Was Vladimir Lenin a totalitarian

What to do with the communist past The case of RussiaThe article is based on a lecture the author gave at the conference "Totalitarism and Authoritarianism in Europe: Short- and long-term perspectives", which was held in Warsaw in September 2000 jointly by the German Historical Institute and the Institute for history at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

At the beginning of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina there is the remark that all happy families are happy in a similar way, while all unhappy families fall into misery in a special way. The same is true of states and nations, and Russia's communist past is undoubtedly very special.

This is true in many ways. In contrast to Eastern Europe, the Soviet regime in Russia did not establish itself under direct foreign influence. It also grew out of a deep revolutionary crisis with an unprecedented level of mass violence. The length of time for which the Russian communists remained in power is also unique: seventy years. Unlike Germany, Japan or Italy, the regime did not experience a decisive military defeat. When Soviet rule finally came to an end, it was first the establishment that initiated reforms. The fall of the regime also coincided with the collapse of the empire. Finally, for a large part of the population, the following years were profoundly disappointing in economic and political terms.

Some of these features are unique in their own right, but it is their unique combination in particular that must be kept in mind in understanding Russian memory politics over the past fifteen years. First of all, I would like to give a chronological outline in order to outline the individual phases in the political development of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet system and their influence on dealing with the past in general. I will then analyze in more detail the current situation in those areas of society and government that deal with the communist past.


In the second half of the 1980s, when the political initiative was still in the hands of part of the communist establishment, the strategy of the reformers around Gorbachev was to replace the old communist saints with new ones, especially Nikolai Bukharin and Sergei Kirov . It was the continuation of early Khrushchev-era policies aimed at upholding the “socialist choice of our fathers,” as Gorbachev liked to say. The communist “martyrs” were supposed to provide support. These new saints were chosen to represent the “human face” of communism that had fallen victim to Stalin and other traitors to the “noble ideas of the communist revolution”. Books by some left-wing Western authors such as Stephen F. Cohen1 have proven helpful in pursuing this goal. These policies dominated public discourse on the communist era until 1989, when the atmosphere changed drastically after the first Congress of People's Deputies, held in May and televised.

The arguments put forward at the time were by no means new. They had been passed by mouth to mouth for a long time, since the 1960s, or, as the Russians say, “kitchen tradition”. Xenophobic nationalists tried to externalize the responsibility for the communist atrocities by especially the Jews, but also the Latvians, Poles, the German general staff under Hitler and other “foreign powers” ​​for the victims and losses among the Russian population during the communist Blaming rule. The famed mathematician and dissident Igor Shafarevich put this line of argument most intelligently in an essay entitled “Russophobia” that appeared in the monthly magazine Nash Sovremennik. 2 Some ideologues of this kind, such as Alexander Prohanov, editor of the Zavtra newspaper, soon found a common line with the communists under the banner of chauvinism. This tendency was always present in the 1990s, but remained a marginal position in public discourse. Despite the obvious resurgence of nationalist sentiment, this has also been the case in recent years.

In the late 1980s, public discourse revolved primarily around the totalitarian character of communist rule. Originally, reference was made primarily to George Orwell and Evgeny Zamyatin, not to the theoretical criticism of totalitarianism. The first public scientific congress on totalitarianism was held in Moscow in 1989. In the following four to five years, almost all of the major works of classical totalitarianism, especially those by Richard Pipes, Robert Conquest and Martin Malia, were translated into Russian and widely read.

From 1989 to 1991 socialist apologetics gradually gave way to criticism of the totalitarianism of Soviet rule. With the August putsch in 1991, a dramatic change began: the anti-communist discourse gained the upper hand and became the official line. The reform communists disappeared almost completely into oblivion. The Orthodox Communists remained as the main rivals for power.

In the first half of the 1990s - particularly intensely in 1993 - the official anti-communism of the Yeltsin administration consistently warned of an imminent renewed seizure of power by the communists. The evocation of communist danger reached its climax in the 1996 presidential election campaign, where it became the most important ideological instrument in the political dispute.

