The word dictator refers to someone who rules a country with absolute power. Dictators tend to come to power by other throwing the government by advertising a common goal or reason to the people. Lenin had the semblance of a dictator, he defeated the Tsar and murdered his whole family then went on to form the Soviet Union which one may argue was the worst dictatorships in the 20th Century. Indeed, at first glance Lenin is commonly assumed to be a dictator, however many argue that he was a revolutionary hero who saved people from decades of suffering and poverty. Russia was a country where workers and peasants worked long hours, lived in poverty and hardships and were the lowest paid in Europe while the Elite including the aristocracy and the imperial families enjoyed a life of luxury. For many Lenin was seen to be the figure who ended a reign built on brutality and corruption, shifting Russia to a new and improved modernized industrial state seen today from a mostly agriculture Aristocracy. Lenin is one of the most controversial leaders in history, however, questions arise as to whether he was a revolutionary hero who ended a reign of terror, suffering and hardship or a villain and dictator who replaced one terror with another.
For Lenin to be a dictator, he would have exercised complete power over Russia and used oppressive and brutal means to censor anyone who opposed him. Whilst these element’s certainly fed into the image of a dictator, Russia’s history in governing, economic and political standpoint before Lenin came into power cannot be ignored and can hinder how much power the word dictator applies to Lenin. For Lenin to be a revolutionary hero, Lenin would have saved a country from an oppressive regime and would have improved conditions instead of worsening them. Historians Like Dmitri Volkogonov and Richard Pipes both agree that Lenin was a dictator and draws their arguments from Lenin’s creation of the CHEKA and The Red Terror which was an example of Lenin trying to exercise control. However other Historians like Christopher Hill defends Lenin’s actions due to the situation in Russia, which had tolerated years of Civil War, World war 1 and the corruption of the aristocracy which caused massive instability. Lenin’s creation of the NEP shows him using compromise, unlike the Red Terror which used force. Both Historian’s accounts can be challenged because of their own personal view on the matter and therefore I will be assessing all accounts to come up with a final conclusion.
Lenin can be viewed as a dictator because he ruled Russia through a one-party dictatorship, the Bolsheviks also known as the Communist party. Dmitri Volkogonov is a historian known for his anti- Lenin approach, and believes that Lenin’s sole reason for ‘building socialism in one country boiled down to the chance of seizing power.1’ This shows that Volkogonov believes that Lenin was able to exercise his dictatorship tendencies through the centralization of power in Russia. This is further supported by the creation of Sovnarkom under Lenin which was a new body of government which shows that the Communist party had no intention of sharing their power. This gives the impression that Lenin wanted to limit other powers in order to strengthen his own which supports the idea that Lenin was a dictator.
However, the argument that Lenin established Sovnarkom for his own personal greed for power can be rivalled due to the economic situation at the time. Russia was in a Civil war and the creation of the Sovnarkom may have been an emergency tactic to defend against anti-Bolsheviks. This is supported by Christopher Hill, a historian who has Marxist sympathies; ‘In 1918 the country had been economically exhausted and bankrupt2’ This shows that Russia was in a state of economic hardship and the pressure to maintain stability among the economic situation and the chaos of the Civil war may help to explain why Lenin fell back to using more centralized decisions. Hill then goes further to say ‘there was a spirit of optimism and self-confidence among the workers which was itself able to overcome many difficulties.3’ This shows that Lenin was able to restore hope and confidence for the workers which had been crushed during the Tsar regime, which in itself shows that Lenin may be considered a revolutionary hero because he symbolized hope for the future instead of a reign of terror.
Volkogonov argues that the creation of Politburo which became the central committee for the communist party was, in fact, an excursion of power to help dictate the country. ‘The famine… was appalling. People were eating dead bodies, although the Politburo banned any mention of cannibalism in the press.4’ This shows that Politburo was using propaganda to sell the dream that Russia’s conditions were improving. This suggests that Lenin was a dictator because through Politburo he censored bad press in order to strive for complete power. However, Politburo released more dictatorship laws towards the end of Lenin’s reign, where he fell ill, therefore it could be argued it was the Bolshevik party who strived for more power, not Lenin.
