By MONICA SHOWALTER
Posted 09/20/2013 07:12 PM ET
Having attained power in late 1917 on a raft of promises — land to Russia's peasants, bread to Russia's starving cities and peace to Russia's World War I-weary soldiers — V.I. Lenin was able to dispense with every one of them by advancing civil war from 1918 to 1921 to justify his acts by crisis.
In place of promises of liberty and rights, Lenin gave Russians propaganda, empowering the Bolsheviks to govern through knoutish messages, if not the barrel of the gun. In so doing, he sought to undermine Russia's weak democracy and to transform society fundamentally.
"The Russian Revolution was permeated with propaganda of a forceful and brutal kind," wrote historian Dmitri Volkogonov in his 1995 "Lenin: Life and Legacy," based on materials briefly available from the Soviet archives.
The propaganda was used not so much to win people over with ideas but by bludgeoning them with coercion, repression and making examples. "The type of propaganda that the Bolsheviks carried out is absolutely central to our understanding of the regime they created," wrote Peter Kenez in "The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-1929."
A number of patterns emerged:
1. Ends Justify The Means
The broken promises that Lenin's regime started delivered just the opposite. He guaranteed a free press, but in his first two days of communist rule he halted it, ordering opposition newspapers shut down and censorship re-instituted. He called it temporary, but it wasn't.
Lenin also won power with promises to broaden land ownership, but immediately issued 60 decrees to end private property, including a secret directive to destroy state archives of land, factory and building title deeds before anyone could protest. To war-weary soldiers, Lenin promised peace. But he immediately impressed them into the new Red Army, holding their families hostage to ensure their loyalty.
All this was justified in his mind by one idea: consolidating power. In setting off civil war, Lenin put Russia on a war footing that justified any atrocity, broken promise or use of propaganda that served to establish communism.
2. Firstest With The Mostest
Besides implementing a strategy of lies, Lenin also was quick to seize the semantic high ground in the same way his military commander, Leon Trotsky, was swift to seize territory.
Like Nathan Bedford Forrest, the "firstest with the mostest" general in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, Lenin swiftly altered and manipulated the meanings of words, intellectually disarming opponents.
As early as 1903, at a party congress, Lenin won a membership issue by a single vote. But from then on he called his faction "the Bolsheviks," or majoritarians, and his opponents "Mensheviks," or minoritarians. It didn't matter that the Bolsheviks never were a true majority among Russia's revolutionaries; what mattered was the perception of power.
Lenin repeated the tactic by dubbing Bolsheviks "Reds" to signal an affinity with the bloody violence of the French Revolution, while their battlefield opponents were saddled with "Whites" to link them with the discredited French Bourbon dynasty. Lenin also took title to the word "democracy," disarming opponents who were then unable to project a coherent message. By controlling words, Lenin controlled perceptions of reality.
3. Never Let A Crisis Go To Waste
As propagandists, however, the Bolsheviks were not especially persuasive. "The Russian socialists have contributed nothing to the theoretical discussion of the techniques of mass persuasion," wrote Kenez. They "never looked for and did not find devilishly clever methods to influence people's minds, to brainwash them."
Their newspapers were notoriously gray, mechanically spouting simple, choppy messages such as "All Power to the Soviets!" "Create a New Socialist Man!" and "Bread! Peace! Land!"
What they were expert at was making these gray organs into monopolies. Instead of persuading with words, Lenin simply closed other papers, leaving only the Bolshevik publications. The resultant monopoly intensified the impact of his Bolshevik message, according to historian Robert Service.
In denouncing opponents, Lenin was obsessive, virulent and personal, calling them "bloodsuckers," "insects," "spiders," "leeches" and "vampires." The bourgeois were "ex-people." The murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family was termed "a humane act."
Then there were "hoarders," "wreckers," "saboteurs" and, worst of all, "Kulaks" — the prosperous and industrious peasants of whom Lenin spoke only "with the most seething hatred," as Volkogonov put it.
But Lenin rarely made such statements in public. Volkogonov discovered most of these characterizations secretly hidden in Soviet archives. In public, Lenin wanted to be pictured as a jolly apostle of Marxism.
5. Propaganda of Example
Perhaps the most disturbing means of propaganda against Russia's mostly illiterate population was the use of example as part of a reign of terror. Public hangings and shootings served as well as any written material to force Russians into submission. "These swine have to be dealt with so that everyone will remember it for years," Lenin wrote.
Terror wasn't confined to those who defied Lenin. "We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more," wrote Lenin's commissar for justice, according to historian Brian Crozier in his 1999 "The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire."
To reinforce the Bolsheviks' monopoly of ideas, churches were targeted for destruction because Russian peasants believed what they heard there. Sacred objects were looted and saints' relics tossed into the dirt as priests were shot. Only hollow husks remained as reminders that the old faith was now dead.
According to Volkogonov, Lenin ordered the use of poison gas on at least one village before it was leveled. "The dictatorship means — take note of this once and for all — unrestrained power based on force, not law," wrote Lenin.
6. Blame Your Predecessor
As happened anytime socialism ever had been tried, it was a failure. Lenin's much-desired civil war cost 13 million lives and his ruinous economic policies triggered the famine of 1921-1922. YouTube has many videos of Lenin speaking, with the salient feature being his propensity to blame his predecessor, the Czar, for the economic havoc.
Eventually, he would have to backtrack on communism to hold on to power. But error was never admitted and his New Economic Plan proved just a breather ahead of even worse horrors to come under Joseph Stalin.