The image of Lenin, and not only in those countries where it is better described as an icon, provides a major crux in our understanding of the history of our century. And how ideas about him have changed! Back in the Seventies, the present reviewer published a short biography of Lenin in Frank Kermode’s Modern Masters series. Though thoroughly critical, it reads very mildly today. Cyril Connolly of all people, reviewing it together with the series’ book on Gandhi, while praising mine in general commented that Lenin’s ruthlessness had done more good to humanity than Gandhi’s peacefulness. It is not that Connolly was notably well disposed toward communism; the point is, rather, that it shows how a fairly favorable view of Lenin had seeped into the intellectual atmosphere, one of many similar examples which could be adduced.

There was also the sheer historical panache of a figure largely remembered as the man who had created his own party in 1903, had kept it going, with well under 10,000 members as late as 1912, and in 1917 had seized and then held power in a major empire—had “cast the kingdoms old/Into another mould.” And, dead in 1924 at the age of fifty-three, he largely left the blame for the system as it developed to his successors. There is something in Orwell’s way of putting it, that Lenin was “one of those politicians who win an undeserved reputation by dying prematurely.”

This was not how Lenin was seen while he lived, when he appeared to very many people as an alien thrown up from nowhere amid the chaotic disintegration of a barbaric society. Only to a few did he appear as a socialist revolutionary speaking the accustomed language of European Marxism. It can now be seen that these two views are not incompatible.

Dmitri Volkogonov is a former Soviet general and, as he himself has said, he is not a historian. His book is thematic rather than chronological and is best described as an examination, with examples, of the nature of Lenin, and of Leninism; it has sections on a variety of figures who were involved—Plekhanov, Martov, Kerensky, and others, and on Lenin’s own entourage in and after his own lifetime.

It is somewhat of a relief, especially in the case of a subject on whom so many earlier works exist, not to be taken once more step by step through the particulars of the factional struggles of the first decade of the century, the intricate details of the civil war, and so on. The editor and translator, Oxford Russian historian Harold Shukman (himself the author of several books on this theme), tells us that he has cut much of the original two-volume Russian edition that was “excessively familiar to a Western reader.”

The book’s great contribution is that Volkogonov is the first to use the 3,724 documents on Lenin hitherto withheld as in one way or another damaging to his image, together with much other previously inaccessible material; time and again he critically supplements and fills out our previous knowledge.

This is to be seen as early as the book’s long analysis of Lenin’s origins. It had always been known that his paternal grandfather was Russian, his paternal grandmother Kalmyk, and his maternal grandmother German. It was also believed that his maternal grandfather, Dr. Alexander Blank, was Jewish. This last Volkogonov confirms, with much other long-suppressed genealogical material. Lenin’s sister Anna had carefully researched the family origins in the late Twenties, and in the early Thirties wrote Stalin suggesting that the revelation that Lenin’s grandfather was Jewish would “help combat anti-Semitism.” But when in 1937 Marietta Shaginyan published an account of the family background in the form of a novel, it was suppressed as “ideologically dangerous” and for “applying pseudoscientific methods to Lenin’s so-called ‘family tree.’ ”

As with much other genealogical research, we now find surprising facts—for example that, apparently, the World War II Panzer commander Field Marshal Model was a distant cousin on the German side. But apart from any question of heredity, his mother’s German orderliness was a probable formative influence: his colleagues in the revolutionary movement used to refer to him as “the German” or “Herr Doktor,” not that they knew or cared about his origins, but simply to describe a tidiness and self-discipline notably absent from most of their milieu.

Volkogonov rightly notes that, for Lenin himself, neither his own ancestry nor his nationality had any particular significance. But he also takes Lenin, as he took himself, to be a thoroughgoing internationalist. Here he is surely wrong, not on hereditary but on cultural grounds. Lenin was very much the product of a particularly inward-looking Russian background. In two years in Cracow he learned no Polish; in a year in London he never went to a Labour meeting. And generally speaking he misunderstood the West.