The Russian historian Mikhail Gefter noted in the late 1980s that “Stalin only died yesterday”. However, since the second half of the 1990s it has been observed that for a considerable number of Russians the communist era is moving into an increasingly distant past. The opposition between anti-communists and communists has since lost its key role in the political and ideological struggle. The end of the Yeltsin era further promoted this process. This development could have both positive and negative effects on attitudes towards the problem of the communist past. In any case, it is positive that Russia has created space for intellectual debate. The effort to understand the past is no longer completely subordinated to the logic of daily political needs and is not determined solely by the - more than understandable - feelings of the victims.

In summary, one can say that from 1985 to 1989 the public sphere was still dominated by the reform communists. From 1989 to 1991 this official reform communism came under increasing pressure, due to xenophobic nationalism on the one hand and the critical examination of the totalitarian nature of communism on the other. In 1991, anti-communism became the official line, only to gradually lose its importance since the mid-1990s.


Let us now turn to the analysis of the current situation in those areas of the state and society where the confrontation with the communist past plays a role. The problem of how to deal with this past is multifaceted. The most important tasks include:

- Establishing justice, that is, giving satisfaction to the victims and rehabilitating them and holding the perpetrators accountable where possible;

- prevent the communists from returning to power;

- to give the events of the communist era a place in the historical self-image of the nation and a form of symbolic representation;

- To seek compensation and reconciliation with “foreign” victims, both at the state and at the individual level;

- to understand the Soviet era and to analyze it scientifically; to rewrite their history.

Each of these tasks deserved its own essay. Therefore, I am only giving a general overview here and trying to explain why things developed this way and not differently.


The first problem is the legal reappraisal of the Soviet era. She was very selective and inconsistent. Only a few initiatives have actually been implemented. This includes the rehabilitation of some people who were wrongly convicted under the communist regime. In addition, the prisoners of the Gulags were given the same status as the survivors of the National Socialist concentration camps. They enjoyed very limited material privileges and were compensated for confiscated property. The rehabilitation of victims of terror who had previously sided with the perpetrators turned out to be very difficult. In the majority of cases, these people were convicted and murdered on false accusations rather than actual crimes. But today's courts have refused to rehabilitate them in some cases, mostly for political, not legal, reasons. The most recent example of this was the refusal of the College of the Supreme Court in May 2000 to rehabilitate Beria, who had been charged, among other things, with being a British spy.

Justice in the form of punishing the perpetrators has not yet existed. This cannot be explained by the age of the few surviving Stalinist perpetrators: many much younger people were involved in the torture of dissidents in prisons and psychiatric hospitals during the Brezhnev era. Anyone who criticizes the lack of persecution of the perpetrators in Russia should of course keep in mind that in all post-communist countries, even in reunified Germany, the number of those convicted of crimes under the communist regime was very low. The Russian authorities did not succeed in opening a single case of this type as an example. The reasons for this failure are primarily political.

But politics should be given special weight in this regard. A “lustration law” was not passed. From 1991 to 1992, senior KGB officers were screened to a limited extent. Some well-known human rights activists, including Sergei Kovalev, were on the relevant commission. However, their work did not produce any noteworthy results. The secret services have been a threat to democracy in all post-communist countries, but little has been done in the case of Russia to contain this threat. No effective public control instruments have been created for this. In fact, the opposite happened: retired KGB officers managed to fill positions in almost all companies and non-governmental organizations. Former membership of the KGB is not seen as a flaw in public opinion. An interview by Anatolij Chubajs with the weekly Itogi is a good example of the general attitude towards the election of the former secret service chief Putin:

Chubajs: “He [Putin] says that the Stalin cult was little known and of little importance then [in the 1970s], while for me this part of the history of our country is of crucial importance in understanding what has happened and up to happens to us today. "

Itogi: Doesn't that different assessment worry you? [Chubajs had previously spoken of his trust in Putin and his support for him.]

