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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

They knew Lenin

Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power, painting V. Serov

On the 100th anniversary of the death of Lenin we look at recollections of the great revolutionary from the 13th anniversary in 1937.

From Soviet Today Magazine in January, 1937 are short recollections by Lincoln Steffens, Krupskaya, John Reed and Arthur Ransome.

On January 21 millions of people the world over will honor the memory of Lenin, who died thirteen years ago. Our tribute to him can best be paid in the words of those who knew him in the great days of the revolution.

A Man Named Lenin


During the April days Kerensky ignores the people’s demands for land, bread and peace and tries to make them go on with the war— the masses of people strive for clarity and action through their Soviets.

Watching that mass meeting of delegates was like seeing the historical development of human government out of chaos. One could see that there was good will in men, plenty of it, and that, left to itself, its ideals and purposes were noble. Contempt for man, pessimism, melted away. Primitive, untaught men are good. The laws that they could agree upon were noble, and the delegates instinctively wished to make their acts representative. When they were approaching a decision on something in doubt, the leaders of the debate would send out an orator or a leader to explain it to the mob in waiting and ask for, almost pray for, its approval.

But they had another recourse. A mob in doubt would turn away, and leaving one crowd to stay and watch, the committee of hundreds would march off across the city, picking up other crowds to go and stand in front of the palace of the Tsar’s mistress, where “a man named Lenin,” seeing them, would come out and speak. He spoke briefly, in a quiet tone of voice, so low that few could hear him. But when he had finished, those who had heard moved away ; the mass closed up; the orator repeated his speech, and so for an hour or two the man named Lenin would deliver to the ever-changing masses his firm, short, quiet message. The day I got close enough to hear him, the crowd evidently had been troubled by the inactivity of Kerensky and some advice to them to go home and work, not to give all their time to their self-government. My interpreter repeated Lenin’s manifolded speech afterward, as follows:

“Comrades, the revolution is on. The workers’ revolution is on, and you are not working. The workers’ and peasants’ revolution means work, comrades; it does not mean idleness and leisure. That is a bourgeois ideal. The workers’ revolution, a workers’ government, means work, that all shall work; and here you are not working. You are only talking.

Oh, I can understand how you, the people of Russia, having been suppressed so long, should want, now that you have won to power, to talk and to listen to orators. But some day, soon, you—we all—must go to work and do things, act, produce results—food and socialism. And I can understand how you like and trust and put your hope in Kerensky. You want to give him time, a chance, to act. He means well, you say. He means socialism. But I warn you he will not make socialism. He may think socialism, he may mean socialism. But comrades”—and here he began to burn—‘‘I tell you Kerensky is an intellectual; he cannot act; he can talk; he cannot act. But,” quietly again, “you will not believe this yet. You will take time to give him time, and meanwhile, like Kerensky, you will not work. Very well, take your time. But”—he flamed—"when the hour strikes, when you are ready to go back yourselves to work and you want a government that will go to work and not only think socialism and talk socialism and mean socialism—when you want a government that will do socialism, then—come to the Bolsheviki.”

From “The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens.”

Return From Exile


April, 1917—the Tsar has been overthrown—the Provisional Government pursues its vacillating course —Lenin returns to Russia to prepare for the seizure of power by the Bolsheviki. The Petrograd masses, workers, soldiers and sailors came to meet their leader.

Among the many close comrades there, was Churgurin—a student at the Longjumeau school, his face wet with tears, wearing a wide red sash across his shoulder. There was a sea of people all around.

Those who have not lived through the revolution cannot imagine its grand, solemn beauty. Red banners, a guard of honor of Kronstadt sailors, searchlights from the Fortress of Peter and Paul illuminating the road from the Finland station to the Kshesinsky Mansion, armored cars, a chain of working men and women guarding the road.

Chkheidze and Skobelev met us at the Finland station as the official representatives of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. The comrades led Ilyich (Lenin) to the Tsar’s rest-room where Chkheidze and Skobelev were. When Ilyich came out on the platform a captain came to him and, standing at attention, reported something. Ilyich, a little taken aback with surprise, saluted. Ilyich and all our emigrant fraternity were led past a guard of honor which was on the platform. Ilyich stood on an armored car, the rest were seated in automobiles and thus we drove to Kshesinsky Mansion. “Long live the Socialist world revolution!”

