Arthur Ransome
Russia in 1919

Last Talk With Lenin


I went to see Lenin the day after the Review in the Red Square, and the general holiday in honour of the Third International. The first thing he said was: "I am afraid that the Jingoes in England and France will make use of yesterday's doings as an excuse for further action against us. They will say 'How can we leave them in peace when they set about setting the world on fire?' To that I would answer, 'We are at war, Messieurs [gentlemen]! And just as during your war you tried to make revolution in Germany, and Germany did make trouble in Ireland and India, so we, while we are at war with you, adopt the measures that are open to us. We have told you we are willing to make peace.'"

He spoke of Chicherin's last note, and said they based all their hopes on it. Balfour had said somewhere, "Let the fire burn itself out." That it would not do. But the quickest way of restoring good conditions in Russia was, of course, peace and agreement with the Allies. "I am sure we could come to terms, if they want to come to terms at all. England and America would be willing, perhaps, if their hands were not tied by France. But intervention in the large sense can now hardly be. They must have learnt that Russia could never be governed as India is governed, and that sending troops here is the same thing as sending them to a Communist University."

I said something about the general hostility to their propaganda noticeable in foreign countries.

Lenin. "Tell them to build a Chinese wall round each of their countries. They have their customs-officers, their frontiers, their coast-guards. They can expel any Bolsheviks they wish. Revolution does not depend on propaganda. If the conditions of revolution are not there no sort of propaganda will either hasten or impede it. The war has brought about those conditions in all countries, and I am convinced that if Russia today were to be swallowed up by the sea, were to cease to exist altogether, the revolution in the rest of Europe would go on. Put Russia under water for twenty years, and you would not affect by a shilling or an hour a week the demand, of the shop-stewards in England."

I told him, what I have told most of them many times, that I did not believe there would be a revolution in England.

Lenin. "We have a saying that a man may have typhoid while still on his legs. Twenty, maybe thirty years ago I had abortive typhoid, and was going about with it, had had it some days before it knocked me over. Well, England and France and Italy have caught the disease already. England may seem to you to be untouched, but the microbe is already there."

I said that just as his typhoid was abortive typhoid, so the disturbances in England to which he alluded might well be abortive revolution, and come to nothing. I told him the vague, disconnected character of the strikes and the generally liberal as opposed to socialist character of the movement, so far as it was political at all, reminded me of what I had heard of 1905 in Russia and not at all of 1917, and that I was sure it would settle down.

Lenin. "Yes, that is possible. It is, perhaps, an educative period, in which the English workmen will come to realize their political needs, and turn from liberalism to Socialism. Socialism is certainly weak in England. Your socialist movements, your socialist parties . . . when I was in England I zealously attended everything I could, and for a country with so large an industrial population they were pitiable, pitiable . . . a handful at a street corner . . . a meeting in a drawing room . . . a school class . . . pitiable. But you must remember one great difference between Russia of 1905 and England of to-day. Our first Soviet in Russia was made during the revolution. Your shop-stewards committees have been in existence long before. They are without programme, without direction, but the opposition they will meet will force a programme upon them."

Speaking of the expected visit of the Berne delegation, he asked me if I knew MacDonald, whose name had been substituted for that of Henderson in later telegrams announcing their coming. He ,said: "I am very glad MacDonald is coming instead of Henderson. Of course MacDonald is not a Marxist in any sense of the word, but he is at least interested in theory, and can therefore be trusted to do his best to understand what is happening here. More than that we do not ask."

We then talked a little on a subject that interests me very much, namely, the way in which insensibly, quite apart from war, the Communist theories are being modified in the difficult process of their translation into practice. We talked of the changes in "workers' control," which is now a very different thing from the wild committee business that at first made work almost impossible. We talked then of the antipathy of the peasants to compulsory communism, and how that idea also had been considerably whittled away. I asked him what were going to be the relations between the Communists of the towns and the property-loving peasants, and whether there was not great danger of antipathy between them, and said I regretted leaving too soon to see the elasticity of the Communist theories tested by the inevitable pressure of the peasantry.

Lenin said that in Russia there was a pretty sharp distinction between the rich peasants and the poor. "The only opposition we have here in Russia is directly or indirectly due to the rich peasants. The poor, as soon as they are liberated from the political domination of the rich, are on our side and are in an enormous majority."

I said that would not be so in the Ukraine, where property among the peasants is much more equally distributed.

Lenin. "No. And there, in the Ukraine, you will certainly see our policy modified. Civil war, whatever happens, is likely to be more bitter in the Ukraine than elsewhere, because there the instinct of property has been further developed in the peasantry, and the minority and majority will be more equal."

He asked me if I meant to return, saying that I could go down to Kiev to watch the revolution there as I had watched it in Moscow. I said I should be very sorry to think that this was my last visit to the country which I love only second to my own. He laughed, and paid me the compliment of saying that, "although English," I had more or less succeeded in understanding what they were at, and that he should be pleased to see me again.


(Last) Chapter 29: The Journey Out