out by a “vanguard party” capable of advancing the workers’ interests much better than the workers themselves.

Lenin’s creation — the Soviet Union — survived him by less than seventy years, and what’s left of world communism today is no doubt very different than anything he could have envisioned. And yet his legacy remains relevant beyond the disturbing new vogue for all things communist. There is a Leninist streak in plenty of non-communist movements left and right, whether it’s the right-wing populists who want to tear down the “establishment” and be the revolutionary vanguard (like former Donald Trump advisor Stephen Bannon, who apparently proclaimed himself a Leninist to historian Ron Radosh) or the “social justice warriors” who believe that freedom of speech is good only if it promotes the interests of oppressed groups.

Lenin stands for the dehumanization and demonization of political enemies. (He was also exceptionally prone to consigning anyone who was not an active ally to enemy ranks.) He stands for utopian disregard for the constraints of reality. (This is a man who imagined that, once in power, the Bolsheviks could quickly train a large cadre of engineers and other specialists of working-class background and with “politically correct” views, in numbers sufficient to rebuild and industrialize the country.) He stands, above all, for a tunnel-vision focus on ideological dogma and political power at the expense of humanity.

Gorky’s memoirs about Lenin have a memorable passage in which Lenin confesses his love for Beethoven’s music but then says that he can’t listen to it too often because of its emotional effect:

It makes you want to talk sweet foolishness and pat people on the head for creating such beauty while living in a filthy hell. But today, you can’t pat anyone on the head — they’ll bite your hand right off! You have to beat them on the head, and beat them without mercy, even though, ideally, we’re against all violence and coercion. Hmm… what a hellishly difficult job!

Stalin undoubtedly had no such qualms and, in fact, almost certainly enjoyed the head-smashing. But that difference only meant so much — at least as long as Lenin believed heads needed to be smashed.

It is, perhaps, another letter from Lenin to Gorky, from 1913, that unwittingly provides a fitting epitaph for his project. Gorky, who then lived in Italy and suffered from tuberculosis, had written to Lenin in Krakow about receiving experimental treatments from a Dr. Manukhin, an ex-Bolshevik. Lenin, who was in many ways quite the “bourgeois” in his personal habits, responded with dismay, telling Gorky that most “comrade doctors” were useless and advising him to seek help from “first-class doctors” in Austria or Switzerland. “Believe me,” he wrote, “being a guinea pig for a Bolshevik’s experiments is horrific!”

Four years later, he would unleash such an experiment on hundreds of millions in Russia and beyond.

(Updated with Winston Churchill quote in the first paragraph)


Cathy Young


Russian-Jewish-American writer. Associate editor, Arc Digital; contributor, Reason, Newsday, The Forward etc.

Arc Digital

Arc Digital

One comment

  1. Lenin was claimed to be an intellectual, but in reality was a hate-spitting savage. A genuine psychopath and the business model for all that followed : Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the Kims, The Castros, Guevara, Pol Pot, the Assads, Saddam, the Iranian Mullahs, Maduro, JinPing, and of course the tiny poisoner.

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