Furthermore, historian Christopher Hill argues that Lenin introduced laws that helped to improve conditions rather than worsening them. ‘Lenin announced as the programme of the Soviet government the immediate proposal of peace to all nations; the transfer of land to the peasants; workers’ control over the production distribution of food; national control of the banks.5′ This is suggesting that Lenin aimed to help workers rights and was a voice for the people; by transferring land to the peasants was aiding his socialist dream and ending unfair treatment and privileges from the nobility and aristocracy. Hill also proclaims that Lenin ‘ was ready on occasion to ‘crawl on his belly in the mud’ if the interests of Russia and the revolution required it6′. This further supports the impression that Lenin was prepared to put Russia’s interests before his, and evaluates Lenin’s sincerity for equality. However, the image displayed by Hill may be exaggerated due to Hill having Marxist sympathies, therefore, the account can be challenged due to Hill holding biased views.
Some historians believe that Lenin’s initiation of the Red Terror, which was a response to a failed assassination plot was an act of a dictator. Volkogonov describes Lenin using ‘inhumane terrorist methods7’ which interprets qualities of a dictator. Volkogonov argues that Lenin immediately resorted ‘to the prison, the concentration camps, exile, the firing squad, hostages and blackmail8’ This implies that Lenin’s use of the Red Terror to establish censorship and to limit resistance and hostility to the new regime from opposing parties describes Lenin as a dictator because he was using violence and terror to suppress opposition. This is further supported by the fact that 800 were executed without trial and therefore displays a regime filled with terror, violence and disregard for anyone who doesn’t agree with their beliefs. Volkogonov also claims that the Red Terror was ‘a path of violence and universal suspicion that was to become typical of twentieth-century tyrannies thereafter.9’ This shows that the historian Volgokonov believes that Lenin was a dictator through the use of The Red Terror because it suppressed political freedom in Russia whilst heightening Lenin’s own lust for power. Thus, showing that Lenin was a dictator because he resulted to using violence and terror to protect his regime.
However, Volkogonov may be exaggerating the extent of The Red Terror due to not sharing soviet beliefs himself and therefore, may hold biased views. Whilst the Red Terror was an example of Lenin using force to establish control, the role of the NEP was an example of Lenin using compromise which shows that the extent of Lenin being a dictator is challenged. Historian John Laver vocalizes that ‘Under NEP peasants were freed from the threat of requisitioning and were allowed to engage in private enterprise10’ This shows that Lenin himself was prepared to change some of his communist beliefs in which he saw would better society. In Laver’s own words the NEP was ‘at worst an outright betrayal of Marxism11’ which shows that Lenin sincerely believed in doing what was right for the people, thus showing he was a revolutionary hero. Lenin was prepared to go against his own beliefs and Laver proclaim that ‘NEP was never a comfortable fact of life for the Communist Party12’ which shows that Lenin put the happiness of the people before himself and his party. Christopher Hill proclaims that ‘Lenin knew the Russian people and valued their traditions13’ which supports the idea that Lenin was prepared to go against his own cabinet and views to arguably satisfy the people who are his main concern, thus showing he was a revolutionary hero.
Many historian’s view Lenin as a dictator through the creation of the CHEKA. This was a secret police force which helped to imprison, interrogate and execute anyone who opposed the Communist regime. This harsh method of using power to install terror and resilience was seen as an embodiment of a dictatorship for many historians. Laver states that the CHECKA ‘arrested suspected political opponents, saboteurs and other counter-revolutionaries14’ which shows that they used harsh and violent means in order to protect Communism and anyone who defied it. Laver describes the CHEKA in a frightening portrayal of ‘terror met terror15’ and as a ‘regime of terror against enemies of the people16’ showcasing his belief that Lenin was a tyrant who lusted for power in expense for people’s trust and lives. Therefore, Lenin was a dictator because he used violence to oppress opposition and to heighten his own power as a result. Volkogonov supports Laver in the ideal that CHEKA was established to maximize Lenin’s dictatorship as he believed that the ‘theory of revolution proposed nothing other than these inhuman terrorist methods17’ which supports the idea that Lenin was a dictator because he was eager to use harsh methods to establish control and protect his party from threat of opposition.
However, historians like Christopher Hill declare that The Red Terror and the CHEKA were important temporary measures to shield against instability and were forced upon during certain circumstances. The historian Marcel Liebman states that the Lenin’s motives were ‘to defend the Soviet power against the attacks of counter revolutionaries18’ This is evident in the creation of The Red Terror, which was a result of an attempt to murder Lenin and this gave him the initiative to defend himself through the creation of The Red Terror. Therefore, The Red Terror was arguably a necessary retaliation to the opposition Lenin faced as a leader. Thus, Lenin could not be seen as a dictator; Lenin established The Red Terror because of threat to his position and so The Red Terror was merely a response. Lenin’s reaction was simply what any other regime facing opposition would have taken.
