Bertrand Russell Remembers His Face-to-Face Encounter with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

When the Bol­she­viks seized con­trol of Rus­sia in the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion of 1917, Bertrand Rus­sell saw it as “one of the great hero­ic events of the world’s his­to­ry.”

A renowned philoso­pher and math­e­mati­cian, Rus­sell was also a com­mit­ted social­ist. As he would write in his 1920 book The Prac­tice and The­o­ry of Bol­she­vism:

By far the most impor­tant aspect of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion is as an attempt to real­ize Com­mu­nism. I believe that Com­mu­nism is nec­es­sary to the world, and I believe that the hero­ism of Rus­sia has fired men’s hopes in a way which was essen­tial to the real­iza­tion of Com­mu­nism in the future. Regard­ed as a splen­did attempt, with­out which ulti­mate suc­cess would have been very improb­a­ble, Bol­she­vism deserves the grat­i­tude and admi­ra­tion of all the pro­gres­sive part of mankind.

But despite his ear­ly admi­ra­tion for the “splen­did attempt,” Rus­sell found much in Sovi­et Rus­sia to be con­cerned about. Specif­i­cal­ly, he was appalled by the rigid­ly doc­tri­naire mind­set of the Bol­she­viks — their zeal for quot­ing Marx like it was Holy gospel — and the cru­el tyran­ny they were will­ing to impose.

In May of 1920, a few months before fin­ish­ing The Prac­tice and The­o­ry of Bol­she­vism, Rus­sell vis­it­ed Pet­ro­grad (Saint Peters­burg) and Moscow with a British Labour del­e­ga­tion. As he says in the book:

I went to Rus­sia a Com­mu­nist; but con­tact with those who have no doubts has inten­si­fied a thou­sand­fold my own doubts, not as to Com­mu­nism in itself, but as to the wis­dom of hold­ing a creed so firm­ly that for its sake men are will­ing to inflict wide­spread mis­ery.

As Rus­sell would lat­er write in the sec­ond vol­ume of his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, his time in Sovi­et Rus­sia was one of “con­tin­u­al­ly increas­ing night­mare:”

Cru­el­ty, pover­ty, sus­pi­cion, per­se­cu­tion, formed the very air we breathed. Our con­ver­sa­tions were con­tin­u­al­ly spied upon. In the mid­dle of the night one would hear shots, and know that ide­al­ists were being killed in prison. There was a hyp­o­crit­i­cal pre­tence of equal­i­ty, and every­body was called ‘tovarisch’ [com­rade], but it was amaz­ing how dif­fer­ent­ly this word could be pro­nounced accord­ing as the per­son who was addressed was Lenin or a lazy ser­vant.

Soon after arriv­ing in Moscow, Rus­sell had a one-hour talk with Sovi­et leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin at his spar­tan office in the Krem­lin. “Lenin’s room is very bare,” writes Rus­sell in The Prac­tice and The­o­ry of Bol­she­vism; “it con­tains a big desk, some maps on the walls, two book-cas­es, and one com­fort­able chair for vis­i­tors in addi­tion to two or three hard chairs. It is obvi­ous that he has no love of lux­u­ry or even com­fort.”

In the audio clip above, tak­en from a 1961 inter­view by John Chan­dos at Rus­sel­l’s home in north Wales, the old philoso­pher relates a pair of obser­va­tions of what he saw as Lenin’s two defin­ing traits: his rigid ortho­doxy, and what Rus­sell would lat­er call his “dis­tinct vein of imp­ish cru­el­ty.”

By the time of the inter­view, Rus­sel­l’s ear­ly ambiva­lence toward Sovi­et com­mu­nism had hard­ened into antipa­thy. “Marx’s doc­trine was bad enough, but the devel­op­ments which it under­went under Lenin and Stal­in made it much worse,” he writes in his 1956 essay “Why I am Not a Com­mu­nist.” “I am com­plete­ly at a loss to under­stand how it came about that some peo­ple who are both humane and intel­li­gent could find some­thing to admire in the vast slave camp pro­duced by Stal­in.”

Lenin died on Jan­u­ary 21, 1924 — less than four years after his meet­ing with Rus­sell. A few days lat­er, Rus­sell pub­lished an essay, “Lenin: An Impres­sion,” in The New Leader. And although Rus­sell once again men­tions the man’s nar­row ortho­doxy and ruth­less­ness, he paints a rather glow­ing pic­ture of Lenin as a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure:

The death of Lenin makes the world poor­er by the loss of one of the real­ly great men pro­duced by the war [World War I]. It seems prob­a­ble that our age will go down to his­to­ry as that of Lenin and Ein­stein — the two men who have suc­ceed­ed in a great work of syn­the­sis in an ana­lyt­ic age, one in thought, the oth­er in action. Lenin appeared to the out­raged bour­geoisie of the world as a destroy­er, but it was not the work of destruc­tion that made him pre-emi­nent. Oth­ers could have destroyed, but I doubt whether any oth­er liv­ing man could have built so well on the new foun­da­tions. His mind was order­ly and cre­ative: he was a philo­soph­ic sys­tem-mak­er in the sphere of prac­tice.… States­men of his cal­iber do not appear in the world more than about once in a cen­tu­ry, and few of us are like­ly to live to see his equal.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Rus­sell and F.C. Cople­ston Debate the Exis­tence of God, 1948

Face to Face with Bertrand Rus­sell: ‘Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish’

Russ­ian His­to­ry & Lit­er­a­ture Come to Life in Won­der­ful­ly Col­orized Por­traits: See Pho­tos of Tol­stoy, Chekov, the Romanovs & More

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