One of the most aberrant historical myths of the 20th century is to present Lenin as the “good” dictator of the USSR, and Stalin as the “bad” one, in an attempt to save the mandate of the former.
The figures of victims of Leninism, from November 1917 to January 1924
- More than a million people killed for political or religious reasons.
- Between 300,000 and 500,000 Cossacks killed.
- Hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants killed for striking.
- 240,000 dead in the suppression of the Tambov rebellion.
- More than 50,000 white prisoners of war executed.
- Between 3.9 million and 7.75 million deaths from famines among Russians, Kazakhs, and Tatars.
Lenin at a rally on March 18, 1918.
A communist revolution that aborted democracy in Russia
To demystify Lenin, one must first break other myths. The most basic is that when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out on November 7, 1917, the communists did not overthrow the Tsar – who no longer reigned – but aborted the incipient democracy in Russia, taking advantage of the crisis that arose between conservatives and socialists. After the violent assault on power by the communists, a civil war broke out that lasted five years, and in which – already from power – the Bolsheviks – who were victorious – faced all their rivals. It was the beginning of a bloody dictatorship that would last for more than 70 years,until the disappearance of the USSR in 1991.
Bolshevik Chekists murdering a detainee, in a work by the Lithuanian painter Ivan Vladimirov (1869-1947).
Lenin had already advanced his plans: dictatorship and violent repression
Shortly before that communist revolution, in the summer of 1917 Lenin wrote a book, “The State and the Revolution,” outlining what his dictatorship would be like. Among other considerations, the future despot pulled the crudest demagoguery and lashed out at parliamentary democracy:
“Deciding once every certain number of years which members of the ruling class are to oppress and crush the people in Parliament: this is the true essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary constitutional monarchies, but in the most democratic republics.”
Lenin advocated “for the destruction of bourgeois parliamentarism” and “for a Republic of Soviets of workers and soldiers deputies, for the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat“. That dictatorship would imply “a series of restrictions imposed on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists” (in the end it would apply to everyone), and added: “it is evident that where there is repression there is violence, not there is neither freedom nor democracy”. In the book, moreover, he already stated with absolute frankness and before coming to power that violence would use it “both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population, the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, to the semi-proletarians, in the work of “starting up” the socialist economy. ” One of the closest collaborators of the communist dictator, Leon Trotsky, would write Lenin’s words years later to those who were reluctant to use terrorism: “Do you really believe that we can be victorious without using the most ruthless terror?”
Officials of the Cheka de Uman in 1920.
In three years Lenin multiplied by 18 the repressive apparatus of Tsarism
As soon as the communists took power, they began to organize their repressive apparatus. One of the first measures of the Bolshevik dictatorship was to establish the Chrezvycháinaya Komíssiya (better known as Cheka), a political police force founded on December 20, 1917, when Lenin had been serving as dictator for more than a month as “President of the Council of People’s Commissars ”. The tsarist secret police, the fearsome Okhrana, had grown to some 15,000 members, charged with arresting political enemies, imprisoning them, torturing them, and even executing them without any court order. At the end of 1918, the Cheka already had 40,000 agents, and two years later there were already 280,000 Chekists. In three years the Bolsheviks had multiplied by 18 the volume of the repressive apparatus of Tsarism.
Women killed by the Cheka of Kharkov, Ukraine. Still alive, the Chekists cut off their breasts and burned their genitals, introducing coals inside them.
The perverse methods of torture and murder of the Cheka
If the Okhrana had been characterized by its brutal methods, the communist Cheka surpassed in every way the degree of cruelty of its tsarist predecessor. Among his methods of torture and murder against political dissidents, Orthodox clergymen and other people considered enemies by the Bolsheviks, we must cite savagery such as the following, documented by the Russian historian Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev and by the State Archives of the Russian Federation, among others sources:
- Stoning, that is, stoning the prisoner to death.
- Crucifixions, a method used against many priests and religious.
- Throw prisoners into cauldrons of boiling tar.
- Prisoners drowning in icy waters.
- Scalping off inmates. A practice that was done, for example, in the Kharkov Cheka, in Ukraine.
- Forcing prisoners to ingest molten lead.
- Kill inmates by throwing them into blast furnaces.
- Burying prisoners alive, a practice perpetrated in the Kremenchuk Cheka.
- Flaying, that is, tearing off the skin of prisoners. The Kharkov Cheka used the skin torn from prisoners to make gloves.
Cracked skin from the hands of detainees in the basement of the Kharkov Cheka, Ukraine. The Chekists used metal combs and tongs to apply this horrendous torture.
- Poaching the prisoner, that is, throwing boiling water until he is killed.
- Undressing prisoners, tie them up, and throw cold water on them in the middle of winter until they freeze, a practice of the Orel Cheka, 360 km from Moscow.
- Kill prisoners by throwing them into the sea or into a river bound by their hands (this is what the Cheka of Kholmogory did periodically with their prisoners in the Dvina River).
- Tying naked victims around barrels surrounded by nails, and rolling them until inmates died, a practice of the Voronezh Cheka.
