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Thoughts provoked by a photo of Lenin

Earlier today, at the Historic Photos Twitter feed, I encountered this photo, of Lenin:

Here is how Historic Photos describes the state Lenin had arrived at, when this photo was taken:

What is believed to be the last photograph of Vladimir Lenin, taken in 1923 by which stage he had suffered three strokes and was paralyzed and completely mute. Next to him are his sister and his doctor. He died on January 21st 1924 aged 53.

I have read many things, including many books, about Lenin and his sayings and doings, yet I have never come across this photo until now. That could be me, just not having noticed it. But I think there’s a reason why this particular piece of Lenin imagery has not done much circulating.

There is still fierce disagreement about Lenin and his impact upon history. Many still revere him, as the man who set in motion the most serious attempt to overthrow capitalism that has so far happened on this planet, and many others detest the man for the same reason, and for the disgusting brutality with which he set about doing this. Some think Lenin (good) was “betrayed” by Stalin (bad). Others, such as I, think that Lenin (bad) started what Stalin (bad) carried on doing. But what all of us, on all sides of such debates, agree about is that Lenin was a very important and very consequential figure, who had a lot to say for himself and who did a lot to shape the course of history, for good or for bad.

However, in the above photo, we see Lenin in a state of utter impotence, looking downright comical.

And that’s surely why this photo doesn’t get out much. Either Lenin had immense power and did hugely important and noble things or he had immense power and did monstrously evil things, but whatever he was he was certainly not a joke. If those of us with things to say about Lenin, one way or the other or yet another, wish to decorate our judgments about Lenin with a photo of the man, the above photo is not going to be the one that any of us would choose.

To generalise, images of historic figures get circulated a lot, or not, depending on whether they illustrate how we already think of them. The world’s cameras spit out a daily torrent of portraits of the great, the good and the bad, and it is in the editorialising process, when the “best” images are selected and the rest put aside, that the camera is made to tell a particular sort of story. This is surely an important way that cameras lie, or at the very least mislead, although there are of course others.

Image googling confirmed my hunch. If you go here and keep scrolling down, you will scroll down in vain if you wish to see the above “historic” photo, or any others resembling it. No, all you will get are pictures and graphic recreations of Lenin being anything but “paralyzed and completely mute”.

14 comments to Thoughts provoked by a photo of Lenin

  • staghounds

    I’ve seen that picture often in paper books, it’s not some secret. Internet searches for old lenin and sick lenin turn up plenty of it.

    What an awful beast he was, I hope the strokes hurt him a lot. He looks like he’s afraid of what happens next.

  • Alexander Tertius Harvey

    I hope what happened next hurt him even more.

  • It has been apparent for a long time how the media uses images to reinforce the public perception of person (e.g. the same photos of Myra Hindley and the James Bulger killers are always used as they look ‘evil’ in them), likewise how they always used pics of Trump mid speech (frames from video?) to make him look deranged.

    That a image of one of the most important Communist leaders of the 20th century looking batty is not wildly circulated by a media still enamoured with the principles he exposed is no great surprise

  • Patrick Crozier

    You wonder how that photo ever survived.

  • Tim the Coder

    And for all the claimed war crimes the Allies went after the Kaiser’s Germany for, they never listed the bacterialogical warfare of releasing the baccillus of Leninism on the world. If the Germans hadn’t shipped him to Finland and hence St.Petersburg, the world might have been spared an awful plague.

  • Peter MacFarlane

    “You wonder how that photo ever survived“

    In today’s world, of course, it would not have done.

  • Tim the Coder (May 25, 2021 at 10:10 am), the German General Staff planned for Lenin to surrender vast territories to them and take what was left of Russia out of the war, so they could concentrate in the west. Lenin performed for them as they hoped. It was not Lenin’s fault (or virtue) that, despite this, the western allies broke the Germans, not the other way around, but were then too tired, too lackadaisical and too propagandised to put Lenin down. (At one point during the Russian civil war, Lenin was incorrectly informed that just two British divisions had landed at Archangel, whereupon he instantly assumed that all was lost.)

    The Allies allowed the Germans themselves to try those Germans accused of WWI war crimes – with exactly the results one would expect. I suppose they might have had slightly more luck if they had instead charged them with fostering bolshevism – especially if the German jury chanced to contain a certain A. Hitler, or any admirers of same. But the politicians who did not send even just a couple of divisions to Russia in the days when all was fluid and a small push might have given a different direction to events were never going to do that – nor would it have helped if they had.

    I agree it is an interesting what-if. The window of opportunity for the communists to seize power between Kerensky’s falling out with his own army leaders late in 1917 and the scheduled arrival of the constituent assembly in January 1918 was quite narrow. Without Lenin’s presence, it seems clear the communists on the spot would have let it slip. Without German help, it is not clear Lenin could have been present. But it would have been very hard for anyone to see that beforehand, so I question whether the German General Staff had mens rea for that particular offence.

    (I know, of course, that you were probably just making a historical point in a particular rhetorical way – as I am using pedantry about that point to analyse the historical situation further. 🙂 )

  • Lee Moore

    I recall some photos of Mrs T in old age, and well after dementia had set in, being shown in the papers with a write up that came across as barely suppressed glee.

