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The interpretation that Lenin was a dictator Essay

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Historians such as Pipes and Volkogonov have made the interpretation that Lenin was a dictator. As he adopted policies such as War Communism and the establishment of the Cheka. However their historical accounts can be challenged, due to their personal opinions. Other historians, such as Hill, believe that Lenin was not a dictator, as his policies were imposed on him by the Russian circumstances. Thus Lenin was not a dictator, as he was merely responding to the harsh Russian circumstances and was able to adopt flexible policies such as NEP.

Lenin has been seen as a dictator through his centralisation of the state by 1924. This is because a centralised one-party dictatorship governed Soviet Russia. The Politburo became the Bolshevik organisation, which dominated government institutions and the main decision-making. Also Lenin’s decision to form an entirely new body of government, the Sovnakom, while the Soviet existed and should have been made as the main body of government, showed that Lenin had no intention of sharing power with other socialist groups in the Soviet. The Sovnakom ruled by decree without going to the Soviet for approval. Thus the centralisation of the state in Russia can be seen as dictatorial as it limited the political influence of other political groups, while it strengthened the authority of the Bolshevik, through the establishment of Sovnakom, which Lenin chaired.

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Pipes is one of the Historians who believe that the centralisation of power had allowed Lenin to create a “one-party dictatorship”1, as ” Lenin’s party was a precursor of a new type of political organisation that would be emulated before long by mass-based dictators”2. Thus this historian is suggesting that Lenin creation of the Sovnakom, allowed his party to rule Russia through dictatorial means. This opinion is to an extent true, as the creation of the Sovnakom showed that the main decision making was taken by the Bolshevik centre with little account taken of other political viewpoints. However, Pipes historical account can not be held reliable, mainly for his personal views on Lenin and Communism, and also on the fact that there were circumstances outside Lenin’s control that forced him to use the Sovnakom rather than working effectively with the Central Executive Committee, such as the Civil War.

The Politburo is also seen as a dictatorial institution that allowed Lenin to extend his dictatorship. The Politburo was the leading decision-making body of the Communist Party; it increasingly took power from the Sovnakom as the key decisions were made in the Politburo. Furthermore the Politburo consisted of members chosen by the Central Committee. Volkogonov explains that “there was never a debate about it power”3; this he believes was achieved as “State power has been handed over to the so-called Party organ which was in fact the main instrument of the Bolshevik dictatorship”4. This historian is suggesting that through the Politburo the Bolsheviks were able to rule Russia in a form of dictatorship, this is because they had the means of control and could pass decrees without considering other political viewpoints.

The view that Lenin was a dictator because of the way he controlled political power could be challenged some historians belief that the creation of both the Sovnakom and the Politburo was a necessary measure, imposed on Lenin due to the circumstances created by the Civil War. It seems unlikely that Lenin would have moved so quickly towards a highly centralised state had it not been for the Civil War, which created the economic chaos in which the country found it self in 1918. The nature of the Civil War meant that there was little time to carry out consultation with the Soviet and other bodies. Emergency decisions needed to be taken quickly, thus decision making become more centralised. This view is supported by the fact that, in Nizhniy-Novgorod, the local Mafia of black marketers who defied Moscow controlled everything.

So it is understandable the regime should have used the party structure to gain more centralised control of government bodies and bring some sort of order to the chaos. Therefore the actions of Lenin were pragmatic responses to the problems the Civil War forced on him, and they were not dictatorial, as Lenin had no choice. Overall, the centralisation of power does not suggest that Lenin was a dictator, this is because it was a pragmatic response to the chaos created by the Civil War, and also Lenin had lost control over the Politburo due to his ill health, towards the end of his time in power the Politburo is regarded to have become increasingly dictatorial. Thus the actions taken by the Politburo were not Lenin’s responsibility, they were the responsibility of Bolshevik party itself. Therefore Lenin cannot be seen as a dictator.

Historians have interpreted Lenin as a dictator due his use of Red Terror. It was introduced after the attempt on Lenin’s life on 30 August 1918. The Red Terror is seen as a dictatorial action as it was the use of force to establish more political control over the Russian society. Thus Red Terror was used against any political opposition, which seems dictatorial. Pipes who views the Red Terror, as evidence that Lenin was a dictator, believes that “‘Red Terror’ was not a reluctant response to the actions of others but a prophylactic measure designed to nip in the bud any though of resistance to the dictatorship”5, thus this historian supports the idea that the Red Terror was used to form a dictatorship, as it restricted political freedom in Russia. This is because the Red Terror was aimed at former officials, landlords and priests who were executed.

