The two recent collections of documents in the useful Yale series Annals of Communism give us, in slightly different ways, new insights into the political attitudes of Lenin and, after him, Stalin. The Unknown Lenin draws on some 3,714 documents—letters, policy statements, memos—that were withheld as late as 1990 because, as the official responsible put it, they showed Lenin, or the Soviet cause, in a bad light. The Lenin who appears in the documents taken as a whole thus naturally exhibits, more strikingly than before, the personal traits long noted of him by many: his ruthlessness, his drive to power, his closed mind, his ignorance of the world outside Russia, and his petty meanness.

These characteristics were long unnoticed, or unknown, not only by some in the countries in which a very different image of the man was incessantly projected, but also among supposedly critical intellectuals in the West. We had, for example, Hugh McDiarmid (no mean poet) with his “Hymn to Lenin,” in which Lenin appears as a benign champion of the poor. (Not as bad, you may say, as Pablo Neruda’s “Ode on the Death of Stalin” and similar effusions.) Anyhow my favorite nominations for Lenin-mania are still those of the late, and locally influential, Australian Marxist historian Manning Clark, who said that Lenin was “Christ-like, at least in his compassion,” and that Lenin was “as excited and lovable as a little child.”

Even today Lenin’s body is still in its ritual tomb. St. Petersburg is still in the Leningrad Province. And statues of Lenin are still to be seen in the old USSR—one was re-erected the other day in a provincial town. So the more the light is played on the real man the better.

Pipes’s book presents documents in chronological order, with a brief explanatory commentary, and it contains much useful and fresh material. We get further information on how the Bolsheviks took over the legacy of a rich Social Democratic sympathizer, Nikolai Shmit, getting his daughters to marry Bolsheviks in the years following the 1905 Revolution. We read Lenin’s false statements to the effect that he had been out of touch with the former Bolshevik leader R.V. Malinovski, who was revealed as a tsarist police agent, when in fact he had been writing to him. In a letter of 1914 to his French-born lover Inessa Armand (who died in 1920 of cholera), he makes a rare confession, although its circumstances remain obscure: “I have caused you a great pain, I know it.” The documents also give accounts of how Lenin expelled non-Bolshevik intellectuals from Soviet Russia; of his first draft of the New Economic Policy in 1922, under which forced requisition of food was to be replaced not by the market but by compulsory barter; and much else.

Some readers have made much of the very first document in Pipes’s selection, the enrollment in 1886 of the then sixteen-year-old Lenin in the genealogical register of the hereditary nobility of Simbirsk—his father having entered its ranks as a result of his official position, director of schools. Of course, there has never been anything secret about the family’s status, though Lenin’s own certificate seems to have embarrassed the more priggish of the guardians of his memory. He himself never hid his origins: indeed he seems to have been quite proud of his mother’s family’s less pompous registration in the rolls of the landed gentry—often saying, “I, too, am a squire’s child.” And his hatred of the aristocracy was always far less marked than his hatred of the bourgeoisie, just as his hatred of reactionaries was mild in comparison with his loathing of Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, and others of the non-Communist left.

In any case most leading Bolsheviks were not proletarian; they were purged of their parents’ class-villainy by the mere fact of becoming Bolsheviks and by henceforward being, if not of the proletariat and its struggles, at any rate representative of it. Lenin certainly saw himself in this light, though a later document in Pipes’s collection shows that when it came to an actual workers’ strike in Moscow in April 1919 he gave the order, “Require the Moscow Cheka to carry out merciless arrests among the strikers and delegates.”

A document this reviewer found particularly revealing is Lenin’s Draft Theses of the Central Committee on policy in the Ukraine, in late 1919, which includes the following:

  1. Treat the Jews and urban inhabitants in the Ukraine with an iron rod, transferring them to the front, not letting them into government agencies (except in an insignificant percentage, in particularly exceptional circumstances, under class control).

In the margin Lenin writes:

Express it politely: Jewish petty bourgeoisie.

The sly and smirking rephrasing shows him in a petty light. Apologists who would forgive his strategic miscalculations and palliate, or even admire, his ruthlessness, must be at a loss to deal with it.