His personal background was far from revolutionary. His father was a minor official, part of the large group emerging from the Russian proizvol, or “excess,” of both reaction and revolution, who sought sane reform; since they never got their chance, they have received little attention from historians. The atmosphere of the house was serene and amicable. It was not his upbringing but the conditions of the outside world that brought him to revolution—as they had, first, his elder brother Alexander, who, involved in a rather amateurish conspiracy against the tsar’s life, was executed in 1887. (The sentence would probably have been commuted but for his refusal, on principle, to ask for clemency.) It is still hard to estimate the effect of this execution on Lenin, though it must have been shattering. He was, of course, to have his revenge on the Romanovs, man, woman, and child, in 1918 (on which Volkogonov adds much documentary detail, though the fact of Lenin’s direct responsibility for the killings is already well established). But Lenin’s main animus was always less against tsarism than against reformers, renegades, heretics on the left. This may in part arise from his reading Chernyshevsky’s revolutionary novel What Is to be Done? for the first time, knowing it to be Alexander’s favorite book. Even when he had become a Marxist, he still admired Chernyshevsky the most, saying in 1904, “I became acquainted with the works of Marx, Engels and Plekhanov, but it was only Chernyshevsky who had an overwhelming influence on me.”

Chernyshevsky loathed liberals and compromisers, and was also contemptuous of the “masses,” who he felt would only stir on grounds of economic interest, if that. Chernyshevsky envisaged a “new man” of the intelligentsia who would “destroy” the old order and, ruling from above, would institute a social utopia—sexual, too, a point he much stressed, though Lenin did not take this up, avoiding also the silly side of Chernyshevsky’s hero, who sleeps on nails and eats raw beef to strengthen himself for the revolution.

But in general Lenin held that Chernyshevsky not only showed that every right-thinking and really honest man must be a revolutionary, but also showed “what a revolutionary must be like.” Chernyshevsky had written, “A man with an ardent love of goodness cannot but be a somber monster.” Reading Lenin’s Collected Works (or most of them, and at least skimming all), this reviewer found himself more depressed even than in studying Stalin. The obsessions with sheer destructiveness struck me as even more dominant, even more humorless than those of Stalin, to say nothing of the extreme virulence of his polemics against other radicals, noted by Martov as early as 1904. Not that Lenin entirely lacked a ghoulish humor. Bertrand Russell’s “blood ran cold” as he listened to Lenin’s “guffaw at the thought of those massacred.”

On the personal side Volkogonov produces evidence confirming that Lenin had an affair with Inessa Armand, the attractive, well-to-do, French-born feminist who worked closely with him in the underground between 1910 and 1916. Until fairly recently the Leninist establishment in Moscow attacked any suggestion that they were lovers as even more “blasphemous” than allegations of political terror or errors of judgment. Few will now consider it demeaning. (Volkogonov also notes fairly conclusive signs of an earlier liaison with another woman.) The story of the Armand relationship is documented in part from the memoirs of Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, which, it is astonishing to note, were only published in 1988—a year which also saw the first partial release of reminiscences of his secretary, Fotieva, and his sister.

But most of the book is, naturally, on Lenin’s political actions in and out of power, and the skilled and effective use he made of a web of intrigue and deceit—including deception of members of his own party—which accompanied the seizure of power. Volkogonov then describes how Lenin abolished the freedom of the press he had promised, suppressed the promised Constituent Assembly, and was largely responsible for the Terror and civil war—a desperate gamble on repression, with Lenin believing at least three times that all was lost. Throughout, Volkogonov makes use of documents showing that Lenin insisted on shootings, hangings, the taking of hostages. In one official order (already known from the Trotsky Archives at Harvard) Lenin calls for hanging several hundred officials and bourgeois who were in the line of the army’s advance. He proposed both to offer monetary awards for each man hanged and to blame the killings on the “Greens”—peasant guerrillas. It is pleasant to find the aged anarchist Prince Kropotkin condemning such actions as uncivilized.

Volkogonov is particularly useful in showing Lenin’s ruthlessness during the Peasant War between 1918 and 1921, which overlapped and outlasted the civil war. The conflict with the peasants derived partly from Lenin’s notion that, as he put it, socialism could be constructed on the basis of the forced requisition of peasant production to feed the cities, an idea he complemented with the fantasy that a class war existed in the villages, or could be inflamed in them, all to the benefit of Moscow, which would gain control over previously recalcitrant rural regions.


