Anatoly Lunacharsky




I shall make no attempt here to write yet another biography of Lenin; for that there is no lack of other sources. I shall only refer to what I know of him from our personal relations and to my own direct impressions of the man.

I first heard of Lenin from Axelrod [1] after the publication of a book [2] written by ‘Tulin’. [3] I had not yet read the book, but Axelrod said to me: ‘Now we can really say that there is a genuine social-democratic movement in Russia and that real social-democratic thinkers are beginning to emerge.’

‘What do you mean?’ I enquired. ‘What about Struve [4], what about Tugan-Baranovsky?’ [5] Axelrod gave a somewhat enigmatic smile (the fact is that he had once expressed the highest opinion of Struve) and said: ‘Yes, but Struve and Tugan-Baranovsky – all that is just so many pages of donnish theorizing, so much historical data on the evolution of the Russian academic intelligentsia; Tulin on the other hand is a product of the Russian workers’ movement, he is already a page in the history of the Russian revolution.’

Naturally Tulin’s book was read abroad (I was in Zurich at the time) with the utmost avidity and was subjected to every form of comment. After that I heard no more than rumours of his arrest and exile at Krasnoyarsk [6] with Martov [7] and Potresov. [8] Lenin, Martov and Potresov appeared to be absolutely inseparable personal friends; they blended into a collective image of the purely Russian leadership of the newly-formed workers’ movement. How strange it is now to see what different paths these ‘three friends’ were to follow!

The next book to reach us was On the Development of Capitalism in Russia. [9] Although personally less concerned with purely economic questions – I already regarded the characteristics and development of capitalism in Russia as incontestable – I was nevertheless amazed by the enormously solid statistical foundation of the book and the skill of its argumentation. It seemed to me at the time (as was indeed to be the case) that this book would give the death-blow to all the misconceived notions of Populist (Narodnik [10]) ideology.

I was in exile when news of the 2nd Congress [11] began to reach us. This was the time when Iskra [12] had begun publication and was already consolidating its position. I had unhesitatingly declared myself a supporter of Iskra, but I knew little of its contents because although we did get all the issues, they reached us at very irregular intervals. We nevertheless had the impression that the inseparable trio – Lenin, Martov and Potresov – had become indissolubly fused with the émigré trinity of Plekhanov [13], Axelrod and Zasulich. [14] At all events the news of the split at the 2nd Congress hit us like a bolt from the blue. We knew that the 2nd Congress was to witness the concluding moves in the struggle with The Workers’ Cause [15], but that the schism should take a course which was to put Martov and Lenin in opposing camps and that Plekhanov was to ‘split off’ midway between the two – none of this so much as entered our heads.

The first clause [16] of the Party statute – was this really something which justified a split? A reshuffle of jobs on the editorial board – what’s the matter with those people abroad, have they gone mad? We were disturbed more than anything else by this split and tried, from the meagre information which filtered through to us, to unravel what on earth was going on. There was no lack of rumours that Lenin was a trouble-maker and a splitter, that he wanted to set himself up as the autocrat of the Party at all costs, that Martov and Axelrod had refused, as it were, to swear fealty to him as the Grand Cham of the Party. This interpretation was, however, largely contradicted by the stand taken by Plekhanov, whose initial attitude, as we know, was one of close and friendly alliance with Lenin. It was not long before Plekhanov deserted to the Menshevik side, but all of us in exile (and not only those exiled in Vologda [17], I suspect) took this as being very much to Georgii Valentinovich’s discredit. We Marxists had nothing to gain by such rapid changes of position.

In short, we were somewhat in the dark. I should add that the comrades in Russia who supported Lenin were also rather vague about what was happening. If we are to mention personalities, it was undoubtedly A. A. Bogdanov [18], who gave him the most powerful support. It was here that Bogdanov’s adherence to Lenin was, I think, of decisive significance. If he had not sided with Lenin things would probably have progressed a great deal more slowly.

But why did Bogdanov associate himself with Lenin ? He saw the quarrel which had broken out at the Congress as primarily a question of discipline: once a majority (even if only of one) had voted for Lenin’s formulae, the minority should have acquiesced; secondly he saw it as a clash between the Russian section of the Party and the émigrés. Even though Lenin did not have a single big name on his side he did have, practically to a man, all the delegates who had come from Russia, whereas as soon as Plekhanov crossed the floor all the big émigré names were gathered in the Menshevik camp.

Bogdanov recalled the scene, although not quite accurately, as follows: the émigré aristocrats of the Party had refused to realize that we were now a real party and that what counted above all was the collective will of those who were doing the practical work in Russia. There is no doubt that this line, which gave rise, inter alia, to the slogan: ‘A single Party centre – and in Russia’, had a flattering and encouraging effect on many Party committees in Russia, which were by then spread in a fairly wide network throughout the country.