Ilyich called out to the huge crowd of many thousands surrounding us. Ilyich sensed the beginning of this revolution in every fiber of his body.

From “Memories of Lenin”

When Lenin Spoke


November 8—The Bolsheviki have won—the Provisional Government has fallen—power is in the hands of the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies—they are meeting to form the new Workers’ and Peasants’ Government.

It was just 8:40 when a thundering wave of cheers announced the entrance of the presidium, with Lenin— great Lenin—among them. A short, stocky figure, with a big head set down in his shoulders, bald and bulging. Little, a snubbish nose, wide, generous mouth, and heavy chin; clean-shaven now, but already beginning to bristle with the well-known beard of his past and future. Dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers much too long for him. Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been...

Now Lenin, gripping the edge of the reading stand, letting his little winking eyes travel over the crowd as he stood there waiting, apparently oblivious to the long-rolling ovation, which lasted several minutes. When it finished, he said simply, “We shall now proceed to construct the Socialist Order!” Again that overwhelming human roar.

“The first thing is the adoption of practical measures to realize peace. .. . We shall offer peace to the peoples of all the belligerent countries upon the basis of the Soviet terms—no annexations, no indemnities, and the right of self-determination of peoples. At the same time, according to our promise, we shall publish and repudiate the secret treaties...The question of War and Peace is so clear that I think that I may, without preamble, read the project of a Proclamation to the Peoples of All the Belligerent Countries..."

His great mouth, seeming to smile, opened wide as he spoke; his voice was hoarse—not unpleasantly so, but as if it had hardened that way after years and years of speaking—and went on monotonously, with the effect of being able to go on forever... . For emphasis he bent forward slightly. No gestures. And before him, a thousand simple faces looking up in intent adoration...

When the grave thunder of applause had died away, Lenin spoke again:

“We propose to the Congress to ratify this Declaration. We address ourselves to the Governments as well as to the peoples, for a declaration which would be addressed only to the peoples of the belligerent countries might delay the conclusion of peace. The conditions of peace, drawn up during the armistice, will be ratified by the Constituent Assembly. In fixing the duration of the armistice at three months, we desire to give to the peoples as long a rest as possible after this bloody extermination, and ample time for them to elect their representatives. This proposal of peace will meet with resistance on the part of the imperialist governments—we don’t fool ourselves on that score. But we hope that revolution will soon break out in all the belligerent countries; that is why we address ourselves especially to the workers of France, England and Germany. ...

“The revolution of November 6th and 7th,” he ended, “has opened the era of the Social Revolution. . . . The labor movement, in the name of peace and Socialism, shall win, and fulfill its destiny... .”

There was something quiet and powerful in all this, which stirred the souls of men. It was understandable why people believed when Lenin spoke.

From “Ten Days that Shook the World”

Lenin in 1919


Impressions by an English writer who knew and talked with Lenin.

More than ever, Lenin struck me as a happy man. Walking home from the Kremlin, I tried to think of any other man of his calibre who had a similar joyous temperament. I could think of none. This little, bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another, ready any minute to give serious advice to any who interrupt him to ask for it, advice so well reasoned that it is to his followers far more compelling than any command, every one of his wrinkles is a wrinkle of laughter, not of worry. I think the reason must be that he is the first great leader who utterly discounts the value of his own personality. He is quite without personal ambition. More than that, he believes as a Marxist, in the movement of the masses which, with or without him, would still move. His whole faith is in the elemental forces that move people, his faith in himself is merely his belief that he justly estimates the direction of those forces. He does not believe that any man could make or stop the revolution which he thinks inevitable. If the Russian revolution fails, according to him, it fails only temporarily, and because of forces beyond any man’s control. He is consequently free with a freedom no other great man has ever had. It is not so much what he says that inspires confidence in him. It is this sensible freedom, this obvious detachment. With his philosophy he cannot for a moment believe that one man’s mistake might ruin all. He is, for himself at any rate, the exponent, not the cause, of the events that will be forever linked with his name.

From “Russia in 1919.”


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