One of the reasons confidentially advanced in Moscow for keeping the new documents about Lenin secret was that some brought discredit on the Red Army, in particular in connection with its pogroms against Jews. Lenin’s reaction to reports on these pogroms was merely to write “file” on them: that is, to take no action. He was not a racist in any usual sense. But he emerges as at least willing to use stereotypes of Jews, as in the marginal comment quoted above. (Marx, indeed, for similar socioeconomic reasons, takes a comparable line on Jews in general.) Still, not only could you lose your class background on becoming a Bolshevik, you could lose your ethnic background too. Trotsky said early in the century that he was neither a Jew nor a Russian but a Social Democrat. The Communist Ukraine was ruled at various times by a Bulgarian and a Pole. A Latvian commanded the Red Army in 1918. The first head of the secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, was of course Polish, as was his immediate successor. So was Julian Marchlewski, the head of the puppet Polish government Lenin tried to impose on his country in 1920. When that failed, he became a Soviet diplomat. (I remember seeing with some disgust a Polish merchant ship of the late Communist period in Tunis harbor bearing his name, rather like a Norwegian steamer being called the Vidkun Quisling.)


Lenin’s views on such international themes are here well displayed. Pipes has been criticized for a loosely expressed phrase in his introduction—that Lenin in 1920 foresaw a Soviet victory in the war with Poland leading, eventually, to an “invasion” of England. What he did envisage was, among other things, an English revolution. In September 1920, he took the view, as he put it, that “the defensive period of the war with worldwide imperialism was over, and we could, and had the obligation to, exploit the military situation to launch an offensive war.” He understood that France and Britain were far stronger in a military sense than Soviet Russia, but considered that this physical superiority was now eroded by workers’ revolutionary movements in those countries.

Some recent Western writing on the cold war has to some extent exculpated Stalin from expansionist intentions, on the grounds that he did not have a “master plan” to take over countries beyond the USSR. Nor did Lenin a quarter of a century earlier. But he had an unswerving intention to extend the revolution into Western Europe. In 1919 preparations had already been made to break through to Romania in order to aid Béla Kun’s short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. The plan was aborted by the mutiny of a Bolshevik commander, Nikifor Grigoriev. In these documents we find, as late as 1920, Lenin’s view

that the revolution in Italy should be spurred on immediately. My opinion is that to this end Hungary should be sovietized, and perhaps also Czechia [sic] and Romania.

Even after the defeat in Poland Lenin was insisting that an advance into Galicia, close to “Czechoslovakia and Hungary where things are seething,” would have opened a direct road to revolution:

In gaining eastern Galicia, we had a base against all the contemporary states. Under these conditions we came to border on Carpathian Rus, which is seething more than Germany and provides a direct corridor to Hungary, where a small flash point is enough to spark a revolution…. We would not have gotten that seething which occurred, for certain we would not have gotten the Council of Action, and we would not have gotten the shift of England’s whole proletarian and bourgeois politics to a new stage. But from the projected borders we would have won a solid, comfortable, firm base for operations against central Europe.

As to England, he saw the Council of Action—a grouping of rather localized British strike committees working to prevent support for Poland—as the equivalent of the Russian Soviets of 1917. As he put it:

…The history of the Council of Action in England has proved with absolute precision that somewhere in the proximity of Warsaw lies not the center of the Polish bourgeois government and the republic of capital, but that somewhere in the proximity of Warsaw lies the center of the entire current system of international imperialism, and that we are now at a point when we are beginning to sway this system and making politics not in Poland, but in Germany and England. Thus in Germany and England we have created a completely new zone of the proletarian revolution against worldwide imperialism…. It has turned out that the English proletariat has raised itself to an entirely new revolutionary level….

We probed the English workers and raised them to a new level of revolutionary action. England was at the same stage with regard to political relations as Russia after February 1917, when alongside the government existed the soviets…. And now this Council of Action turns up in England…. The workers’ movement of England has risen to incredible heights.

The idea of imminent revolutions in the West did not fade after Lenin was incapacitated—as can be seen in the recently published record of Politburo discussions in 1923 entitled “The Coming Revolution in Germany and the tasks of the Russian Communist Party.” The expected date for the German revolution was November 9th of that year.1


In matters of foreign policy, we also come across documents on the “Intervention”—the modest and half-hearted Allied effort to block or replace the Bolsheviks, which figured in Soviet propaganda over the years as a ruthless attempt “to strangle the infant regime at birth.” It now appears here in a rather different light. It has always been known that the British landed in Murmansk in 1918 at the invitation of the city’s Soviet, but this was described in later Communist literature as a local aberration. The newly published documents show that Lenin and Stalin fully approved of the landing, their motive being, like that of the British, to prevent a German occupation of the port. (Ironically enough, in 1940 Stalin was to allow the Germans, with whom he was then allied, to set up a U-boat base—“Basis Nord”—in a nearby bay, with refuelling and support facilities in place. It never became operational because the British sank the two U-boats heading for it, and the German invasion of Norway then made it unnecessary.)