Volkogonov is not so naive as to think that archival material is invariably complete and decisive. On the still vexed question of German subsidies to the Bolsheviks in the period between the two revolutions of 1917 he comments, “Although I have examined a vast number of hitherto inaccessible documents, it is still far from clear.” That the German government gave money to Lenin is indeed established, but it is very doubtful that the amounts were on as large a scale as some of Volkogonov’s sources imply. Indeed, by an error for which he is in no way to blame, he quotes at one point, in connection with German financing, a document which appears to be a Central Committee report dealing with the suppression of relevant evidence. This is indeed to be found in the archives, but it appears to be merely a copy of a Western forgery which has somehow got into the files without anyone’s annotating it to that effect. (A forthcoming monograph by the historian Semyon Lyandres considers this proved.)

I have been able to compare one document Volkogonov quotes in excerpts against a full rendering of the original, with which it tallies perfectly. This is a long letter by Lenin to members of the Politburo, which was prepared for a meeting he could not attend. He circulated a single copy that the members had to return initialed. The letter concerns an incident in the town of Shuya in 1922, when a crowd offered resistance to the seizure of church valuables; Lenin urged that this protest be taken as the opportunity for an all-out attack on the Church and complete confiscation of its property. Lenin’s confidential instructions also order the Politburo to instruct (“verbally”) the local court to put on trial and execute “the very largest number” of local reactionaries, and if possible also in “Moscow and several other ecclesiastical centers.”

This reveals some of the limitations of documents. For if Lenin had spoken at the Politburo in the usual way, his full intent would have remained off the record. Though other high-level top-secret documents on this and similar matters are now emerging, we can see that, apart from exceptional cases, even the confidential Politburo minutes themselves were very incomplete. Even in the 1980s, Politburo member Ligachev tells us in his memoirs, “There were times when we could not say things aloud, but wrote to each other on scraps of paper.”

Lenin’s avoidable, precarious, but finally successful grip on power had various consequences for all the world. One of these was the formation of the centralized Communist International, under whose rules local Communist parties were its “sections.” That is, members of the CP everywhere were both ideologically and formally loyal to the Soviet Union.

Volkogonov has much useful information on the Comintern and on the way a huge Soviet monetary investment in foreign Communist parties was being made even at the time of the 1921 famine, when the country was saved only by huge Western charity. Some readers will remember how the allegation that “Moscow gold” financed the world’s CPs was once regarded as a primitive reactionary smear even in moderate left-wing circles. Volkogonov gives some figures for the early period, and shows that indispensable transfusions of funds were made to foreign Communist parties, without which the whole effort to keep them going would have faltered. Signed receipts for money received abroad as late as the mid-Eighties have been reproduced in Moscow journals: several million dollars, for example, went to both the US Communist Party and the French Communist Party (the former signed for clearly by Gus Hall, the latter with a tactfully illegible scrawl). Both payments were sent on instructions of Antolyi Dobrynin, supposedly a friend of democratic America.

Volkogonov’s chapter on Lenin’s decline and death between 1922 and 1924 draws on much more detailed information than has hitherto been possible. He shows for example that Bukharin’s claim that Lenin died in his arms was true, although for years it would have been rejected as politically incorrect.

In tracing Lenin’s heritage, Volkogonov has found other fresh material in archives on confidential decisions and debates involving Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and even Gorbachev. This part of the book might be described as a historical sketch accompanied by political reflections, and illuminated by a selection of documentary particulars. The evidence he presents on the huge suffering caused during each major period of the Terror is particularly telling.


The author himself is an astonishing phenomenon, his own personal history illustrating in microcosm the evolution of Leninism and the Lenin myth. Far from having a dissident background he was, as he himself says, “a Stalinist,” a military officer who advanced to one of the key jobs for enforcing Soviet orthodoxy: Colonel General and Deputy Head of the Political Administration of the Armed Forces.

