Vladimir Lenin: The Shaping of a Revolutionary (Part III)

Lenin in July 1920. Photo by Pavel Zhukov.

By 1895, Lenin had been exiled to Siberia for a year but was afforded enough freedom to continue his research and writing on revolution and even communication with other revolutionaries.  Upon his release, he visited Europe where he made many significant contacts but most importantly, he met G.V. Plekhanov (Krausz 2015).

Plekhanov was a former Populist who became one of the most well-known Marxists in Russia.  He made considerable headway in getting Marxist socialism accepted as a meaningful alternative to Populism.  He advocated land redistribution and opposed the tactics of Narodnaya Volya, arguing that terrorism served as a pointless catalyst toward increased government repression (Billington 1970). 

Instead of issuing invectives at his philosophical opponents in the revolutionary movement, as was the common practice of the time, Plekhanov relied on the art of persuasion.  He acknowledged the Populists’ desire to mix with the masses and work on behalf of their hoped-for political awakening, while explaining the practical shortcomings of this approach. 

As a Marxist, Plekhanov was a strict materialist who believed in the possibility of “absolute objectivity.”  This undeniable objectivity would supposedly resolve the perennial tendency within the revolutionary movement toward splintering.  Furthermore, unlike many other theorists, by 1884 Plekhanov was arguing that Russia was already in a condition of capitalism, albeit in the form of state capitalism. He saw this as evidence of the inevitability of a revolutionary clash between the social classes within Russia and the eventual triumph of the proletariat (Billington 1970).  

By this time, Plekhanov saw the peasant commune, held up as proof of a socialist legacy in Russia and a foundation for socialist revolution by the Populists, as falling apart.  As it turns out, Russia was not so unique that it could bypass the industrial capitalist stage on its road to socialist revolution.  He saw an emerging bourgeois class as playing a major role in revolution and advocated fighting alongside the liberal bourgeois and opposing them after the revolution, if necessary (Deutsch 1964). 

Plekhanov would go on to have a complicated relationship with Lenin, whom he saw as a protégé and one who could ultimately execute his ideas (Deutscher 1964).  It was later generally recognized that Lenin’s overarching talent was indeed his ability to marry revolutionary political theory and practice.

To be continued


  1. Krausz, Tamas. Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography. Monthly Review Press. New York, NY. 2015.
  2. Billington, James. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. Vintage Books. New York, NY. 1970.
  3. The Mensheviks:  George Plekhanov” by Isaac Deutscher.  The Listener.  4/30/1964. 

Vladimir Lenin: The Shaping of a Revolutionary (Part II)

Lenin in July 1920. Photo by Pavel Zhukov.

Though never publicly lauded by Lenin, Pyotr Tkachev is seen as the philosophical bridge between the Chernyshevksy-inspired Populists and the Bolsheviks. 

Tkachev was a radical journalist and agitator who served more than one stint in prison for his activities. He described himself as a Jacobin and briefly collaborated with Nachaev from 1868-1869. Although he’s one of the few colleagues who apparently didn’t fall under Nachaev’s sinister spell, he also never repudiated Nachaev even after he fell out of favor when his killing of I.I. Ivanov was exposed.    

Tkachev was one of the early Russian Marxists.  He believed in historical determinism with economics as the prime factor, but strikingly he departed from Marxism regarding how revolution in Russia could realistically be achieved.  He advocated the need for a secret “conspiratorial organization that would seize power by means of a coup d’etat” (Szamuely 1974).   

Unlike Bakhunin and other anarchists, Tkachev didn’t believe that a spontaneous peasant rebellion would happen.  Nor did he believe – like some other Populists – that “an isolated coup” was plausible. 

Tkachev laid out three central ideas necessary for achieving a revolution in Russia:  1) it would have to be established through an intellectually and morally developed revolutionary minority since the masses didn’t understand their own interests and wouldn’t be able to advance them – if they could, he argued, it would represent gradual evolution and would preclude the need for revolution, 2) the revolution was to be carried out as soon as possible as conditions would become less favorable the more entrenched the capitalist system became in Russia, and 3) a revolutionary party was needed to execute the revolution.

That party would engage in organizing a unified and disciplined entity to carry out the revolution, the dissemination of propaganda using its own journal as the primary means, and incitement of the revolution itself (Szamuely 1974). 

Tkachev spelled out his blueprint for revolution in a pamphlet called “The Tasks of Revolutionary Propaganda in Russia.”  He engaged in a lengthy public and hostile debate with Pyotr Lavrov who argued that revolution could only legitimately come from the masses themselves and emphasis must therefore be placed on educating the masses toward this goal.  Lavrov’s approach would be largely discredited after his Going to the People campaign fizzled in the mid-1870’s. 

