Historians have disagreed about whether Lenin was a dictator or a revolutionary hero

Historians have disagreed about whether Lenin was a dictator or a revolutionary hero. What is your view
about whether Lenin was a dictator or a revolutionary hero?
The word dictator refers to someone who rules a country with absolute power. Dictators tend to come
to power by other throwing the government by advertising a common goal or reason to the people.
Lenin had the semblance of a dictator, he defeated the Tsar and murdered his whole family then went
on to form the Soviet Union which one may argue was the worst dictatorships in the 20th Century.
Indeed, at first glance Lenin is commonly assumed to be a dictator, however many argue that he was a
revolutionary hero who saved people from decades of suffering and poverty. Russia was a country
where workers and peasants worked long hours, lived in poverty and hardships and were the lowest
paid in Europe while the Elite including the aristocracy and the imperial families enjoyed a life of luxury.
For many Lenin was seen to be the figure who ended a reign built on brutality and corruption, shifting
Russia to a new and improved modernized industrial state seen today from a mostly agriculture
Aristocracy. Lenin is one of the most controversial leaders in history, however questions arise as to
whether he was a revolutionary hero who ended a reign of terror, suffering and hardship or a villain and
dictator who replaced one terror with another.
For Lenin to be a dictator, he would have exercised complete power over Russia and used oppressive
and brutal means to censor anyone who opposed him. Whilst these element’s certainly feed into the
image of a dictator, Russia’s history in governing, economic and political stand point before Lenin came
into power cannot be ignored and can hinder how much power the word dictator applies to Lenin. For
Lenin to be a revolutionary hero, Lenin would have saved a country from an oppressive regime and
would have improved conditions instead of worsening them. Historians Like Dmitri Volkogonov and
Richard Pipes both agree that Lenin was a dictator and draws their arguments from Lenin’s creation of
the CHEKA and The Red Terror which was an example of Lenin trying to exercise control. However other
Historians like Christopher Hill defends Lenin’s actions due to the situation in Russia, which had
tolerated years of Civil War, World war 1 and the corruption of the aristocracy which caused massive
instability. Lenin’s creation of the NEP shows him using compromise unlike the Red Terror which used
force. Both Historian’s accounts can be challenged because of their own personal view on the matter
and therefore I will be assessing all accounts to come up with a final conclusion.
Lenin can be viewed as a dictator because he ruled Russia through a one-party dictatorship, the
Bolsheviks also known as the Communist party. Dmitri Volkogonov is a historian known for his anti-
Lenin approach, and believes that Lenin’s sole reason for ‘building socialism in one country boiled down
to the chance of seizing power.1’ This shows that Volkogonov believes that Lenin was able to exercise his
dictatorship tendencies through the centralization of power in Russia. This is further supported by the
creation of Sovnarkom under Lenin which was a new body of government which shows that the
Communist party had no intention of sharing their power. This gives the impression that Lenin wanted
to limit other powers in order to strengthen his own which supports the idea that Lenin was a dictator.
However, the argument that Lenin established Sovnarkom for his own personal greed for power can be
rivalled due to the economic situation at the time. Russia was in a Civil war and the creation of the
Sovnarkom may have been an emergency tactic to defend against anti Bolsheviks. This is supported by
Christopher Hill, a historian who has Marxist sympathies; ‘In 1918 the country had been economically
1 Dmitri Volkogonov: Lenin life and Legacy (page 68)

exhausted and bankrupt2’ This shows that Russia was in a state of economic hardship and the pressure
to maintain stability among the economic situation and the chaos of the Civil war may help to explain
why Lenin fell back to using more centralized decisions. Hill then goes further to say ‘there was a spirit of
optimism and self-confidence among the workers which was itself able to overcome many difficulties.3’
This shows that Lenin was able to restore hope and confidence for the workers which had been crushed
during the Tsar regime, which in itself shows that Lenin may be considered a revolutionary hero because
he symbolized hope for the future instead of a reign of terror.
