Lenin: The Man Behind the Finger
Colin Rideout, University of Essex Philosophy student and Art Exchange Frontrunner, responds to our exhibition, FALLEN, with his essay, Lenin: The Man Behind the Finger.
Lenin: The Man Behind the Finger
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, was one of the most (in)famous and important figures of the 20th Century. His leadership steered the October Revolution to enable the creation of a Bolshevik-led revolutionary state that radically changed Russia from the Tsarist state three centuries old to a world superpower that challenged the base assumptions of Western-style democracy and capitalism. Communism was no longer a “specter haunting Europe” as Marx declared in his Manifesto, but was a material force that threatened to, and in varied forms did, spread across the globe. Yet despite his importance, three historical events have led to a widespread misunderstanding of who Lenin was; the personality cult built around Lenin that both theoretically and literally froze him in time (see his Mausoleum in Moscow today); the Western demonization of Communism and all figures associated with it; and perhaps more controversially, a particular contemporary apathy pertaining to non-capitalist history since the fall of the USSR, as symbolized by the Berlin Wall.
This essay aims to illustrate why Lenin would prove to be such an essential propaganda tool for the Soviet Union, with his iconography ranging from the uncompleted Palace of the Soviets to oil paintings being produced as late as the 1980’s. To do so, this essay will provide a very brief overview of Lenin’s life, beginning with the interestingly anti-revolutionary views of his father, and the archetypal loving support of his mother experienced during his formative years; moving on to his incredibly sudden radicalization due to, in large part, the execution of his beloved brother Sasha. The essay will then discuss Lenin’s earliest intellectual influences (which were surprisingly not Marx or even Marxist); which led Lenin to practical revolutionary activity qualitatively distinct from that of his brother, to conclude with the historical weakening of the Tsar’s legitimate authority rendering revolution not only possible, but, from the perspective of the revolutionary and opposition parties, absolutely necessary. Lenin will be shown to have been a man of incredible intellect, determination, and vision; but also deeply flawed, emotional, and motivated in the first instance by the trauma the Tsar himself caused the Ulyanov family. Lenin profoundly epitomized a dual nature defined by, on the one hand, the philosophical understanding of supposedly universalizable principles of class conflict and revolution, and, on the other hand, an intensely emotional and, one might even say vengeful, subjective need for revolution. This is not to excuse any of the heinous acts he would commit, but this essay is also not meant as a comprehensive overview of Lenin’s character and historical significance (such a task would require an entire book, not a short essay).
Lenin was born April 10th (22nd), 1870 to a well-off middle class family in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), approximately 900km East of Moscow. He was born to Maria Alexandrovna Blank, lovingly dedicated and strong-willed mother of seven, and Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov, devoted public servant and loyal to the Tsar. Very little about Lenin’s parentage would even hint at his turn to radical politics, particularly Marxism, in his later teens. Ilya held a prestigious role as inspector of the local grammar schools, and firmly believed in the evolutionary role of education and a gradual approach to social change, expressed most clearly by his reverence for Tsar Alexander II, and the former’s horror at the assassination of the latter in 1881. Maria would prove to be the heart of the Ulyanov family, as she would face numerous familial tragedies in stride, including the death of her husband in 1886, the execution of her eldest son Alexander (affectionately nicknamed Sasha) in 1887, and the exiling and imprisonment of her surviving children at various points. Indeed, were it not for her unconditional support, both emotionally and financially, Lenin may never have been able to survive his many years in exile, let alone become the revolutionary leader in 1917.
As a boy, Vladimir was incredibly gifted at school, attaining top marks in virtually all of his classes. Yet, and this is due in no small part to the reactionary measures taken by Tsar Alexander III after the assassination of his father, the Russian education system at the time was notoriously devoid of political teachings. For this reason, students would not study the great Russian authors of the time like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Pushkin due to their controversial relationship with state censors (even though these texts were available outside of the universities). Nevertheless, Lenin’s political apathy, or at least complacency, would come to a screeching halt in 1887. Lenin revered his older brother, Alex, who was very clever and apparently destined for a glittering academic career, namely in the natural sciences. Yet Sasha also had a passion for studying critical works of political economy and the books of the radical Russian intelligentsia. This, along with a personal feeling of political impotence egged on by the new Tsar’s increasingly dictatorial rule, led him and a group of like-minded youths to plot an assassination attempt against the Tsar. To put it briefly, the plot of Sasha and co. was laughably amateurish. The plot was found out, and Sasha betrayed by two of his 15 co-conspirators. Despite pleas from his mother, and a personal appeal for mercy written by Sasha to the Tsar, he was hanged on May 8th (20th), 1887 at the age of 21. This moment represents an emotional turning point for Lenin, cementing his hatred of the government that killed his brother and the “middle class do-gooders” that abandoned his family in Simbirsk for being associates of a terrorist. Almost overnight, Lenin the radical was born.
