Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4


The Unknown Lenin

Richard Pipes
 The Unknown Lenin
Yale University Press, London, 1996, pp. 204, £18.50

HOT ON the heels of his sizeable no-holds-barred volumes on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet regime under Lenin, the leading conservative historian Richard Pipes presents a hundred or so assorted documents by Lenin that had been omitted from his Collected Works and kept hidden away in the Soviet archives, together with some documents addressed to him along with his comments.

The title itself isn’t quite accurate. Some of this material has appeared elsewhere in the English language. Lenin’s speech at the Ninth Party Conference in 1920 was included in Al Richardson’s collection In Defence of the Russian Revolution, and his instructions calling for gold to be confiscated from Orthodox churches appeared years ago in Religion in Communist Lands (Volume 7, no. 1, Spring 1979). Dmitri Volkogonov’s Lenin: Life and Legacy and the third volume of Robert Service’s Lenin trilogy, The Iron Ring, both quote from many of the documents in this book, and, moreover, put them into a much broader context.

Furthermore, the image of Lenin presented in this book is hardly unknown. Anyone with any knowledge of the man knows that he was poor at delegating work and involved himself with things which could have been dealt with at a lower level, went over the top at times in his polemics against political opponents, dealt deviously with foreign governments, was critical of his comrades, called for the exile of hostile intellectuals, and demanded harsh measures against opposition. So why publish a very small proportion of the thousands of documents that are in the archives, a selection which adds little to our knowledge of him?

As we have noted previously in this journal (Volume 5, no. 4, pp. 213–21), Pipes is an historian who allows his political views to influence his writings to the extent that they lose the objectivity that is necessary for a worthwhile historical account. It seems to me that the documents in this selection have been chosen specifically for the purpose of putting Lenin in as bad a light as possible. However, Pipes is fighting yesterday’s battles. Nobody these days sees Lenin as a plaster saint, Leninists themselves consider that some of his actions hindered the fight for Socialism, and is anyone going to lose any sleep over whether he had an affair with Inessa Armand? Not surprisingly, The Unknown Lenin has a somewhat redundant feel about it.

Some of the documents require more background information than is provided if they are to be fully understood, not least Lenin’s draft instructions to Bolsheviks in Ukraine which call for Jews and other urban people to be kept out of the Soviet administration. Although this is published here to infer that Lenin was anti-Semitic, it is much more likely to be in respect of ensuring that more Ukrainians were recruited to the Soviet regime in Ukraine, rather than Russians and Jews, who comprised much of the urban population, and were predominant in the Ukrainian Soviet apparatus. Anti-Semitism or indifference to the fate of the Jews is implied in respect of reports of pogroms to Lenin to which no responses have been found. If no replies can be found to these and other documents sent to him, were they written and then lost or misfiled? (That documents may have been lost is raised in the introduction.) Does marking documents ‘for the archives’ mean that Lenin did not act on them, as is suggested? Or did he take up the issues informally, without writing anything down? Some documents were also addressed to other leading Bolsheviks, so were they taken up first by them? Short of knowing every minute of Lenin’s life, and every word he spoke, something that was beyond the capabilities of even the most pedantic Soviet scholar, can anything categorical be said?

Although there are some interesting documents in this book, particularly Lenin’s disposition on Roman Malinovsky, the Tsarist police agent in the Bolsheviks’ Duma delegation, and his remarkably prescient warning to Kamenev about the consequences of removing Trotsky from the Central Committee, I can’t help thinking that Pipes has picked these documents in order to bolster his own bitterly hostile attitude towards Lenin. Like Volkogonov in his final years, Pipes seeks to promote a one-dimensional Lenin, a malignant incarnation of evil, and tries to put the clock back a few decades to the times when Cold War demonology was the norm. A less prejudiced investigator could have used the wealth of documentation in the archives in order to produce a worthwhile analysis of the mechanics of the Soviet government. If, as Yuri Baranov says in his introduction, work on unpublished Lenin material is to continue, let us hope that in future it is put in the hands of a scholar who can provide a more objective understanding of Lenin and the Soviet regime than old-fashioned conservatives like Richard Pipes.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011