It soon became clear what sort of people were drawn to each of the two factions: the Mensheviks attracted the majority of the Marxist intellectuals in the capitals; they also had an undoubted success among the more skilled working men; the chief adherents of the Bolsheviks were in fact the committee members, i.e. the provincial Party workers, revolutionary professionals. These were largely made up of intellectuals of an obviously different type – not academic Marxist professors and students but people who had committed themselves irrevocably to their profession – revolution. It was largely this element to which Lenin attached such enormous significance and which he called ‘the bacteria of revolution’; it was this section which was consolidated by Bogdanov, with the active support of the young Kamenev [19] and others, into the famous Organizational Bureau of Committees of the Majority and which was to supply Lenin with his army.

Bogdanov by then had served his term of exile and was spending some time abroad. I was absolutely convinced that he must have made a reasonably correct assessment of the problems and therefore, partly out of confidence in him, I also took up a pro-Bolshevik position.

My exile over, I managed to see comrade Krizhanovsky [20] in Kiev; he at the time was playing a fairly big part in affairs and was a close friend of comrade Lenin, although he was wavering between the strictly Leninist position and one of conciliationism. It was he who gave me a more detailed account of Lenin. He described him with enthusiasm, dwelling on his enormous intellect and inhuman energy; he described him as exceptionally kind and a magnificent friend, but he also remarked that Lenin was above all a political creature, that if he broke with somebody politically he would at once break off personal relations with him as well. Lenin was, in Krizhanovsky’s words, merciless and undeviating in the struggle. Just as I was beginning to build up a fairly romantic image of the man in my mind’s eye, Krizhanovsky added: ‘And to look at he’s like a well-heeled peasant from Yaroslavl, a cunning little muchik, especially when he’s wearing a beard.’

Hardly had I returned to Kiev from exile when I received a direct order from the Bureau of Committee of the Majority to go abroad immediately and join the editorial staff of the central organ of the Party. [21] This I did. I spent several months in Paris, partly because I wanted to make a closer study of the causes of the Party split. However, once in Paris I immediately found myself at the head of the very small local Bolshevik group and was soon involved in fighting the Mensheviks. Lenin wrote me a couple of short letters, in which he urged me to hurry to Geneva. In the end it was he who came to Paris.

To me his arrival was somewhat unexpected. He did not make a very good impression on me at first sight. His appearance struck me as somehow faintly colourless and he said nothing very definite apart from insisting on my immediate departure for Geneva.

I agreed to go.

At the same time Lenin decided to deliver a major lecture in Paris on the subject of the prospects of the Russian revolution and the fate of the Russian peasantry. It was at this lecture that I first heard him as an orator. Lenin was transformed. I was deeply impressed by that concentrated energy with which he spoke, by those piercing eyes of his which grew almost sombre as they bored gimlet-like into the audience, by the orator’s monotonous but compelling movements, by that fluent diction so redolent of will-power. I realized that as a tribune this man was destined to make a powerful and ineradicable mark. And I already knew the extent of Lenin’s strength as a publicist – his unpolished but extraordinarily clear style, his ability to present any idea, however complicated, in astonishingly simple form and to modify it in such a way that it would ultimately be engraved upon any mind, however dull and however unaccustomed to political thinking.

Only later, much later, did I come to see that Lenin’s greatest gifts were not those of a tribune or a publicist, not even those of a thinker, but even in those early days it was obvious to me that the dominating trait of his character, the feature which constituted half his make-up, was his will: an extremely firm, extremely forceful will capable of concentrating itself on the most immediate task but which yet never strayed beyond the radius traced out by his powerful intellect and which assigned every individual problem its place as a link in a huge, world-wide political chain.

I think it was on the day after the lecture that we, for I forget what reason, called on the sculptor Aronson [22], with whom I was then on quite friendly terms. Catching sight of Lenin’s head Aronson was enraptured and begged Lenin to allow him at least to sculpt a medallion of his head. He pointed out to me the amazing resemblance between Lenin and Socrates. I should add, incidentally, that Lenin bore a much closer likeness to Verlaine than to Socrates. An engraving of Carriere’s portrait of Verlaine [23] had recently been published and a famous bust of Verlaine was on exhibition at the time, later to be bought by the Geneva museum. People had, in fact, remarked on Verlaine’s unusual resemblance to Socrates, the chief similarity being in the magnificent shape of his head. The structure of Vladimir Ilyich’s skull is truly striking. One has to study him for a little while and then instead of the first impression of a plain, large, bald head one begins to appreciate the physical power, the outlines of the colossal dome of his forehead, and to sense something which I can only describe as a physical emanation of light from its surface.

The sculptor, of course, noticed it at once.

Beside this, a feature which gave him more in common with Verlaine than with Socrates was his pair of small, deep-set and terrifyingly piercing eyes. But whereas in the great poet these eyes were sombre and rather lacklustre (judging by Carriere’s portrait), with Lenin they are mocking, full of irony, glittering with intelligence and a kind of teasing mirth. Only when he speaks do they become sombre and literally hypnotic. Lenin has very small eyes but they are so expressive, so inspired that later I was often to find myself admiring their spontaneous vivacity.