Any opposition to the Bolshevik Party authorities was dealt with by violence. Peasants who resisted the requisitioning of their crops or who hoarded grain were often shot at. Industrial unrest was similarly crushed. Therefore the Bolshevik regime was aware of the fact that there may be some opposition to the regime from, hence the regime chose to use the Red Terror in order to deal with any possible opposition. Thus some historians see this as a dictatorial action. Volkogonov also views the Red Terror as a “cling to power at any cost”6. He believes that Lenin wanted to stay in power at the cost of the Russian lives that may oppose him, thus Lenin chose to end this opposition either with physical terror, shooting, or through the use of concentration camps.

Another aspect of the terror, which leads many historians of accusing Lenin as a dictator is the formation of the CHEKA7. This became the ‘state institution’8 to deal with any form of opposition to the regime. Historians believe that Lenin can be seen as dictatorial as he chose to deal with the opposition by terrorist means, and that he “felt no qualms in resorting to “merciless” terror.”9

Pipes believes that Lenin is a dictator as he planned to use terror before there had been any organised opposition against him. He explains that “the CHEKA, or secret police, the main agency of the “Red Terror” was established in December 1917, before there was any organised resistance to the new regime.”10, thus this shows that the CHEKA was only used to maintain the power of the Bolshevik regime and to protect Lenin’s authority.

This view is supported by Volkogonov who believes that in order for Lenin to protect his authority “he needed only one device, merciless dictatorship”11. This historian is clearly stating that Lenin’s use of terror was a ‘merciless dictatorship’ aimed at protecting his regime from any opponents. For example in August 1918 Lenin ordered ruthless measures against rich peasants who were resisting the regime and in particular it’s requisitioning of food. Therefore the CHEKA can be seen by historians such as Pipes and Volkogonov as a clear evidence of the dictatorship of Lenin. This is because the CHEKA and the Red Terror helped Lenin to establish more control over opposition in Russia. However, the account of these two historians can be challenged, as Pipes is an anti-Marxist and despises Lenin, while Volkogonov is an ex-general in the Russian army and does not approve of Soviet policies, therefore both historians hold biased views and. In addition to their historical opinions there are historical facts suggesting their argument is wrong.

The interpretation that Lenin used terror simply as a means of enforcing his policies and establishing control has been questioned by other historians who see the policy of the Red Terror as a temporary measure forced on Lenin due to the circumstances; they also believe the terror was not used entirely by Lenin, Red Terror was rather a response to terror he faced. Laver’s opinion on the Red Terror is that “Terror met Terror”12. Here he is referring to the Civil War, in which the Whites were using terror as well. During the Civil War, Baron Wrangel, a White leader in the Crimea ordered the execution of 300 prisoners of war, while the Green leader Antonov allowed his army of peasants to bury alive captured communist. Thus this historian is suggesting that Lenin only seemed to respond to the situations he was in, and had no intention of controlling political opposition. Lenin was not the only one using terror, there were other political organisations that did use terror.

Hence he was in a situation in which he had to use terror as a response. Other historians also believe that Lenin was in a threat from the first moment he come into power, thus he needed to use terror in order to protect his authority. This view is supported by Liebman, who believes that “Lenin’s motive- to defend the soviet power against the attacks of counter revolutionaries”13, led him to use terror as he was facing opposition from 1917. This is proven by the fact that the opposition to Lenin came both from within Russia and from outside Russia. On 10 November 1917 the Morning Post in London called for direct military action against the Bolsheviks, also as the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 Kerensky and General Krasnov attempted to rally an army onto Petrograd in November 1917.

This therefore shows that Lenin faced opposition and a terror threat from the first moment he came to power, thus he merely responded to this terror. Overall, Lenin used the Red Terror as a response to the terror that already existed in Russia when he had come to power. Lenin established the Red Terror after he had faced threats from both within Russia and from foreign intervention, thus Lenin cannot be seen as a dictator. This is because Lenin did not establish terror for personal interest and to control all political opposition, he established the terror in order to deal with terrorist opposition in the same way any regime would.