Volkogonov argues that the creation of Politburo which became the central committee for the
communist party was in fact an excursion of power to help dictate the country. ‘The famine… was
appalling. People were eating dead bodies, although the Politburo banned any mention of cannibalism
in the press.4’ This shows that Politburo were using propaganda to sell the dream that Russia’s
conditions were improving. This suggests that Lenin was a dictator because through Politburo he
censored bad press in order to strive for complete power. However, Politburo released more
dictatorship laws towards the end of Lenin’s reign, where he fell ill, therefore it could be argued it was
the Bolshevik party who strived for more power, not Lenin.
Furthermore, historian Christopher Hill argues that Lenin introduced laws that helped to improve
conditions rather than worsening them. ‘Lenin announced as the programme of the Soviet government
the immediate proposal of peace to all nations; the transfer of land to the peasants; workers’ control
over the production distribution of food; national control of the banks.5′ This is suggesting that Lenin
aimed to help workers rights and was a voice for the people; by transferring land to the peasants was
aiding his socialist dream and ending unfair treatment and privileges from the nobility and aristocracy.
Hill also proclaims that Lenin ‘ was ready on occasion to ‘crawl on his belly in the mud’ if the interests of
Russia and the revolution required it6′. This further supports the impression that Lenin was prepared to
put Russia’s interests before his, and evaluates Lenin’s sincerity for equality. However, the image
displayed by Hill may be exaggerated due to Hill having Marxist sympathies therefore the account can
be challenged due to Hill holding biased views.
Some historians believe that Lenin’s initiation of the red Terror, which was a response to a failed
assassination plot was an act of a dictator. Volkogonov describes Lenin using ‘inhumane terrorist
methods7’ which interprets qualities of a dictator. Volkogonov argues that Lenin immediately resorted
‘to the prison, the concentration camps, exile, the firing squad, hostages and blackmail8’ This implies
that Lenin’s use of the Red Terror to establish censorship and to limit resistance and hostility to the new
regime from opposing parties describes Lenin as a dictator because he was using violence and terror to
suppress opposition. This is further supported by the fact that 800 were executed without trial and
therefore displays a regime filled with terror, violence and disregard for anyone who doesn’t agree with
their beliefs. Volkogonov also claims that the Red Terror was ‘a path of violence and universal suspicion
2 Christopher Hill: Lenin and the Russian Revolution page 138 3 Christopher Hill: Lenin and the Russia revolution (page 138) 4 5 Christopher Hill: Lenin and the Russian Revolution (page 124) 6 Christopher Hill: Lenin and the Russian revolution page 164) 7 Dmitri Volkogonov: Lenin life and Legacy (page 71) 8

that was to become typical of twentieth- century tyrannies thereafter.9’ This shows that the historian
Volgokonov believes that Lenin was a dictator through the use of The Red Terror because it suppressed
political freedom in Russia whilst heightening Lenin’s own lust for power. Thus, showing that Lenin was a
dictator because he resulted to using violence and terror to protect his regime.
However, Volkogonov may be exaggerating the extent of The Red Terror due to not sharing soviet
beliefs himself and therefore, may hold biased views. Whilst the Red Terror was an example of Lenin
using force to establish control, the role of the NEP was an example of Lenin using compromise which
shows that the extent of Lenin being a dictator is challenged. Historian John Laver vocalizes that ‘Under
NEP peasants were freed from the threat of requisitioning and were allowed to engage in private
enterprise10’ This shows that Lenin himself was prepared to change some of his communist beliefs in
which he saw would better society. In Laver’s own words the NEP was ‘at worst an outright betrayal of
Marxism’ which shows that Lenin sincerely believed in doing what was right for the people, thus
showing he was a revolutionary hero. Lenin was prepared to go against his own beliefs and Laver
proclaim that ‘NEP was never a comfortable fact of life for the Communist Party11’ which shows that
Lenin put the happiness of the people before himself and his party. Christopher Hill proclaims that ‘Lenin
knew the Russian people and valued their traditions12’ which supports the idea that Lenin was prepared
to go against his own cabinet and views to arguable satisfy the people who is his main concern, thus
showing he was a revolutionary hero.
Many historian’s view Lenin as a dictator through the creation of the CHEKA. This was a secret police
force which helped to imprison, interrogate and execute anyone who opposed the Communist regime.
