Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich

(1870–1924)
   Born into a family of the petty nobility, Vladimir Ulyanov became a revolutionary at university. Rather than becoming a member of the populist revolutionary parties, which saw power coming from a revolutionary peasantry, he embraced Marxism. In exile in Western Europe for more than two decades, he adopted the nom de guerre Lenin and became the leader of the Bolshevik (majority) faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), which supported a small, tightly organized party run by a dedicated political elite. Unlike European Marxists and Russian opponents in the RSDLP, Lenin embraced conspiracy and political violence. The Bolsheviks supported political terror as an absolute necessity; for them a revolution without a firing squad or a guillotine was unthinkable.
   Without Lenin, there could not have been a Revolution in 1917. As both the ideologue and organizer, he put fire into the belly as well as building an effective militant party with its own strong paramilitary section. Within weeks of the revolution, Lenin instituted a secret police, the Cheka, an acronym for Chrevzuychanaya Komissiya po Borbe s Kontrarevolutsei i Sabotazhem (Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Counterrevolution and Sabotage), which was placed under the Polish revolutionary Feliks Dzerzhinsky. From its formation on 20 December 1917, the Cheka was designed to be used against the enemies of the revolution among the former ruling classes, the counterrevolutionary peasantry, and the churches. Lenin saw the need from almost the very beginning for prophylactic violence, arguing for the taking of hostages and executions as early as 1918. Following a failed assassination by the anarchist Fanny Kaplan, Lenin supported the mass execution of enemies of the revolution, many of whom he personally knew.
   During the Russian civil war, Lenin served as the chief executive officer of the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet government. A historian of the French Revolution of 1789–1793, he believed that terror was necessary, and he argued for execution of real and potential enemies. In 1918 he ordered party officials in Penza to “(1) Hang (I mean hang publicly so that people will see it) at least 100 kulak rich bastards and known blood-suckers. (2) Publish their names. (3) Seize their grain. Do all this so that for miles around people will see it all, understand it, tremble.” The message ends with the postscript: “Find tougher people.”
   Lenin and the Cheka did find tougher people, and the Red Terror was intensified. In 1921, at the height of a major famine, he ordered that the Russian Orthodox churches, which were feeding millions, be looted of their icons and their communion vestments and that recalcitrant priests, monks, and nuns be shot without trial. Lenin, however, believed that terror should never be unleashed on members of the ruling party. He believed that if the Bolsheviks used terror in intraparty disputes, the revolution would end up eating its children, as happened in France.
   Years after the death of Joseph Stalin, former Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov told a young researcher that in comparison to Lenin, “Stalin was a lamb.” Soviet archives showed that Lenin had a deep interest in Cheka operations, frequently minuting Dzerzhinsky on official documents about operational details. Lenin was a master tactician and organizer who accepted the need of revolutionary violence. While he was unwilling to use the Cheka against opponents in the party, he paved the way for Stalin’s acceptance of terror against political opponents.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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