The Russian Revolution is often presented as an attempt to impose socialism by the coercive means of dictatorship and terror. In order to do this, historical facts are used very selectively, and the actions of the Bolsheviks are described with little or no reference to their historical context. BBC2 TV’s “Lenin’s Secret Files”, broadcast last December in the “Timewatch” series, was a good example of the method. It described the Red Terror with only a cursory mention of the desperate circumstances of civil war and foreign intervention.
The programme made no mention of the initial leniency of the Bolshevik regime towards its opponents. After the 1917 insurrections in Petrograd and Moscow captured White Guards were released in return for a (soon broken) promise not to take up arms against the revolution in the future. Captured members of the Provisional Government were also released and one of the Bolsheviks’ first decrees was to abolish capital punishment. Although introduced during the civil war, this measure was again abolished when the military situation improved. The impression was conveyed that the attempt to assassinate Lenin in August 1918 was enough to prompt the Bolsheviks to adopt terror tactics. However, there were successful assassinations of two other Bolshevik leaders that summer and there had been earlier attempts on both Lenin and Trotsky. The viewer would not know from this account that the Bolsheviks were fighting, literally, for survival. The contemporary observer Victor Serge describes them “living in the sure inner knowledge that they would be massacred in the event of defeat; and the defeat remained possible from one week to the next”. In the same way, the execution of kulaks during the civil war to encourage the surrender of grain was presented with no reference to the starvation facing the cities. The White Terror was dismissed in the phrase, “reciprocal atrocities”.
But then, according to this version of events, the terror is not to be explained by historical circumstances but by the “cruel, violent side” of Lenin’s character. Viewers were presented with a picture of Lenin as the single-handed instigator of the revolution. The role of parties and the influence of class forces was ignored. Lenin, we were told, had learned that there was “something wrong with his brain” and that he would not live long. He therefore believed himself to be working against time. This caused him to force the pace of change and insist that the Bolsheviks take power in October 1917! This is not history but a caricature of it.
The programme, in spite of itself, could not help giving glimpses of the dying Lenin’s struggle to prevent Stalin from taking over the party, and even admitted that Russian history could have been different if he had succeeded.