V. I. Lenin: Historiography

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All good historians make some reference to historiography: the different views and debates that are held by a variety of historians; the history of History. Acknowledgement of the work that has come before, exploration of disputed issues and comparison of different arguments  balance and perspective to the writing of history (i.e., good history). Obviously differing political backgrounds, different emphasis of themes and new approaches sources has given rise to different ‘schools of thought’ within historians’ work

Soviet Writers

Western Writers


Cold War


Gorbachev and Glasnost


Recent Years

Post 1991

Right Wing View

1950s & 1960s

Left Wing View


Revisionist View


Communist Propaganda

Maintains legacy, but acknowledges early difficulties

Access to archives since fall of USSR

Height of Cold War Critical of USSR

Critical of regime, but examine man separately

Critical, but acknowledge regional differences

Hero (infallible)




Not tyrant


in control

not totally in control

partially in control

controlled events

not in control of events

not in control of events

Lenin’s Russia was strong

Lenin’s Russia was not ideal

Lenin’s Russia was good

Lenin’s Russia was not a good place

Lenin’s Russia was not a good place

Lenin’s Russia was not

always bad

  • Orthodox: More conservative or traditional analysis – depends on whether historian is Soviet or Western (places blame on Soviets)

  • Marxist: historiography influenced by Marxism. Chief tenets are centrality of social class and economic constraints in determining historical outcomes. Most soviet historians would fall into this definition.

  • Liberal: Dominant Western view – shaped by prejudices of Cold War and positively emphasizes ideas of freedom, democracy, free trade. Interpretation is from above and tends to emphasize major players.

  • Libertarian: developed in the 1960s – sees the needs and role of the people/masses as major causation and driving force

  • Revisionist/Social: Most recent, builds on the works of the Libertarians – examines motivations, circumstances and seeks to understand history “from below.” Contrary or revisions of the Liberal views (Sheila Fitzpatrick)

Difficulty in Interpreting Lenin:

  • Lenin’s own ideologies evolved and changed – motivations for evolution (?) – short term catastrophes or long-term ideologies

  • Histories have been shaped if not actively infiltrated by Cold War ideology and rhetoric;

  • Illness and early death of Lenin leaves the analysis incomplete

  • Archives deliberately destroyed in order to maintain “Cult of Lenin” to consolidate Stalin

  • Was the revolution part of a 'natural' or inevitable process... or was it forced upon the nation?

  • What role did the peasants play (or not play) in the February and October revolutions?

  • How critical was Lenin in the revolution: was he a great leader, or just a political expedient?

  • What was more crucial in initiating revolution: social forces, ideology or ambitious individualism?

  • Did Stalin pervert the Leninist revolution? Or was Stalin merely 'following Lenin's example'?

Read the following quotes

  • Determine the main idea of the quote

  • Determine the School of Historiography

  1. “The NEP was not…a wholesale return to private ownership of industry and capitalist trade. Lenin reassured the Party that the Soviet state was to retain the ‘commanding heights of the economy’…the NEP was a noticeable step back from the principle of total, centralized control over trade and a move towards a mixed economy where capitalism existed alongside communism.”

  1. “[Lenin] always insisted that the new economic policy…was really the old policy of 1918, but he never attempted to disguise the fact that it was a large-scale retreat, another breathing space, a Brest-Litovsk on the economic front.”

  1. “…finally began to bring hope to the troubled nation. Both industrial and agricultural production increased dramatically making the NEP an economic success. Ideologically, however, the NEP was a reversal of socialist ideals which created intense disharmony amongst many in the party.”

  1. “[The Bolsheviks] were simple and young men…doers rather than thinkers. They were attracted by Lenin’s discipline and firm leadership of the Party, by his simple slogans and by his belief in immediate action to bring down the Tsarist regime. …This…was what Lenin offered them: the idea that something could be done.”

  1. “…it is the Bolsheviks’ incapacity to realise their ends, their blindness rather than their vision, that is striking. After they came to power, they faced a huge range of problems for which Marxism-Leninism left them ill-equipped…Policy, therefore, was frequently the outcome of improvisation and pragmatism as much as of the hallowed tenets of ideology. In other words, the relationship between belief and action was complex, influenced by a far larger range of factors”.

  1. “1917 did not mark a complete break with the past. Rather it was the replacement of one form of state-authoritarianism with another”.

  1. “…despite the fact that millions of honest people, led by the ‘vanguard of the revolution’, laboured for it, the utopia remained a fairy-tale”.

  1. “In everything he did, Lenin’s ultimate purpose was the pursuit of power. Power for him was not a means; it was an end in itself…he did not establish a dictatorship to safeguard the revolution; he made a revolution establish the dictatorship.”

  • Prominent liberal historians: B. Pares, R. Pipes, J. H. Keep, L. Shapiro, M. Lynch, D. Volkogonov, A. Ulam, R. Conquest.

  • Prominent Libertarian historians: A. Berkman, M. Brinton.

  • Prominent Revisionist historians: A. Rabinowitch, R. Service, M. Ferro, S. Smith, J. Arch-Getty, A. Wood, S. Cohen, O. Figes, T. Hasegawa, S. Fitzpatrick, B. Williams, R.G. Sunny, E. Acton, C. Read, V. Cherniaev, M. Melancon, S. Wheatcroft, W.G. Rosenberg, B. Kolonitskii, J. P. Nettl.

  • Marxist: Christopher Hill

  1. Tom Ryan

  2. Christopher Hill

  3. Malone

  4. Figes

  5. Smith

  6. Lynch

  7. Volkogonov

  8. Figes

“A number of Communists were unhappy with what they saw as a break with true revolutionary strategy and a betrayal of the proletariat. Many had seen the Civil War years as a period of historic struggle and believed centralized control of industry had been a great achievement. Had all those sacrifices been in vain?” Tom Ryan

“As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian. It was a mirror image of the tsarist state…but there was one crucial difference…the soviet elite was made up for the most part of ordinary Russians…who spoke, dressed and acted much like everyone else. This gave the Reds a decisive advantage over the Whites in the civil war: it enabled it to hold on to the emotive symbols of the Revolution, the Red Flag above all else, and thus to present itself as the champion of the people’s cause.” Figes

Figes: “There was no ‘private Lenin’ behind the public mask. He gave all of himself to politics. He rarely showed emotion, he had few intimates, and everything he ever said or wrote was intended only for the revolutionary cause. This was not a man but a political machine. Lenin’s personal life was extraordinarily dull…He did not smoke, he did not really drink, and apart from his affair with the beautiful Inessa Armand, he was not even interested in women. Krupskaya called him ‘Ilich’, his nickname in the party, and he called her ‘comrade’. She was more like his secretary than his wife…Lenin lived for the revolution.” The Sunday Times, March 2000

Figes: “There was no master plan. When the Bolsheviks came to power they had no set idea – other than the general urge to control and centralize – of how to structure the institutional relationships between the party and the Soviets…Only during the civil war, when they stressed the need for strict centralized control to mobilize the resources of the country, did the Bolsheviks plan the general structure of the party-state”.

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