The word dictator refers to someone who rules a country with absolute power. Dictators tend to come to power by other throwing the government by advertising a common goal or reason to the people. Lenin had the semblance of a dictator, he defeated the Tsar and murdered his whole family then went on to form the Soviet Union which one may argue was the worst dictatorships in the 20th Century. Indeed, at first glance Lenin is commonly assumed to be a dictator, however many argue that he was a revolutionary hero who saved people from decades of suffering and poverty. Russia was a country where workers and peasants worked long hours, lived in poverty and hardships and were the lowest paid in Europe while the Elite including the aristocracy and the imperial families enjoyed a life of luxury. For many Lenin was seen to be the figure who ended a reign built on brutality and corruption, shifting Russia to a new and improved modernized industrial state seen today from a mostly agriculture Aristocracy. Lenin is one of the most controversial leaders in history, however, questions arise as to whether he was a revolutionary hero who ended a reign of terror, suffering and hardship or a villain and dictator who replaced one terror with another.
For Lenin to be a dictator, he would have exercised complete power over Russia and used oppressive and brutal means to censor anyone who opposed him. Whilst these element’s certainly fed into the image of a dictator, Russia’s history in governing, economic and political standpoint before Lenin came into power cannot be ignored and can hinder how much power the word dictator applies to Lenin. For Lenin to be a revolutionary hero, Lenin would have saved a country from an oppressive regime and would have improved conditions instead of worsening them. Historians Like Dmitri Volkogonov and Richard Pipes both agree that Lenin was a dictator and draws their arguments from Lenin’s creation of the CHEKA and The Red Terror which was an example of Lenin trying to exercise control. However other Historians like Christopher Hill defends Lenin’s actions due to the situation in Russia, which had tolerated years of Civil War, World war 1 and the corruption of the aristocracy which caused massive instability. Lenin’s creation of the NEP shows him using compromise, unlike the Red Terror which used force. Both Historian’s accounts can be challenged because of their own personal view on the matter and therefore I will be assessing all accounts to come up with a final conclusion.
Lenin can be viewed as a dictator because he ruled Russia through a one-party dictatorship, the Bolsheviks also known as the Communist party. Dmitri Volkogonov is a historian known for his anti- Lenin approach, and believes that Lenin’s sole reason for ‘building socialism in one country boiled down to the chance of seizing power.1’ This shows that Volkogonov believes that Lenin was able to exercise his dictatorship tendencies through the centralization of power in Russia. This is further supported by the creation of Sovnarkom under Lenin which was a new body of government which shows that the Communist party had no intention of sharing their power. This gives the impression that Lenin wanted to limit other powers in order to strengthen his own which supports the idea that Lenin was a dictator.
However, the argument that Lenin established Sovnarkom for his own personal greed for power can be rivalled due to the economic situation at the time. Russia was in a Civil war and the creation of the Sovnarkom may have been an emergency tactic to defend against anti-Bolsheviks. This is supported by Christopher Hill, a historian who has Marxist sympathies; ‘In 1918 the country had been economically exhausted and bankrupt2’ This shows that Russia was in a state of economic hardship and the pressure to maintain stability among the economic situation and the chaos of the Civil war may help to explain why Lenin fell back to using more centralized decisions. Hill then goes further to say ‘there was a spirit of optimism and self-confidence among the workers which was itself able to overcome many difficulties.3’ This shows that Lenin was able to restore hope and confidence for the workers which had been crushed during the Tsar regime, which in itself shows that Lenin may be considered a revolutionary hero because he symbolized hope for the future instead of a reign of terror.
Volkogonov argues that the creation of Politburo which became the central committee for the communist party was, in fact, an excursion of power to help dictate the country. ‘The famine… was appalling. People were eating dead bodies, although the Politburo banned any mention of cannibalism in the press.4’ This shows that Politburo was using propaganda to sell the dream that Russia’s conditions were improving. This suggests that Lenin was a dictator because through Politburo he censored bad press in order to strive for complete power. However, Politburo released more dictatorship laws towards the end of Lenin’s reign, where he fell ill, therefore it could be argued it was the Bolshevik party who strived for more power, not Lenin.
Furthermore, historian Christopher Hill argues that Lenin introduced laws that helped to improve conditions rather than worsening them. ‘Lenin announced as the programme of the Soviet government the immediate proposal of peace to all nations; the transfer of land to the peasants; workers’ control over the production distribution of food; national control of the banks.5′ This is suggesting that Lenin aimed to help workers rights and was a voice for the people; by transferring land to the peasants was aiding his socialist dream and ending unfair treatment and privileges from the nobility and aristocracy. Hill also proclaims that Lenin ‘ was ready on occasion to ‘crawl on his belly in the mud’ if the interests of Russia and the revolution required it6′. This further supports the impression that Lenin was prepared to put Russia’s interests before his, and evaluates Lenin’s sincerity for equality. However, the image displayed by Hill may be exaggerated due to Hill having Marxist sympathies, therefore, the account can be challenged due to Hill holding biased views.
Some historians believe that Lenin’s initiation of the Red Terror, which was a response to a failed assassination plot was an act of a dictator. Volkogonov describes Lenin using ‘inhumane terrorist methods7’ which interprets qualities of a dictator. Volkogonov argues that Lenin immediately resorted ‘to the prison, the concentration camps, exile, the firing squad, hostages and blackmail8’ This implies that Lenin’s use of the Red Terror to establish censorship and to limit resistance and hostility to the new regime from opposing parties describes Lenin as a dictator because he was using violence and terror to suppress opposition. This is further supported by the fact that 800 were executed without trial and therefore displays a regime filled with terror, violence and disregard for anyone who doesn’t agree with their beliefs. Volkogonov also claims that the Red Terror was ‘a path of violence and universal suspicion that was to become typical of twentieth-century tyrannies thereafter.9’ This shows that the historian Volgokonov believes that Lenin was a dictator through the use of The Red Terror because it suppressed political freedom in Russia whilst heightening Lenin’s own lust for power. Thus, showing that Lenin was a dictator because he resulted to using violence and terror to protect his regime.
However, Volkogonov may be exaggerating the extent of The Red Terror due to not sharing soviet beliefs himself and therefore, may hold biased views. Whilst the Red Terror was an example of Lenin using force to establish control, the role of the NEP was an example of Lenin using compromise which shows that the extent of Lenin being a dictator is challenged. Historian John Laver vocalizes that ‘Under NEP peasants were freed from the threat of requisitioning and were allowed to engage in private enterprise10’ This shows that Lenin himself was prepared to change some of his communist beliefs in which he saw would better society. In Laver’s own words the NEP was ‘at worst an outright betrayal of Marxism11’ which shows that Lenin sincerely believed in doing what was right for the people, thus showing he was a revolutionary hero. Lenin was prepared to go against his own beliefs and Laver proclaim that ‘NEP was never a comfortable fact of life for the Communist Party12’ which shows that Lenin put the happiness of the people before himself and his party. Christopher Hill proclaims that ‘Lenin knew the Russian people and valued their traditions13’ which supports the idea that Lenin was prepared to go against his own cabinet and views to arguably satisfy the people who are his main concern, thus showing he was a revolutionary hero.