The revolution in October of 1917 was the result of many factors, both long and short term. However, the role of Lenin was crucial. Many would say that without his leadership of the revolutionaries and actions in 1917, there never would have been a revolution, but just how true is this? How important was Lenin?
In 1887, when Lenin was only seventeen years old, his elder brother was hanged for plotting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Throughout the rest of his life, especially whilst studying at Kazan’ University, Lenin was seen as the brother of a terrorist and was watched very closely by the police until he was quickly expelled for being a troublemaker and taking part in demonstrations against the university rules. Lenin hated those who had cut short his promising career and had rejected his whole family, the tsarist establishment and the ‘bourgeoisie’ (a Marxist term referring to the capitalists who owned the ‘means of production’ i.e. quarries, mines, factories). It was this underlying hatred of those who led Russia which drove Lenin to become a major figure in the revolution and so to be important to its success.
With the permission of the provisional Government and aided by the Germans who believed he would end Russia’s war with them, Lenin returned from exile for his art in revolutionary activities to Russia in April 1917. When he returned, he issued a document called the April Theses. In this he announced his targets for Russia – to end the war; for all power to go to the Soviets (groups of workers in the major cities); all property and land to belong to the people and a world revolution – which he simplified into the slogan “peace, bread, and land.” It was this powerful, dominant approach and strong-willed personality that was to make Lenin a good leader of the Bolsheviks and later the Communist party.
Thinking of Lenin as a leader seems to be the best way of describing his role in the October revolution. Although it was Trotsky who mainly carried out the actions against the Provisional Government, it was Lenin who instigated these actions and who was shown to the people of Russia to be their alternative leader.
Although it is not present in the slogan ‘peace, bread land’, one of Lenin’s targets for Russia was for all power to go to the Soviets. This may have seemed rather strange at the time, as the Soviets did not necessarily support the Bolsheviks. However, it allowed Lenin the opportunity to get the Soviets ‘on his side’ because they wanted the power he said he would provide for them. I think Lenin knew that saying the power should go to the Soviets would encourage them to support him and the Bolshevik party in the revolution. This intelligence – he was later described as an ‘organisational genius’ by the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee – helped to make Lenin a strong leader and therefore very important to the success of the Bolshevik party in the October 1917 revolution.
It was Lenin’s speeches, for example the April Theses, which helped him to win the support of the people. He spoke in simple language and proposed simple solutions to the problems of the people, which really reached them because he promised the things they really wanted most. He always spoke directly to the people and enabling them to feel a connection with him; he was a sort of father figure and their ‘saviour’ from the disappointments of the Provisional Government. Even non-Bolsheviks were drawn in by his charismatic way of talking to the people; one non-Bolshevik, present when he announced the April Theses, described him as “thunderlike…startling and amazing”
Lenin was also an idealist and was prepared to risk his life and reputation in order to turn his dreams into realities. It was his belief in what he was fighting for that made Lenin a very persuasive debater. He was able to first win the support of the Bolshevik party, many of whom were wary of his ideas at the beginning of the revolution, and then later of the majority of Russians. Without this support, Lenin would not have been able to carry out his ideas for Russia and the revolution may not have happened the way that it did.
Another major factor in the October revolution was the general feeling of discontent within the working people of Russia. This had already come to light in the previous revolutions of 1905 and, perhaps more significantly, February 1917. Lenin was not involved in these revolutions – he was even caught by surprise by the February revolution – and so it could be argued that, as they had done it before, the people of Russia would have risen up and overthrown the Provisional Government on their own. However, Lenin is connected with the discontent among the people as his presence seemed to encourage and intensify their feelings of discontentment and also because without these underlying tensions, there would have been no desire for a revolution and so Lenin would have had no role to play.
There were also other factors that caused the October revolution which were not directly related to Lenin. These include the failures of the Provisional Government and Russia’s involvement in World War One. The Provisional Government took control of the country after the February revolution earlier in 1917. They were very popular to begin with as they promised change in the country, one of their most significant promises being free elections. However, it soon became apparent that the changes just weren’t happening and the promised elections were continually postponed until eventually they were scheduled for November.
