The Truth About Vladimir Lenin a Century After His Death
By David Josef Volodzko
Exactly a century ago, on 21 January 1924, Vladimir Lenin succumbed to the consequences of a third stroke, falling into a coma and dying later that day. Despite only being 53 at the time of his death, Lenin managed to make a devastating impact on the country he ruled. Few today truly understand his legacy and so I asked journalist and recent TRIGGERnometry guest, David Josef Volodzko, to document not only Lenin’s atrocities but also the psychopathic personality who committed them. You can read David’s own Substack here.
Last summer, I was fired from the editorial board of The Seattle Times for criticizing Vladimir Lenin. In a column I wrote on the grotesque 16-foot bronze statue of the Russian dictator erected in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, I highlighted the moral depravity and selective outrage of many on the political left.
In the summer of 2020, I saw folks in nearby Portland tear down statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, because, despite founding one of the greatest liberal democracies in human history, Washington owned 123 slaves at his Mount Vernon estate while Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves. Yet Lenin, who built one of the most evil regimes ever known, enslaved a nation and killed millions, gets a statue.
Vladimir Lenin massacred more than 1 million people for political or religious reasons, murdered up to 700,000 in the genocide of the Cossacks, more than 15,000 peasants in the Tambov rebellion, over 3,000 sailors and civilians in the Kronstadt rebellion, thousands of workers who dared to strike or could not work, almost 2 million who died in the Gulag concentration camps and upwards of 8 million from famine and disease.
As Konstantin Kisin has argued, communism is even worse than fascism. The violent breed of communism Lenin created, carried forward by the likes of Stalin and Mao, has killed at least 100 million people, but as historians dig deeper, that number is ever growing. Fascism, by comparison, has killed roughly 36 million.
After my column came out, I shared it on social media, observing that we would naturally never tolerate a statue of Hitler, so why do we tolerate one of Lenin? Especially since, in psychological terms, Hitler “was less evil than Lenin because Hitler only targeted people he personally believed were harmful to society whereas Lenin targeted even those he himself didn’t believe were harmful in any way.”
In other words, in his own twisted mind, Hitler believed he was protecting the innocent. Like many of history’s most evil figures, he thought he was the good guy. Let this be a lesson on what people are capable of when they convince themselves they are irrefutably righteous. Hitler was, of course, delusional, but what is more terrifying, Lenin knew he was killing innocent people—and simply did not care.
We can only imagine how many more Lenin would have killed had the Soviet Union of the 1920s wielded the sort of economic and military might of the Third Reich.
But why should this matter? Why is it important to ask such questions? Well, for the same reason I outlined in my original column. Namely, there is a problem of moral depravity and selective outrage on the political left. When the piece came out, some readers told me they regard the Lenin statue as humorous, though I admit, I fail to get the joke. Others described their undying respect for the man.
One day, in the Times boardroom, I was sitting with my boss and an intern. My boss mentioned the column, and the intern perked up and said, “Soviet Russia was the greatest country in history!”
My boss then gently noted that in the column, I tell how Soviets slaughtered members of my own family. The intern smiled, looked right in my face and said, “I think some of that violence was necessary.”
Imagine saying that to a Jewish person immediately after hearing that they lost family members in the Holocaust. This is why the conversation matters. “People even now ... are celebrating Lenin,” Jordan Peterson once said. “That’s like celebrating Hitler. I’m dead serious about that … And the fact that people can dare to think that’s okay means that there’s something wrong with the way we look at history. Lenin was a monster.”
But Lenin was a decidedly different kind of monster. Hitler, Stalin and Mao all grew up in suffocating poverty with brutally abusive fathers. Stalin’s father, a shoemaker named Besarion Jughashvili, was a crazy drunk who brutally beat his wife and son Josef. Hitler’s father Alois was not only an abusive drunk, but an incestuous pedophile.