- Tying cages with rats to the bodies of prisoners and poking rodents with hot irons until they made their way through the intestines of inmates, a practice used by the Kiev Cheka and that years later George Orwell would include in his famous novel “1984”.
More than a million people were killed for political or religious reasons during what is known as the Red Terror, between 1918 and 1922, the hardest time of Lenin’s dictatorship. To give us an idea, according to the British historian Hugh Thomas, the victims of Franco’s repression number around 100,000 people, among those killed during the Spanish Civil War and postwar repression. In other words, in little more than six years of the dictatorship, Lenin murdered ten times more people than is attributed to the Franco dictatorship in almost 40 years.
Orthodox monks assassinated by the Cheka in 1919.
The savage persecution against Christians and other religions
With the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 a systematic religious persecution began that would suppose, throughout the history of the USSR, the murder of between 12 and 20 million Christians. In 1914 the Russian Orthodox Church had 55,173 churches, 29,593 chapels, 550 monasteries, and 475 convents: the vast majority of them closed down and destroyed by the Communists. Something similar happened with the 5,000 Jewish synagogues and the 25,000 Muslim mosques that were in Russian territory in 1917. Before the Revolution, there were also 112,629 priests and deacons and 95,259 monks and nuns of the Orthodox Church. The communists unleashed a brutal persecution against them. According to Yakovlev, some 3,000 priests, religious and nuns were already murdered in 1918 alone with methods as brutal as those mentioned above. Many lay people were harassed, tortured, arrested, and killed. The historian Dimitry V. Pospielovsky reported the brutality of the Reds against the priests with cases such as the following:
- An 80-year-old priest named Amvrosi was brutally beaten before he was killed.
- Another priest named Dimitri was taken to a cemetery and stripped naked, and when he tried to cross himself before he was killed, a Bolshevik cut off his right arm.
- Another old priest who was trying to stop the execution of a peasant was beaten, killed, and dismembered with broadswords by the Bolsheviks. This way of disposing of corpses was not an isolated case among the Bolshevik crimes against the Orthodox clergy.
- In the Monastery of Saint Salvador the Reds killed the 75-year-old abbot, poaching, and beheading him.
- Hermogenes, Archbishop of Tobolsk and Siberia, had stones tied to his head and thrown into the Tura River, where he drowned.
- In Voronezh seven nuns were killed by boiling them in a cauldron of tar.
- In Pechora, an elderly priest named Rasputin was tied to a telegraph pole, shot, and his corpse handed over to dogs to devour.
In May 1920 Lenin ordered the mass execution of all priests who were against communism: between 14,000 and 20,000 were murdered.
Farmers I. Afanasyuk and S. Prokopovich, bound and skinned alive in a Cheka in Ukraine.
The repression of the kulak farmers
In the summer of 1918 the Bolsheviks had to face a rebellion of the kulaks, peasants from Ukraine and the Caucasus who owned their own land and who opposed communist collectivization policies and the massive confiscation of their grain productions. Lenin sent a written order to the Penza Bolsheviks to publicly hang at least 100 renowned kulaks, to use them as an example against others, and to take hostages to force others to submit to the Communists. In another order Lenin was even clearer: “We must immediately form a dictatorial troika (yourself, Markin and another) implant mass terror, shoot or deport the hundreds of prostitutes who make the soldiers drink, all the old men. officers, etc. There is not a minute to waste.”
The murder of thousands of Red Army deserters and their families
The Red Army suffered 3 million desertions in 1919 and 1920. The first year 500,000 deserters were arrested by the Cheka, and almost 800,000 the second. Thousands of them were killed, and their families were often taken hostage and killed to blackmail deserters. A typical report from the Cheka stated the following:
Yaroslavl Province, June 23, 1919. The uprising of deserters in the Petropavlovskaya volost has been quelled. The families of the deserters have been taken hostage. When we started shooting one person from each family, the Greens started coming out of the woods and surrendered. Thirty-four deserters were shot as an example.”
Between August 1920 and June 1921 a great anti-Bolshevik rebellion took place in Tambov with the support of deserters from the Red Army, caused by the massive requisitions ordered by the Communists. The rebels assembled an army of about 40,000 men. The Bolsheviks crushed the rebellion. Between the mass executions and internments in the Gulag, 240,000 civilians died.
The brutal repression of the Cossacks
Another group that suffered brutal communist repression were the Cossacks, an ethnic group of Turkish origin. Many of its members fought in the White Army, alongside the Tsarists, in the Russian Civil War. Between 1918 and 1919 they came to form an independent, democratic Republic. The Bolsheviks directed a harsh repression against them. Historian Michael Kort has estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 Cossacks were killed in 1919 and 1920, out of a population of 1.5 million.
In the foreground, the corpse of the telegrapher Ponomarenko in the Cheka of Kharkov, Ukraine. His right hand was cut off and he shows deep cuts on his head. In the background are the bodies of two other victims of the Chekists.
