Sunday, April 25, 2010


I woke up this morning dreaming about Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to most of us as Lenin.  Not surprising, I guess, as I've been plodding through a biography of Lenin for the past week.  The more I read, the more baffled I become.  The man must have had incredible personal charisma, because there's absolutely no logical reason why he should have wound up as powerful as he did. 

There's no mystery as to how or why he wound up a revolutionary.  He's a classic example of enemies of the state being made, not born.  Up until his late teens, Lenin showed no interest in politics and, as a member of the minor nobility, was showing every sign of having an uneventful life.  Then his older brother became involved in a remarkably inept attempt to assassinate the tsar, was arrested, tried, and executed, and the young Lenin got labeled as a potential trouble-maker, too.  Classic guilt by association.  He had shown no particular interest in either Marx or the problems of the proletariat prior to his brother's death, but the more he got labeled as a potential revolutionary, the more he immersed himself in Marxism and other political philosophies. In reading the biography, a person can't help but wonder what would have happened if the Russian police had just ignored Lenin.  Would he have turned into the mediocre small town lawyer he originally seemed destined to become? 

Unfortunately, they didn't leave him alone, and, as anyone who's read any labeling theory knows, if you tell someone enough times that he is something, that person will do his best to become it.  And, as far as I can tell, once Lenin decided he was going to be a revolutionary, he managed to talk (bully?) every one he came into contact for any length of time into becoming a revolutionary, too.  Given that his writing was not particularly good and his influence seemed to wane whenever he was out of personal contact with the various cells of would-be revolutionaries in Russia and other countries, it had to be purely personal charisma, force of personality, that propelled him to the top. He gave speeches that, when you read the transcript, make him sound both inane and illogical, but that were apparently greeted with delirious applause at the time.  His co-conspirators deferred to Lenin even when it made absolutely no tactical sense. 

Once the revolution did happen, Lenin then managed through sheer force of personality (and a complete and thoroughly cold-blooded unwillingness to compromise on anything) to make sure the Bolsheviks came out on top.  There's always been a fair amount of debate as to whether or not Lenin ever ordered any murders himself, but given that people who openly disagreed with him tended to end up dead, if he didn't order any hits, he obviously didn't try very hard to stop any. 

Over the years I've heard various people speculate about what might have happened if Lenin had lived longer.  It's a fair question -- my own sense is things would not have been much different in the end, and they might actually have been worse.  Lenin was enough of an intellectual to be impractical (in the early days of the Revolution he had to be talked out of doing a Khmer Rouge-style purge of everyone with a college education); Stalin at least recognized that if you're going to decree that every house in Russia is going to have electricity, you can't execute all the engineers, at least not before the work is done. 

As for my dream about Lenin?  No memory at all of what it was about, other than it was really, really cold in Lenin's office and the lighting was really dim.

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