This harsh method of using power to install terror and resilience was seen as an embodiment of a
dictatorship for many historians. Laver states that the CHECKA ‘arrested suspected political opponents,
saboteurs and other counter-revolutionaries13’ which shows that they used harsh and violent means in
order to protect Communism and anyone who defied it. Laver describes the CHEKA in a frightening
portrayal of ‘terror met terror14’ and as a ‘regime of terror against enemies of the people15’ showcasing
his belief that Lenin was a tyrant who lusted for power in expense for people’s trust and lives. Therefore,
Lenin was a dictator because he used violence to oppress opposition and to heighten his own power as a
result. Volkogonov supports Laver in the ideal that CHEKA was established to maximize Lenin’s
dictatorship as he believed that the ‘theory of revolution proposed nothing other than these inhuman
terrorist methods16’ which supports the ideal that Lenin was a dictator because he was eager to use
harsh methods to establish control and protect his party from threat of opposition.
However, historians like Christopher Hill declare that The Red Terror and the CHEKA were important
temporary measures to shield against instability and were forced upon during certain circumstances.
9 10 11 John Laver: Lenin liberator or opressor (page 78) 12 Christopher Hill; 13 John Laver; Liberator or opressor (page 62) 14 John Laver; Liberator or opressor (page 62)
15 John Laver; Liberator or opressor (page 62)
16 Dmitri Volkogonov: Lenin life and legacy (page 71)

The historian Marcel Liebman states that Lenin’s motives were ‘to defend the soviet power against the
attacks of counter revolutionaries17’. This is evident in the creation of The Red Terror, which was a result
of an attempt to murder Lenin and this gave him the initiative to defend himself through the creation of
The Red Terror. Therefore, The Red Terror was arguably a necessary retaliation to the opposition Lenin
faced as a leader. Thus, Lenin could not be seen as a dictator; Lenin established The Red Terror because
of threat to his position and so The Red Terror was merely a response. Lenin’s reaction was simply what
any other regime facing opposition would have taken.
Historians like Hill view Lenin’s commitment in installing communism in Russia as a reflection for his
sincerity to end bloodshed and create a communist utopia. This is reflected in Lenin’s taste to live a
humble life and refuse a life of luxury which shows that he was committed to his ideals of building a
Communist state. Hill claims that Lenin ‘unaffectedly continued to live in the simplest style, sleeping in
an iron, bedstead in a carpet less room18’ This gives an indication of Lenin’s character; that he was
humble and simplistic, and refutes the image that many automatically conjure of a violent ruthless
dictator. Lenin’s humble nature is further supported by Hill stating that ‘presents of food which peasants
sent in to him during the famine he invariable gave away.19’ This shows that Lenin’s main concern was
building a communist society and indicates that Lenin truly believed in doing what was right for the
people of Russia. Therefore, Lenin can be seen as a revolutionary hero because of his simplistic life style
and his decision to put the concerns of the people of Russia over his own.
Furthermore, historians like Laver believe that Lenin’s intentions were to improve conditions for the
people rather than fuel his own desire for power. Historian John Laver states that ‘Lenin himself was
accessible as an individual20’ which discards characteristics of a dictator. According to Laver ‘those who
disagreed with him in conversation were not in fear of their liberty or their lives21’ which shows that
Lenin valued the opinion of his cabinet and welcomed other views that challenged his own. Thus, Laver
is suggesting that Lenin was committed to his mission of building a better state for the people rather
than dictating for greed of power. Furthermore, Lenin was ‘regarded by his staff as considerate22’ which
show empathetic tendencies rather than characteristics of a dictator. Laver states that Lenin ‘received
an on average 300 letters a week. In addition to reading these, he listened to reports about the situation
in the provinces.23’ Lenin is shown to be motivated and committed to his mission of building a better
state. Therefore, Lenin can be viewed as a revolutionary hero who strived to build a state to end
previous years of hardship and unfair treatment because he was viewed as ‘considerate’ and was
involved with matters of Russia.
