[This review appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Fall 1998, pp. 353-355 ( where the pages erroneously said “Summer 1998” at the bottom); and also appeared in The St. Croix Review, August 1999, pp. 59-60.]
Lenin: A New Biography
Translated and edited by Harold Shukman
The Free Press, New York, 1994
ISBN 0-02=933435-7, 529 pages, $30 hardbound
Dmitri Volkogonov, an historian and a former general in the Soviet Army, is uniquely situated to produce works of the utmost importance. Before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, he was Director of the Soviet Union's Institute for Military History, where, according to the Editor's Preface, he was "the first researcher to gain access to the most secret archives." His biography of Stalin incurred the wrath of Soviet officers in 1988; and now the book under review produces a fresh - and devastating - account of Lenin.
With such work as Volkogonov's appearing, the suffocating blanket of silence and of factual manipulation that prevailed for so many decades has been lifted. By the time Lenin was published in English in 1994, the editor could say that "there are virtually no taboos on historical research left" inside Russia. Volkogonov tells how he was originally a Stalinist, and how when his illusions about Stalin were shattered he fell back onto believing (as so many socialists worldwide have) that Leninism, at least, had been sound even though it was later distorted by Stalin. Eventually even this illusion fell away, with the result that the principal theme of Lenin is that all of the essential ingredients of the totalitarian state were put into place by Lenin himself. "The system created by Lenin would [thus] have found its Stalin in any event." If thoughtful people everywhere come to this realization, a major step will have been taken in the world's ridding itself of socialist illusion.
It was Lenin who initiated the subordination of human life to ideological objectives without regard to the number of lives lost. He, not Stalin, first introduced executions, mass terror, concentration camps, and slave labor. There was a "legalization of terror," with the Cheka shooting thousands in cellars without trial; a suppression of a free press; the subordination of trade unions to the state; the liquidation of "hundreds of thousands of private owners, middle and upper bourgeoisie, and intellectuals"; the crushing of the churches, with the slaughter of the clergy; and a callous acceptance of mass starvation, such as in 1921-22 when 25 million people were starving at the same time that copious funds were sent overseas to help Communist Parties foment what was hoped would be a worldwide revolution. Even such a list barely scratches the surface of what Volkogonov recounts from the archives.
Lenin has, of course, been unmasked before; anti-Communists have long known him for what he was. But Volkogonov's unmasking comes with all the details that the secret archives provide - and from a man who was once one of Lenin's devout followers. There will no longer be an excuse for anyone on the Left's maintaining that "Communism was itself a splendid thing as conceived by Lenin and the original Bolsheviks; it was Stalinism that lacked a human face." Volkogonov makes it clear that the face was inhuman all along, even though people believed in Lenin out of "the perpetual human longing for the perfect and just world."
This book has many facets, only a few of which can be touched on in a review. One worth highlighting is the confirmation Volkogonov gives to the details of the Bolshevik execution of the Tsar and his family. (This book was available in English in 1994. It is hard to believe that a major American movie studio could subsequently put out the animated film "Anastasia" without the slightest nod to the actual circumstances of Anastasia's death.)
Another that deserves emphasis is the confirmation, also, of the Soviet's execution of the cream of Polish society in the Katyn Forest in 1940. Volkogonov cites the Politburo minutes of March 5, 1940, agreeing to Stalin's order for the massacre of "14,700 former Polish officers, civil servants, landowners, police, intelligence officers, gendarmes, settlers and prison guards," as well as "11,000 members of various counter-revolutionary espionage and sabotage organizations, former landowners, factory-owners," etc. This, of course, was cultural genocide. Volkogonov tells how the decision was made "to cast the blame on the Nazis." Of course, we already know that the indictment at Nuremberg charged the Germans with the slaughter. It speaks volumes about the fundamental dishonesty of the Nuremberg verdict that the Tribunal, whose members knew the true facts, passed over this charge in silence.
This impeachment of the credibility of the Nuremberg verdict is of untold significance to historians of the twentieth century. A great deal of the evidence for the existence of the infamous Nazi extermination camps, all of which are now said to have been in Poland and liberated by the Red Army, comes from what the Soviets supplied to the Tribunal at Nuremberg. This is bound to throw honest historians into the most profound evidentiary quandary.
For these and its many other details, revealed at last by an honest reporter who has access to the key records from inside the Soviet regime, Volkogonov's book deserves not just to be read, but to be studied.
Dwight D. Murphey