Even some of my friends, to say nothing of less educated people, tend to associate the horrors of Bolshevism mainly with Stalin.
He’s considered unequivocally evil, while Lenin is seen more or less as H.G. Wells saw him, “the dreamer in the Kremlin”. Alas, his dream was misconceived, which is why he was forced to resort to tyranny in its pursuit.
Should a trial by public opinion be held today, Stalin would be sent down for life, while Lenin would get away with a noncustodial sentence, or perhaps merely a year or two in prison.
Since any serious student of modern Russian history knows that Lenin was every bit as evil as Stalin or – as I believe – even more so, offering him this free ride is puzzling. Or rather it would be if one didn’t realise that the Western narrative on Russia has always been influenced, and often determined, by, well, Russia.
From 1917 to 1991 the official Soviet line was that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with Bolshevism and therefore its founder, Lenin. However, in 1956 Khrushchev declared urbi et orbi that there had been plenty wrong with Stalin.
Mass executions, tortures and Gulag under Stalin were then officially acknowledged. Yet when I was at school and university (1954-1970), it was impossible to mention publicly, and dangerous to do so even privately, that all those nice things had been not just pioneered but actually mandated by Lenin.
Since Soviet studies in the West were more or less dominated by people in general sympathy with Bolshevism, if at times upset by its worst excesses, this line was proliferated. It survives to this day, although a whole library of books have been written about Lenin’s regime, designed to most exacting Satanic specifications.
One reason for this is that there exists another, larger library that continues to preach the old line of the noble-minded yet unfortunately misguided Lenin whose legacy was perverted by the beastly Stalin.
Such apologetics are still produced by Lenin-worshipers, but these days they know how to envelop their message in a fog of seeming even-handedness. Unvarnished encomiums for Lenin and other communists more or less died with Erik Hobsbaum’s demise.
Yet the genre of subtler crypto-apologetics is still alive, and Catherine Merridale is its truly virtuosic practitioner. Reading her book Lenin on the Train, one begins to understand how good and intelligent people, but those without a special interest in Russia, can be duped into swallowing the old Soviet canard.
The book describes Lenin’s infamous 1917 journey from Switzerland to Russia in a train provided by the German General Staff (not the Foreign Ministry, as Merridale says).
The Bolsheviks were the only major party in Russia that unequivocally preached pulling out of the war. Yet Lenin didn’t want peace – his aim was “to turn the imperialist war into a civil one.”
The Germans didn’t mind that: they wanted Russia out of the war anyhow. To that end they lavishly financed Lenin’s revolutionary activities and then, as Churchill put it,“transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus frim Switzerland to Russia.”
Though Merridale quotes this aphorism, her view on both Lenin and his journey is rather different, and as to German financing, she performs around it a song and dance routine that puts Fred and Ginger to shame.
The trick she favours could be called ‘striking a note’. While describing in minute detail the lavatorial arrangements on the eponymous train or some such, Merridale would drop in a message of love for the Bolshevik butcher, thereby establishing a theme but then not developing it.
For example, one note Merridale strikes and then leaves has to do with Lenin’s preference for Swiss doctors to whom he went for some “stomach complaint”.
The medical theme is thus left hanging in the air, which is a pity. Because, though Lenin might have had some gastric problems too, his principal ailment was the syphilis he caught from a French prostitute in 1902.
It was for that, then deadly, disease that he sought help from not only the Swiss, but also French, German and Russian doctors. However, in those pre-antibiotic days they couldn’t really help, and eventually the disease killed him.
The Russian doctor Lenin used was the world’s leading authority on neurosyphilis, Prof. Margulis. When I was still in Russia, his old widow showed me with trepidation a yellowed letter sent to her husband by Nadezhda Krupskaya, in which Lenin’s wife thanked the doctor “for everything you’ve done for Volodia and me.”
Lenin’s contemporaries knew about his little problem. For example, Ivan Pavlov of the dog fame once wrote that the “revolution was made by a madman with syphilis of the brain”.
Merridale didn’t have to mention Lenin’s medical problems. But once she did, it was sheer dishonesty to say nothing of the one that eventually killed him. But then lying by omission is much subtler than doing so by commission.
In that spirit: “Lenin liked Switzerland… and though the war was forcing the prices up, he could afford the food and rent.”
How? one wonders. How could Lenin and his gang, none of whom had ever had a paying job, afford living in a pricey Switzerland? How could “the great Russian” afford Europe’s most expensive doctors?
