HG Wells interviews Lenin, 1920
From Russia in the Shadows (1921)
My chief purpose in going from Petersburg to Moscow was to see and talk to Lenin. I was very curious to see him, and I was disposed to be hostile to him. I encountered a personality entirely different from anything I had expected to meet.
Lenin is not a writer; his published work does not express him. The shrill little pamphlets and papers issued from Moscow in his name, full of misconceptions of the labor psychology of the West and obstinately defensive of the impossible proposition that it is the prophesied Marxist social revolution which has happened in Russia, display hardly anything of the real Lenin mentality as I encountered it. Occasionally there are gleams of an inspired shrewdness, but for the rest these publications do no more than rehearse the set ideas and phrases of doctrinaire Marxism.
Perhaps that is necessary. That may be the only language Communism understands; a break into a new dialect would be disturbing and demoralizing. Left Communism is the backbone of Russia today; unhappily it is a backbone without flexible joints, a backbone that can be bent only with· the utmost difficulty and which must be bent by means of flattery and deference.
Moscow under the bright October sunshine, amidst the fluttering yellow leaves, impressed us as being altogether more lax and animated than Petersburg. There is much more movement of people, more trading, and a comparative plenty of droshkys. Markets are open. There is not the same general ruination of streets and houses. There are, it is true, many traces of the desperate street fighting of early 1918. One of the domes of that absurd cathedral of St. Basil Just outside the Kremlin gate was smashed by a shell and still awaits repair. The tramcars we found were not carrying passengers; they were being used for the transport of supplies of food and fuel. In these matters Petersburg claims no be better prepared than Moscow.
The ten thousand crosses of Moscow still glitter in the afternoon. On one conspicuous pinnacle of the Kremlin the imperial eagles spread their wings; the Bolshevik Government has been too busy. or too indifferent to pull them down. The churches are open, the kissing of ikons is a flourishing industry, and beggars still woo casual charity at the doors. The celebrated miraculous shrine of the Iberian Madonna outside the Redeemer Gate was particularly busy. There were many peasant women, unable to get into the little chapel, kissing the stones outside. Just opposite to it, on a plaster panel on a house front, is that now celebrated inscription put up by one of the early revolutionary administrations in Moscow: “Religion is the Opium.” The effect this inscription produces is greatly reduced by the fact that in Russia the people cannot read.
About that inscription I had a slight but amusing argument with Mr. Vanderlip, the American financier, who was lodged in the same guest house as ourselves. He wanted to have it effaced. I was for retaining it as being historically interesting, and because I think that religious toleration should extend to atheists. But Mr. Vanderlip felt too strongly to see the point of that.
The Moscow Guest House, which we shared with Mr. Vanderlip and an adventurous English artist who had somehow got through to Moscow to execute busts of Lenin and Trotsky, was a big, richly-furnished house upon the Sofiskaia Naberezhnaia (No. 17), directly facing the great wall of the Kremlin and all the clustering domes and pinnacles of that imperial inner city. We felt much less free and more secluded here than in Petersburg.
There were sentinels at the gates to protect us from casual visitors, whereas in Petersburg all sorts of unauthorized persons could and did stray in to talk to me. Mr. Vanderlip had been staying here, I gathered, for some weeks, and proposed to stay some weeks more. He was without valet, secretary, or interpreter. He did not discuss his business with me beyond telling me rather carefully once or twice that it was strictly financial and commercial and in no sense political. I was told that he had brought credentials from Senator Harding to Lenin, but I am temperamentally incurious and I made no attempt whatever to verify this statement or to pry into Mr. Vanderlip’s affairs. I did not even ask how it could be possible to conduct business or financial operations in a Communist State with anyone but the Government, nor how it was possible to deal with a Government upon strictly nonpolitical lines. These were, I admitted, mysteries beyond my understanding. But we ate smoked, drank our coffee and conversed together in an atmosphere of profound discretion. By not mentioning Mr. Vanderlip’s “mission,” we made it a portentous, omnipresent fact.
The arrangements leading up to my meeting with Lenin were tedious and irritating, but at last I found myself under way for the Kremlin in the company of Mr. Rothstein, formerly a figure in London Communist circles, and an American comrade with a large camera who was also, I gathered, an official of the Russian Foreign Office.
The Kremlin as I remembered it in 1914 was a very open place, open much as Windsor Castle is, with a thin trickle of pilgrims and tourists in groups and couples flowing through it. But now it is closed up and difficult of access. There was a great pother with passes and permits before we could get through even the outer gates. And we filtered and inspected through five or six rooms of clerks and sentinels before we got into the presence. This may be necessary for the personal security of Lenin, but it puts him out of reach of Russia, and, what perhaps is more serious, if there is to be an effectual dictatorship, it puts Russia out of his reach. If things must filter up to him, they must also filter down, and they may undergo very considerable changes in the process.