Following this emotional turmoil, Lenin was almost immediately motivated to take up the revolutionary cause that killed Sasha. He set about reading all of the “radical” books on political economy, philosophy, literature, and economics that constituted the intellectual backdrop for Sasha’s terrorist activities. While it is easy to believe that Lenin’s first philosophical love was Marx’s Capital or Communist Manifesto, as many later Soviet hagiographies of the leader would lead one to believe, his first major influence and object of his long-lasting literary adoration, was actually to be found in N.G. Chernyshevsky’s utopian What is to be Done?, which the author wrote while imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress (overlooking the Winter Palace), published in 1863. The influence this would have on Lenin would be immortalized in his titling his first major political-philosophical work after it, and his visceral anger with anyone who dared criticize it (such as his former colleague Nikolai Valentinov). To be brief, Lenin idolized the novel’s protagonist Rakhmetov, who dreams of a future devoid of poverty, and where all live in idyllic freedom. Much like the revolutionary called for in Sergei Nechaev’s 1869 Catechism of a Revolutionary, Rakhmetov expresses no desire except for that of the revolution, abstaining from all drink, sex, and other “distractions”. He would read for hours on end, once for 82 hours without a break. His existence centered around training himself, in both body and mind, in preparation of the revolution. Lenin would consciously model himself after this literary hero, even if he was incapable of the same emotionally rigorous stoicism as Rakhmetov. Whereas the latter would consider emotional attachments a detriment to the revolution, the former’s revolutionary activity was forever indebted to his emotional character.
Yet Lenin’s turn to radical politics, while immediately personal, was to be fundamentally different from that of his brother. He would devour critical, radical, and revolutionary books just like Sasha, but saw the dying breaths of Sasha and co. as simultaneously those of the party for which they were fighting, viz., the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya). Terrorism as a political tactic was, so Lenin painfully learned, insufficient and easily snuffed out. What would be required were mass uprisings against the autocracy. To achieve this, Lenin recognized the need for a revolutionary party and a more systematic and preparatory approach to revolution, and so in 1893 he joined an Emancipation of Labor group in St. Petersburg, which would, in 1896-7, unify with like-minded groups to form the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). Yet during this time, Lenin was arrested and imprisoned for a year, and then sent into exile in Siberia until 1900, at which point he went to Western Europe (notably making six lengthy trips to London between 1902-1911). It was during this first time in exile the Lenin would write Iskra (Spark), the political newspaper for the RSDLP that would be smuggled into Russia after being printed in Western Europe. Iskra would prove to be the most popular underground newspaper in Russia in over 50 years.
Just prior to when Lenin would return to Russia, the RSDLP held its 2nd Congress, which led to the fateful Bolshevik (majority) / Menshevik (minority) split, based primarily on theoretical issues. In particular, these included disputes about how the party ought to be organized, led, and its role in the revolutionary process. Lenin the Bolshevik returned to Russia in 1905 amidst the chaos caused by that year’s Revolution. This string of insurrections was caused by, primarily, the country’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan (the first time a European power was defeated by a non-European one), and Tsar Nicholas II’s authoritarian rule, coming to a head on Bloody Sunday when his forces fired on and killed many unarmed protestors (estimates of casualties range from 400 – 4000, though the figure is most likely closer to 1000). It is today considered a revolution because the Tsar reluctantly accepted nominal limitations on his hitherto absolute monarchy, adopting a Constitution in 1906, as well as creating the multi-party State Duma, in practice a weak parliament. Nevertheless, history would prove to repeat itself, as the Tsar ignored any limitations on his still authoritarian exercise of power, and would be undone yet again by his military incompetence. As for Lenin himself, it was during this time of political turmoil that he was elected leader of the RSDLP, but left Russia again in 1907 when it was clear the masses were not yet prepared to wage revolution.