This theme neatly overlaps with another one: the mutual hostility between Lenin and the Western socialists of the Second International. Merridale goes into long ideological explanations, and no doubt ideology was part of it.
But it wasn’t for ideological reasons that Lenin’s Bolsheviks were the only major socialist party ever expelled from the Second International. The reasons had to do with the methods the Bolsheviks used to earn a crust.
Those effeminate Europeans were aghast. For the Bolsheviks used sex and blackmail to extort huge amounts from rich men like Savva Morozov. They sent out handsome gigolos to woo rich heiresses, and then made sure the inheritance wasn’t long in coming. They then laundered the proceeds.
And they widely practised robbery, which Lenin euphemistically called expropriations, exes for short. The most illustrious ex was masterminded by “that wonderful Georgian” (Lenin could never remember Stalin’s real name), when a gang of Bolshevik bandits launched a paramilitary raid on the Tiflis Treasury.
Not only Stalin but also some of the other future People’s Commissars were involved in such capers. Evidence suggests it was Krasin (Trade and Industry) who shot Morozov when he finally refused to pay, while Semashko (Health) and Litvinov (Foreign Affairs) were imprisoned in France for trying to launder the Tiflis loot.
The Bolsheviks started as they meant to go on. What followed their putsch was a wholesale robbery of a major country by its own government, the first such heist in history.
The details can be found in Sean Meekin’s important book History’s Greatest Heist. But one detail not mentioned there was provided by an explosive scoop in The New York Times of April, 1921.
Apparently, while looting Russia to help their regime survive, the Bolsheviks also prepared for an orderly retreat in case it didn’t survive.
In 1920 alone, 75 million Swiss francs were sent to Lenin’s account in just one Swiss bank. Trotsky had $11 million in just one US bank, plus 90 million francs in his Swiss accounts. Zinoviev kept 80 million Swiss francs in Switzerland, Dzerzhinsky had 80 million francs, while Hanecki had 60 million francs and $10 million – the list went on and on.
Any one of those accounts could have provided a loaf of bread for each Russian starving to death. Yet that task fell on Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration, which saved millions of human skeletons from death by spending just $20 million in 1921-1922.
Such facts would perhaps dampen any honest person’s affection for Lenin. But Merridale’s love is impervious to facts or reason.
Because: “The universe of Marx and Lenin used to be my own… I made my pilgrimage to Lenin’s tomb… I was not one of those who thought all aspects of the Soviet Union evil, false or misguided, but the effects were catastrophic just the same.”
In preparation, she claims to have read all 45-50 volumes of the gems Lenin left for posterity. If so, she must have been reading selectively, for otherwise she wouldn’t have failed to notice the virulent hatred and hardly anything else dripping off every page.
In any case, she would have done better familiarising herself with the basic facts of Russian history. Then she’d avoid such ignorant statements as: “Nicholas II… ignored or actively spurned the Duma while staffing the upper house, the Council of Ministers, with [talentless people].”
That’s like confusing our cabinet with the House of Lords. The Council of Ministers, dear, was an executive body. The advisory upper house of the Duma was called the State Council, which a professional historian of Russia ought to know.
What I really love is the word “pilgrimage”. Evidently Merridale sees the pagan mummy displayed inside a neo-Babylonian ziggurat as a holy shrine. But what’s that coy “used to” bit? She still inhabits the same universe; she only claims a different address.
Still, an inquisitive reader may want to know which aspects of the Soviet Union Merridale doesn’t find evil, false or misguided. Alas, that information isn’t proffered, making the statement meaningless. But she isn’t after meaning – she’s after casually striking notes that may resonate through the reader’s mind.
Some of the notes are lyrical: “Lenin’s countrymen have cooled to him in recent times… no one really loves him now; the corpse has been preserved without a heart.”
But that doesn’t mean Lenin goes unloved. Merridale still loves him, and so does the curator of a Lenin museum who instantly became her soulmate:
“It helps that I once lived, as she did, in the Soviet world. We have a language in common, a language that young Russians do not even know.”
This is rank effrontery. On display here are symptoms of a disease afflicting many journalists, academics and diplomats who once lived in the Soviet Union for a few months or perhaps a year or two.
They led the lives of cossetted, well-supplied, venerated Western visitors who, if the spirit moved them, could hop on the plane and leave at a minute’s notice. Living in the USSR, dear, meant something else: being enslaved by blood-sucking yahoos who could do to you as they pleased.
Using a year’s worth of academic tourism, with KGB providing the tour guides, as grounds for claiming some gnostic insight unattainable not only by Westerners but also by some Russians is revoltingly dishonest.