Historians like Hill view Lenin’s commitment in installing communism in Russia as a reflection of his sincerity to end bloodshed and create a communist utopia. This is reflected in Lenin’s taste to live a humble life and refuse a life of luxury which shows that he was committed to his ideals of building a Communist state. Hill claims that Lenin ‘unaffectedly continued to live in the simplest style, sleeping in an iron, bedstead in a carpet less room19’ This gives an indication of Lenin’s character; that he was humble and simplistic, and refutes the image that many automatically conjure of a violent ruthless dictator. Lenin’s humble nature is further supported by Hill stating that ‘presents of food which peasants sent in to him during the famine he invariable gave away.20’ This shows that Lenin’s main concern was building a communist society and indicates that Lenin truly believed in doing what was right for the people of Russia. Therefore, Lenin can be seen as a revolutionary hero because of his simplistic lifestyle and his decision to put the concerns of the people of Russia over his own.
Furthermore, historians like Laver believe that Lenin’s intentions were to improve conditions for the people rather than fuel his own desire for power. Historian John Laver states that ‘Lenin himself was accessible as an individual21’ which discards characteristics of a dictator. According to Laver, ‘those who disagreed with him in conversation were not in fear of their liberty or their lives22’ which shows that Lenin valued the opinion of his cabinet and welcomed other views that challenged his own. Thus, Laver is suggesting that Lenin was committed to his mission of building a better state for the people rather than dictating for greed of power. Furthermore, Lenin was ‘regarded by his staff as considerate23’ which show empathetic tendencies rather than characteristics of a dictator. Laver states that Lenin ‘received an on average 300 letters a week. In addition to reading these, he listened to reports about the situation in the provinces.24’ Lenin is shown to be motivated and committed to his mission of building a better state. Therefore, Lenin can be viewed as a revolutionary hero who strived to build a state to end previous years of hardship and unfair treatment because he was viewed as ‘considerate’ and was involved with matters of Russia.
However, whilst Laver defends Lenin’s commitment and sincerity in achieving a revolution and building a communist state, Laver states that Lenin showed ‘no concern about human rights on a more general level25’. This is further supported by his refusal to include the Bolsheviks with the Mensheviks and social revolutionaries which limited a more broadly-based government from developing. Laver seems to agree that Lenin had genuine interests to build a better state, however this does not imply that Lenin did not use doctorial tactics to achieve his dream. Historian Richard Pipes who takes an anti-Lenin stance agrees with Laver by describing the Bolshevik party as more of an ‘order26’ where ‘Elements regarded as unworthy were purged27.’ This denies the idea that Lenin surrounded himself with a variety of opinions and influencers but rather restricted members of his party who ‘met certain ideological as well as class or racial criteria’. Therefore, Richard Pipes implies that Lenin was a dictator because he chose to surround himself with people who only shared the same opinion as himself and therefore this suggests he was working towards a one-party dictatorship.
However, Hill argues against the idea that Lenin was only concerned for himself and his own party. Under Lenin, Hill argues that ‘laws were being passed abolishing all inequalities based on class, sex nationality or religion28’. This shows that Lenin was not discriminative and genuinely cared for the interests of the people, thus showing qualities of a revolutionary hero rather than a dictator. Hill further supports this claim by claiming that Lenin ‘called on women themselves to take the lead in establishing the communal institutions29′ which gives the impression that Lenin cared for women’s rights and equality and worked towards improving conditions in Russia. Historian Laver supports Hill in the opinion that Lenin genuinely had the interests of Russia at heart; ”Lenin received an on average 300 letters a week. In addition to reading these, he listened to reports about the situation in the provinces30’. This supports the impression that Lenin strove for the genuine interests of the people rather than his own. Laver also argues that ‘the fact that his collogues drew little more than Workmen’s wages was widely appreciated by outsiders31’. This signifies that the people of Russia valued Lenin and his work ethic and gives an insight that the people saw him as a figure who they could look up to and trust, thus showing he was a revolutionary hero.
