It happened today - August 30, 2015

Fania KaplanOn August 30, Lenin was shot. Badly? I’m afraid so. He survived. What if it had turned out otherwise?

I’m not in favour of assassinations on moral or practical grounds. But if ever one was justified this would be it. Lenin was shot in 1918, by Fanya Kaplan, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary party that Lenin’s Bolsheviks were busy repressing in the name of the genuine freedom to hear and spout only Bolshevik doctrine during the Russian Civil War. Given that the SRs had recently won the only remotely free elections in Russian history, it can be viewed as part of the civil war and is certainly not the initiation of violence against a legitimate regime.

Now if Kaplan’s aim or luck had been better and Lenin had died from the three bullets she fired (one missed, one hit his shoulder and one passed through his neck; she herself was of course fairly promptly shot in the back of the head), it is highly probable that the Bolsheviks would not have won the Civil War. There were some genuinely talented individuals around Lenin, from Trotskii to Stalin. But none had his combination of theoretical clarity, organizational skill and rhetorical passion.

Mind you, it is hard to think of a genuinely inspiring leader of any of the other factions either, for good or evil. And the situation in Russia in the summer of 1918 was so confused that any number of possible outcomes are at least plausible. But while few of them are attractive, it would be hard to imagine anything worse than Lenin’s victory followed by Stalin’s takeover of the Bolshevik Party that plunged Russia into the horrors of forced industrialization, agricultural collectivisation including deliberate man-made famine, and the extermination of the “bourgeoisie” in Stalin’s great purges.

If Kaplan had killed Lenin I believe that outcome would have been avoided, possibly at the cost of a sordid, stagnant and ineffective White regime that restored some relative of the Tsar as a figurehead. It wouldn’t have been pretty, but it also wouldn’t have involved tens of millions of people deliberately exterminated. And if she’d missed altogether I suspect it would also have been avoided.

While Lenin survived her bullets, those injuries contributed to his stroke from stress and overwork in 1922 and his death in 1924, at just 53 years of age. And this death cleared the way for Stalin to seize power, exploit the breathing space of the mid-1920s to reorganize the Bolshevik regime and plan the drastic transformation he imposed on the U.S.S.R. from the late 1920s through 1941. Had Lenin lived longer, he would probably have squeezed Stalin out of his inner circle.

I don’t mean that in an entirely good way. It’s more a matter of birds of prey not being gregarious, in Edmund Burke’s pungent phrase. I simply imagine that Lenin would have grown uncomfortable with Stalin’s ambition, and Stalin with Lenin’s continued hold on power, and in the end a showdown would have ended in Stalin’s defeat.

Had it turned out that way it’s no guarantee of a better outcome for Russia or the world. Some people have suggested that Lenin was inherently more decent than Stalin, or that advancing age and bitter experience had mellowed him. I don’t see it and the few reasonably frank accounts we have from his inner circle don’t support that view. Indeed, in his final days Stalin’s right-hand man Vyacheslav Molotov (who lived until 1984 and was an unrepentant Stalinist to his dying day, sending angry letters berating the Politburo for going soft) told an interviewer “Compared to Lenin, Stalin was a mere lamb.”

It’s a disturbing thought and would take some doing. But Molotov knew both men well. And certainly in reading Lenin’s speeches and writings I personally find a profoundly unattractive, frantic, vicious personality devoid of compassion or decency. But he was also older than Stalin, though only by eight years, and by 1929 he would have been approaching 60, unlikely to have the furious energy required to undertake what Stalin did even if nothing in his experience or character mellowed him.

Now Stalinism is largely a topic for another day. But I believe that in contrast to the normal portrayal of him as a power-hungry muddled mediocrity Stalin had a horrifyingly clear and profound grasp of the theoretical imperatives of Bolshevism. He was a true Leninist. (See his brief 1924 volume Foundations of Leninism for what amounts both to his leadership platform in the Bolshevik power struggle following Lenin’s death and his program once in power; there’s an eerie and ominous consistency there. Like Hitler, he said what he meant and meant what he said and accomplished evil on a scale no confused second-rater could possibly have managed.) And when Stalin had consolidated political power he was at the peak of his own intellectual and psychological powers and able to unleash horrifying forces on Russia and the world.

Indeed, contemplating what Stalin wrought, I feel fairly safe in saying Lenin could hardly have done worse. He certainly might have done less. So it is a great pity that, if Fanya Kaplan could not kill Lenin outright, she did not manage to miss him altogether.