The use of the CHEKA is also viewed by Service as a temporary measure, he believes that “Lenin believed that the need for such an organisation would be only temporary…Lenin did not at this stage call for a campaign of extensive mass terror”14. This view is right, as Lenin saw the CHEKA as a temporary measure to protect the Bolshevik regime during its infancy to ensure its survival. Furthermore, the CHEKA was temporary, as during the Civil War the role of the CHEKA had declined.

Overall, both the Red Terror and the CHEKA were a temporary response to the circumstances and a necessary body to contain the counter-revolution threat facing the Bolsheviks. Furthermore any regime that is newly established into a nation needs to protect itself from terrorist opposition. Thus Lenin cannot be seen as a dictator because he established a temporary measure as a response to the Russian circumstances.

One of the reasons why Lenin is accused of being a dictator is the policy of War Communism. War Communism was a decree introduced by Lenin, it established strong centralised control over areas of production and distribution in the areas under Bolshevik control. War Communism can be seen as dictatorial policy as it reduced workers’ involvement in factories: Factory Committees lost the ability to manage their work places. Instead party officials took over this role which led to Bolshevik control over the economy. It also included the requisition of grain from peasants in rural areas by force; this caused unrest to increase as a result Lenin was forced to back his measures with the terror of the CHEKA.

The view that War Communism is dictatorial is expressed by Volkogonov who believes that War Communism was a “harsh regulation”, as there was an acute food shortage in 1920 and a famine in 1921, in which 10 million Russians died. Volkogonov also believes that “the dominance of the state over society which Lenin approved…ensured the adoption of War Communism”15. Volkogonov expresses a view in which Lenin appears to have approved of complete control over all aspect of society, and it was his attitude towards the government of Russia that led the way for War Communism. Thus Volkogonov is stating that Lenin is a dictator because of the policies that he introduced to Russia. However, knowing that Volkogonov was an ex-general in the Russian army, and had to leave due to his political views of the communist regime, his views cannot be seen as reasonable due to his biased and anti-Leninist feelings.

The interpretation that War Communism was dictatorial is also questionable because, to an extent, the control of War Communism was needed, as most factory committees were not professional and experienced enough to control production for the Civil War, nor did they have the ability to organise the supplies for the cities and Red Army.

It can therefore also be argued that Lenin was not a dictator, for example Hill argues, that Lenin’s choices to introduce War Communism “…were caused by temporary desperate necessities”16. This suggests that Lenin’s actions were not of a dictatorial intention and that Lenin’s adaptation of War Communism was a mere response to the harsh economic problems. Although Hill is a biased historian, as he was a Marxist and sympathetic to Lenin, there were harsh conditions, due to the treaty of Brest Litovsk and the Civil War so his interpretation is still credible. The view that War Communism was not dictatorial is also supported by Laver, who believes that War Communism was “the response of a regime desperate to feed the towns”17. Production in Russia collapsed as the transport of goods and raw materials was totally disrupted by the Civil War; the allies blockaded communist territory, mainly Petrograd, and prevented it receiving foreign trade.

This led to the population of Moscow and Petrograd being halved; of the 2.6 million workers in 1917 only 1.2 million was left working in 192018. Thus there was a need of an economy that was temporarily controlled by the state in order to ensure that cities were provided with food from the countryside and that production continued during the Civil War. Most importantly it can not be overlooked that War Communism was only a temporary measure. As soon as the Civil War come to an end War Communism was replaced by the New Economic Policy; which granted workers more than the freedom they had before the Civil War, and the peasants a freedom which they had never had. Laver, who holds a neutral view of both Lenin and communist revolution, believes that War Communism was a response to the Russian problems. He states that the policies “… were brought in piecemeal in response to the critical circumstances which prevailed in Russia”19.

Therefore this view also supports the argument that the economic problems led Lenin to adopt the policies of War Communism. Service also believes that “The onset of Civil War had intervened and necessitated emergency measures that he now referred to as ‘War Communism'”20, therefore the view of Service, who is a neutral historian, supports the view of both Hill and Laver that Lenin was led to adopt the policies of War Communism due to the Civil War. Overall, Lenin cannot be easily accused of being a dictator as he adopted the policy of War Communism. This policy involved “emergency measures” that were imposed on Lenin as production fell and the Civil War started, Lenin had no intention of using the economy to establish personal power as he was willing to grant back political freedom as soon as the Civil War was over.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) could be seen by some historians as one of the policies that proves Lenin was a dictator. They suggest that Lenin was desperate to keep power therefore he introduced NEP which only gave limited economic freedom and introduced political restraints to ensure that no power was lost.