Chubajs: Not at all! I am not concerned because we have something fundamental in common: responsibility for the country. We have moved from different starting points to a common position. 3

Even more informative for the acceptance of former KGB officers than the election of Vladimir Putin seems to me, however, that Media-Most, the holding company of the most important and pro-Western media in the country - including the now well-known NTV channel - discontinued General Filipp Bobkov. Bobkov had worked for many years in the KGB's infamous fifth division, which looked after the dissidents within the country.

Perhaps it was inevitable that intelligence officials would play a prominent role in post-Soviet life. However, the fact that public opinion is ready not only to accept this but to approve it is the most obvious sign of failure in dealing with the communist past in Russia. It is largely the result of the political and economic corruption that Russia experienced in the 1990s. One of the central questions of future politics in Russia is to what extent the desire for order will paralyze the vigilance of public opinion in this regard. 4th

In the early 1990s, an unfortunate attempt to symbolically come to terms with the past in the legal field failed when President Yeltsin applied to the Constitutional Court to ban the Communist Party. His defeat is usually explained by the fact that his representatives were ill-prepared and insufficiently qualified. In fact, the whole concept was legal nonsense in that it was aimed at defying ideology. It proved impossible to bring anyone to justice, not even members of the Politburo - after all, President Yeltsin himself was a candidate for that body. The demand to put communism to trial and to organize “a new Nuremberg trial against communism” is constantly being revived, not only in Russia but also in the West. 5 Such proposals lack a legal basis, however. 6 However, as I would like to emphasize, this in no way excludes the possibility and necessity of a moral condemnation of the communist tyranny.


The 1991 coup led to a dramatic change, especially on the symbolic level. Overnight the country changed its colors from red to the white-blue-red tricolor. Some of the most notorious monuments have been destroyed. But very soon it became clear that public opinion and the political establishment were unable to find consensus on new political symbols. The parliament, ruled by the communists, did not officially recognize the state anthem and the coat of arms. Yeltsin never had the power to close the Lenin Mausoleum, the central symbol of communism. After 1991 he no longer entered the official grandstand of the Soviet leadership on the mausoleum and followed the parades on Red Square from a makeshift grandstand.

Lenin monuments and memorials survived in numerous cities but were removed from many official ceremonies and tourism programs. When I was on a guided tour of Kazan last summer and we passed the university, I was surprised that the guide didn't even mention the fact that Lenin had studied there. When I asked, the elderly lady explains to me that the program has changed: "We used to stop here for at least half an hour to tell all the stories from Lenin's student years." Even in Ulyanovsk, which was converted as a whole into a Lenin memorial city during the Soviet era, excursions are now offered to the ruins of a nineteenth-century aristocratic residence that belonged to the Decembrist Ivashev and to a monastery under construction. but not to the huge Lenin Museum, which dominates the city and is actually worth seeing as a highly representative monument of the time. So the Soviet symbols were marginalized for a large part of the population. The only exception is Victory Day over Nazi Germany on May 9th. It remains the main patriotic holiday.

Just recently, Putin negotiated a compromise with the newly elected parliament on the state symbols. The symbols used are the old Muscovite coat of arms (the double-headed eagle), the Russian flag of the imperial era (the white-blue-red tricolor) and - to the deep regret of intellectuals and to the delight of the majority of the rest of the population - the Soviet national anthem with new words accepted. Putin said that all phases of Russian history have their “black” sides, but that they should all be represented in the state symbols.

At the same time, the new state proved incapable of creating new symbols to commemorate the victims of the Soviet regime and to seek reconciliation with them. Monuments erected in the 1990s for the victims are rarely incorporated into official or public commemoration. The funeral of the Romanov family also became more of a dispute than a symbolic act. The President hesitated to attend until the very last moment, while the Patriarch refused to attend.