The eyes of Socrates, to judge by the busts of him, were rather more protuberant.

In the lower part of the head there is a further significant resemblance, especially when Lenin’s beard is more or less fully grown. With Socrates, Verlaine and Lenin the beard grows in a similar way, slightly jutting and untidy. With all three the lower region of the face is somewhat shapeless, as if flung together as an afterthought.

A big nose and thick lips give Lenin something of a Tartar look, which in Russia is of course easily explicable. But exactly the same or nearly the same nose and lips are to be found in Socrates, a fact particularly noticeable in Greece where a similar cast of features was usually only attributed to satyrs. It is the same with Verlaine. One of Verlaine’s close friends nicknamed him ‘The Kalmuck’. In the busts of the great philosopher, Socrates’ countenance chiefly bears the stamp of deep thought. I believe, however, that if there is a grain of truth in the descriptions of him left by Xenophon and Plato, Socrates must have been a man of wit and irony and that in the lively play of his features there would, I submit, have been an even greater likeness to those of Lenin than the bust shows. Equally there predominates in both the famous portraits of Verlaine that mood of melancholy, that minor-key air of decadence which of course dominated his poetry; everyone knows, however, that Verlaine, especially in the early stages of his drunken spells, was a man of gay and ironic temper and I believe that here again the likeness was more than is apparent.

What is there to be learned from this strange parallel between a Greek philosopher, a great French poet and a great Russian revolutionary? The answer is, of course – nothing. If it indicates anything at all, then it simply shows that similar features may indeed be found in men who are perhaps of an equal rank of genius but of a totally different cast of mind; apart from that it provided me with a chance of describing Lenin’s appearance in more or less graphic terms.

When I came to know Lenin better, I appreciated yet another side of him which is not immediately obvious – his astonishing vitality. Life bubbles and sparkles within him. Today, as I write these lines, Lenin is already fifty, yet he is still a young man, the whole tone of his life is youthful. How infectiously, how charmingly, with what childlike ease he laughs, how easy it is to amuse him, how prone he is to laughter, that expression of man’s victory over difficulties! In the worst moments that he and I lived through together, Lenin was unshakeably calm and as ready as ever to break into cheerful laughter.

There was even something unusually endearing about his anger. Despite the fact that of late his displeasure might destroy dozens, perhaps even hundreds of people, he was always in control of his anger and it was expressed in almost joking manner. It was like a thunderstorm ‘that seemed to sport and play, to rumble in a clear blue sky’. I have often noticed that alongside that outward seething, those angry words, those shafts of venomous irony there was a chuckle in his glance and the instant ability to put an end to the angry scene which he had apparently whipped up because it suited his purpose. Inwardly he remains not only calm but cheerful.

In his private life, too, Lenin loves the sort of fun which is unassuming, direct, simple and rumbustious. His favourites are children and cats; sometimes he can play with them for hours on end. Lenin also brings the same wholesome, life-enhancing quality to his work. I cannot say from personal experience that Lenin is hard-working; as it happens I have never seen him immersed in a book or bent over his desk. He writes his articles without the least effort and in a single draft free of all mistakes or revisions. He can do this at any moment of the day, usually in the morning after getting up, but he can do it equally well in the evening when he has returned from an exhausting day, or at any other time. Recently his reading, with the possible exception of a short interval spent abroad during the period of reaction, has been fragmentary rather than extensive, but from every book, from every single page that he reads Lenin draws something new, stores away some essential idea which he will later employ as a weapon. He is not particularly stimulated by ideas that are cognate with his own thought, but rather by those that conflict with his. The ardent polemicist is always alive in him.

But if there is something slightly ridiculous in calling Lenin industrious, he is on the other hand capable of enormous effort when required. I would almost be prepared to say that he is absolutely tireless; if that is not strictly so it is because I know that the inhuman efforts which he has lately been forced to make have caused his powers to flag somewhat towards the end of each week and have obliged him to rest..

But then Lenin is one of those people who knows how to relax. He takes his rest like taking a bath and when he does so he stops thinking about anything; he completely gives himself up to idleness and whenever possible to his favourite amusement and to laughter. In this way Lenin emerges from the briefest spell of rest freshened and ready for the fray again.

It is this well-spring of sparkling and somehow naive vitality which, together with the solid breadth of his intellect and his intense will-power, constitutes Lenin’s fascination. This fascination is colossal: people who come close to his orbit not only become devoted to him as a political leader but in some odd way they fall in love with him. This applies to people of the most varying calibre and cast of mind, ranging from such enormously sensitive and gifted men as Gorky to a lumpish peasant from the depths of the country, from a first-class political brain like Zinoviev to some soldier or sailor who only yesterday belonged to the Jew-baiting ‘Black Hundred’ gangs [24] who now is prepared to risk his tousled head for the ‘leader of the world revolution – Ilyich’. This familiar form of his name, Ilyich, has become so widespread that it is used by people who have never seen Lenin.