Historians such as Pipes question Lenin’s motives for introducing NEP, they don’t believe that it was done to grant freedom but in order to maintain power. Pipes claims that NEP was a temporary measure only introduced as a period of relaxed tension so that ” …a fresh offensive would be launched to exterminate the bourgeois… for good”21. Pipes’ view is to an extent is right, as the introduction of NEP was accompanied by strict measures of political control such as a final ban on all political parties other than the Bolsheviks.

This suggests that Lenin was not willing to compromise his power, and he kept control of the “commanding heights” of the economy, thus had no real intention of granting the freedom that NEP seemed to promise. Pipes also suggest that for the Bolsheviks “the grain monopoly was essential to the survival of communist dictatorship”22, and that the Bolsheviks needed to regain the peasants’ loyalty in order to establish their dictatorship. However this interpretation is questionable as the Bolsheviks intended to regain the loyalty of the peasantry for a better agriculture that would help to develop a better industry. Pipes’ view is biased, as he holds an anti-Lenin felling. Pipes served as President Reagan’s national security advisor on soviet affairs during 1981-82; thus he holds a very negative opinion towards Communism and Lenin in particular. Pipes’ view is therefore questionable.

The introducation of NEP was after War Communism, this shows that Lenin was willing to grant freedom. This, ascertains that Lenin was in fact far from being a dictator as he granted the peasantry a freedom that they never had before and he allowed the agriculture and trade to develop in private hands. Service’s view that “NEP allowed greater legal freedom for the peasantry to trade grain than had previously been available to them”23, is a more of a convincing view, as NEP allowed the peasants to trade the remainder of the grain anyway they wished. Thus the freedom that has been granted to the peasants proves that Lenin had no intention of acting as a dictator.

NEP is therefore evidence that Lenin is not a dictator. It showed flexibility and the ability to compromise on ideology, which is not often related to dictators. Furthermore, NEP was able to restore confidence in Russians, workers and farmers returned to their work, which did help the economy. Overall, the NEP is another reason why Lenin cannot be seen as a dictator. This is because Lenin was able to see the errors that had been caused by War Communism and offer an alternative that did not agree with his ideology. NEP therefore proves that Lenin is far from being a dictator as it helped to improve the Russian economy and it replaced a temporary policy, which was not suitable for Russia after the Civil War.

Overall, Lenin was not a dictator as he had no intention of being so, Lenin merely responded to the circumstance that faced him, although these responses may seem unsuitable Lenin did retreat from some of them, such as the move from War Communism to the New Economic Policy after the Civil War. Thus Lenin cannot be seen as a dictator.

1 R.Pipes- The Russian Revolution page 506

2 R.Pipes- The Three Whys of The Russian Revolution page 38

3 D.Volkogonov-Lenin Life and Legacy page 306

4 D.Volkogonov-Lenin Life and Legacy page 307


6 D.Volkogonov- Lenin Life and Legacy page 237

7 The Extra-ordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage was founded in December 1917.

8 D.Volkogonov- Lenine Life and Legacy page 236

9 R.Pipes- Three Whys Of The Russian Revolution page 41

10 R.Pipes- Three Whys Of The Russian Revolution page 41

11 D.Volkogonov- Lenin Life and Legacy page 472

12 J.Laver- Lenin Liberator or Oppressor page 62

13 M. Liebman- Leninism Under Lenin page 315

14 R.Service- Lenin a Biography page 322.

15 D.Volkogonov- Lenin Life and Legacy- page 334.

16 C.Hill- Lenin and the Russian Revolution- page 133.

17 J.Laver- Lenin Liberator or Oppressor- page70.

18 P.Oxley- Russia from Tsars to Commissars- page 128.

19 J.Laver- Lenin Liberator or Oppressor- page70.

20 R.Service- Lenin a Biography- page 430.

21 R.Pipes- The Russian Revolution- page

22 R.Pipes- The Russian Revolution- page

23 R.Service-Lenin a Biography- page

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