The point being, men like Hitler and Stalin became monsters through horrific circumstances, and we can perhaps imagine a time in their youth when they might have been steered down a different path. In Chapter 2 of Mein Kampf, Hitler describes his initial hatred of antisemitism upon moving to Vienna in 1908 at the age of 19. Many don’t realize it, but the title of the book, My Struggle, refers not to his struggle for power but against antisemitism, and it is in Chapter 2 that he describes how he lost that fight, at infinite cost to the world, including my family.
By contrast, Lenin’s father was far from poor. He was the director of primary schools for the Simbirsk district, later for the entire province, and was eventually named an aristocrat. Lenin grew up in comfort and was not steered down a ruinous path by physical or psychological torture. He was not run over by a horse-drawn carriage as a child, like Stalin, or beaten for reading books, like Mao. He was not made into a monster, and whatever evil lay in his heart, was apparently there from birth.
People sometimes make the claim that it was Stalin, not Lenin, who was the great evil of Soviet Russia. I like to remind them, as New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lenin’s Tomb, that someone once made a similar comment to the Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov, one of the few people in history who personally knew both Lenin and Stalin. Molotov replied, “Compared to Lenin, Stalin was a mere lamb.”
In psychological terms, Stalin displayed sadism, narcissism and most of all, paranoia. In her 2013 paper, “Psychopathology of Joseph Stalin,” the clinical psychologist Marina Stal argues that Stalin had paranoid personality disorder. Hitler was variously believed to have had all four Cluster B personality disorders or possibly schizophrenia. A 1993 study used the Personality Assessment Schedule to conclude Hitler had psychopathy, paranoid personality disorder or histrionic personality disorder. A 2007 DSM-IV assessment of Hitler by psychologists at the University of Colorado considered the possibility of psychopathy, but concluded he probably had paranoid schizophrenia.
This followed the work of Canadian psychiatrist W.D. Vernon and Henry Murray, the Harvard psychologist who authored the landmark 1943 report Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler. In their work, Vernon and Murray argued that Hitler was most likely schizophrenic. The famous psychologist Erik Erikson called Hitler “histrionic” in his 1950 book Childhood and Society. Erich Fromm’s 1973 book Anatomy of Human Destructiveness claims Hitler was a narcissist, and in the 1983 book Hitler’s Psychopathology, New York psychoanalyst Norbert Bromberg and writer Verna Volz Small argue Hitler had narcissistic personality disorder, an argument later made by French psychoanalysts Béla Grunberger and Pierre Dessuant.
I sometimes explain the difference between Hitler and Lenin as that between Joffrey Baratheon, a stupid and sadistic narcissist who nevertheless considers himself to be on the side of the good, and Hannibal Lecter, a searingly intelligent and calculating psychopath in the purest sense of the word, who has no use for concepts such as good. This analogy also highlights the irrelevance of body counts in assessing psychological evil, as well as the terrifying relevance of intellect (just imagine Hannibal Lecter with a room-temperature IQ and see how scary he is then). Consider then that while Hitler, Stalin and Mao were of middling intelligence, Lenin was an intellectual giant who not only played chess with the greatest Russian masters of the day, but gave them a good game.
The reference to Joffrey the Illborn and Hannibal the Cannibal also captures the primary-secondary psychopathy distinction. A secondary psychopath, or Type II psychopath, is made by environmental factors, and these tend to be impulsive, unstable and not terribly bright people. If Hitler was a psychopath rather than a homicidal narcissist, he was almost certainly a Type II psychopath.
Then you have the primary psychopath, also known as the born psychopath or literal psychopath. For these people, it makes no sense to imagine a time in their youth when they might have been steered down a different path, because their problem is biological. Like Hannibal, the Type I psychopath is not impulsive, but calculating and methodical. He is not dimwitted, but extremely intelligent. He is not socially disruptive, but charming and manipulative.