When Lenin lay wounded – mortally, we feared – no one expressed our feelings about him better than Trotsky. Amidst the appalling turmoil of world events it was Trotsky, the other leader of the Russian revolution, a man by no means inclined to sentimentality, who said: ‘When you realize that Lenin might die it seems that all our lives are useless and you lose the will to live.’

To return to the thread of my recollections of Lenin before the great revolution: in Geneva Lenin and I worked together on the editorial board of the journal Forward, then on The Proletarian. Lenin was a good man to work with as an editor. He wrote a lot and he wrote easily, as I have already mentioned, and took a very conscientious attitude towards his colleagues’ work: he frequently corrected them, gave advice and was delighted by any talented and convincing article.

In the first period of our life in Geneva up to January 1905 we spent most of our time on internal Party quarrels. Here I was astonished by Lenin’s profound indifference to every form of polemical skirmishing. He set very little store by the struggle to capture the émigré readership, which largely supported the Mensheviks. He failed to attend a number of solemn discussion meetings and made no effort to suggest that I should go to them either. He preferred me to spend my time on writing full-length papers and essays.

In his attitude to his enemies there was no feeling of bitterness, but nevertheless he was a cruel political opponent, exploiting any blunder they made and exaggerating every hint of opportunism – in which by the way he was quite correct, because later the Mensheviks themselves were to fan their erstwhile sparks into a sizeable blaze of opportunism. He never dabbled in intrigue, although in the political struggle he deployed every weapon except dirty ones. The Mensheviks, I should point out, behaved in exactly the same way. Relations between the factions were in any event pretty bad and there were not many of those who were political opponents at that time who were able to maintain any sort of normal personal relations. For us the Mensheviks had become enemies. Dan, in particular [25], poisoned the Mensheviks’ attitude towards us. Lenin had always disliked Dan, whereas he had always liked Martov and still does, [AVL note: On the day that I was reading the final proof of this ‘profile’ there came the news of Martov’s death] but he always regarded him and still regards him as politically spineless and prone to lose sight of the main objectives in his fine-spun political theorizing.

With the forward march of revolutionary events, matters changed considerably. Firstly we began to gain something like a moral superiority over the Mensheviks.

It was then that the Mensheviks turned firmly to the slogan: push the bourgeoisie forward and strive for a constitution or at the best for a democratic republic. Our attitude of being technicians of revolution, as the Mensheviks claimed, was attracting a significant proportion of émigré opinion, in particular that of young people. We could feel firm ground under our feet. Lenin in those days was magnificent. With the utmost enthusiasm he unfolded a prospect of merciless revolutionary struggle to come, and set off in a passion for Russia. [26]

At this point I went to Italy, due to poor health and fatigue, and I only kept in touch with Lenin by a correspondence that was largely concerned with matters of practical policy concerning our newspaper.

I next met him in Petersburg. I am bound to say that this period of Lenin’s activity, in 1905 and 1906, seems to me to have been a comparatively ineffective one. Of course, even then he wrote a considerable number of brilliant articles and remained the leader of what was politically the most active of the parties – the Bolsheviks. I watched him closely throughout that period, because it was then that I had begun to make a close study from good sources of the lives of Cromwell and Danton. In trying to analyse the psychology of revolutionary ‘leaders’, I compared Lenin with figures such as these and I wondered whether Lenin really was such a genuinely revolutionary leader as he had seemed to be. I began to feel that life as an émigré had somewhat reduced Lenin’s stature, that for him the internal party struggle with the Mensheviks had overshadowed the much greater struggle against the monarchy and that he was more of a journalist than a real leader.

It was bitter news to hear that discussions with the Mensheviks, to define the precise bounds between the two factions, were even going on whilst Moscow was prostrate from the effects of an unsuccessful armed uprising. Furthermore Lenin, from fear of arrest, made only rare appearances as a speaker; as far as I remember he did so on only one occasion, under the pseudonym of Karpov. He was recognized and given a magnificent ovation. He worked chiefly behind the scenes, almost exclusively with his pen and at various committee meetings of local Party branches. In short, Lenin, I felt, was still carrying on the fight rather on the old émigré scale, without expanding the work to the more grandiose proportions which the revolution was then assuming. Nevertheless I still regarded him as the leading political figure in Russia and I began to fear that the revolution lacked a real leader of genius.

To talk of Nosar-Khrustalev [27] was, of course, ridiculous. We all realized that this ‘leader’ who had so suddenly emerged had no future at all. A great deal more noise and glitter surrounded Trotsky, but at that time we all regarded Trotsky as a very able if somewhat theatrical tribune and not as a politician of the first rank. Dan and Martov were making extraordinary efforts to carry on the fight in the very heart of the Petersburg working class and as always they directed it against us, the Bolsheviks.