However, whilst Laver defends Lenin’s commitment and sincerity in achieving a revolution and building a
communist state, Laver states that Lenin showed ‘no concern about human rights on a more general
17 18 Christopher Hill: Lenin and the Russian revolution (page 156) 19 Christopher Hill: Lenin and the russian revolution (page 156) 20 John Laver: Lenin Liberator or oppressor (page 60) 21 John Laver: Lenin Liberator or oppressor (page 60)
22 John Laver: Lenin Liberator or oppressor (page 59)
23 John Laver: Lenin Liberator or oppressor (page 59)

level24’. This is further supported by his refusal to include the Bolsheviks with the Mensheviks and social
revolutionaries which limited a more broadly-based government from developing. Laver seems to agree
that Lenin had genuine interests to build a better state, however this does not imply that Lenin did not
use doctorial tactics to achieve his dream. Historian Richard Pipes who takes an anti-Lenin stance agrees
with Laver by describing the Bolshevik party as more of an ‘order25’ where ‘Elements regarded as
unworthy were purged26.’ This denies the idea that Lenin surrounded himself with a variety of opinions
and influencers but rather restricted members in his party who ‘met certain ideological as well as class
or racial criteria’. Therefore, Richard Pipes implies that Lenin was a dictator because he chose to
surround himself with people who only shared the same opinion as himself and therefore this suggests
he was working towards a one-party dictatorship.
However, Hill argues against the idea that Lenin was only concerned for himself and his own party.
Under Lenin, Hill argues that ‘laws were being passed abolishing all inequalities based on class, sex
nationality or religion27’. This shows that Lenin was not discriminative and genuinely cared for the
interests of the people, thus showing qualities of a revolutionary hero rather than a dictator. Hill further
supports this claim by claiming that Lenin ‘called on women themselves to take the lead in establishing
the communal institutions28′ which gives the impression that Lenin cared for women’s rights and
equality and worked towards improving conditions in Russia. Historian Laver supports Hill in the opinion
that Lenin genuinely had the interests of Russia at heart; ”Lenin received an on average 300 letters a
week. In addition to reading these, he listened to reports about the situation in the provinces29’. This
supports the impression that Lenin strove for the genuine interests of the people rather than his own.
Laver also argues that ‘the fact that his collogues drew little more than Workmen’s wages was widely
appreciated by outsiders30’. This signifies that the people of Russia valued Lenin and his work ethic and
gives an insight that the people saw him as a figure who they could look up to and trust, thus showing
he was a revolutionary hero.
However, some historians like Volkogonov saw Lenin as a dictator because of his approach to eliminate
opposition and any threat to his power and regime. According to Volkogonov, Lenin immediately
resorted to ‘prison, the concentration camps, exile, the firing squad, hostages and blackmail31’ in order
to enforce his ideals, implying that Lenin used terror to achieve his goal. This is supported by the murder
of the Tsar and his whole family including children which Laver vocalizes was ‘in order to prevent them
falling into enemy hands32’. This implies that Lenin did not tolerate opposition or threat to his ideals and
was prepared to use violence to force acceptance towards the communist regime. Laver also states that
under Lenin ‘representatives of Left-winged political groups like the SR’s were shot in order to prevent
24 John Laver: Lenin Liberator or oppressor (page 60)
25 Robert Service: Three whys of the Russian revolution page 38-39 26 Robert Service: Three whys of the Russian revolution page 38-39 27 Christopher Hill: Lenin and the russian revolution (page 124) 28 Christopher Hill: Lenin and the russian revolution (page 159)
29 John Laver: Lenin liberator or opressor (page 59) 30 John Laver: Liberator or oppressor (page 59)
31 32 John Laver: Liberator or oppressor (page 63)

them falling into enemy hands’ which further supports that Lenin used terror and violent tactics to
enforce Communism, thus showing that Lenin was a dictator. However, the steps Lenin took when he
came to power can be seen as a necessity to maintain order, and were arguably methods any leader
who comes to power would have taken. Hill argues that ‘the revolution had been completely successful
in its negative aspect: tsar and landlords had gone forever33.’ Hill suggests that the murder of the Tsars
was a necessity to get closer to a communist state and to bring closure to a reign of corruption,
therefore Lenin could be seen as a revolutionary hero.
historians like Hill view Lenin as a revolutionary hero because they believe he genuinely cared for the
interests of Russia. Hill proclaims that ‘the Russian Revolution… uplifted the poor and the downtrodden
and improved their lot in the everyday things of life.34’ which implies qualities of a revolutionary hero.