However, some historians like Volkogonov saw Lenin as a dictator because of his approach to eliminate opposition and any threat to his power and regime. According to Laver, the Kronstadt rebellion was ‘ruthlessly crushed by Trotsky and Tukhachevsky. Thousands of rebels were shot during the recapture of Kronstadt, or were executed in cold blood afterwards32’. This shows that Lenin approved of murder in order to enforce his ideals, implying that Lenin used terror to achieve his goal. This is supported by the murder of the Tsar and his whole family including children which Laver vocalizes was ‘in order to prevent them falling into enemy hands33’. This implies that Lenin did not tolerate opposition or threat to his ideals and was prepared to use violence to force acceptance towards the communist regime. Laver also states that under Lenin ‘representatives of Left-winged political groups like the SR’s were shot in order to prevent them falling into enemy hands’ which further supports that Lenin used terror and violent tactics to enforce Communism, thus showing that Lenin was a dictator. However, the steps Lenin took when he came to power can be seen as a necessity to maintain order, and were arguably methods any leader who comes to power would have taken. Hill argues that ‘the revolution had been completely successful in its negative aspect: tsar and landlords had gone forever34.’ Hill suggests that the murder of the Tsars was a necessity to get closer to a communist state and to bring closure to a reign of corruption, therefore Lenin could be seen as a revolutionary hero.
Historians like Hill view Lenin as a revolutionary hero because they believe he genuinely cared for the interests of Russia. Hill proclaims that ‘the Russian Revolution… uplifted the poor and the downtrodden and improved their lot in the everyday things of life.35’ which implies qualities of a revolutionary hero. This is supported by the creation of the NEP, which launched literacy campaigns and motivated people to apply to university. In 1917, three-quarters of the population was illiterate and by 1939, illiteracy rates became uncommon. This implies that Lenin cared about the conditions in Russia and ways to improve them. Also, Laver supports Hill that there were advancements under Lenin and that ‘ the period of 1924 saw several experiments in education, and a flourishing of new art forms, including the cinema36’. This shows that under Lenin’s efforts and through the Russian Revolution, new art forms were created and education was improved. This supports the idea that Lenin was a revolutionary hero because he was able to improve conditions in Russia thus accomplishing long-term success.
However, Lenin’s attempt to eradicate religion was an example of him using force which demonstrates qualities of a dictator. Laver states that ‘ Persecution for the Orthodox Church by means of depriving it of its property, arresting priests, and active discouragement of church services, began soon after the Revolution37.’ This implies that Lenin feared anyone who challenged his authority and power; he wanted to eradicate religion because he believed that people should worship Communism rather than God. Lenin initiating persecution limited the people’s freedom of practice; which consolidated his power and simultaneously removing opposition, thus showing dictatorship tendencies.
However, Laver also notes that under Lenin, there were many advancements in culture and industry indicating that Lenin’s intentions were to improve Russia’s conditions rather than worsen them; ‘The period of 1924 saw several experiments in education, and a flourishing of new art forms, including the cinema38’. This was further implemented by Lenin’s introduction to electric power and power stations which helped the extension of modern industries to this day. This indicates that under Lenin, Russia was able to move from a backward, harsh regime under the Tsarist rule to a flourished new society which supports the idea that Lenin was a revolutionary hero because he encouraged these advancements and therefore had the best interests for Russia. Nevertheless, Laver also argues that under these advancements ‘there were some limitations to self-expression39’. This is supported by Yevgeny Zamyatin novel We which was banned from publication in Russia due to its portrayal of Communism as a dehumanized future. This shows that although there were advancements in culture and industry, this was monitored by Lenin by his attempts to remove opposition which didn’t fit his beliefs; therefore, portraying a dictatorship regime.
On the other hand, historians like Volkogonov believe that Lenin was a dictator because he enforced dictatorship regimes such as The Red Terror which killed thousands of innocent people. This was further supported by the creation of the SOVNAKOM, alongside the creation of the CHEKA which Volkogonov describes as ‘inhuman terrorist methods40’ This reaffirms the view that Lenin was a dictator because he used CHEKA and The Red Terror to force control through violence whilst the Sovnarkom helped to further feed Lenin’s greed for power through a one-party dictatorship. Laver however takes a more neutral stance by supporting Volkogonov on Lenin having dictatorship tendencies but also highlighting his revolutionary regimes such as the development of culture and industry under Lenin which allowed the platform for Russia to become a world power that it is today. On the contrary, Hill believes that Lenin was a revolutionary hero because he had a genuine and sincere motive to improve Russia for the better. NEP was an example of Lenin using compromise over the happiness of his own party and beliefs, which shows that Lenin stood for the people of Russia.
Having analyzed the views of historians like Volkogonov and hill, I believe that although Lenin did enforce dictatorship rules, I believe these measures were necessary in a country so backwards and downtrodden and he was merely responding to existing conditions. Lenin had the genuine interests of the people at heart and he ruled with his beliefs in what would benefit Russia. Therefore, I agree with Hill that Lenin cannot be considered a dictator, but rather a man who saved Russia from an endless cycle of hardship and terror under the Tsarist rule and led to a striving prosperous state filled with life and hope for the better future.