We know that even in his early youth, unlike Hitler or Stalin, Lenin was an amoral monster who tortured his siblings and displayed an inhuman lack of empathy. In a preprint on Lenin’s psychology, the renowned Irish psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald writes that Lenin “showed gross lack of empathy as a child, but at the same time, could be charming.”
Fitzgerald adds that Lenin showed a “rejection of concepts such as conscience, compassion and charity … was only interested in using people for what he could get out of them” and was “controlling, sadistic and meticulous.” Once he came to power, Fitzgerald notes, Lenin “loved having people killed” and “was clearly Machiavellian.”
“Lenin was psychopathic,” Fitzgerald concludes. To drive the point firmly home, he then goes line by line through the entry for antisocial personality disorder, or psychopathy, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), writing that Lenin was “totally focused on himself and his desires” and “had empathy problems, intimacy problems” and “was manipulative, deceitful, callous, irresponsible.”
In Lenin: A Biography, Oxford professor of Russian history Robert Service writes that Lenin was an “often unkind” child, abusive and destructive, with “malice in his character.” Service notes, “moral questions for him were an irrelevance,” adding that Lenin was “coldly calculating” and displayed “massive” antisocial behavior. During the Russian famine from 1891 to 1892, Service writes that Lenin showed shocking “emotional detachment.”
This period in Lenin’s life is illuminating, because it offers a glimpse of Lenin as a young man before the corrupting influence of state power had touched him. The famine was unimaginably horrendous: more than 400,000 people starved to death with bodies piling up in hospital courtyards. Major roads were lined with corpses. As the Hungarian historian Victor Sebestyen writes in Lenin: The Man, The Dictator and the Master of Terror, everyone did what they could to save lives. Anton Chekhov, a doctor, opened soup kitchens. The novelist Lev Tolstoy started a relief campaign. Lenin’s elder sister, Anna, handed out medicine. But Lenin appalled even his own family with his behavior.
He spread disinformation about the relief efforts, not because he believed they were harmful—he knew the famine relief campaigns were saving lives—but rather because he wanted as many people as possible to die because their deaths were useful to him.
Lenin lived in the Volga region, which was hit hardest by the famine, and saw firsthand the profound suffering of the peasants. He knew his actions would kill the very people he pretended to care about, but as Fitzgerald, Service, Sebestyen and others have noted, these were unimportant concerns to him. The people were a means to an end. The more that died the better, so long as it caused enough social unrest to end the Tsarist regime.
You might think he was simply willing to break a few million eggs to make an omelette, but his was not a cause for the greater good. It was personal. His elder brother, Aleksandr, had been a terrorist who tried to kill Alexander II and was hanged. The family was shunned by polite society, and whether Lenin truly loved his brother or was merely offended by the slight to his reputation, he became bitter and spent years obsessing over violent fantasies of revenge. He had, as Service plainly puts it, a “lust for violence.”
That lust was fully manifested once he took power. According to Dmitri Volkogonov, former assistant to Yelstin who wrote a biography of Lenin based on secret Soviet archives, “lack of pity, class hatred and Machiavellianism were … the highest revolutionary values.” Alongside these was terrorism, as “terror would break the will to resist of millions.” Initially, Volkogonov writes, Lenin offered justifications for the evil he wished to commit, citing “revolutionary conscience.”
Later, he dropped all pretense and instead began repeating Maxim Gorky’s phrase, “the logic of the axe,” meaning persuasion by execution. He no longer needed to pretend. He was a serial killer in charge of a mafia state, a pure psychopath, and the blood and suffering would not end with him nor with his henchman Stalin.
What has sadly faded is not his evil political cause, murdering the people in the name of the people. You can find that to this day in the genocide being carried out by China, or in the pro-Hamas chants being sung by students on U.S. campuses. What has faded, alas, is our memory of the man and who he truly was. No person in human history has ever set a stone rolling that has crushed more people or left more blood in its wake.
Thankfully, pushing back is simple: we need only tell the truth.
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