We got to Lenin at last and found him, a little figure at a great desk in a well-lit room that looked out upon palatial spaces. I thought his desk was rather in a litter. I sat down on a chair at a comer of the desk, and the little man — his feet scarcely touch the ground as he sits on the edge of his chair — twisted round to talk to me, putting his arms round and over a pile of papers. He spoke excellent English, but it was, I thought, rather characteristic of the present condition of Russian affairs that Mr. Rothstein chaperoned the conversation, occasionally offering footnotes and other assistance. Meanwhile the American got to work with his camera, and unobtrusively but persistently exposed plates.
The talk, however, was too interesting for that to be an annoyance. One forgot about that clicking and shifting about quite soon.
I had come expecting to struggle with a doctrinaire Marxist. I found nothing of the sort. I had been told that Lenin lectured people; he certainly did not do so on this occasion. Much has been made of his laugh in the descriptions, a laugh which is said to be pleasing at first and afterwards to become cynical. This laugh was not in evidence. His forehead reminded me of someone else — could not remember who it was, until the other evening I saw Mr. Arthur Balfour sitting and talking under a shaded light. It is exactly the same domed, slightly one-sided cranium. Lenin has a pleasant, quick-changing, brownish face, with a lively smile and a habit (due perhaps to some defect in focusing) of screwing up one eye as he pauses in his talk; he is not very like the photographs you see of him because he is one of those people whose change of expression is more important than their features; he gesticulated a little with his hands over the heaped papers as he talked, and he talked quickly, very keen on his subject, without any pose or pretenses or reservations, as a good type of scientific man will talk.
Our talk was threaded throughout and held together by two — what shall I call them — motifs. One was from me to him: “What do you think you are making of Russia? What is the state you are trying to create?” The other was from him to me: ‘Why does not the social revolution begin in England? Why do you not work for the social revolution? Why are you not destroying Capitalism and establishing the Communist State?” These motifs interwove, reacted on each other, illuminated each other. The second brought back the first: “But what are you making of the social revolution? Are you making a success of it?”
And from that we got back to two again with: “To make it a success the Western world must join in.”
In the days before 1918 all the Marxist world thought of the social revolution as an end. The workers of the world were to unite, overthrow Capitalism, and be happy ever afterwards. But in 1918 the Communists, to their own surprise, found themselves in control of Russia and challenged to produce their millennium. They have a colorable excuse for a delay in the production of a new and better social order in their continuation of war conditions, in the blockade and so forth, nevertheless it is clear that they begin to realize the tremendous unpreparedness which the Marxist methods of thought involve.
On a hundred points — I have already put a finger upon one or two of them — they do not know what to do. But the commonplace Communist simply loses his temper if you venture to doubt whether everything is being done in precisely the best and most intelligent way under the new regime. He is like a tetchy housewife who wants you to recognize that everything is in perfect order in the middle of an eviction. He is like one of those now forgotten suffragettes who used to promise us an earthly paradise as soon as we escaped from the tyranny of “man-made laws.” Lenin, on the other hand, whose frankness must at times leave his disciples breathless, has recently stripped off the last pretense that the Russian revolution is anything more than the inauguration of an age of limitless experiment.
“Those who are engaged in the formidable task of overcoming capitalism,” he has recently written, “must be prepared to try method after method until they find the one which answers their purpose best.”
We opened our talk with a discussion of the future of the great towns under Communism. I wanted to see how far Lenin contemplated the dying out of the towns in Russia. The desolation of Petersburg had brought home to me a point I had never realized before, that the whole form and arrangement of a town is determined by shopping and marketing, and that the abolition of these things renders nine-tenths of the buildings in an ordinary town directly or indirectly unmeaning and useless.
“The towns will get very much smaller,” he admitted. “They will be different. Yes, quite different.” That, I suggested, implied a tremendous task. It meant the scrapping of the existing towns and their replacement. The churches and great buildings of Petersburg would become presently like those of Novgorod the Great or like the temples of Paestum. Most of the town would dissolve away. He agreed quite cheerfully. I think it warmed his heart to find someone who understood a necessary consequence of collectivism that many even of his own people fail to grasp. Russia has to be rebuilt fundamentally, has to become a new thing…
And industry has to be reconstructed — as fundamentally?
Did I realize what was already in hand with Russia? The electrification of Russia?
For Lenin, who like a good orthodox Marxist denounces all “Utopians,” has succumbed at last to a Utopia, the Utopia of the electricians. He is throwing all his weight into a scheme for the development of great power stations in Russia to serve whole provinces with light, with transport, and industrial power. Two experimental districts he said had already been electrified. Can one imagine a more courageous project in a vast flat land of forests and illiterate peasants, with no water-power, with no technical skill available, and with trade and industry at the last gasp? Projects for such an electrification are in process of development in Holland and they have been discussed in England, and in those densely-populated and industrially highly-developed centers one can imagine them as successful, economical, and altogether beneficial. But their application to Russia is an altogether greater strain upon the constructive imagination. I cannot see anything of the sort happening in this dark crystal of Russia, but this little man at the Kremlin can; he sees the decaying railways replaced by a new electric transport, sees new roadways spreading throughout the land, sees a new and happier Communist industrialism arising again. While I talked to him he almost persuaded me to share his vision.