The celebration of the October Revolution of 1917 was officially turned into a day of reconciliation and unity. The lack of solemn acts and ceremonies on the occasion was remarkable. In 1999, the question of the official status of the 7thNovember gave the following answers: 35% of respondents still believed it was the anniversary of the Great October Revolution; 14% knew his true status; 5% believed it was a day of remembrance for the victims of the revolution, while 43% could not answer the question at all. 7 The 43% is the most representative part of society; they currently feel painfully deprived of all positive symbols.

The other victims

Another important aspect of the problem concerns international relations. It should be mentioned that it was only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that many questions about the historical coming to terms with the Soviet era took on an “international” character. In general, the position of the Russian government is to reject responsibility for the acts of the Soviet regime on the grounds that, after all, the Russians were also victims. At the same time, the government does not deny and condemn the injustice that has been done. If the other side is interested in normalization and rapprochement, as the examples of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland show, there is a solid basis for reconciliation. Documents about Katyn, about the invasions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 were made publicly available, and copies were given to the respective governments. Many books, some articles, and television documentaries have also conveyed the truth about the historical events to the Russian public. But at the government level, such recognition of the wrong done was viewed as a one-off act, not a trial. For example, no top Russian politician ever took part in the annual memorial service for the Katyn victims together with the Poles. If the Russians took part in such ceremonies at all, then they made it dependent on the current state of political relations, so they did not see their participation as an act of repentance. However, the fact that Foreign Minister Ivanov visited the memorial for the Katyn victims during his trip to Warsaw in November 2000 suggests a change in this policy.

The situation is even more complex in the former Soviet republics. The responsibility of the Soviet regime for the democide in Kazakhstan and Ukraine is not denied; however, they refuse to see these events as genocide organized by the Russian center against oppressed ethnic groups. Until recently, only Russian thinking among the nations of Eastern and Central Europe was lacking awareness of ethnic discrimination. The Russians always saw themselves as victims of the state, but did not view this state from an ethnic point of view. The Russian public was therefore ill-prepared to grapple with the mentality of small and threatened nations and understand the feelings of their neighbors. At the same time, one should not forget that such feelings and mentalities, arising from traumatic experiences with Russian neighbors, are rarely balanced and free from phobias.

Relations with the Baltic republics are a special case. The Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union, which began in May 1989, marked the turning point in the official position on the Hitler-Stalin Pact. A commission under Yakovlev, secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, was set up to examine and evaluate the pact. Although the secret additional protocols had allegedly still not been “found”, the Second Congress of People's Deputies passed a declaration on December 24, 1989, in which the existence of the secret protocols was admitted and condemned. 8 But it was not until October 29, 1992, after the dissolution of the USSR, that the originals of the secret additional protocols were finally published in Moscow. Although it recognizes that the protocols are in breach of international law, the Russian Federation does not admit that the Baltic countries were occupied by the Soviet Union. As stated in the December 1997 letter from Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Avdeev to the Deputy Spokesman of the State Duma Baburin, “the dispute over the armed invasion of the Baltic territories and the ensuing occupation does not have a sufficient basis, since the administrative functions were carried out by national actors” 9 . The reason why they refused to accept the word “occupation” was because the status of the former Soviet citizens who moved to the Baltic republics after World War II was still unclear. In Latvia and Estonia, some politicians want to deny citizens of Russian descent because they define them precisely as “occupiers”. This situation proves once again that a mutually acceptable assessment of the past at present depends on good political relations, not the other way around.

Individual compensation for foreign victims of Soviet rule was never seriously considered. In view of the material situation of the Russian people and the failure of the state to fulfill its basic social obligations, the government would find no sympathy even if it tried to.