This is supported through the creation of the NEP, which launched literacy campaigns and motivated
people to apply to university. In 1917, three quarters of the population was illiterate and by 1939,
illiteracy rates became uncommon. This implies that Lenin cared about the conditions in Russia and
ways to improve them. Also, Laver supports Hill that there were advancements under Lenin and that ‘
the period of 1924 saw several experiments in education, and a flourishing of new art forms, including
the cinema35’. This shows that under Lenin’s efforts and through the Russian Revolution, new art forms
were created and education was improved. This supports the ideal that Lenin was a revolutionary hero
because he was able to improve conditions in Russia thus accomplishing long term success.
However, Lenin’s attempt to eradicate religion was an example of him using force which demonstrates
qualities of a dictator. Laver states that ‘ Persecution for the Orthodox Church by means of depriving it
of its property, arresting priests, and active discouragement of church services, began soon after the
Revolution36.’ This implies that Lenin feared anyone who challenged his authority and power; he wanted
to eradicate religion because he believed that people should worship Communism rather than God.
Lenin initiating persecution limited the people’s freedom of practice; which consolidated his power and
simultaneously removing opposition, thus showing dictatorship tendencies.
However, Laver also notes that under Lenin, there were many advancements in culture and industry
indicating that Lenin’s intentions were to improve Russia’s conditions rather than worsen them; ‘The
period of 1924 saw several experiments in education, and a flourishing of new art forms, including the
cinema37’. This was further implemented by Lenin’s introduction to electric power and power stations
which helped the extension of modern industries to this day. This indicates that under Lenin, Russia was
able to move from a backwards, harsh regime under Tsarist rule to a flourished new society which
supports the idea that Lenin was a revolutionary hero because he encouraged these advancements and
therefore had the best interests for Russia. Nevertheless, Laver also argues that under these
advancements ‘there were some limitations to self-expression38’. This is supported by Yevgeny Zamyatin
33 Christopher Hill: Lenin and the Russian revolution (page 142)
34 Christopher Hill: Lenin and the russian revolution (page 169)
35 John Laver ‘Lenin liberator or oppressor (page 94) 36 John Laver: Liberator or oppressor (page 94) 37 John Laver: Lenin liberator or oppressor (page 94)
38 John Laver: Lenin liberator or oppressor (page 94)

novel We which was banned from publication in Russia due to its portrayal of Communism as a
dehumanized future. This shows that although there were advancements in culture and industry, this
was monitored by Lenin by his attempts to remove opposition which didn’t fit his beliefs; therefore,
portraying a dictatorship regime.
On the other hand, historians like Volkogonov believe that Lenin was a dictator because he enforced
dictatorship regimes such as The Red Terror which killed thousands of innocent people. This was further
supported by the creation of the SOVNAKOM, alongside the creation of the CHEKA which Volkogonov
describes as ‘inhuman terrorist methods39’ This reaffirms the view that Lenin was a dictator because he
used CHEKA and The Red Terror to force control through violence whilst the Sovnarkom helped to
further feed Lenin’s greed for power through a one-party dictatorship. Laver however takes a more
neutral stance by supporting Volkogonov on Lenin having dictatorship tendencies but also highlighting
his revolutionary regimes such as the development of culture and industry under Lenin which allowed
the platform for Russia to become a world power that it is today. On the contrary, Hill believes that
Lenin was a revolutionary hero because he had a genuine and sincere motive to improve Russia for the
better. NEP was an example of Lenin using compromise over the happiness of his own party and beliefs,
which shows that Lenin stood for the people of Russia.
Having analyzed the views of historians like Volkogonov and hill, I believe that Although, Lenin did
enforce dictatorship rules, I believe these measures were necessary in a country so backwards and
downtrodden and he was merely responding to existing conditions. Lenin had the genuine interests of
the people at heart and he ruled with his beliefs in what would benefit Russia. Therefore, I agree with
Hill that Lenin cannot be considered a dictator, but rather a man who saved Russia from an endless cycle
of hardship and terror under the Tsarist rule and led to a striving prosperous state filled with life and
hope for the better future.

39 Dmitri Volkogonov: Lenin life and legacy (page 71)