These are the first intimations of the stratagem used to make Stalin carry the can for Bolshevik crimes, while letting Lenin off scot-free or at least with only a slap on the wrist. I’m writing about this at such length because it’s used widely and effectively by many of Merridale’s colleagues.
Actually, comparing Lenin to Stalin isn’t always helpful. In some ways Lenin resembles Hitler more.
Stalin neither courted nor needed popular support. Because he inherited unlimited power first won and consolidated by Lenin, Stalin’s tyranny relied on a bureaucratic apparat and unlimited violence.
Hence, though Stalin wrote his fair share of Marxist gibberish, he shunned speeches and hardly ever appeared in public. On the other hand, both Lenin and Hitler had to claw their way to power largely by first winning over their own parties and then selling their message to the public.
Both, therefore, were loudmouth demagogues dependent on charismatic appeal. And in fact many things Merridale says about Lenin could be said verbatim about Hitler.
However, if any writer spoke about Hitler with the same gushing, almost erotic adulation, he’d be ostracised for life.
This, for example, is how Merridale ends the book: “This man belongs to the springtime of hope, and it was revolution that defined his life.”
She then argues that the giant statue of Lenin still standing outside Petersburg’s Finland Station captures Lenin’s essence best: “He stands high on an armoured car… and while his left hand has been tucked into the armpit of his bronze waistcoat, the right is thrusting forward: emphatic, strong, forever in command.”
Now try to picture a statue of Hitler still adorning Berlin (an impossible situation, but do let’s allow our imagination to run wild), and a British writer putting on paper exactly the same message, mutatis mutandis.
The armoured car would have to be replaced with a podium and the waistcoat with a tunic, but otherwise every word could remain the same. Now imagine this writer’s subsequent career – and rest assured that Merridale’s won’t suffer in the same way.
“His slogans felt like a sudden electric shock…: a call to life, a blinding glimpse of future…” Is that Hitler or Lenin? Don’t be silly: had she written that about Hitler, she’d be queuing up at the social even as we speak.
“His performance was a tour de force by any standards, but for a man of middle age who had just spent eight days and nights on perilous slow-moving trains, it was miraculous.”
So were Hitler’s performances at Nuremberg rallies; and he too was a middle-aged man who worked himself to exhaustion.
“Hitler has a charisma that still holds many Germans in its grip.” Sorry, my mistake. Merridale actually wrote “Lenin” and “Russians”, but you can understand why I went wrong.
Such passages pervade the narrative:
“Lenin’s ultimate achievement was to turn ideas that Marx had outlined on paper forty years before into an ideology of government… With brief, almost manic strokes of his pen, Lenin sketched out a soviet system… abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy.”
Any honest historian would feel duty-bound to add that this was all window-dressing: one of Lenin’s first decrees was to establish the CheKa, history’s most evil secret police.
He also created a huge bureaucracy and, by incremental steps, the world’s largest post-war army. That had to be mentioned just to keep the record straight, but Merridale prefers to keep it crooked.
“Above all else, he had struck upon a kind of truth that people would soon want to hear. The finer details of constitutional change were irrelevant…”
Quite. Only the febrile demagoguery was relevant, and never mind constitutional niceties.
By now Merridale must have realised that even the least critical reader would smell the rat of bias. So let’s keep things in balance, shall we? Hence: “Lenin’s government became as dictatorial and merciless as any industrial baron of the past.”
Another note casually struck; the cause of verisimilitude served. But not very well.
This statement could have been strengthened by providing a list of those industrial barons of the past who created history’s most repressive state claiming millions of victims.
Surely a professional historian must know that no such villains had existed before Lenin not only among industrialists but even among fellow tyrants?
But then of course: “Lenin’s programme offered hope and dignity to many of the country’s poor, not least by granting an unprecedented measure of equality to women.” Fair enough, women were executed and “turned to camp dust” at almost the same rate as men.
We must be grateful to Lenin for having proved yet again that true, pure equality is achievable only in prison. It’s a shame though that this discovery came at such an awful cost.
Anticipating such regrets, Merridale goes into her dance routine, and the technician in me has to admire her nimbleness of step. Only once, on Page 5 of a 300-page book, does she attach a numerical value to the cost, again for the sake of verisimilitude:
“Among the costs were countless human lives, beginning with tens of thousands of murders in Lenin’s lifetime… Over the seven decades of the Soviet Union’s existence the number of its guiltless victims would rise to the low millions.”