I now think that the 1905-6 revolution caught us somewhat unprepared and that we lacked real political skill. It was our later work in the Duma, our later work as émigrés in turning ourselves into practical politicians, in dealing with the problems of genuinely national politics, to which we were more or less convinced we should return sooner or later – it was this that added to our inner stature, which completely altered our manner of approach to the question of revolution when history summoned us again. This is especially true of Lenin.

I did not see Lenin while he was in Finland [28], when he was in hiding from the forces of reaction. I next met him abroad, at the Stuttgart congress. [29] Here he and I were particularly close, quite apart from the fact that we were constantly conferring together as a result of the Party having entrusted me with one of the most essential jobs at the Congress. We had a number of major political discussions more or less in private, in which we weighed up the prospects of the great social revolution. On this subject Lenin was generally more of an optimist than I was. I considered that events would develop rather slowly, that we should obviously have to wait until capitalism was established in the Asian countries, that capitalism still had quite a few shots in its locker and that we might not see a true social revolution until our old age. This outlook genuinely upset Lenin. When I set out to prove my case to him I noticed a real shadow of sorrow crossing his powerful, intelligent features and I realized how passionately this man wanted not only to see the revolution in his lifetime but to exert himself in creating it. However, although he refused to agree with me he was obviously prepared to make a realistic admission that it would be an uphill task and to act accordingly.

Lenin turned out to possess the greater political insight, which is not surprising. He has the ability to raise opportunism to the level of genius, by which I mean the kind of opportunism which can seize on the precise moment and which always knows how to exploit it for the unvarying objective of the revolution. While Lenin was engaged on his great work during the Russian revolution he showed some remarkable examples of this brilliant timing, and he spelled this out in his last speech at the 4th Congress of the Third International [30], a speech uniquely interesting in subject-matter and in which he described what one might call the philosophy of the tactics of retreat. Both Danton and Cromwell had this same ability.

I should add in passing that Lenin was always very shy and inclined to lurk in the shadows at international congresses, perhaps because he lacked confidence in his knowledge of languages – although he speaks good German and has no mean grasp of French and English. In spite of this he used to limit his public utterances at congresses to a few sentences. This has changed since Lenin has felt himself, at first hesitantly and then unconditionally, to be the leader of world revolution. As long ago as Zimmerwald and Kienthal [31], where I was not present, Lenin appears, along with Zinoviev, to have made a number of major speeches in foreign languages. At the congresses of the Third International he frequently made long speeches which he refused to have translated by interpreters but instead generally made the speech himself first in German and then in French. He always spoke them with complete fluency and expressed his thoughts clearly and concisely. I was therefore all the more touched by a small document which I recently saw among the exhibits of the Red Moscow museum. It was a questionnaire, filled out in Vladimir Ilyich’s own hand. Opposite the question ‘Have you a fluent spoken knowledge of any foreign language?’ Ilyich had firmly written: ‘None.’ A trifle, but one which perfectly illustrates his unusual modesty. It will be appreciated by anybody who has witnessed the tremendous ovations which the Germans, the French and other western Europeans have given Lenin after he has made speeches in foreign languages.

I am very glad that I was never personally involved in our lengthy political quarrel with Lenin. I refer to the episode when Bogdanov, myself and others adopted a leftist deviation and formed the Forward [32] group, in which we mistakenly disagreed with Lenin in his appraisal of the Party’s need to exploit the possibilities of legal political action during Stolypin’s reactionary ministry.

During that period of disagreement Lenin and I never met. I was very much disturbed by Lenin’s political ruthlessness when it was directed against us. I now believe that much of what divided the Bolsheviks and the Forwardists was simply a product of the misunderstandings and irritations of émigré life, quite apart, of course, from our very serious differences of opinion on philosophical matters; there was, after all, no reason for a political split between us because we both only represented shades of one and the same political viewpoint. At the time Bogdanov was so annoyed that he predicted that Lenin would inevitably leave the revolutionary movement and even tried to prove to comrade E. K. Malinovskaya [33] and to myself that Lenin was bound to end up as an Octobrist. [34]

Yes, Lenin certainly became an Octobrist – but what a different October that was!

I should like to add the following to these cursory remarks: I have often had to collaborate with Lenin on drafting resolutions of all kinds. This was generally done collectively – Lenin liked cooperative work on such occasions. Recently I was called upon to undertake similar work on drafting the resolution for the 8th Congress [35] on the peasant question.

Lenin himself is always extremely resourceful on such occasions; he quickly finds the appropriate words and phrases, weighs them up from every angle, sometimes rejects them. He is always very glad of help from any quarter. When someone manages to hit on exactly the right phrasing, ‘That’s it, that’s it, well said, dictate that’, Lenin will say in such cases. If he thinks some words are doubtful he will stare into space, ponder and say: ‘I think it would sound better like this.’ Sometimes, having laughingly accepted some critical objection, he will alter the wording that he himself has just put forward in all confidence.