Russia’s involvement in the war had been one thing many of the protestors in the February revolution were against and almost all the working class people wanted it stopped as millions were dying in a war that Russia seemed to have no chance of winning. The desire for an end to the war increased in June 1917 with a fresh attack on Austria, which failed. This had major repercussions in Russia such as further rationing which the people did not like. The rail workers and arms factory workers went on strike – having a major effect on the war effort – showing their opposition to the war.
Lenin used both the war and the failure of the Provisional government to his advantage by saying how he would stop the war and take over from the Provisional Government who didn’t seem to be listening to the people. However, he was not a major influence in these causes of the revolution, as they existed before he became involved.
In conclusion I think that Lenin was very important to the success of the October revolution. His strong personality and ability to communicate well with the people gave the Bolsheviks many supporters in the revolution and so ultimately gave them the upper hand against the Provisional Government. However, I do not think that he was so important as to say that without him there would not have been a revolution as there were many other factors involved, such as the long-term discontent within the people and the failures of Russia in the war. Lenin was really more of a representation of all of this and a figurehead for the people to put their faith into and so it is easy for some to use the presence of Lenin as the only reason for the revolution.
2) Was Lenin more significant for his actions in 1917 or for his subsequent actions from 1918 to 1924?
There is no doubt that Lenin was an important figure in the 1917 revolution and also in the years that followed when he led his side in the civil war and ruled over Russia. However, the way that he was significant differed greatly between these two times. In order to determine whether the figure of Lenin was more significant in 1917 or the years that immediately followed, we must consider that they were two very different times and so the role of Lenin changes between them. 1917 was just one year, a time of revolution, theories and ideas whereas the years 1918-1924 gave Lenin the opportunity to carry out these ideas and bring the dreams that he had given to the people of Russia to life.
The most obvious difference between these two periods is the length. This is very important to consider when thinking about Lenin’s significance at the time. Lenin was in Russia for less than half of 1917, most of his time being spent in exile (until April) or hiding from the provisional government (in August and September in Finland after an uprising of workers). Although he was very influential during the time he was actually in the country, it is inevitable that he had less of an impact on the people than from 1918 to 1924 because he was simply not a physical presence in their lives. In contrast to this, Lenin was a major figure in the lives of the Russian people from 1918 to 1924. This is not only because he was running the government but also because he was changing the country for what many considered the better.
The two periods were also different because of the different atmospheres and goals. The latter part of 1917 – when Lenin was involved in the revolutionary activities – had a more aggressive atmosphere with Lenin and the people trying to assert their authority whereas, although there was a civil war, the years 1918 to 1924 seem to generally have more of an atmosphere of just getting things done and changes made. The main goal of Lenin and his followers in 1917 was to get the Bolsheviks into government. There were long-term goals such as those outlined in the April Theses but the immediate aim was to get the Bolsheviks in charge so that these targets could be put into practice. When the Bolsheviks were in government, the goals became more long-term with Lenin and his government aiming to remove Russia from the war and improve the situation of the majority of people.
Lenin’s main role in 1917 was as a leader for the Bolshevik party and those who supported them. He was an inspirational leader rather than someone who led by actions. He rallied the troops and gave the people of Russia an alternative leader, leading them to believe in a better life through his speeches directly to the people. However, what many would consider to be the ‘real’ October revolution, the armed uprising in the capital, was only a plan by Lenin. He demanded it from the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee but waited for it to be accepted and put into effect whilst remaining in Finland. It was also Trotsky who carried out the actions Lenin proposed and so in this way Lenin was less significant in 1917.
From 1918 to 1924 Lenin was still a leader but in a different way. A few days after the October revolution, he was elected chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars – effectively the head of the government and therefore of Russia. As he had already won the revolution and come into power, there was less of a need for Lenin to prove to the world and himself that he could be a great leader. He was more confident in his abilities as a leader. An example of this is the assassination attempt on Lenin during the civil war when he did not go into hiding, showing a confident and strong leader for his people, compared to during the revolution when he did hide when his life was threatened. This more confident approach to leadership meant that Lenin was able to simply get on with the job of transforming Russia in the way he wanted to.
The main reason Lenin was very significant in 1917 was because he was a figurehead for the ordinary people of Russia to place their faith in. He gave them something to believe in, the idea that one day all the people of Russia would be equal. He encouraged the people with his four aims for Russia – power to go to the Soviets; an end to the war; all property and land to belong to the people; world revolution – outlined in his April Theses and simplified into the slogan “peace, bread and land.” This gave them a goal to work towards and so they were more likely to support Lenin in the revolution in order to achieve this goal.