The British force in Murmansk later came into conflict with the Bolsheviks. But the total British casualties during the whole affair were only a few hundred and the claim that there was a large-scale intrusion is a long-exploded myth; even more minuscule and muddled was the American “intervention” in the Russian Far East, where American troops were only once and briefly in action against Bolsheviks and, as George Kennan put it, there was not even “an intention that these forces should be employed with a view to unseating the Soviet government.”2 Yet this was recently referred to in a major TV series as the source of the later cold war! Needless to say, Lenin himself intervened where and when he could; for example, he strangled the infant socialist regime in Georgia without compunction. (The Allies did, of course, give some arms and other support to the anti-Bolshevik forces, and had Churchill had his way would have given more, perhaps sparing the world a lot of its later troubles.)

It is in full peacetime, in March 1922, that we come to Lenin’s “Letter to Molotov for Politburo Members” instructing them to overcome objections to the confiscation of church valuables in the town of Shuia by the “execution by firing squad of a very large number” of recalcitrants, not only locally “but also in Moscow and several other clerical centers.”

The message was an exception in that it was committed to paper only because Lenin was unwell and unable to attend the Politburo meeting; it somehow survived even though he ordered that no copies be made and the original returned to him. This instruction first became known from a copy smuggled out and printed in the West a quarter of a century ago, and it was validated by publication in an official Soviet journal in 1990. Indeed Pipes quotes it at length in his Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, published in 1994 (which is the best background reading for this period).

The document about Shuia was of course suppressed, and then denied, because it gave Lenin’s true attitude. Similarly with the many other and more virulent examples of his ruthlessness. We find him in document after document giving orders to local authorities along the following lines:

1.Hang (hang without fail, so the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.

2.Publish their names.

3.Take from them all the grain.

4.Designate hostages—as per yesterday’s telegram.

Do it in such a way that for hundreds of versts around, the people will see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucker kulaks.

Telegraph receipt and implementation.

Yours, Lenin

This was written before the Red Terror—the widespread killing of real, potential, and imagined opponents of the Bolsheviks—was officially inaugurated in September 1918; another of these documents shows Lenin making the preparations to launch it.

Terror was, sometimes still is, thought of as being necessary for the maintenance of Bolshevik power. But as Adam Ulam has shown in his The Bolsheviks,3 it in fact made their task harder, turning many people against them. As to its extent, Alexander Yakovlev, the former Politburo member who was the power behind glasnost and later in charge of rehabilitation, has recently given figures for the casualties. His estimate that “over 15 million” were executed or died in camp or prison during the Soviet period is in accord with the best previous calculations. More surprising are the figures for 1918-1922 where he estimates that, in addition to the five million who died in the 1921 famine, there were also eight million victims of the Civil War and the terror, mainly peasants.

Lenin had always been interested in the possibilities of terror. Long-since-published documents on his views during the 1905 Revolution (in which he played little part) show him concerned with detailed methods of killing enemies, including having unarmed revolutionaries pour acid on them from rooftops. As Bertram Wolfe comments in his Three Who Made a Revolution, nothing similar is to be found in the work of active revolutionaries like Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg.

More generally, Lenin had looked forward to using a large-scale strategy of terror, writing in 1908, for example, of “real, nation-wide terror which reinvigorates the country, and through which the Great French Revolution achieved glory.” Friedrich Engels had, on the contrary, written of the Jacobin terror:

We think of this as the reign of people who inspire terror; on the contrary, it is the reign of people who are themselves terrified. Terror consists mostly of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves. I am convinced that the blame for the Reign of Terror in 1793 lies almost exclusively with the over-nervous bourgeois, demeaning himself as a patriot, the small petty bourgeois beside themselves with fright [hosenscheissenden] and the mob of riff-raff who know how to profit from the terror.

In Lenin’s case, while the link to the Marxist fathers was broken, the link to Stalinism was maintained.

The historian Dmitri Volkogonov tells us in his biography of Stalin that he had talked “to hundreds of people who knew Stalin personally” and concluded that “for this man cruelty was quite simply an inalienable attribute of his being.” Similarly, Mikhail Gorbachev has lately said, “Cruelty was the main problem with Lenin.” There has never been much doubt about this; but the newly available documents were presumably suppressed because they showed the gloating inhumanity of the man. Not being an accepted political science concept, cruelty as such seems to have largely evaded academic treatment of the period.