Under Lenin’s chairmanship this kind of work always proceeds extraordinarily quickly and somehow cheerfully. Not only does his own mind function at the top of its bent; he stimulates the minds of others to the highest degree.

I shall add nothing more at present to these recollections of mine, which largely make up my impressions of Vladimir Ilyich in the period before the 1917 revolution. Naturally I have a wealth of impressions and views concerning his absolute genius in the leadership of the Russian and world revolution, which was our leader’s contribution to history.

I have not given up the idea of writing a more exhaustive political portrait of Vladimir Ilyich on the basis of that experience. There is, of course, a whole series of new characteristics which have enriched my view of him during these last six years of our work together, none of which, be it said, contradict those I have singled out, but which constitute further first-hand evidence of his personality. But the time is yet to come for drawing such a broad and comprehensive portrait.

Those comrades who may wish to re-publish these pages from the first volume of The Great Revolution (to which I have made only slight editorial emendations) will not, I feel, be mistaken in the belief that my work, too, has its place of some small value in the history of Russia and of the modern world, which in our country has always rightfully attracted such a keen interest among the very widest circles.

* On re-reading these lines now, in March 1923, when Lenin is gravely ill, I am bound to admit that neither we nor he himself took enough care of him. Nevertheless I am convinced that Vladimir Ilyich’s Herculean constitution will overcome his illness and that before long he will return to the leadership of the RCP and of Russia.


Lunacharsky’s original profile of Lenin was written in 1918 and published in 1919. Rather than attempt to summarize the numerous studies of Lenin’s activities up to October 1917 it may be of value in this instance to sketch in the circumstances that followed the revolution. Lunacharsky was writing for people who were living in the immediate post-revolutionary turmoil, a time when Lenin had just begun to play a role which was the exact opposite of his previous function of would-be destroyer and usurper: he was now the head of an unstable, narrowly-based government of Russia which had suddenly inherited, in a magnified twentieth-century form, most of the accumulated problems which had bedevilled the country’s past rulers. Brutus was now clad in Caesar’s robe and inevitably not only his fellow-conspirators but the onstage crowd and the bewildered foreign audience saw him in a different light.

In late 1917 and 1918 Lenin’s new-born Bolshevik regime was threatened from within and without. First and above all loomed the stark, unavoidable fact that revolutionary Russia was on the point of total military defeat by imperial Germany. Yet despite Russia’s war-weariness, the thought of capitulation evoked a violently ‘patriotic’ reaction in politicians and masses alike. For reasons in which emotion and calculation were inextricably mixed, the dominant mood of the country was for fighting on and in a stormy meeting of Bolshevik leaders on 8 January 1918 Lenin was voted down by an absolute majority for continuing the war. Unaffected by his colleagues’ illusions, Lenin temporized, manoeuvred and pressed for peace. He was helped by the Germans, who terrified the Bolsheviks by resuming their advance into Russia on 17 February. Under threat of Lenin’s resignation his peace policy scraped through the Central Committee on z3 February, and on 3 March 1918 the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed. Russia lost Finland, the Ukraine, the Baltic states, eastern Poland and a large slice of Caucasian territory; but the heartland of Russia was saved for the Revolution, Germany turned westward to deal with the Allies and was herself crushed eight months later. Lenin had shown that he was a Russian statesman of international calibre. At the time hardly anyone was capable of realizing this: at home the ‘Left Communists’ shrilly accused him of betraying the Revolution whilst abroad The Times had summed up official western opinion by growling: ‘They [the Allies] know that the Maximalists [Bolsheviks] are a band of anarchists and fanatics who have seized power for the moment, owing to the paralysis of national life ... They know that Lenin and several of his confederates are adventurers of German-Jewish blood and in German pay ...’

In the breathing-space won at Brest-Litovsk internal problems now beset Lenin with equal force. The economy was in ruins and hunger threatened the cities. The dissolution of society and the undermining of respect for authority of any sort were proving a serious embarrassment now that the Bolsheviks had to act constructively. Both the Left S.Rs and the ‘Left Communists’ within the Bolshevik ranks were making potentially dangerous trouble. The latter were probably the least of Lenin’s difficulties. With his long experience of dealing with Party frondeurs he knew that provided they were allowed to go on talking their heads off whilst being excluded from influence on the really vital issues, they could be both neutralized and harnessed to vital but secondary tasks; Lunacharsky himself, appointed to the Commissariat of Education, was a typical example of such skilful treatment. The Left S.Rs were harder to tame, because they were outside Lenin’s immediate control. They delivered themselves into his hands, however, when they staged a revolt in July 1918 against the Brest-Litovsk treaty, assassinated Von Mirbach the German ambassador and capped it by assassinating Uritsky the following month; on the same day the nearly successful attempt on Lenin’s own life, despite the lack of evidence to associate his assailant Fanny Kaplan with the SRs, proved the final excuse for letting loose an outburst of terror against the SRs and other anti-Bolsheviks of whatever ilk.