Finally we come to historiography. What has been achieved here over the past decade is remarkable, especially when one considers the desperate financial situation of scientists in Russia in general, and historians in particular, during this period. Extraordinary efforts have been made in the publication of sources. A huge number of documents from Soviet secret archives have been published in books and magazines. Several programs are currently underway (involving Western researchers and financially supported by Western sources) to publish documents and archive catalogs or to store them on microfilm. At the same time, access to several collections, including the presidential archive, remains very limited and selective. In the past two years, archivists have been more likely to make arbitrary decisions about researchers' access to certain documents. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which this practice is based on instructions from above or the traditional habit of Russian officials to “privatize” their own area of ​​disposal. There are both, and a law regulating access to archival material is urgently needed.

These years were also very fruitful with regard to the development of concepts and methodological approaches, especially if one remembers how much the classic scheme of the “Short Course in the History of the CPSU (b)” still prevailed in the late 1980s - in official historiography as well as in the unofficial counter-discourse. Since the early 1990s, the majority of Russian historians have oriented their methodological approach to the concept of totalitarianism. So far, this approach has remained dominant in textbooks and schools.

But since the mid-1990s, the totalitarian approach no longer appears to be productive enough for many researchers. That of the “revisionists” and their turn to archival research has gained a growing following. Numerous articles and books that appeared in the second half of the 1990s show that Russian historians are now able to formulate their own research agenda and develop original theoretical concepts. 10 The role of the masses in the events from 1917 to the 1930s became a central research topic. It also dealt with the estimation of the number of victims on the basis of new archive material and with the analysis of decision-making processes in the top of the Soviet hierarchy (which often show a passive reaction pattern). Attempts to develop a broader comparative basis and to include not only the National Socialist regime, but also various revolutions and religious movements in the analysis were also important.

These new questions have inevitable political and moral implications. It is true that some attempts to historicize the Soviet era arose from the motive of setting aside the problem of moral responsibility. At the same time, attempts by some staunch advocates of the totalitarian approach to accuse the “revisionist” authors of justifying communist crimes met with unanimous rejection in the historians' guild. 11 In fact, the (serious) “revisionist” interpretations raise far more painful and difficult questions of moral responsibility in so far as, unlike research on totalitarianism, they refuse to hold the communist regime solely responsible for what happened in Soviet times.

The path that historians have taken over the past decade can be illustrated by means of two well-known films. “Pokajanije” (“repentance”) by Tengis Abuladze marked the beginning of perestroika. The film deals with the subject of history on a romantic level and focuses on the character of the dictator. It was a huge box office hit. Alexei German, on the other hand, treats in his latest film “Khrustalev, mashinu!” the subject in a completely different way. He tells of the "ordinary" people, of the criminal inmates who torture other prisoners, and of a street gang of teenagers and their spontaneous aggression and cruelty. The director refuses to blame the regime alone and asks to what extent parts of the population were actively involved in the production of the nightmare. Stalin and Beria appear here as old, weak and ugly. This is not an attempt to evade the question of responsibility, but a way of making it more general, more complex, more demanding. The film is a masterpiece, but it never got beyond the arthouse cinemas, so it was only seen by a very limited number of people. The Cannes jury awarded Abuladze a prize, but Alexei German's complex film language was not recognized.

The problem of how to deal with that of the communist past is now slowly moving out of the center of public discussion and is becoming the subject of deeper and more complex intellectual reflection. The products of this reflection, books, films, etc., are aimed at the elite. It is to be hoped that this work marks the beginning of a new understanding of the communist past that may gradually find its way into the general public.

Two conclusions can be drawn from what has been said. In all of the areas addressed here, the confrontation with the communist past took place only partially. Many problems remain to be addressed and it would be optimistic in this regard to say that Russia has freed itself from communism. On the other hand, if one takes into account the state of society at the beginning of perestroika and the difficult journey to this day, the result is only logical. Moral precepts have often been sacrificed to immediate political interests, and some of the most painful issues have been left to the next generation. However, considerable progress has been made. No miracles have happened; but if someone had described the Russia of 2001 to me twenty years ago, it would have seemed like a miracle to me.

Published 24 May 2002
Original in English
Translated by Andreas Simon