1914 brought Lenin’s project of socialist agitation a veritable gift in the form of the Great War. Entering into the war as a predominantly agrarian and feudal nation in both economics and politics, Russia’s capacities to finance its war efforts, properly equip its soldiers, and actually lead a successful military campaign were proven to be sorely lacking. By 1917, Russia had suffered nearly eight million military casualties, not even including the loss of civilian life, much the result of near famine-like conditions at home. The Bolsheviks utilized three simple slogans, also known as the “three whales” of the Party, to contribute to an overall dissatisfaction with the Tsar that would lead to military desertions en masse, and the military’s unwillingness to crack down on the February Revolution: “Confiscation of the Landed Estates”, “Democratic Republic”, and “The Eight Hour Day”. This is not to say that the Bolsheviks played a pivotal role in February; on the contrary, they proved to be unprepared to participate and ultimately inconsequential to the outcome. Eventually discontent with the Tsar’s regime boiled over, leading to the February Revolution in 1917. This mass insurrection differed from that of 1905 because by 1917 Russia was beginning to industrialize, meaning that huge numbers of worker were crammed together in factories, and also that the tiny class of the bourgeoisie were content to relentlessly exploit their workers, while not enjoying the same political advantages of the nobility. This culminated in protests over bread prices and poor wages on February 23rd (March 8th), with public squares swelling with protestors just two days later. The Tsar was informed that the military would not support him just two days after that, forcing him to abdicate and end the 300 year long Romanov dynasty.
Lenin’s Bolsheviks, as well as the other revolutionary parties, were blindsided by the events of February, and consequently played no leadership role whatsoever in the spontaneous uprising and following crucial eight days. Indeed, they were scrambling to understand exactly what happened as the Tsar was abdicating. The political vacuum was to be filled by a ramshackle Provisional Government that was based in the Petrograd Soviet (essentially a council), and headed by Alexander Kerensky. In these early days, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs) easily won power, but due to an incapacity or unwillingness to take over, went to the old bourgeois Duma politicians for help in ruling. Lenin himself recognized the need for a second, more calculated and properly led proletarian revolution, and made his way to Russia from exile in Switzerland as quickly as possible (aided by the Germans, who saw Lenin’s return to Russia as a means to end the war on two fronts Germany was losing).
Upon his return to Russia, Lenin quickly delivered the now famous April Theses, which were, in short, meant to push the Bolshevik Party towards a second revolution that was socialist in practice and internationalist in scope, in order to fight imperialism in all of its forms. These ten precise and polemical directives can be seen as one of Lenin’s crowning intellectual accomplishments, saying quite briefly and in an easy to understand manner what had to be done. Delivering these theses to his own party, a joint Bolshevik-Menshevik conclave, and an All-Russian Conference of Soviets and Workers Deputies, Lenin was denounced by many as “mad”, a “criminal”, etc. for breaking with the Marxist doctrine that demanded patience for the material conditions of society to be prepared for revolution. Lenin loathed this passivity. This decisively divided Lenin’s loyal Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks and SRs, the latter of whom had a strong position of authority in the Provisional Government, into “radicals” on the one hand, and “reformists” on the other. The reformists would soon be tossed into the “dustbin of history”, along with the Provisional Government, when the October revolution would come to pass.
The time that passed between the April Theses and the fateful day of October 25th (November 7th) was incredibly dangerous for Lenin and his cause. As he could not leave Russia yet again, as the opportunity to lead the revolution could not be missed like in February, he had to go into hiding and allow top Bolshevik leaders such as Trotsky plan the event. At this point the Provisional Government was losing favor among the masses, but particularly among the military, as this new government was adamant on staying in the war that was still costing umpteen Russian lives. Further, during the “July days” as they are now called, the Provisional Government cracked down on peaceful protestors in a style eerily reminiscent of the ousted Tsar. Improving upon the “three whales” propagated prior to February, Bolshevik agitation was boiled down to three simple words that expressed everything the Provisional Government failed to provide, and a solution to these failures: “Land, Peace and Bread”, followed by the demand; “All Power to the Soviets!”. As this essay is about Lenin, not the revolution more generally, suffice it to say that there would not have been a Bolshevik takeover of power, and the counter-revolutionary forces may have won, were it not for Lenin. The Bolsheviks seized power from Kerensky’s Provisional Government and took over the Winter Palace (more of a symbolic than a strategic necessity) with remarkable ease. Yet this military victory over Kerensky’s incompetent government was not due exclusively to the great military tact of Trotsky and co., but also to many lucky turns of fortune (see Sebestyen, 10-20).
