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.