Tkachev reiterated to Lavrov and other critics, including Europeans such as Friedrich Engels, that since Russia had no well-developed industrial proletariat or representative bodies and no consistently free press, there was no way to win over the masses to a revolution in the foreseeable future.  In Russia’s conditions, in which all the power was vested in the state with no meaningful independent classes or institutions, the state was also vulnerable in terms of the universal resentment it elicited by its oppression and control of all.  This, Tkachev argued, made the Russian state ripe for a “tight-knit, highly disciplined conspiratorial organization” to facilitate its overthrow (Szamuely 1974).

Once power was seized by the revolutionary minority, it would rule as a dictatorship over the course of time needed to implement economic, social and legal changes required by a socialist system (Szamuely 1974).  Some of Lenin’s writings would echo and build upon Tkachev’s ideas and tactics, even using titles for his pieces that were strikingly similar to Tkachev’s (Szamuely 1974).

To be continued

Washington Considering New Batch of Lethal Weapons to Kiev; Merkel & Macron Rejected Pressure to Send Military Vessels to Kerch Strait After November Incident

“Crimea. Russia. Forever.” Billboard of Putin in Simferopol, Crimea; photo by Natylie Baldwin

U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, the top military commander for the U.S. in Europe and an officer of NATO, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week that Washington was considering sending another batch of lethal aid to the Kiev government in the near future, citing the need to deter Russia.

According to U.S. News and World Report, Scaparotti was responding to Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) who pressed him about why Washington wasn’t taking bigger advantage of congressional authorization to provide such weaponry. The delivery of anti-tank Javelin missiles wasn’t enough apparently to placate the hawkish committee member:

Scaparrotti…said the U.S. is considering bolstering the Ukrainian military’s sniper capabilities. But he added of any potential aid shipments, “it has to go through the policy deliberations.” He also expressed concern to the committee about Russia’s modernization of its navy.

“I’m not comfortable yet with the deterrent posture we have in Europe,” Scaparrotti said, when asked about U.S. forces and resources to deter Russia. He later said specifically of Ukraine,

“We need to study their maritime component, their navy.”

Scaparrotti also took the opportunity to reiterate that western powers would continue to flaunt their naval wares in the area, referring to the U.S.S. Donald Cook’s maneuvers in the Black Sea:

“They, frankly, don’t like us in the Black Sea. It’s international waters — and we should sail and fly there.”

Meanwhile, Bloomberg has reported that during the Munich Security Conference last month, Washington attempted to pressure Germany to also send warships to the Kerch Strait to prove a point to Putin about western access in the narrow waterway between mainland Russia and Crimea. Merkel refused but offered a more modest action:

Merkel had indicated she was willing, in coordination with the French, to send a convoy through the waterway as a one-time maneuver but Poroshenko said that wasn’t enough to solve his problem — he wants to ensure the strait is open permanently, the people said. France also refused to take part, judging the idea as an unnecessary provocation, according to another official who declined to be identified.

Fortunately, it appears that western European leaders are keeping cooler heads for now. Let’s hope they continue to do so.

Vladimir Lenin: The Shaping of a Revolutionary (Part I)

German Federal Archives [Public domain]

Another excerpt from my forthcoming book, this one from the chapter covering the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Narodnaya Volya (from a previous post) would play another pivotal role in the fate of Russia and its revolutionary future.  A young student named Alexander Ulyanov soon fell under the group’s sway and in 1887 was arrested for involvement in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III.  Refusing to ask for clemency, Alexander was hanged (Salisbury 1977; Krausz 2015).

Alexander Ulyanov was the older brother of Vladimir Ulyanov – later known as Vladimir Lenin.  Vladimir and the rest of the family did not know of Alexander’s revolutionary activities until his arrest.  The death of Alexander deeply affected Vladimir who up to that point had shown little interest in politics, much less revolution.  As one chronicler of Lenin’s path as a revolutionary stated:

Some critics have tried to find cruelty, single-mindedness, egocentricity, or ultraism in the record of Vladimir’s early years.  It does not stand up in the objective evidence of those who knew him.  This was no rebel, no iconoclast, no youthful messiah.  Vladimir was by all accounts as normal and pleasant a youngster as any parents could have desired (Salisbury 1977). 

In fact, those who knew him later in life said that Lenin was not motivated by power but by genuine conviction. Combined with his boundless energy and “iron will,” this gave him tremendous charisma.  Compared to Trotsky and Stalin, he was considered to have the least dictatorial personality, taking the time to try to educate and persuade (Krausz 2015).   

The Ulyanov boys had grown up in a middle class rural environment.  Their father was educated in math and physics and enjoyed a career as a local school inspector.  He was a liberal reformer who had supported Alexander II.  He and his wife provided an intellectually stimulating environment for their children, encouraging reading and games, and instilling reformist values (Salisbury 1977). 

By all objective measures, the boys enjoyed a relatively stable and happy home life.  Vladimir was known as a smart, rambunctious and playful youngster who liked music and chess.  His brother, on the other hand, was solemn, studious and compassionate but Vladimir idolized him, often seeking to emulate him.