The declaration of an unprecedented, boldly self-proclaimed socialist nation clearly did not come without controversy. As soon as Lenin declared the victory of the revolution, he faced a devastating Civil War to replace the Great War (from which Russia pulled out by signing an armistice in December 1917, and then the Brest-Litvosk treaty on March 3, 1918). The Civil War raged from 1917 until 1922, between the Red Army forces who had helped the Bolsheviks gain power in the first place, and the White reactionaries backed by many members of the WW1 Alliance, most notably, Britain, France, and the United States, who attempted to strangle the infant socialist state in its crib. Wartime brought with it the introduction of War Communism, which, briefly, forcefully nationalized all industries and placed them under strict central management, and also called for the execution of all surviving members of the Romanov family (unbeknownst to most of the public at the time), which took place on the night of 16-17th July 1918. The extreme situation that was the Civil War, and the Bolshevik government’s need to consolidate power in this crucial post-revolutionary period, was symbolized quite personally by the failed assassination attempt against Lenin, who was shot twice by Fanya Kaplan, a member of the SRs, on August 30th, 1918. This precarious time demanded swift action, which neither justifies Lenin’s extreme decisions nor does it make them any less morally reprehensible, but perhaps historically grounded. Eventually the Reds won the war and reconsolidated control over Russian territory, but the fledgling nation was left severely crippled, forcing Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policies (NEP), essentially a “soft” reintroduction of capitalist practices to kick-start the Russian economy.
Lenin is invariably a controversial historical figure to such a degree that, to some, anything short of a flat denunciation of him and all that he stood for is akin to sympathizing with a dictator. Many academics denounce from the outset the October Revolution, instead preferring to call it the “October Putsch”, or a coup d’état. Further, the Red Terror, i.e., when the Russian secret police, viz., the Cheka, cracked down on any “counter-revolutionary” activity after the failed assassination attempt on Lenin in 1918, is seen by many to be symptomatic of Lenin’s political career in general, paving the way to the indisputable dictatorship of Stalinism. This refusal to attempt to adopt the perspective of the people actually engaged in the deification of Lenin, to attempt to understand why it became so pervasive, is as tempting as it is unproductive. While any account of Lenin and the Russian revolution must acknowledge the terrible things that he most certainly is guilty of having done, to freeze at a historically oriented moral condemnation fails to comprehend why Lenin proved so effective as an icon. This is an especially important question in the context of the period of de-Stalinization, where Khrushchev sought to erase nearly all memory of Stalin from the USSR, and, it could be argued, filled this aesthetic and narrative void with Lenin.
Lenin died on Janury 21st, 1924, his health having been in decline for years previously, and only worsened by the assassination attempt. His name, legacy, and philosophical influence face an odd situation today, as to some people his influence is still viscerally felt and exacerbated at the mere mention of his name; yet to others, his name means nothing. As has been expressed throughout, despite what many history books would say, Lenin’s journey to revolution was neither a simple story of avenging his brother’s death, nor was it the inescapable outcome of his academic endeavors. One would have been meaningless without the other, and without the dynamic between the two, Lenin the revolutionary, and the man behind the finger (≠ Vladimir Ulyanov) would have never been born.
Ali, Tariq. The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution. 2017. Verso: London
The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Shub, Esfir. 1927. Film.
King, David. Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Death of Stalin. 2009. Tate: London.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilych. The Essential Works of Lenin: “What is to be Done?” and Other Writings. Ed. Christman, Henry M. Dover Publications, Inc.: New York. 1987.
Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd edition. Ed. Tucker, Robert C. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 1978.
Sebestyen, Victor. Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait. 2017. Weidenfeld & Nicholson: London.
 Dates outside of parentheses follow the Julian calendar (also known as the “Old Style”) then used in Russia, whereas dates inside of the parentheses will follow more popular, and contemporarily used, Gregorian calendar, which the Russians adopted on February 14th, 1918 (Gregorian).
 The influence that Rasputin, the infamous mystic and womanizer who seduced the Tsar’s wife, had on the Tsar’s military campaign is an interesting topic to explore, but not essential to explaining the rise of Lenin.
 Who, coincidentally enough, was born and raised in Lenin’s hometown of Simbirsk.
 I mention three suggestions for why this is the case above.