After the revolution, Lenin had his chance to carry out the ideas that he had used to inspire the people in 1917. As he was now in power, he was able to carry through the promises of ‘peace, bread and land.’ He accepted the Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany; even though it was very harsh the people accepted it because Lenin was following up on the promises he had given to them. The promises of bread and land were harder to carry through with the civil war between the Reds (supporters of the Bolshevik revolution) and the Whites (all those opposing them) meaning strict rationing was introduced
The civil war is an example of a time when Lenin was particularly significant because he managed to defeat a side that had more military, moral and financial support from foreign countries and was expected to win outright. He managed to lead the Reds to victory by uniting them in their cause and being a good leader. An example of this leadership would be the introduction of war communism, which ensured the army got enough food and almost eliminated money from the society as inflation was allowed to get so high that money became almost valueless. However, as in the revolution, it was Trotsky who actually carried out the actions against the Whites as he lead the Red Army but Lenin remained a significant figure as he was the one the people saw as their leader.
In the time immediately after the civil war, Lenin was still a significant figure in Russia, especially because of the New Economic Policy. By the end of 1920, the Bolsheviks were beginning to lose the support of even their closest followers because of the six years of war which had ruined the economy and brought famine to Russia. Workers went on strike and sailors mutinied for democracy and an end to war communism in the country. Peasant armies (‘Greens’) also attacked the Bolsheviks in 1921 in Tambov, pulling up railway lines, starting fires and torturing then killing Bolsheviks. 10,000 soldiers from the Red army died in fighting. The Red Army went into action against these groups of untrained peasants and shot whole groups of them in cold blood. Lenin realised that the Bolsheviks couldn’t go on like this and still remain in power. He announced a New Economic Policy at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921. This policy allowed peasants to sell surplus food and make profit and people were allowed to own small businesses again. Money became trusted again as a way of paying. There was even more chance for independence from May 1922 when the Fundamental Law was passed, allowing peasants more freedom to sell or lease land.
Lenin was a significant figure at this time because he managed to lead well and realise that he was wrong in thinking Russia could change so quickly to the Communist policy. This is shown when he announced the New Economic Policy and said, “We know that as long as there is no revolution in other countries, only agreement with the peasantry can save the Socialist revolution in Russia.”
Despite the fact that Lenin was significant through most of the period 1918 to 1924, he did not make many more influential decisions after May 1922 when he suffered the first of the three strokes which eventually led to his death on 21st January 1924. Although he was still significant to people because he was still head of the government, most of Lenin’s influence was because of his actions in the past.
In conclusion, I think that Lenin was more significant from 1918 to 1924 than in 1917, as this is the time when he really made the changes in Russia. Although he also played a very important role in 1917, I believe that the revolution would probably have happened without his contribution whereas the events of the years that followed probably wouldn’t. However, without the events of 1917, the events of 1918-24 would not have happened in the way that they did so 1917 was very significant because it set up the plan for Russia for the years that followed but Lenin himself was not more significant.
3) Study the period from 1924 to 1941. In what ways did Lenin continue to be of significance even after his death?
When Lenin died on 21st January 1924, he left behind him a country unsure of the direction it was taking. The people of Russia much respect for Lenin as he was the person who had seemed to show them the way forward after the revolution. This influence that he had over the people was used many times by others throughout uncertainties over the new head of government and many decisions after.
Since the Bolshevik party had come into power in 1917, Lenin had been the only leader, and the battle to become Lenin’s successor saw his name used often by both Trotsky and Stalin – the main candidates to lead the government. Stalin used the people’s grief for Lenin to his own advantage. He organised the funeral and made sure the people knew that Trotsky did not attend (he was unwell), making it seem like he did not care about Lenin.
Stalin had to work particularly hard to improve the people’s opinion of him because Lenin had not liked him and did not think he should follow him as head of the government. We know this because he said, “Stalin is too rude…I propose a way to remove Stalin and appoint another man…less likely to act on impulse.” Lenin was greatly respected by the people of Russia, they looked up to him and therefore his opinion of Stalin would have been very important to them. Stalin had to act like he was very close to Lenin to try and convince the people that Lenin would have supported his ideas and that the legacy of Lenin was being fulfilled.