    Nobody thought she was anything other than formidable in her pomp, formidably effective or formidably evil according to taste. But sometimes the sight of the enemy, frightened and pathetic, or dead, appeals to people. Displaying the corpse of a defeated enemy, in triumph, is not a new thing. The live terrified body of the defeated enemy, knowing that you’re just about to execute him in a humiliating way, is better still.

    And if the target of your hatred and contempt has spent his life destroying your life and your family’s – isn’t it natural to enjoy the fall, and the suffering of the fall ? We pampered folk may jest at other people’s scars, but wait till you get a couple of your own. I imagine the last moments of Gaddafi, or of the Ceausescus, raised a smile in some quarters.

    Embrace the healing power of gloat.

  • Paul Marks

    Even the French Revolution did some good things, along with a vast number of incredibly evil things, for example it formally abolished serfdom (although that had really gone in France centuries before – under Louis X, the man who also abolished slavery inside France and gave charters to the Provinces that were in use up to 1789) and it got rid of the compulsory guilds that held back economic development in France – the Russian Revolution of 1917 had no such achievements.

    “Lenin” was personally a cruel and power hungry man – but it was his ideas that did the real damage. Marxism does not work – such things as nationalising farming (“War Communism” was originally meant to be permanent) – and it was bound to lead to mass death even if “Lenin” had personally been a nice and well meaning person.

    As for his ill health – yes he was crippled in both mind and body. After his terrible crimes it is hard to have much sympathy for him.

  • Paul Marks

    Was “Lenin” a traitor?

    Yes he was – to accept the help of the enemy of your country in the middle of a major war (which is what “Lenin” did to get and hold power) is the textbook definition of treason. “Lenin” did NOT want peace (his savage war against any opponents of Marxism in Russia, and everywhere else, shows that), but he did want Imperial Germany to defeat Russia (a Russia that by mid 1917 had a moderate social democrat government) so that he and his associates could come to power, and murder all who opposed them (millions of human beings).

    Treason – and of the worst kind.

    As for the physical weakness of “Lenin” – Denis Hills remarks in his autobiography that when he witnessed the various Nazi leaders ranting about the Master Race, the thought of how easily he could kill them, did go through his mind. Denis Hills really was a superior man – the Nazi leaders tended not to be.

  • Paul Marks

    Good post Brian. Thank you for posting it.

  • Jacob

    Lenin took Russia out of the first WW. That was a very popular act in 1917. WW1 was a colosal idiocy for all involved, especially Russia – and the price she paid for this idiocy was the greatest by far, compared to all other powers. WW1 was immensely unpopular in Russia, especially among the lower classes, and all Russians were very tired of it by 1917. So, was this and act of treason? treason of whom?

    In this context it’s worth mentioning Fanny Kaplan. “On August 30, 1918, she approached Lenin, who was leaving a Moscow factory, and fired three shots, which badly injured him.” It is said that maybe this wound did cause the strokes later (in 1921).

  • Jacob (May 25, 2021 at 7:40 pm), some of your comment comes across as post-communist-takeover ‘history’ leavened, but not enlightened, with standard post-war cynicism. My take FWIW.

    1) Starting WW1 looks like folly for the Germans, who made the initial declarations of war and did the first invasion. Deciding to fight instead of roll over was (to put it mildly) not so obviously an “act of colossal idiocy” on the part of those they declared war on (or, in the case of Belgium, just invaded without declaration of war). It can be easier (and fashionable) to dismiss an entire era as ‘colossal idiots’ than to grapple with a complex reality.

    2) The first revolution, in spring 1917, replaced the Tsar with people who claimed they could fight the war more effectively. These progressives (to summarise Conquest’s description) “replaced the army with an incompetent militia” (which swiftly demotivated their already-tired soldiers, and by late 1917 meant they had fallen out with their own army commanders) “and the police with nothing”, so became easy to overthrow in their capital. Despite this, when the communists signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, it caused “the breach of their last meaningful link to any political force in Russia other than themselves”.

    3) It was truly observed that “the Russian civil war was fought between two highly unpopular minorities”. It was to Lenin’s great advantage that Russia (like all the other combatants) was very tired of fighting by 1917 (we can agree on that) – which did not spare it from five more years of fighting (the civil war ended in 1923) but on the contrary enabled that.

    4) Calling Lenin a traitor is technically correct in Russian law at the time and in the more general sense that he knew his acts would aid the German enemy by letting them occupy much territory and depriving their enemies of an ally. In his mind, he was no traitor to communism (which faith absolved him from any duty of loyalty to any country) and expected to be able to betray the Germans later. That it turned out so was interpreted by the communists as proof of their theory and by rational observers as an example of their good (and Russia’s bad) luck.

  • Jacob

    There is no doubt that the Germans were the (barbarian) attackers and initiators of WW1 and the Entente powers were the defenders. Still, Russia was the first to mobilize, in defense of Serbia – not sure a wise move. And – it’s clear Russians were very tired by 1917 and the war was unpopular, and was the main cause of the fall of the Tzar. That what came after that was worse – is true, but doesn’t negate the fact that they were tired and the WW1 was unpopular.