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Herald of Terror: Lenin’s Return to Russia

Herald of Terror: Lenin’s Return to Russia


One hundred years ago this week, a sealed train bearing the “bacilli of Bolshevism” (Lenin’s own phrase) crossed war-torn Germany, destined for the North Sea. Inside was the leadership of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), a fringe group of radicals dedicated to the destruction of the Russian democracy which had been born only a month before.

The fall of the tsar had not yet brought about Russia’s exit from World War I, and the determination of the Provisional Government, then headed by former Duma member Georgy Lvov, to stay in the war prompted the German High Command to take active political measures to bring about its collapse. In March, General Erich Ludendorff personally approved a plan to send 31 anti-war social democratic revolutionaries, then in exile in Switzerland, back to Russia’s capital, Petrograd. Unable to cross the war-torn eastern front, they would instead travel up to the Baltic Sea to Stockholm, and then by train to northern Sweden. At a little border town along a river in Lapland, the Bolshevik leadership-in-exile would cross back into the former tsarist empire, entering the Duchy of Finland. Eight more days of travel would lead them to triumphantly emerge in Petrograd on April 16 (N.S.).

One of the travelers, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, was the acknowledged leader of the Bolsheviks. But at the time, the Bolsheviks numbered only around two thousand. Given the weakness of their political position, Lenin expected that he and his fellow Bolsheviks would face hostile crowds upon their return to Russia, particularly in light of the new Provisional Government’s decision to continue the war. Instead, he was greeted at the Finland Station by a rapturous crowd. After ignoring a short word of greeting from a local elected representative imploring him to support Russia’s nascent democracy, Lenin turned to the crowd. In his piercing voice, he declared, “Dear Comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers! I am happy to greet in your persons the victorious Russian revolution!… The worldwide socialist revolution has already dawned…Any day now the whole of European capitalism may crash…. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!”

The crowds roared their thunderous assent. Over the next seven days, Lenin and his Bolshevik adherents would issue the April Theses, demanding party discipline among the Bolsheviks, condemning the provisional government, and spurning their promises of elections. Beyond Bolshevik circles, where theoretical debates over vanguard versus popular party raged, few read the esoteric and heavily theoretical words Lenin had penned. Instead, most knew the Bolsheviks only as the party that promised “land, peace and bread” without clarifying how they intended to fulfill such hopes.

To what degree could the crowds of April 1917 have known Lenin’s intentions for their country? Hitler, who was then fighting in the trenches in Alsace, would make his totalitarian doctrine eminently clear in the pages of Mein Kampf in 1925. Lenin was hardly more circumspect, although few read his works prior to 1917.

In his first major theoretical work, 1902’s What Is To Be Done?, Lenin argued for a tightly-controlled élite party, rather than a mass organization. Serving as the “vanguard of the proletariat” without actually including much of the proletariat in its ranks, it would seize power in their name. The workers themselves, Lenin argued, lacked revolutionary consciousness. Lenin’s views on the matter triggered the schism known as the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, which emerged in 1903. Listening to Lenin at the RSDLP Conference in Brussels, Leon Trotsky, then a Menshevik, supposedly shouted, “That’s dictatorship you’re advocating!” Lenin replied, “There is no other way.” Whether or not Trotsky shouted such a warning, he would go on to pen an identical argument in his 1904 work “Our Political Tasks,” declaring that Lenin’s ideology would invariably result in a “single dictator.”

Lenin doubled down on his totalitarian vision elsewhere in his writings. Responding in 1903 to a rival publication that had complained that he viewed “every other independent, non-subordinate organization as a competitor that must be destroyed,” Lenin responded that, faced with a wrong-headed opponent, “every honest ‘politically-minded’ person is duty bound to compete with it and combat it outright.“ Only with the total destruction of political opposition could right-minded revolutionaries succeed.

Lenin’s writings up to the October Revolution continued to hammer these themes. Before returning to Russia he wrote that his version of socialism would require “control ‘from a single center.’” Hiding from the Provisional Government in mid-1917, he expanded upon this: “During the transition from capitalism to communism suppression is still necessary, but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the ‘state,’ is still necessary…” In other words, while the state might “wither away” eventually, for now it was needed as a tool of coercion.

As his biographer Dmitri Volkogonov put it, “Lenin never concealed his belief that the new world could only be built with the aid of physical violence.” The administration of this violence would be entrusted to a new body, the Cheka, in December 1917. Its later iterations would be known as the NKVD and KGB. If the crowds who had cheered Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station had read his writings, they might have known what to expect. And if they had known what he had in mind for their country, they would have known that he was not a herald of peace, but of coercion, violence, and tyranny.