December 10, 2008

An understandable mistake

In 1919, during a session of Sovnarkom, Lenin wrote a note and passed it to Dzerzhinsky: "How many dangerous counter-revolutionaries do we have in prison?" Dzerzhinsky scribbled, "About 1,500" and returned the note. Lenin looked at it, placed the sign of a cross by the figure, and gave it back to the Cheka boss. That night, 1,500 Moscow prisoners were shot on Dzerzhinsky's orders. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake. Lenin had not ordered the execution at all: he always placed a cross by anything he had read to signify that he had done so and taken it into account.

-- Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924.

December 8, 2008

But we can't say that.

Steinberg, the Left SR Commissar for Justice, was another early critic of the Terror, although all his efforts to subordinate the Chekas to the courts proved to be in vain. When, in February [1918], Steinberg first saw the Decree on "The Socialist Fatherland in Danger!", with its order to shoot "on the spot" all "profiteers, hooligans and counter-revolutionaries," he immediately went to Lenin and protested: "Then why do we bother with a Commissariat of Justice at all? Let's call it frankly the 'Commissariat for Social Extermination' and be done with it!" Lenin's face lit up and he replied: "Well put, that's exactly what it should be; but we can't say that."

-- Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924.

... Which reminds me of Edward Crankshaw's aside in his The Shadow of the Winter Palace: "Those who think Lenin was a splendid man will know just where to read all about him."