The ills of the Russian economy, by contrast, were less susceptible to cure by rifle-fire and it was in this sector that Lenin in 1918-19 achieved relatively little. For the moment threats, exhortation and improvisation were the only measures that the Bolsheviks seemed capable of taking and they were not enough. For nearly five years Russia lived from hand to mouth and it is amazing that Lenin’s regime did not founder on the one problem which he failed to solve – bread.

Yet in the crucial matter of survival in the face of violent civil war, Lenin managed the apparently impossible. A year after 1917 – a time when officers were liable to be Iynched and the armed forces were little more than a dangerously anarchic mob – a disciplined Red Army and Navy had been created which beat the White generals and their Entente backers to a standstill. All these facts should be borne in mind when reading Lunacharsky’s gentle, admiring memoirs of Lenin before 1917, which give little hint of the ruthless strength of the man who rode the Russian tiger.

* * *

1. AXELROD: Pavel Borisovich Axelrod (1850–1928). Pseudonym of Pinkhas Boruch Axelrod. Early Marxist theoretician. One of the founders of the ‘Liberation of Labour’ group, 1883. Became Menshevik after 1903 Party split.

2. A BOOK: Refers to Lenin’s work The Economic Content of Populism and Its Critique in Mr Struve’s Book, published in a collection of Marxist articles, St Petersburg, 1895.

3. ‘TULIN’: ‘K. Tulin’ was Lenin’s first pseudonym, which he used between 1895 and 1900.

4. STRUVE: Pyotr Berngardovich Struve (1870–1944). One of the earliest Russian Marxist theorists. Although he drafted the first manifesto of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1898, Struve changed his politics in 1902 and joined the liberal Kadet party (q.v. below p. 71). During Civil War, foreign minister of Wrangel’s ‘White’ government in the Crimea. Died in Paris.

5. TUGAN-BARANOVSKY: Mikhail Ivanovich Tugan-Baranovsky (1865–1919). Economics professor at St Petersburg University. ‘Legal’ Marxist. In 1918 Minister of Finance in short-lived Ukrainian government of Hetman Skoropadsky.

6. KRASNOYARSK: Third largest town in Siberia, on upper reaches of River Yeneisei, southern central Siberia. From February 1897 Lenin spent first three months of his Siberian exile in Krasnoyarsk.

7. MARTOV: Yulii Osipovich Tsederbaum, alias Martov (1873–1923). See below.

8. POTRESOV: Alexandr Nikolayevich Potresov (1869-1934). Early Russian socialist, collaborated with Lenin in early days of Party journal The Spark (Iskra). Became right wing Menshevik after 1905 revolution, but broke with Mensheviks after 1917 as being insufficiently vigorous in their opposition to Bolsheviks. Emigrated in 1927.


10. NARODNIK: Name applied to the non-Marxist Russian agrarian socialist movement of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Based its theories of reform on the Russian peasants’ system of communal land tenure. Employed terrorism as political weapon.

11. 2ND CONGRESS: 2nd Congress of Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, held in Brussels and London, 1903, at which the split occurred dividing the party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

12. ISKRA: The Spark – Party journal of the Russian Social Democrats, of which Lenin was member of the editorial board from December 1900 to October 1903.

13. PLEKHANOV: Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov (1857–1918). See below.

14. ZASULICH: Vera Ivanovna Zasulich (1851–1919). Began her political career as a Narodnik. She attempted, aged seventeen, to assassinate Trepov, military governor of St Petersburg. Was tried but acquitted and allowed to escape abroad. Became a Marxist in the early 1880s and was one of the first members of the Russian Social Democratic party.

15. THE WORKERS’ CAUSE: First social democratic news paper in Russia. From 1898 to 1903 represented the official grouping of the SD party in emigration. The ‘struggle’ referred to was between The Workers’ Cause and The Spark for recognition as the official Party organ.

16. THE FIRST CLAUSE OF THE PARTY STATUTE: The wording of this clause, which defined Party membership, was one of the sharpest points of difference between Lenin and Martov in the split of the Russian Social Democratic party into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

17. THOSE EXILED IN VOLOGDA: Refers to Lunacharsky himself, who was exiled to Vologda from 1900 to 1902. Vologda, a town in northern European Russia, is approximately halfway between Moscow and Archangel.

18. A.A. BOGDANOV: Alexandr Alexandrovich Malinovsky alias Bogdanov (1873–1928). Philosopher, sociologist, economist and surgeon. Joined the Social Democratic party in 1890s, became a Bolshevik at the Party split in 1903. Became leader of the left-wing Bolshevik Forward group (q.v. below). Served in the First World War as an army doctor. After 1917, although then outside the Bolshevik party, was influential as a somewhat heterodox Communist ideologist and as theorist of the ‘Proletarian Culture’ movement (q.v. below). After 1923 devoted himself to medicine; died during an experiment on himself.