Stalin’s letters to Molotov take up the story. Here, too, the letters give fresh impressions, but they must be understood in a different light. These are letters presented to the Party archives late in life by Molotov and, as the Russian editors note, “the contents of these letters suggest that only the most ‘harmless’ documents, those that in no way touched upon Stalin’s and Molotov’s darkest and most criminal activities, were selected for the archive.” They omit anything after 1935 (and have very little on the previous year or two), thus avoiding the great terror of 1937 and 1938. A further set of such letters has recently been discovered in another archive, and are to be published by Yale University Press; presumably they will contain more sensitive material. Meanwhile, the ones before us are, regardless of such qualifications, very useful in their own right.

The two books under review are directly linked—first through Lenin’s “Testament,” as his 1922 letter addressed to the next Party Congress commenting on his colleagues is usually called. Lenin’s letter warned that the rivalry between Trotsky and Stalin might “assume decisive significance,” and he put forward a single practical proposal—the removal of Stalin from the post of General Secretary. Lenin had valued Stalin and seen him, with Trotsky, as one of the two leading figures after himself—only turning against him at the last moment and then because he coarsely abused Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, on the telephone.

The Stalin-Molotov letters cover this first major clash over Lenin’s inheritance. There is no dispute over the essentials. In 1926, the American Communist (as he then was) Max Eastman, who favored Trotsky, published an account in the US of Lenin’s Testament that was inaccurate on some points. Trotsky was then required by Stalin and the rest of the Politburo in effect to deny the document’s existence. His first draft of a denial was rejected by them as inadequate; and in giving in to them he (in Stalin’s words) “saved himself” temporarily. What emerges is how cleverly and calculatingly Stalin maneuvered Trotsky into the hopeless position of either losing the political game by endorsing Stalin’s falsification or losing it by failing to respect Party discipline. It should be added that, after Stalin came to power, possession of a copy of the Testament was, if discovered, instant grounds for arrest.

In general these letters illuminate the struggle within the Party of the 1920s and early 1930s; and it is interesting to note that Stalin at one point lists Lenin’s widow Krupskaya with Bukharin as signing a Rightist protest against a Party decision, though her name was omitted from the public denunciation of the signers. With typical shrewdness, he wanted to identify her as an enemy while not taking action that would arouse sympathy for her among Party members.

As for the results of Stalin’s achievement of full power in 1930, we again note from Stalin’s reactions the Bolshevik attitude to the masses: they were to be treated as objects to be manipulated or repressed. Failure to enforce strict “labor discipline” Stalin describes here as “petty bourgeois.” Otherwise he had two solutions to economic failures. First, deny them; second, shoot the subordinates in charge. The letters of the early 1930s show his way of dealing with problems of production in the meat industry: the leading officials (forty-eight of them), he writes, “should all be shot.” Stalin’s direct intervention in the “interrogation” of a series of leading economists and managers demanded that they should be made to confess to sabotage on behalf of the British Intelligence Service, and to plotting to help an imminent attack on the USSR by France, Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States. The theme of international plots thus persisted. And several of the letters are concerned with justifying Stalin’s disastrous tactics in the Comintern’s attempts to bring about a Chinese revolution.

In accord with Molotov’s omission of the “most criminal” letters, only one indirect reference to the peasant terror between 1930 and 1933 has slipped through, in a letter of June 19, 1932. But this 1932 letter confirms that the Politburo decided to ignore the pleas of the Ukraine Communist leadership and proceed with the grain seizures that would destroy millions of people in the Ukraine. In support of this conclusion, the Russian editors have very usefully given a number of quotations from other newly declassified documents of this crucial period.

Perhaps the most appalling feature of the famine is that it was not in fact the result of a shortage of grain. Recent Western researchers seem to have shown that the veteran Russian expert on the matter, V.P. Danilov, gave figures for Soviet grain resources in January 1933 that were rather too high; however the reduced total is still far more than enough to have prevented the deaths from starvation. Stalin and Molotov and their associates had caused the famine: they had the grain; they refused to release it.

Western apologists for the regime first accepted Soviet denials that any famine had taken place. They then fell back on the notion that the famine was caused by drought and the government was unable to prevent it. This was refuted a few years ago when a secret instruction signed by Stalin and Molotov emerged, showing that they issued orders to blockade Ukraine and Kuban and prevent, with hundreds of thousands of arrests, the starving peasants from fleeing to areas where food was available. As to the discrimination against Ukrainians, another document lately made available (for which I am indebted to Professor Roman Laba) contains a December 1932 decree of the Kuban Executive Committee banning the Ukrainian language in schools and periodicals there—in a region which the previous census had shown as largely Ukrainian.