The carapace of dogma first started to crack during the 1980s, when he looked into Stalin’s slaughter of military officers between 1937 and 1941. The first result was his biography of Stalin, Triumph and Tragedy, published in 1988 with the support of the then Soviet leadership. The book was seen as anti-Stalin but within the limits of the still official view of Leninism.

He went further in writing the history of World War II. This time his draft, produced in 1990, called the whole Party record into question, emphasizing both the inefficiency and ruthlessness of Stalin’s plans for the war and his conduct of it. The Communist military leadership reacted strongly, its attacks culminating at a meeting of generals, Central Committee officials, and other ideologues at the Ministry of Defense. Volkogonov defended himself hotly and was finally shouted down. He was dismissed and the draft of his history suppressed. He was saved by the failure of the coup led by his enemies and superiors in August 1991. Then and later he stoutly opposed the factions favoring a return to Party rule. He had a crucial part in the events of October 1993, when he rose from a sickbed, put on his uniform, went to the CIS military communications center and used his rank and personality to win over key units.

In his classic work Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick has given a striking firsthand personal and political portrait of Volkogonov—in part based on his review in these pages1 of the Stalin biography. Remnick writes of Volkogonov that above all he “will be remembered not so much as a great thinker or writer as rather for the uniqueness of his access, the way he made scholarly use of his political position.”

A group of younger scholars in Russia, headed by Gennady Bordiukov, has criticized Volkogonov on several grounds, among them his lack of “objectivity.” From long practice, we in the West can, if we want, discount Volkogonov’s views—they are warmly expressed but not for that reason disqualifying. Indeed, it is creditable that younger scholars, tired of their heritage of rhetoric, are seeking a cooler style of presentation. All the same the search for pure “objectivity” has often proved somewhat of a will-o’-the-wisp. G.M. Trevelyan long ago noted that the real test is whether the evidence is handled “in good faith,” and that test, in general, Volkogonov passes. A more substantial objection raised by the younger scholars is that Volkogonov and his team for some time monopolized the relevant archives. This was true, though perhaps unavoidable; and the new generation will be correcting, improving, and extending Volkogonov’s account. All the same, we are lucky that Volkogonov had the power, and the drive, to open these archives. Moreover, making use of the archives appeared to be a race against time: if either of the political crises of 1991 and 1993 had gone the other way, the archives would certainly have been shut and Volkogonov himself would have been arrested, perhaps shot. As Remnick sums it up, it is clear that with all his immensely useful work on documents Volkogonov is not a mere documenter but a man with a mission, and a tough-minded one.

More broadly, though Volkogonov’s documentation is invaluable, as we have seen, documents are not always accurate, and do not always tell the whole story. The enormous flow of fresh archival material in Russia during the last few years has so gone to the heads of some scholars even in the US that these obvious facts get neglected. The memoirs of members of the last Labour government in England contradict each other over what happened at their cabinet meetings. But who would venture that the minutes taken by civil servants are an adequate substitute? Both types of evidence are useful, neither definitive. In fact even when documents are clear and readily available, personal testimony may be of major help. Remnick interviewed a former high NKVD officer connected with one of the Katyntype massacres of Polish officers, who told of how the notorious Major Blokhin shot the Poles at the rate of two to three hundred a night in a soundproof room. He was dressed in a special blood-proof uniform of oil-cloth, with elbow-length gloves and a sou’wester-type hat. German pistols were used, Remnick was told, because the Russian pistols tended to jam after so many shots. (It is one of the ironies of these massacres that they were ordered at a session of the Politburo whose other business was to consider a report on the condition of Lenin’s body.)

One good rule is that the language in Soviet secret documents ordering that action be taken is usually valid, while other information may be mere Party-line myth—as with the 1933 secret instructions to blockade the Ukraine and the Kuban to prevent famine victims escaping northward. The operational order was intended to be obeyed, and it was. The explanation given was false: that the peasants were acting on instructions of Socialist Revolutionaries and the Polish intelligence service.

