The Unknown Lenin, From the Secret Archive, edited by Richard Pipes

A Volume That Throws New Light on the Man Chiefly Responsible for the World's First Communist State

Yale University Press • 1996 • xi-xx + 204 pages • $27.50

Dr. Fuhrmann, who teaches Russian history at Murray State University, is the author of Rasputin: A Life (Praeger, 1990).

It has been inspiring to watch the opening up of Russian archives since the collapse of the USSR. Foreigners now have access to documents once denied even to communist historians. The Presidential Archives in Moscow hold papers still classified top secret, but a few people are permitted to work there. Bureaucratic attitudes in the open archives can still be confining and frustrating, but despite that complication, amazing materials are now available.

This volume contains a selection of 122 documents housed at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History (RtsKhIDNI) in Moscow. They have been translated into English and are published here under a joint venture between Yale University Press and the RtsKhIDNI. Yale has worked with Russian archives to issue three other titles in this Annals of Communism Series: The Secret World of American Communism, Stalin’s Letters to Molotov, 1925-1936, and The Fall of the Romanovs. The Unknown Lenin is a worthy addition to an important series.

Richard Pipes, emeritus professor of Russian history at Harvard, is the principal editor of The Unknown Lenin. Pipes has long striven to refute the notion that Lenin was an admirable fellow who made a noble revolution which was betrayed by Joseph Stalin. It is not that Pipes is favorable to Stalin; his concern, rather, is to show that Lenin was equally ruthless and unprincipled. Or more so. Pipes relishes the story that when Molotov, the only Communist official to serve both Lenin and Stalin throughout their political careers, was asked to compare the two, he declared without hesitation that Lenin had been the ‘more severe’ or ‘harsher’ (bolee surovyi). Who could have been better qualified than Molotov to make such a judgment! As Pipes remarks, Those who still idealize Lenin and contrast him favorably with Stalin will find little comfort in the Lenin documents which are now coming to light.

One of the purposes of this volume, then, is to demolish favorable sentiment for Lenin. Some of the documents do this. On August 11, 1918, for example, we find Lenin demanding that a kulak uprising in Penza be suppressed by “hanging no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. . . . Find some truly hard people.” On March 19, 1922, Lenin issued an order concerning confiscation of church property and the execution of priests and others who sought to block such seizures. “[I]f it is necessary to resort to certain brutalities for the sake of realizing a certain political goal, they must be carried out in the most energetic fashion and in the briefest possible time because the masses will not tolerate prolonged application of brutality. . . . Therefore, . . . we must give battle to the Black Hundreds [a pre-revolutionary, proto-fascist organization] clergy in the most decisive and merciless manner and crush its resistance with such brutality that it will not forget it for decades to come. The trial of these people should be conducted with the maximum of speed and . . . end in no other way than execution by firing squad of a very large number of the most influential and dangerous rebels.”

Pipes incontrovertibly proves that Lenin was ruthless and tyrannical. To his credit, however, he also offers many documents which show more admirable sides of the man. A major theme in Lenin’s correspondence, for example, is concern for the health and well-being of his correspondents. Lenin also seems to have had a limited appetite for personal aggrandizement. On January 29, 1919, we find Lenin rejecting a suggestion from the historian N. A. Rozhkov that he (Lenin) implement a personal dictatorship—though one wonders how such a regime would have differed from what the Bolsheviks had established! This same letter gives a hint, incidentally, of why Lenin so disliked capitalism. Rozhkov had suggested that the solution to the food shortage might be free trade. You should not be thinking of free trade, Lenin replied: free trade, given the absolute shortage of essential produce, is equivalent to frenzied, brutal speculation and the triumph of the haves over the have-nots. Lenin preferred to allow large numbers of people to starve rather than abandon his Marxist economic doctrines.

Admirable as this volume is, one questions the importance of some of the documents it offers. The translations seem excellent, as are the Introduction, the editors’ comments on individual documents, the index, and the archival listing and data for each document. All concerned deserve praise for their efforts, which throw a lot of new light on the man chiefly responsible for bringing the world’s first communist state into existence.