The legacy of Lenin was something that Stalin always seemed to be aspiring to. In many of his speeches, especially when announcing new policies or ideas, Stalin would mention Lenin and imply that the idea was something Lenin would have agreed to. An example of this would be the collectivisation of agriculture. Lenin had hoped to persuade the peasants to join collective farms. Stalin saw that this idea was not working and so took more ruthless action but he used Lenin’s name to try and convince the peasants that the idea was right.
Another example is Stalin’s five-year plans where he was seen to be continuing with Lenin’s plans for the industrialisation of Russia. Lenin had tried ideas such as the New Economic Policy and setting up the State Planning Commission (GOSPLAN) to guide economic development but it had not worked fast enough. Stalin showed himself to be following in Lenin’s footsteps by trying to improve the economic situation in Russia.
This use of Lenin’s name had influence with the people of Russia because of the special place Lenin held in their hearts. They saw him as a sort of father figure as he had led them through the revolution and hard times after and so accepted what he had thought as being right.
Another similarity shown between Lenin and Stalin was their style of speech. Both of them were very charismatic speakers and liked to use slogans. Two particularly similar speeches were Lenin’s April Theses and Stalin’s speech after his first five year plan for industrialisation. Stalin seemed to follow the style of Lenin so the people thought he was similar to Lenin and so they would place more of their trust in him.
The ideas of Lenin and Stalin were also similar in many ways. Lenin seems to have influenced the way Stalin approached ideas, as their views on issues such as agriculture and industrialisation are similar. Both men wanted to raise Russia’s economic status by implementing changes in both these areas. However, Stalin seemed to take these ideas to more extreme lengths. For example, the purges eliminating certain classing such as the kulaks (wealthier peasants). This shows a time when Lenin and his views were not taken into account by Stalin, as he would almost certainly have disagreed with Stalin’s actions. Perhaps it was this more extreme approach to ruling Russia which Lenin had feared when he said he did not trust Stalin, and perhaps this is why the ideology of Lenin – Leninism – was still followed many years later whereas Stalin’s support was lost.
The people showed that they thought Lenin was important in many different ways. Perhaps the largest gesture was the re-naming of Petrograd to Leningrad. There were also memorials built to him and religious-type banners displayed in the streets. In many homes and schools there were ‘icon corners’ for Lenin – encouraged by Stalin – leading him to be ‘worshipped’ like a god. This made Lenin a role model for the people of Russia as he was seen as great in influential places such as schools. A religious approach to Lenin is also shown with the fact that there were pilgrimages to important places in his life and statues built in his honour. Although his wife, Krupskaya, wrote in 1924 (after his death), “do not build memorials to him…All of this meant so little to him” this ‘cult of Lenin’ still existed and he remained important in the years after his death.
The immense respect of the people of Russia for Lenin was not just in the time of Stalin. The respect and the idea of him as the ‘father of Russia’ continued until much later. Placards on Russian streets in the 1960s read: “Lenin is more alive than all those living now”. In 1970 with the centenary of Lenin’s birth there were more commemorations to him including statues, books, films, festivals, tours to Lenin sites, new medals, new museums, postage stamps and gramophone records, showing that he was still very much a part of the lives of the people. Statues of Lenin ‘pointing the way forward’ remained in every major Russian city until 1986 when the fall of the Berlin wall and the iron curtain effectively ended communism in Europe.
As well as the significance of Lenin as an idea and a figure for the people to look up to, Lenin also remained significant because of what he had done. Plans he had put into action during his time as head of the government, significantly the Fundamental Law and new Economic Policy, really began to work in about 1925. Other ideas Lenin had had for industrialisation, which he had not implemented, were also put into effect after his time, adding to Lenin’s importance and influence in Russia following his death.
The main way in which Lenin remained significant in Russia after his death was in the hearts and minds of the people. They still saw him as the father figure of Russia and a role model for them all so they respected him and his ideas. This meant that he was important as a tool for others, especially Stalin, to help them get their ideas accepted by the people. He was also important as the ideas he had implemented, such as the Fundamental Law, remained effective during the time after his death.