This passage is another note struck nonchalantly and left at that. Had she persevered with her actuarial calculations, she would be accused of flagrant lies. For her numbers are low by orders of magnitude.
Directly they grabbed power, Lenin and his fellow ghouls plunged the country into a putrid swamp of blood, epidemics and famines – followed immediately by the internecine civil war so dear to his heart.
When peasants realised that Lenin’s promises of land, bread and peace were lies, they stopped sowing and reaping. No food was reaching the cities, and the people were starving.
Lenin’s CheKa immediately sent out ‘food units’, who routinely machine-gunned hostages and confiscated all grain – along with all other food, including lard and even pickled vegetables.
Faced with deadly starvation, peasants would try to defend themselves by rushing machineguns with axes and pitchforks. Eventually a brush fire of peasant uprisings broke out, which were mercilessly suppressed.
That was the first time in history that a government used battle gases against its own people. How many died is impossible to calculate, but the lowest estimate I’ve seen is 500,000.
This was only one of Lenin’s contributions to the body count. For the starving workers in whose name Lenin’s putsch had been perpetrated did what their colleagues did in the West: they went on strikes. Unlike in the West, however, the strikes were dispersed with live rounds claiming thousands of lives.
Cannibalism was rife in the countryside. Parents were eating their children, scavenging was widespread: corpses were routinely used for nourishment. You can find on the net many harrowing photographs to that effect.
The ghouls didn’t shun direct action either: almost two million were executed judicially on Lenin’s watch. Untold and uncounted millions were simply shot out of hand or tortured to death without even a travesty of justice; millions more perished of starvation and disease; 10 million died during Lenin’s coveted civil war.
Slated for annihilation were whole classes: aristocracy, intelligentsia, professionals, officers, clergy. Of the latter, 40,000 priests were murdered during the same period, and only the lucky ones were simply shot.
The putsch of 7 November, 1917, introduced not just a new regime, but a new concept of a regime: one declaring war on its own people and the rest of the world, and waging that war with inhuman savagery on a scale never even approached before.
As Lenin explained to his acolyte Bonch-Bruevich when the former aristocrat expressed mild misgivings about the destruction of Russia: “Remember, old boy, I spit on Russia. I’m a Bolshevik!”
Altogether, during the 70-odd years they were in business, the ghouls murdered some 60 million of their own subjects, turning the whole country into a blend of concentration and military camps.
Such widely accepted numbers don’t tally with Merridale’s, and by all means she should be free to dispute them. But she doesn’t: she just strikes a note and moves on.
Yet the number of 60-odd million was produced by a painstaking demographic analysis described in Prof. Rummel’s books Death by Government and Lethal Politics. And even Khrushchev owned up to 20 million – a mendaciously low estimate but still a far cry from Merridale’s “low millions”.
The art of striking notes becomes truly virtuosic when Merridale writes about something she simply couldn’t ignore in this context: the German funding of Lenin’s putsch.
The real story is amply documented. The shadowy figure Alexander Helphand, the eminent socialist cum gun-running millionaire better known as Parvus, approached the Germans with the idea of using the Bolsheviks to knock Russia out of the war.
On January 7, 1915, Parvus set up a meeting with Freiherr von Wangenheim, the German ambassador to Turkey, where Parvus was acting as financial advisor to the Young Turks. The message Parvus asked him to convey to the German government, and especially to its military arm, was as simple as the truth itself:
“You want Russia out of the war – so does Lenin. You regard the Russian Empire as an enemy – so does Lenin. Therefore your interests coincide with Lenin’s. But here’s the hitch: you have money, and Lenin has none. And here’s the upshot: you must finance Lenin’s activities for he will be acting not only in his own interests but also in yours. Nicht wahr?”
Generals Ludendorff, Hoffmann and Seeckt cast the deciding vote, and a sum of 50 to 60 million gold marks (in the estimate of Eduard Bernstein, one of the leaders of the Second International and Germany’s deputy minister of finance at the time) was made available to the Bolsheviks in several increments.
Thus began the fruitful cooperation between the more aggressive elements in the German government and the Bolsheviks. It was to last until 22 June, 1941, when Hitler’s Germany attacked Stalin’s Russia.
Parvus set up Hanecki, an agent he shared with Lenin, in an import-export firm in Denmark. From there and Sweden Hanecki shipped German goods, mostly medicines, condoms, surgical instruments and chemicals to Russia.