More recently, apart from rather halfhearted attempts to minimize the number of deaths, the last-ditch defense of the Ukraine famine by some scholars was that though it was a result of Communist policies, the consequences were unintentional and unforeseen. On this point, a decisive document has now emerged from the Russian archives—and I think I quote it here for the first time in the West. It consists of a report by Molotov, just back from Ukraine, to the Politburo in the summer of 1932. He states flatly that “we actually face the specter of famine, and especially in the rich grain regions.”4 The Politburo resolution that followed said that “whatever the cost the confirmed plan for grain delivery must be fulfilled”—i.e., fully aware that the result would be famine, they went ahead with the grain requisitions that would starve to death almost as many as fell on all fronts, in all countries, in the First World War.

In connection with these books the old question of whether, and in what sense, Stalin was the true successor of Lenin has been much discussed. Lenin seems to have thought that some sort of collective leadership might inherit power from him. But his success had been based on a unitary, centralized, disciplined Party organization—in fact this insistence on centralized control had been the only, or original, reason of his break with the Mensheviks. When he died the Party had not yet been thoroughly trained, but he had recently tightened its discipline. It could no more have been run by a committee without a chief than an army can be commanded by its General Staff.

Of course it is simplistic to think of Stalin as merely a reincarnation of Lenin; or to imagine that if Lenin had lived to Stalin’s age (that is, if he had died in l943) nothing would have been much different. But it is hard to conceive of any other successor holding the regime together through collectivization (which nearly destroyed it, as it was); or, alternatively, not being forced, however unwillingly, to undertake a liberalization of the Gorbachev type, and hence a collapse of one-party rule.

It is sometimes forgotten that in the Party struggles of the late 1920s, Stalin had the support—up to and including the program of crash collectivization—not so much of the high-level intellectual Bolsheviks who had quarreled with Lenin on various issues, as of the members of the Party’s solid Leninist core.

It is natural enough that those who still admire Lenin should do their best to dissociate him from Stalin. And when Stalin’s crimes were revealed to a shocked Party in the 1950s, where were they to turn but to Lenin? In a speech at the twenty-second Party Congress in 1961, D.A. Lazurkina, a veteran of the Gulag, said that Lenin had remained in her heart, and that “yesterday I asked Ilyich for advice and it was as if he stood before me alive and said, ‘I do not like being next to Stalin, who inflicted so much harm on the Party’ (stormy prolonged applause).”5 “On the Party”: yes, Pipes rightly notes that a major difference between them was that Stalin’s victims, as distinguished from Lenin’s, included Communists. (Stalin was indeed then removed from the Red Square mausoleum they had previously shared.)

There are still Stalinists in Russia, and perhaps elsewhere, but any serious attempt to portray Stalin and his regime in a positive light falls down in view of the documents still emerging in Moscow. For example, we now have the individual case files of some of the several hundred blind, or legless, or otherwise incapacitated people who were sentenced to imprisonment late in 1937 but were executed, after resentencing, early in 1938 on the grounds that they would be useless at forced labor.

How did Lenin and Stalin differ? Molotov later said that Lenin was the more “extreme” and had sometimes rebuked Stalin for “liberalism.” More generally they shared many of the same political traits and political skills. Of the two Stalin seems to have had the broader interests. A recent piece in Pravda gives the books checked out to Stalin over April-December 1926. Much has been made of their oddity: they include works such as Is Resurrection from the Dead Possible?; Ritual Murder among the Jews; The Essence of Hypnosis; Syphilis; The Right to Kill; and so on. Among a long list of belles lettres and political, economic, and philosophical books we also find Practical Versification. Stalin had of course been a poet in his youth, and even once, in the 1930s, wrote a rhymed note to Kalinin.

Lenin never wrote poetry and is quoted as saying that he had been the only student in his class who didn’t. It is true that while in exile he once started to write a poem, giving up after the first line:

In Shusha, at the foot of the Sayans

This alone distinguishes him from most other modern tyrants. (Someone should publish a collection of the poems of Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Castro, illustrations by A. Hitler.)

In this and other ways their personalities differed, which must surely have affected their approach to policy. But not their central convictions. Nor the personality trait they shared, pathologically enlarged willpower (also neglected by theorists even though it has been crucial to all the totalitarian disasters of our century). Anything that, as these two books do, gives us a more nearly complete view of these dangerous and damaging men is to be welcomed.

This Issue

March 6, 1997