The creation by Lenin of a network of concentration camps: the Gulag
In April 1919 Lenin signed a decree to create a concentration camp system that copied the Tsarist Katorga, which in 1916 had almost 20,000 inmates, according to figures published by Stephen G. Wheatcroft. The new network of concentration camps was called Glávnoie upravlenie ispravítelno-trudovyj lagueréi i koloni (General Directorate of Labor Camps). It was the birth of the Gulag, the largest Soviet repressive system. The first such camp had been established in 1918 at Solovki, on the Solovetsky Islands of the Black Sea. Once again the figures of the communist dictatorship ended up far exceeding those of tsarism in a short time: at the end of 1920 there were already 84 camps with some 50,000 political prisoners. In October 1923 there were already 315 camps with 70,000 prisoners. Those detained there were used in forced labor as slave labor. There were very high mortality rates among the prison population, due to the harsh conditions of these brutal detention centers, in which prisoners were often starved to death or killed by their guards.
Lenin encouraged the mass execution of strikers
The strikes were also put down in a bloody way. On March 16, 1919, the Cheka stormed the Putilov factory, where its workers had gone on strike six days earlier, accusing the Bolshevik government of having turned into a dictatorship: 900 workers were arrested, and 200 executed without trial. Violent repression, imprisonment, hostage-taking, and mass murder were the methods most used by the Bolsheviks to quell these strikes, both in factories and in the countryside. On January 29, 1920, faced with the strikes of the workers in the Urals region, Lenin sent a telegram to Vladimir Smirnov encouraging the use of mass murder against the strikers: “I am surprised that you take matters so lightly and do not immediately execute a large number of strikers for the crime of sabotage.” These methods were even used to quell the protests of workers when they were forced to work on Sunday, as happened in Tula, a malaise that the Bolsheviks attributed, without more, to a “counterrevolutionary conspiracy forged by Polish spies.” It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of rebellious workers and peasants were executed between 1918 and 1922.
Assassinated by the Cheka of Kiev, Ukraine, in 1919.
The mass execution of prisoners of war
In the late 1920s, Lenin himself gave his approval for the mass murder of 50,000 “white” prisoners and civilians in Crimea, by shooting or by hanging, in one of the largest massacres of the Russian Civil War. The victims of this crime had surrendered, according to Robert Gellately, following the Bolshevik promise that there would be an amnesty for them if they surrendered.
The piled up corpses of victims of the Russian famine in Buzuluk, in the Volga region, winter 1921 to 1922.
Lenin used hunger for political ends: from 3.9 million to 7.75 million dead
One of the most dramatic episodes of the Lenin dictatorship was the Russian famine of 1921 and 1922, which affected some 27 million people and killed between 3 and 5 million and was caused, to a large extent, by the mass requisitions of grain ordered by the Bolsheviks, the so-called Prodrazvyorstka (copied and enlarged by the Communists, like other things, from the Razvyorstka, the tsarist grain requisition in the First World War). The requisitioned grain was often used for export. This extermination by starvation was not something accidental or that the Bolshevik dictatorship tried to prevent: it was done intentionally and even an anti-religious end was sought with it, as Lenin wrote in a letter from Lenin to the Politburo on March 19, 1922:
“Now and only now, when people are consumed in famine-affected areas and hundreds, if not thousands, of corpses lie on the roads, we can (and therefore must) pursue the disposal of church property with energy more frantic and ruthless and do not hesitate to stifle the slightest opposition. (…) We must pursue the elimination of church assets by whatever means necessary to ensure a fund of several hundred million gold rubles (don’t forget the immense wealth of some monasteries and lauras). (…) All considerations indicate that later on we will not do it, because at no other time, apart from desperate hunger, will it give us that state of mind among the general mass of peasants that would guarantee us the sympathy of this group, or at least , would ensure the neutralization of this group in the sense that the victory in the fight for the elimination of church property, in an unquestionable and complete way, will be on our side.”
This use of famines as a method to achieve political goals had already been advanced by Lenin in 1891 when he refused to collaborate with a campaign to help the hungry in the city of Samara. According to Lenin, hunger has “numerous positive consequences”, since it “destroys not only faith in the Tsar, but also in God” (quoted by Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek and Jean-Louis Margolin in “Le livre noir du communisme”, 1997).
Bolsheviks requisitioning grain from peasants, in a work by the Lithuanian painter Ivan Vladimirov (1869-1947). These requisitions caused great discontent and were, to a large extent, responsible for the deadly famine of 1921 and 1922.
The Russian famine was not the only one on the territory of the USSR during the Lenin dictatorship. Similar famines were suffered by the Kazakhs (1919–1922, between 400,000 and 750,000 dead) and the Tartars (1921-1922, between 500,000 and 2 million dead), all of them under Soviet rule. Adding these figures to those of the Russian famine, we have between 3.9 million and 7.75 million deaths due to hunger, a situation caused – I insist – by the communist regime itself.
Famines and poor living conditions led to rebellions in the USSR, today little remembered by most of the world. One of the most significant, in addition to the aforementioned Tambov, was that of Kronstadt in March 1921, when civilians, soldiers, and sailors of the Soviet Baltic fleet rose up against the Bolsheviks. The Red Army put down the rebellion by executing thousands of people.