Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Tomes and tomes have been written about him, and a virtual secular communist religion with its diverse sects has based itself on his legacy. 

First, there is no need to repeat what has already been said about him; why in Russia, along with the Soviet empire he created around it, Lenin has been virtually deified; and why his corpse is still preserved on display in Moscow’s Red Square as if he were some latter-day secular saint.

But, given that this preeminent Russian idealogue of Marxism – as he saw fit to apply it – remains a controversial figure; and that many, especially outside the areas where communist rule was imposed by him and his successors, still regard him as a political deity to be worshipped, from the perspective of Ukraine’s current realities, it is worth noting the following.

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Lenin was a tyrannical fanatic who applied his intellectual prowess and obsessive industriousness to seizing power and reshaping the world by destroying at any price the old order and replacing it with a crude utopian version of the working class taking over. To that end, his ruthlessness extolled the principle of the end justifies the means.

Consequently, it was he who was responsible first and foremost among his fellow Bolsheviks for creating the Soviet communist system based on political intolerance and terror as an instrument of state policy. And from there, the re-conquest of non-Russian nations that sought to establish independent states after the collapse of the Russian tsarist imperial system, or “prison of nations,” as he himself had called it in 1914.  

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It is also important to dispel a myth promoted by the Bolsheviks – that they overthrew the despotic Russian tsarist system in October/November 1917.

In fact, what Lenin and his radical followers did was to destroy the fledgling Russian democracy that had emerged when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in March of that year. They presented themselves to the outside world as storming the tsarist Winter Palace in St. Petersburg when, in fact, what they actually did, was overthrow the feeble democratic Provisional Government.

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In January 1918, after unprecedented democratic elections for a Russian Constituent Assembly gave the Bolsheviks only around a quarter of the votes, they simply dispersed the newly elected parliament.

Lenin – the destroyer of genuine Ukrainian independence

Having taken control in the Russian capital, Lenin and his Bolshevik forces immediately sought to reestablish control over the non-Russian regions. They fought against the anti-Bolshevik Russian “White” armies, especially those concentrated in Ukraine, and which were hostile to Ukrainian independence. Hence the notion of the “Russian Civil War.”

But the Ukrainians did not want to be part of a Russian empire reconstituted as a quasi-internationalist “workers’ state,” depriving them of the opportunity to negotiate their future status with the newly elected Russian parliament. They declared their independence on Jan. 22, 1918, in Kyiv, even as Bolshevik forces were advancing towards the Ukrainian capital. 

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For the Ukrainian democratic leadership, the ensuing simultaneous military struggle against the Russian “Red” armies supporting Lenin and the White ones under General Denikin and others, was Ukraine’s war of national liberation, and not part of a Russian civil war. 

Lenin understood the vital importance of Ukraine, not only because of its industrialized zone in the Donbas but also its agricultural output. In 1919, he warned that “Soviet power in the Russian provinces would inevitably perish” without Ukrainian bread and urged his military commanders to accelerate the conquest of the recalcitrant would-be independent country.

By 1920, the Bolsheviks ultimately prevailed militarily over both their White enemies and the Ukrainians fighting for their freedom. But military victory left Lenin with the dilemma of how to consolidate the still very precarious Bolshevik rule in Ukraine and other non-Russian regions. Moreover, Ukraine had declared and fought for its independence, its sovereignty had been recognized by the Central Powers in February 1918 by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and even temporarily by Soviet Russia itself, and Ukrainian Bolsheviks were openly opposing a return to Russia’s old colonial ways towards their country.

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And here, Lenin did finally display astute political sensitivity and craftiness of the sort that was generally absent among the newly established Soviet leadership in Moscow.

Chicanery: Internationalism and Russification

As his health began to decline rapidly from the second half of 1921 following an attempted assassination of him three years earlier, the Soviet leader opted for a degree of temporary compromise and leniency. This aimed to bolster what had been achieved by military conquest, employing the tactic that he elsewhere described as “one step back, two steps forward.”

First, Lenin realized that it was no longer possible to simply rename the new “Soviet” state as a unitary Russian one, as the Russian Empire had been called. Thus, despite the opposition of some of his top lieutenants, particularly the Georgian Joseph Stalin, who already at this stage was proving to be more Russian in outlook than some of his Russian comrades, he defended the idea of recognizing the non-Russian regions as nominally independent republics. Their working classes were supposedly voluntarily joining with Russia to create a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Lenin and Stalin. Wikipedia.

Lenin also decided that, in order to win over the non-Russians who, like the Ukrainians, were predominantly still a rural population, and allow communist rule to “take root” among them, concessions should be made to the peasantry in the form of a more liberal “New Economic Policy.” And from this also ensued recognition of the need to make controlled concessions in the cultural sphere, such that Soviet rule would not appear as simply Russian domination continuing under new rulers.

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In December 1922, as his conflict with Stalin over the form to be given to the new Soviet polity intensified, the ailing and by now bed-ridden Lenin dictated his thoughts and advice in what became known as his “Testament” on the nationalities question. 

And the candid observations made by him more than 100 years ago about Russia’s imperial past remain highly relevant today with regard to the imperialist mindset of the current Kremlin leadership.

Lenin emphasized at the time that, in order to make a new union of “Soviet” republics viable, the Russians themselves had to dispense with imperial attitudes. It was necessary, he wrote “to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the great Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.”

Dismantling the cult of Lenin

Regardless of Lenin’s more nuanced position in his final years about the terms on which Russians and non-Russian could co-exist in a single state camouflaged as a federation, he is remembered in Ukraine as the architect of the totalitarian Soviet communist system, destroyer of Ukraine’s bid for independence in 1917-20, and creator of the Soviet Union.

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On his death Stalin grabbed the reins and gradually harnessed the system Lenin had created with even more horrific consequences. He dispensed with the concessions in the economic and cultural spheres and restored the emphasis from proclaimed internationalism to that of unbridled Russification.

Stalin’s successors, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, while continuing to promote the cult of Lenin, in fact adhered to Stalin’s approach in this regard. It led a leading Ukrainian intellectual Ivan Dziuba to pen his classic 1965 critique of Soviet nationalities policy – “Internationalism or Russification?” This open protest heralded the appearance of nationally assertive post-Soviet dissent and opposition in Ukraine.

After Ukraine finally secured its independence in 1991, Lenin’s statues that were erected in every Ukrainian city and town by his successors as symbols of Moscow’s domination were gradually torn down, and the grim truth about what he and his Bolshevik accomplices represented was revealed. Decommunization and de-Russification, accelerated by Russia’s return to its imperialist ambitions, have become the order of the day in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, just as Lenin cannot turn in his grave in light of all that has transpired (his corpse has been embalmed and kept on display), so the preserved carcass of the Russian empire is not being allowed to perish by the current “Great-power chauvinists” in the Kremlin vainly seeking to resurrect it.

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