There the goods were sold and thus laundered through a legitimate company run by the Pole Mechislav Kozlowski, another one of Parvus’s men. Now scrubbed clean, the funds went into various bank accounts to be withdrawn by the ultimate recipient, Lenin.
Thus the Soviet regime had money laundering built into its genetic code at conception, and the resulting expertise is still standing the regime’s descendants in good stead.
As von Kühlmann, the German foreign minister, reported to the Kaiser, the money was well spent:
“…Russia appeared to be the weakest link in the enemy chain. The task therefore was to loosen it, and, when possible, to remove it. This was the purpose of the subversive activity we caused to be carried out in Russia… It was not until the Bolsheviks had received from us a steady flow of funds through various channels and under various labels that they were in a position… to conduct energetic propaganda…”
Lenin kept his end of the bargain too. Three months after his putsch, he took Russia out of the war with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
However, the civil war he started was going badly. The Bolsheviks were getting ready to disappear in the general direction of their Western millions, but the Germans came to their aid yet again.
The German and Austrian General Staffs authorised some 300,000 POWs in Russian captivity to fight on the Bolshevik side. To that end, their familiar German and Austrian weapons were shipped to Russia, and the ex-POWs used them well.
When Gen. Krasnov was about to capture Petrograd and decorate its lampposts with Lenin and his jolly friends, his troops were stopped at Pulkovo by a well-orchestrated artillery barrage, which Krasnov’s officers, all war veterans, instantly identified as German.
Moreover, when desperate Russians fled to the post-Brest German-occupied area, the Germans instantly delivered them to the Soviets, keeping punctilious Teutonic records of all the 40,000 poor souls, some of whom were summarily shot right in front of the impassive German officers.
Thus it wasn’t only German gold, but also German bayonets that propped up Lenin’s regime, and this is a true and amply documented story. The Soviets naturally denied it, but that became difficult after the Allies captured the German archives in 1945.
One would think it would be hard for Merridale to spin the story out of her narrative, and she doesn’t. But the old technique of striking a note comes in handy.
She claims that most of the German archives had been destroyed. That’s true, but enough survived to nail Lenin to the wall, including the above quote by von Kühlmann, which Merridale cites without comment.
The first relevant note is struck on Page 11, when she mentions “Parvus, the enigmatic go between who handled some of Lenin’s German funds”. She then proceeds to describe the Hanecki operation, explaining how the German millions were laundered and converted into the revolutionary fighting fund.
Then, using the familiar trick, she leaves the story until Page 241, hoping that by now most readers will have forgotten. The new twist comes from the Provisional Government’s order to arrest Lenin for being a German spy in receipt of vast sums from Russia’s war enemy.
However, Merridale disavows such heinous accusations out of hand: “The only awkward detail was that no one had a shred of proof.” Never mind what she herself wrote 230 pages earlier. And never mind the 20 volumes of proof she herself mentions in the next breath. All fabricated, was it, dear?
Merridale then shortens the distance between statement and self-refutation. On Page 254 she writes: “…the import-export company for which [Hanecki] worked was owned by Parvus and Sklarz, both known to be German agents.”
However, “Exactly how that cash flowed east remains a matter for speculation. It’s entirely reasonable to suppose that some of Parvus’s German millions reached Lenin’s fighting funds.”
Thanks for the “entirely reasonable to suppose”. But she herself showed earlier exactly “how that cash flowed east”, obviating any need for speculation. And the sentence above leaves the German interest in no doubt.
By now any unsophisticated reader is thoroughly confused. Did Lenin or did he not take German money? Merridale comes down on both sides of the fence, and I hope that didn’t cause any lasting gynaecological damage.
Speaking from the side of the fence where she’s most comfortable, she writes: “Instead of trusting the masses with the truth about his German funds, Lenin opted to lecture them. Instead of confiding in them, he lied.”
Yet there I was, thinking there wasn’t “a shred of proof” for any such transactions. So what did Lenin lie about? (She doesn’t cite the exact lie: “Everybody knows that Parvus had business dealings with Hanecki, but we had none.”)
And so it goes. I hope you realise that I haven’t written this atypically long piece because I’m preoccupied with Merridale and her mendacious but rather entertaining book.
I’ve just used it as an illustration to the subtle exoneration of Lenin that gradually leads even intelligent people to give him a free ride, in addition to the one he got on the train provided by the German General Staff.
By striking her discordant notes, Merridale plays the old tune of an idealist forced by circumstances to do some unsavoury things. Eventually the din becomes so deafening, that the true nature of one of history’s most evil men can no longer be discerned.