Alexander eventually left home to go to university in St. Petersburg.  His journey to radicalization was not uncommon for idealistic youths of the time.  Having grown up rather insulated in the provinces, upon arriving in the big city, Alexander witnessed the deplorable conditions of workers as well as brutal crackdowns by the police on demonstrations.  In fact, he had participated in a demonstration just weeks before his arrest that had been handled particularly violently by the authorities (Salisbury 1977). 

Vladimir was devastated by his brother’s death and the sudden shunning of the family by others in their community (Krausz 2015).  Witnesses describe a young man having trouble expressing his grief:  “It was notable that in all the accounts no member of Vladimir’s family, none of his friends, offers any remark or expression made by Vladimir in those days in Simbirsk.  Change there was.  Everyone noticed that.  The gay, laughing boy, full of tease and jokes and high spirits, overnight became serious, thoughtful, gloomy.” (Salisbury 1977)

The effects were still visible four years later in 1891 when Vladimir went to St. Petersburg to take his law exams.  While there, he looked up one of his brother’s close friends, S.F. Oldenburg: 

[Vladimir] asked many questions about his brother, especially his scientific work.  Oldenburg remembered Vladimir as ‘gloomy and silent,’ and said he obviously suffered deeply over his brother’s death.  (Salisbury 1977).

The lingering effects of Alexander’s demise would be seen in Vladimir’s now single-minded focus on revolutionary politics.  By 1893, after practicing law successfully for around 18 months, he began immersing himself in revolutionary studies.  He was already under surveillance and barred from government employment (Krausz 2015; Salisbury 1977). His mother disapproved and wanted him to become a farmer, but she would help to support him financially throughout his career, including during his stints of exile and emigration (Krausz 2015). 

As part of his revolutionary education, he repeatedly read What is to Be Done? (Salisbury 1977) and later acknowledged Chernyshevsky to be second only to Marx in influence (Szamuely 1974). 

Lenin, however, rejected the use of terrorism and instead advocated a strong centrally controlled movement of dedicated and professional revolutionaries who acted as secret conspirators.

To be continued.


  1. Salisbury, Harrison E.  Black Night, White Snow:  Russia’s Revolutions 1905 – 1917.  De Capo Press. New York, NY. 1977;
  2. Krausz, Tamas. Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography. Monthly Review Press. New York, NY. 2015;
  3. Szamuely, Tibor. The Russian Tradition. Fontana Press. 1974.

Gilbert Doctorow on The Kremlin’s Military Posture Reconsidered

Kremlin Wall, Red Square, Moscow; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin

Geopolitical analyst Gilbert Doctorow has done an important write-up on Putin’s February 20th speech to the Federal Assembly in which the Russian president provided more details on Russia’s military posture in response to Washington’s abrogation of the INF Treaty and implementation of missile shields in Eastern Europe. An excerpt and link to the complete article are below – Natylie

To the vast majority of Americans, including the foreign policy establishment, the question posed in the title may seem something of a joke. After all, absolute military superiority over Russia and other potential rivals for global influence has been the objective of US military policy for the last twenty-five years or more, at vast budgetary expense. One instrument for its achievement has been the roll-out of a system known as the global missile defense, which in effect encircles Russia and China, posing the threat of massive simultaneous missile strikes that could overwhelm any defenses. To intelligence specialists at the Pentagon, who likely have been watching, as I have done, what the Kremlin disseminated earlier today in Russian only versions so far, the question of Moscow turning the tables is entirely serious and shocking.

When Vladimir Putin first publicly described Russia’s latest state-of-the-art weapons systems in development and deployment one year ago, during his 1 March 2018 Address to the bicameral legislature, he said these systems would ensure the re-establishment of full strategic parity with the United States. Western media sniggered. US politicians, with a very few exceptions, chose to ignore what they considered to be just domestic electioneering during a presidential campaign that Putin was expected to win handily. It was all a bluff, they said.

In his annual Address [on] Wednesday, 20 February, President Putin expanded on those developments in armaments, reported which systems were now entering active service. He made it clear one of them is the planned Russian response to a likely consequence of US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: the stationing by the U.S. of nuclear armed cruise missiles like the Tomahawk on land and directed against Russia, all of which would reduce the warning time of incoming attack in Moscow to just 10–12 minutes and constitute an existential risk.

Putin, being Putin, did not spell out the threats implicit in the prospective deployment of the new Russian weapons systems. He remained always polite and open to discussion in his speech. But as we saw earlier today, he entrusted the task of dotting i’s to a member of his close entourage, Dmitry Kiselyov who is the chief administrator of all news programs on Russian state television while also serving as the anchor of the widely watched News of the Week, a summary newscast shown on two federal channels on Sunday evenings. To expand the circulation still more, the segment dealing with Putin’s Address and the new arms systems was released as a separate 10 minute video on YouTube.com early in the afternoon.

Continue reading Doctorow’s article here

Read Putin’s full speech to the Federal Assembly here