Several years ago, I taught political science at a technical college. Why future engineers were required to study political science is anybody’s guess, but perhaps it replaced the mandatory Soviet-era course on the history of the Communist Party.
I asked one student to come up to the front of the class to describe what he knew about Vladimir Lenin. We’re not talking here about French philosopher Michel Foucault, or even Aristotle, but a leader who had a very important role in 20th-century history — not only in Russia but all over the globe.
“Lenin lived in the 19th century,” he said.
Technically speaking, the young man was correct. Lenin did live a little more than half of his life in the 19th century.
“Lenin fought against the tsarist regime,” the student managed to pull up out of his memory. Gathering courage, he continued: “He managed to overthrow the tsar, and he was able to do this while living abroad. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he returned to Russia in an armored train car, became friends with Josef Stalin and died.”
And that was the end of his narrative.
I went straight to the administrator and submitted my letter of resignation.
These days, I often recall that student whenever I read the results of opinion polls about Lenin’s role in history, listen to leftist intellectuals argue about the legacy of 1917 or consider the debate over whether to remove Lenin’s body from the mausoleum on Red Square. The issue is not so much that official propaganda tends to shape public opinion toward Lenin or that a whole generation is coming of age that doesn’t even know who Lenin was. The real problem is that a vast and rapidly growing number of people are incapable of doing any serious critical thinking whatsoever.
If people know nothing about Lenin, they can always learn. But if they have no desire whatsoever to learn and can’t process meaningful information, then it is largely irrelevant what they think about this or that politician of the past. When people don’t know how to think in general, this is a very serious problem for society as a whole.
The dumbing-down of the masses is the primary achievement of the last two decades of so-called “reform” in Russia. Society has changed radically, and the mechanism by which cultural identity is formed has been seriously undermined, if not completely destroyed.
The cultural institutions of the Soviet era have been demolished, and that legacy has been stripped away from most people’s consciousness. But it has not been replaced by a new culture. More or less civilized forms of thinking have been destroyed along with the Soviet culture. We can keep laughing for a few more years, but after that, it will not be funny anymore.
It is very revealing that public opinion polls show Lenin falling in popularity ratings even while Stalin is steadily gaining. If attitudes toward the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution are worsening, it is not because of the atrocities of the Russian Civil War from 1917-23 or the authoritarian measures he took. After all, respondents associate Stalin with far greater violence and rigid authoritarianism. Or at least those factors do not spoil people’s opinion of the Stalinist era.
What was the result of liberal intelligentsia’s struggle with Lenin’s ideology? Stalin’s pragmatism won.
Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.