He was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, forever changing the course of one of the world’s largest countries. But was he a hero who toppled an oppressive tyranny or a villain who replaced it with another? It’s time to put Lenin on the stand in History vs. Lenin. “Order, order, hmm. Now, wasn’t it your fault that the band broke up?” “Your honor, this is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, AKA Lenin, the rabblerouser who helped overthrow
the Russian tsar Nicholas II in 1917 and founded the Soviet Union, one of the worst dictatorships of the 20th century.” “Ohh.” “The tsar was a bloody tyrant under whom the masses toiled in slavery.” “This is rubbish. Serfdom had already been abolished in 1861.” “And replaced by something worse. The factory bosses treated the people far worse than their former feudal landlords. And unlike the landlords, they were always there. Russian workers toiled for eleven hours a day and were the lowest paid in all of Europe.” “But Tsar Nicholas made laws to protect the workers.” “He reluctantly did the bare minimum to avert revolution, and even there, he failed. Remember what happened in 1905 after his troops fired on peaceful petitioners?” “Yes, and the tsar ended the rebellion by introducing a constitution and an elected parliament, the Duma.” “While retaining absolute power and dissolving them whenever he wanted.” “Perhaps there would’ve been more reforms in due time if radicals, like Lenin, weren’t always stirring up trouble.” “Your Honor, Lenin had seen his older brother Aleksandr executed by the previous tsar for revolutionary activity, and even after the reforms, Nicholas continued the same mass repression and executions, as well as the unpopular involvement in World War I, that cost Russia so many lives and resources.” “Hm, this tsar doesn’t sound like such a capital fellow.” “Your Honor, maybe Nicholas II did doom himself with bad decisions, but Lenin deserves no credit for this. When the February 1917 uprisings finally forced the tsar to abdicate, Lenin was still exiled in Switzerland.” “Hm, so who came to power?” “The Duma formed a provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, an incompetent bourgeois failure. He even launched another failed offensive in the war, where Russia had already lost so much, instead of ending it like the people wanted.” “It was a constitutional social democratic government, the most progressive of its time. And it could have succeeded eventually if Lenin hadn’t returned in April, sent by the Germans to undermine the Russian war effort and instigate riots.” “Such slander! The July Days were a spontaneous and justified reaction against the government’s failures. And Kerensky showed his true colors when he blamed Lenin and arrested and outlawed his Bolshevik party, forcing him to flee into exile again. Some democracy! It’s a good thing the government collapsed under their own incompetence and greed when they tried to stage a military coup then had to ask the Bolsheviks for help when it backfired. After that, all Lenin had to do was return in October and take charge. The government was peacefully overthrown overnight.” “But what the Bolsheviks did after gaining power wasn’t very peaceful. How many people did they execute without trial? And was it really necessary to murder the tsar’s entire family, even the children?” “Russia was being attacked by foreign imperialists, trying to restore the tsar. Any royal heir that was rescued would be recognized as ruler by foreign governments. It would’ve been the end of everything the people had fought so hard to achieve. Besides, Lenin may not have given the order.” “But it was not only imperialists that the Bolsheviks killed. What about the purges and executions of other socialist and anarchist parties, their old allies? What about the Tambov Rebellion, where peasants, resisting grain confiscation, were killed with poison gas? Or sending the army to crush the workers in Kronstadt, who were demanding democratic self-management? Was this still fighting for the people?” “Yes! The measures were difficult, but it was a difficult time. The new government needed to secure itself while being attacked from all sides, so that the socialist order could be established.” “And what good came of this socialist order? Even after the civil war was won, there were famines, repression and millions executed or sent to die in camps, while Lenin’s successor Stalin established a cult of personality and absolute power.” “That wasn’t the plan. Lenin never cared for personal gains, even his enemies admitted that he fully believed in his cause, living modestly and working tirelessly from his student days until his too early death. He saw how power-hungry Stalin was and tried to warn the party, but it was too late.” “And the decades of totalitarianism that followed after?” “You could call it that, but it was Lenin’s efforts that changed Russia in a few decades from a backward and undeveloped monarchy full of illiterate peasants to a modern, industrial superpower, with one of the world’s best educated populations, unprecedented opportunities for women, and some of the most important scientific advancements of the century. Life may not have been luxurious, but nearly everyone had a roof over their head and food on their plate, which few countries have achieved.” “But these advances could still have happened, even without Lenin and the repressive regime he established.” “Yes, and I could’ve been a famous rock and roll singer. But how would I have sounded?” We can never be sure how things could’ve unfolded if different people were in power or different decisions were made, but to avoid the mistakes of the past, we must always be willing to put historical figures on trial.