The criticism of Lenin, who is still revered by communists and many others in Russia, is unusual for the Russian president, who in the past carefully weighed his comments about the nation’s history to avoid alienating some voters. At the same time, he signalled that the government had no intention of taking Lenin’s body out of his Red Square tomb, warning against “any steps that would divide society”.
Putin’s assessment of Lenin’s role in Russian history during Monday’s meeting with pro-Kremlin activists in the southern city of Stavropol was markedly more negative than in the past. He denounced Lenin and his government for brutally executing Russia’s last tsar along with all his family and servants, killing thousands of priests and placing a time bomb under the Russian state by drawing administrative borders along ethnic lines.
As an example of Lenin’s destructive legacy, Putin pointed to Donbass, the industrial region in eastern Ukraine where a pro-Russia separatist rebellion flared up weeks after Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. More than 9,000 people have been killed in the conflict since April 2014, and clashes have continued despite a February 2015 peace deal.
He said Lenin’s government had whimsically drawn borders between parts of the USSR, placing Donbass under the Ukrainian jurisdiction in order to increase the percentage of proletariat in a move Putin called “delirious”.
Putin’s criticism of Lenin could be part of his attempts to justify Moscow’s policy in the Ukrainian crisis, but it also may reflect the Kremlin’s concern about possible separatist sentiments in some Russian provinces.
Putin was particularly critical of Lenin’s concept of a federative state with its entities having the right to secede, saying it has heavily contributed to the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. He added that Lenin was wrong in a dispute with Joseph Stalin, who advocated a unitary state model. Putin has in the past denounced Stalin for the purges that killed millions, but noted his role in defeating the Nazis in the second world war.
In Monday’s comments, Putin also criticised the Bolsheviks for making Russia suffer defeat at the hands of Germany in the first world war and ceding large chunks of territory just months before it lost. “We lost to the losing party, a unique case in history,” Putin said.
Putin said he sincerely believed in Communist ideology when he served in the KGB, adding that while its promises of a fair and just society “resembled the Bible quite a lot”, the reality was different. “Our country didn’t look like the City of the Sun” envisaged by socialist utopians, he said.