Overrated: Lenin

The sinister and sanguinary Soviet revolutionary was, above all, a very lucky man

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: Ersatz reputation (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Despite the best efforts of the embalmers, the Lenin on show in the mausoleum is not really the Lenin who actually lived. The eyelashes are fake; the originals having wilted long ago in the chemical soup. Much of the skin is synthetic too. Over more than 90 years, a maintenance team that at its height was 200-strong has steadily patched up the old revolutionary until no one knows how much of him is ersatz and how much the real McCoy. He’s had at least one posthumous nose job, and even his subcutaneous fat has been replaced by a noxious gloop of glycerine, carotene and paraffin.

As with the corpse, so with the reputation. Much of the latter, though, stank of the bogus from the off. There were more than 900 years of iconographic tradition behind some of those preposterous posters that kick-started the cult of Lenin after the revolution. Some featured classical temples; others the sun’s rays, factory chimneys or flowing flags. In all of them, there he stood, chin-up eyes set on a far horizon. In many, he is pointing, as so many of today’s politicians do, at nothing and no one in particular. This gesture is designed to communicate a sense of purpose and direction to beef up the over-arching messages: that Lenin was a heroic figure and a man of destiny.

But so much of the backstory was confected and contrived, the product of the propagandist’s art. Take for example the October revolution of 1917 itself: a popular uprising that never really happened.

What has largely shaped perceptions of the event was Eisenstein’s film October, which depicts the dramatic “storming” of the Winter Palace by a column of Red Guards, soldiers and sailors, with the cruiser Aurora giving the starting signal. But there was no “storming” of the Winter Palace. The doors were open and those inside offered little or no resistance. As the old joke goes, there was more ordnance detonated in the making of the movie than in the action itself.

There wasn’t much fighting at all during the October days. Only six deaths are recorded among the Red Guards and these were what nowadays we’d call “blue on blue”. Throughout the whole of this socialist revolution the Petrograd taxis continued to operate as usual.

The success of the October revolution, like so much else in Lenin’s life, owed more to Lady Luck than to his own genius. And Lenin was a very lucky man. He was lucky Fanny Kaplan wasn’t a better shot and he was able to survive her attempt to assassinate him in 1918. He was lucky not to have been killed by the armed thieves who stole his car. (He was lucky with his cars generally, owning a brace of Delaunay-Bellevilles and a string of Rolls-Royces. Not bad for a Communist, eh?) And sticking with matters automotive, he was lucky to find on arrival at the Finland Station, Petrograd, in April 1917 that there was an Austin armoured car handy that he could stand on to make his famous speech. It wouldn’t have been half so romantic had he been forced to make do with a John Major soapbox. He was lucky to have had the sealed train to get him there and, as his biographer Robert Service has pointed out, he was above all lucky that the First World War came along, because without that he would have remained a marginalised political crank in exile.

Lenin is credited with great gifts of oratory and powers of political analysis. But too often the content fails to live up to the hype. One has to admit that he was very good at titles: What Is To Be Done? Or my favourite, Left Wing Communism — an Infantile Disorder. Such a shame that once one is drawn in one invariably finds him to be a priggish old windbag.

Then there is the awkward matter of the man having been a mass-murderer. That tends to take the gilt off the gingerbread somewhat. Lenin was responsible for establishing the Cheka (which became the KGB), setting up the first of the camps that would come to form the infamous Gulag, and he personally pioneered the use of mental hospitals to simultaneously contain and discredit political enemies.

He called, in blood-curdling terms, for the murder of priests and the religious and for the strangling of better-off peasants. When it came to terror, Stalin did not have to innovate much. He simply implemented Lenin’s system con brio.

In our own day Lenin is thought by his followers in the far-Left groupuscules to offer a surefire tactical manual to take over the country when the revolutionary moment arrives.

Otherwise sane and sensible people, many with good degrees from our ancient universities, have, following the Lenin delusion, persuaded themselves with every miners’ strike or stock-market wobble that the revolutionary situation is just around the corner and that soon they will be the ones with the jutting chins, eyes on the far horizon. What a waste of talent! A century on, the Russians have begun to ask themselves whether Lenin is any longer worth preserving. And so should we.