Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1


Lenin: Life and Legacy

Dmitri Volkogonov
Lenin: Life and Legacy
Harper Collins, London, 1995, pp. 529, £25.00/£8.99

ACCORDING TO the translator and editor, Harold Shukman, the first researcher to gain access to the secret archives of the Soviet state was Dmitri Volkogonov, who, as the Director of the Institute of Military History and a serving Colonel General, had for years collected material for his biography of Stalin. After the coup of August 1991, Volkogonov was the new government’s natural choice to supervise the control and declassification of the party and state archives.

Shukman refers to the chronological drift underlying the shifting narrative, and says that the first rule was to try and preserve as much as possible the material published as well as unpublished, either emanating from or pertaining to Lenin himself. The second principle was to preserve the material demonstrating Volkogonov’s own thesis, namely, that Stalin, his system and his successors all derived directly from Lenin’s theories and practice. The editor goes on:

‘In the view of D.R. Volkogonov the question of whether or not Soviet history was a continuation in any sense of Russian history is of less importance than the question of whether Soviet history is itself a continuum. In this book he shows that between Lenin and Stalin there was neither an ideological discontinuity nor a difference in method ... In Russia, as long as the state continued to exist, Lenin remained a virtual unblemished icon. Volkogonov has now demolished the icon and he has firmly committed himself to the view that Russia’s only hope in 1917 lay in the liberal and Social Democratic coalition that emerged in the February Revolution.’ (p. xxvii)

This is a fair summary of the author’s position. My brief comment is that those of us who have never believed in icons will not be duly impressed at the picture of our bemedalled General demolishing the Lenin icon, an icon which he and the other members of the Russian state so strenuously supported for so many years. If in the words of the song, ‘No gods on high can save us’, equally, ‘No devils below can excuse us.’ To seek an explanation of the events in Russia in the character and brains of Lenin and Stalin is to evade any serious discussion of history. It is indeed history upside down.

Of the author’s claim that Russia’s only hope in 1917 lay in the liberal-Social Democratic coalition that emerged from the February Revolution, I am reminded of my grandmother’s saying: ‘If ifs and ands were pots and pans, there would be no need for tinkers.’ To weep for the lost hopes of the Russian Revolution, and to inveigh against the crimes of the Russian state since then is a futile business, but it is undoubtedly the business of the author, and many others. Not to weep, but to understand — that should be our guide to history.

Lenin insisted that the October Revolution and all its dreams could only be realised by the spread of the revolution to the West. Rosa Luxemburg, by no means a worshipper of the Lenin icon, said in The Russian Revolution: ‘All of us are subject to the laws of history, and it is only internationally that the Socialist order of society can be realised. The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of the historical possibilities ... In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia.’ Then there is the prophetic judgement of the dying Lenin on the Russian state in The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”: ‘... the apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and Tsarist hotchpotch, and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the course of the past five years without the help of other countries and because we were “busy” most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine ...’ He added: ‘There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.’ It is also interesting to note that Volkogonov quotes favourably many items from Trotsky’s On Lenin, a change from what he had to say in The Stalin Phenomenon, an official pamphlet published in Moscow in 1988, where he said: ‘Nobody wrote as many caustic, malicious, offensive, vile and degrading remarks about Stalin as Trotsky.’

Nevertheless, most readers of this journal will not be greatly interested in the author’s theories and change of opinion, but rather in what new facts he has trawled from the archives. The authenticity of his quotations from the files can only be finally checked by someone with a knowledge of Russian with access to them. I list below various items of information that will be of interest to readers:

The execution of the Romanovs (page 206): On 18 July 1918 at an extraordinary session of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets (VTsIK), chaired by Lenin, a note from the minutes was read to the effect that Nicholas II had been executed by the order of the Yekaterinburg Soviet. The rest of the family had been evacuated to a safe place. Sverdlov went on to say in the name of the VTsIK that he regarded the decision as correct. Lenin asked any questions for Sverdlov. One voice asked: ‘And the family was taken away?’ No reply was recorded. Here the author quotes from Trotsky’s Diary In Exile: ‘Talking to Sverdlov, I asked in passing: “Oh yes, where is the Tsar?” “It’s all over”, he answered, “he has been shot.” “And where is the family?” “All the family along with him.” “All of them?”, I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise. “All of them”, replied Sverdlov, “what about it?” He was waiting to see my reaction. I made no reply. “And who made the decision?”, I asked. “We decided it here. Ilyich believed that we shouldn’t leave the whites a live banner to rally round, especially under the present difficult circumstances.”’