19. KAMENEV: Lev Borisovich Rosenfeld, alias Kamenev (1883–1936). Joined the Social Democratic party in 1901; a Bolshevik in 1903. Close associate of Lenin. Arrested and exiled to Siberia in November 1914. Released February 1917. Chairman, Central Executive Committee of Soviets. Supported Trotsky in the anti-Stalin opposition. 1926–27 Soviet Ambassador to Italy. Condemned and executed in the first major ‘purge’ trial, 1936.

20. KRZHIZHANOVSKY: Gleb Maximilianovich Krzhizhanovsky (1872–?). Became Marxist in 1891. Graduated from St Petersburg as an engineer 1894. Early Bolshevik. In 1895 arrested and exiled to Siberia. Emigrated to Munich in 1901, collaborated on Iskra. Elected to Central Committee of S.D. Party at 2nd Congress, 1903. An organizer of the railway strike in the 1905 revolution. Member of Moscow Soviet during 1917. Originated the plan for the electrification of Russia. Founded and ran Gosplan (State Planning Commission) from 1921 to 1930. Vice-president, U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences.

21. THE CENTRAL ORGAN OF THE PARTY: In 1904, in Geneva, Lunacharsky contributed editorially to the Bolshevik journal Forward; after the 3rd Congress of the Party in 1905 Forward was officially closed down and at once restarted, entitled The Proletarian. To call it ‘the central organ of the Party’ is a piece of sophistry; it was a Bolshevik factional journal.

22. THE SCULPTOR ARONSON: Naum Aronson. Born at Kieslavka, Ukraine. Russian-Jewish sculptor whose most famous work is the Beethoven monument at Bonn. Awarded gold medal at Liege, 1906. His bust of Lenin was exhibited at the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 World Fair in Paris.

23. CARRIERE’S PORTRAIT OF VERLAINE: Eugene Carriere (1849–1906). French painter and sculptor.

24. BLACK HUNDRED GANGS: Name given by their opponents to right-wing, proto-fascist extremist organizations in early twentieth-century Russia. Made the first extensive use of the ‘pogrom’ as a form of organized anti-Semitic terror.

25. DAN IN PARTICULAR: Fyodor Ilyich Gurvich, alias Dan (1871–1947). Married to the sister of Martov. Joined Social Democratic party in 1894. Became Menshevik in 1903. Shared with Martov the leadership of the Menshevik faction until after October 1917. Later emigrated and died in New York.

26. SET OFF ... FOR RUSSIA: Lenin reached St Petersburg on 21 November 1905.

27. NOSAR-KHRUSTALEV: Georgii Stepanovich NosarKhrustalev (1879–1919). (Sometimes referred to as ‘Khrustalev-Nosar’.) First chairman of the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies during the 1905 revolution. Became a Menshevik in 1907. Gave up politics, became a journalist in the right-wing Press. Headed the ephemeral ‘Khrustalev Republic’ in the Ukraine during the Civil War. Shot by the Bolsheviks.

28. FINLAND: To avoid the tsarist police, Lenin went to Finland in January 1907, where he spent four months at Kuokkala.

29. THE STUTTGART CONGRESS: Congress of the socialist Second International held in 1907.

30. 4TH CONGRESS OF THE THIRD INTERNATIONAL: Held 1922–3 in Moscow. The Third International was the Bolshevik-dominated Communist international movement, usually known as the ‘Comintern’, so called to distinguish it from the Second or ‘socialist’ International.

31. ZIMMERWALD AND KIENTHAL: In September 1915 certain socialists, including some Bolsheviks and Mensheviks from the Russian Party, dissenting from their fellow socialists who had supported their respective countries’ military efforts in the war, organized an anti-war conference at Zimmerwald in Switzerland. Lenin participated and took up an extreme ‘left’ anti-war position. A second similar conference (called the ‘Second Zimmerwald’ conference) was held in April 1916 at Kienthal. Lenin’s extremist attitude was strongly held and resulted in a manifesto urging the European working class to stop fighting each other and turn on their capitalist exploiters.

32. THE FORWARD GROUP: Radical sub-faction of the Bolsheviks, founded by Bogdanov, Lunacharsky and Gorky in 1909. Ideologically inspired by Bogdanov, it disagreed with Lenin on the tactics of participation in the Duma. The group soon lost political significance and Lunacharsky returned to orthodox Bolshevism in 1917.

33. E.K. MALINOVSKAYA: Wife of A.A. Bogdanov (Malinovsky). See above.

34. OCTOBRIST: Russian political party of right-wing liberals, formed in 1905, led by A.I. Guchkov and M.V. Rodzyanko. Title adopted from the Imperial Manifesto of 17 October 1905 granting a constitution.

35. 8TH CONGRESS: Congress of the Bolshevik Party held in March 1919. Its most important resolution decreed the separation of Party and Soviet organizations.

Last updated on: 23.8.2011