To take an all-or-nothing attitude to the validity of sources in general is anyhow absurd. Khrushchev Remembers, for example, has proved to be a valuable source, although it confuses the suicides of two leading Bolsheviks, Vissarion Lominadze and Grigory Ordzhonikidze, in 1935 and 1938 respectively, and muddles the dates and events of a series of Central Committee plenary meetings. In translating and editing Khrushchev’s book Strobe Talbott acknowledges that he had to “take certain liberties with the structure” of the “disorganized” material but rightly calls it “an important historical document, devastating and authoritative.” As Gibbon put it, the serious historian “is obliged to consult a variety of testimonies, each of which, taken separately, is perhaps imperfect and partial”; he added that “ignorance of this common historical principle” is itself a major cause of misunderstanding.

Volkogonov’s present book has been involved in that traditionally (though not uniquely) Russian phenomenon, the skandal, a combination of factional feuds, personal intrigues, and “breaking off of relations,” in this case over the control of archives and access to them. The admirable Yuri Afanasiev at one point denounced the Hoover Institution’s microfilming of part of the archives as robbing Russia of its heritage—though both the originals and one copy of the microfilm remained in Moscow; and the Hoover Institution sent to Moscow in return five thousand reels of its own material, hitherto not available in Russia.

Again, a recent article in Izvestia involving Volkogonov said that Stephen Cohen and another Western historian were the only scholars allowed access to the Presidential Archives, with the implication that they had benefited from some sort of fix. But Cohen works there on Bukharin’s papers as the legal representative of Bukharin’s widow, Anna Larina, whose property they now are; the suggestion was thoroughly ignorant or malicious. (Izvestia has since published a letter of Cohen’s in complete rebuttal.) Volkogonov has also been involved in the row over Pavel Sudoplatov’s book, Special Tasks, in part because the Security Ministry is hostile to both him and Sudoplatov.

The skandal side of Volkogonov’s actual book has also included objections, on grounds of bad taste, to a photograph of the dead Lenin on the cover of a Russian edition of the book. He has been accused of being nasty about Lenin and, according to Pravda, of encouraging anti-Semitism—by saying Lenin thought that in some spheres Jews were better than others. And the issue of his special access to archives is linked with his ability to publish his work abroad.

For Lenin must also, of course, be seen in the context of the fairly numerous works based on Russian documentation now appearing in the West. As Remnick wrote here in 1992, in his review of Triumph and Tragedy, Western intellectual entrepreneurs were already using money or personal contacts to obtain and publish archival material in the US. Some books, like Deadly Illusions, by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, are sponsored by the Ministry of Security.2 They are full of useful information, but it is inevitably skewed by its origins. Again, Yale University Press is producing a number of important document collections—marred, though, under interested pressure from the Moscow end, by the unfortunate solecism of having the volume on the Terror of 1937–1938 edited by J. Arch Getty, who has, as Remnick also pointed out in these pages, an unmatched record among Western historians of evading or minimizing the entire phenomenon of terror. All this is only to say that crosscurrents of partisanship, politics, personal connections, and patronage affect Russian archival entry into the Western market. It should, however, be said that the publication of documents in Moscow itself has in the main, as far as one can judge, been impeccable.

When it comes to frankly committed work like Volkogonov’s, we can distinguish between his tone and his facts, and we can hardly avoid concluding that with the latter he has done us a great service. It was, moreover, the facts that made him change his original devotion to Leninism. But Leninism was never put forward entirely in good faith, and it was not amenable to facts. And, as Volkogonov puts it, it led to a “One Dimensional Society.” The dictum of Rosa Luxemburg on Lenin’s suppression of democracy has often been quoted: that “without a free struggle of opinion life dies out in every public institution,” and that “brutalization” would accompany stultification. Leninism emerges as doubly incompatible with reality: on the one hand it was a fallacy, on the other it relied on falsification. That is, the Leninist theory of social advance was a delusion; and its failure was extensively camouflaged by pretended success. It produced a polity where everything was political, yet no real politics existed: a society reduced as far as possible by the suppression of all autonomous thought into a sort of ideological Flatland.

“As far as possible”—for in the long run reality proved refractory. But it was a very long run, and the man whose ideas and methods, and sheer personal willpower, so deeply distorted the flow of history demands our very serious attention. Volkogonov’s book is not in any way definitive; yet it is the most striking contribution to our understanding of Lenin to have appeared for many years.

This Issue

June 8, 1995