Russian Gold (page 399): An excerpt from the Comintern Budget Commission’s meeting of March 1922.

  • Budget for the German CP: Brandler, Popov, Humbert-Droz and Piatnitsky voted for a grant for 1922 of 446,592 gold rubles (42,872,822 German marks), Solts and Molotov voted for 400,000 gold rubles.
  • Budget for the French CP: unanimous vote for a grant of 100,000 gold rubles (638,000 French francs).
  • Budget for the Italian CP: 360,842 gold rubles (4,306,000 lira).
  • Budget for the Czechoslovak CP (Humbert-Droz having left): Popov, Brandler and Piatnitsky in favour of 250,000 gold rubles (791,000 Czech crowns), Solts and Mikhailov in favour of 200,000 gold rubles.
  • Budget for English CP: unanimous vote for 200,000 gold rubles.

Comrade Thomas (page 402): A commission established by Stalin, headed by Kritinsky, investigated the affairs of the German party. To the German Communist Party, February 1921, some 622,000 gold rubles in currency and valuables were transmitted, and for the whole of 1921 Comrade Thomas disbursed 1.22 million gold rubles, of which he retained 500,000 under his control in the ‘Frankfurt Fund’. When the commission was unable to find any receipts for some very large sums, it was decided that no further matter connected with financial operations should be entrusted to Comrade Thomas.

Did Stalin Poison Lenin? (page 426): The archives hold a ‘strictly secret’ letter from Stalin to the Politbureau, dated 21 March 1923, in which Stalin reports a request from Krupskaya and Lenin that he should find and administer to Lenin a dose of potassium cyanide, because Lenin was ‘suffering unbelievably’, and that ‘to go on living was unthinkable’. He ended by saying: ‘I do not have the strength to carry out Ilyich’s request.’ The Politbureau summed up in an informal resolution: ‘I propose that Stalin’s “indecisiveness” is correct. There should be an exchange of opinion strictly amongst Politbureau members.’ Signed by M. Tomsky, G. Zinoviev, V. Molotov, N. Bukharin, L. Trotsky, L. Kamenev. In effect the Politbureau decided that Lenin should go on ‘suffering unbelievably’ for another nine months. In his Stalin, Trotsky suggests that Stalin poisoned Lenin. Did he forget that he had signed a resolution approving Stalin’s decision not to administer poison to Lenin?

Lenin and a woman in Paris (pages 262-3): In 1936 a certain Viktor Tikhomirov collecting Lenin manuscripts came across letters alleged to have been written by a woman writer who was on very close terms with him. She did not want to part with the letters as long as Krupskaya was alive. Tikhomirov said: ‘This woman is well provided for, as she has been receiving funds from us in Moscow and they have been passing either through Menzhinsky or Dzerzhinsky, and she now receives an appropriate sum from a bank deposit.’

Telegram from Trotsky to Moscow, 17 June 1937 (pages 263–70): ‘Stalin’s policies leading to complete collapse, external as well as internal. Only salvation lies in radical about-face toward Soviet democracy, beginning with public review of last trials. On this matter offer total support.’ Stalin wrote on the telegram: ‘A spy’s mask! He is an insolent spy for Hitler!’ Molotov, Voroshilov and Mikoyan placed their signatures below.

Stalin’s proposed capitulation to Hitler (page 314): Shortly after Hitler invaded Russia, Stalin made a proposal to him through the Bulgarian ambassador, that the USSR would on the cessation of military action cede the Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Baltic states, the Karelian Isthmus, Bessarabia and Bukovina.

Ernest Rogers

Updated by ETOL: 28.9.2011