“And you will go on to these things with the peasants rooted in your soil?”
But not only are the towns to be rebuilt; every agricultural landmark is to go.
“Even now,” said Lenin, “all the agricultural production of Russia is not peasant production. We have, in places, large-scale agriculture. The Government is already running big estates with workers instead of peasants, where conditions are favorable. That can spread. It can be extended first to one province, then another. The peasants in the other provinces, selfish and illiterate, will not know what is happening until their turn comes…”
It may be difficult to defeat the Russian peasant en masse; but in detail there is no difficulty at all. At the mention of the peasant Lenin’s head came nearer to mine; his manner became confidential. As if after all the peasant might overhear.
It is not only the material organization of society you have to build, I argued, it is the mentality of a whole people. The Russian people are by habit and tradition traders and individualists; their very souls must be remolded if this new world is to be achieved. Lenin asked me what I had seen of the educational work afoot. I praised some of the things I had seen. He nodded and smiled with pleasure. He has an unshaken confidence in his work.
“But these are only sketches and beginnings,” I said.
“Come back and see what we have done in Russia in ten years’ time,” he answered.
In him I realized that Communism could after all, in spite of Marx, be enormously creative. After the tiresome class-war fanatics I had been encountering among the Communists, men of formulae as sterile as flints, after numerous experiences of the trained and empty conceit of the common Marxist devotee, this amazing little man, with his frank admission of the immensity and complication of the project of Communism and his simple concentration upon its realization, was very refreshing. He at least has a vision of a world changed over and planned and built afresh.
He wanted more of my Russian impressions. I told him that I thought that in many directions, and more particularly in the Petersburg Commune, Communism was pressing too hard and too fast, and destroying before it was ready to rebuild. They had broken down trading before they were ready to ration; the co-operative organization had been smashed up instead of being utilized, and so on. That brought us to our essential difference, the difference of the Collectivist and Marxist, the question whether the social revolution is, in its extremity, necessary, whether it is necessary to overthrow one social and economic system completely before the new one can begin. I believe that through a vast sustained educational campaign the existing Capitalist system could be civilized into a Collectivist world system; Lenin on the other hand tied himself years ago to the Marxist dogmas of the inevitable class war, the downfall of Capitalist order as a prelude to reconstruction, the proletarian dictatorship, and so forth. He had to argue, therefore, that modern Capitalism is incurably predatory, wasteful, and unteachable, and that until it is destroyed it will continue to exploit the human heritage stupidly and aimlessly, that it will fight against and prevent any administration of national resources for the general good, and that it will inevitably make wars.
I had, I will confess, a very uphill argument. He suddenly produced Chiozza Money’s new book, The Triumph of Nationalization, which he had evidently been reading very carefully. “But you see directly you begin to have a good working collectivist organization of any public interest, the Capitalists smash it up again. They smashed your national shipyards; they won’t let you work your coal economically.” He tapped the book. “It is all here.”
And against my argument that wars sprang from nationalist imperialism and not from a Capitalist organization of society he suddenly brought: “But what do you think of this new Republican Imperialism that comes to us from America?”
Here Mr. Rothstein intervened in Russian with an objection that Lenin swept aside.
And regardless of Mr. Rothstein’s plea for diplomatic reserve, Lenin proceeded to explain the projects with which one American at least was seeking to dazzle the imagination of Moscow. There was to be economic assistance for Russia and recognition of the Bolshevik Government. There was to be a defensive alliance against Japanese aggression in Siberia. There was to be an American naval station on the coast of Asia, and leases for long terms of sixty or fifty years of the natural resources of Kamchatka and possibly of rather large regions of Russian Asia. Well, did I think that made for peace? Was it anything more than the beginning of a new world scramble? How would the British Imperialists like this sort of thing?
But some industrial power had to come in and help Russia, I said. She cannot reconstruct now without such help…
Our multifarious argumentation ended indecisively. We parted warmly, and my companion and I were filtered out of the Kremlin through one barrier after another in much the same fashion as we had been filtered in.
“He is wonderful,” said Mr. Rothstein.
“But it was an indiscretion —”
I was not disposed to talk as we made our way, under the glowing trees that grow in the ancient moat of the Kremlin, back to our Guest House. I wanted to think Lenin over while I had him fresh in my mind, and I did not want to be assisted by the expositions of my companion. But Mr. Rothstein kept on talking.
He was still pressing me not to mention this little sketch of the Russian-American outlook to Mr. Vanderlip long after I assured him that I respected Mr. Vanderlip’s veil of discretion far too much to pierce it by any careless word. And so back to No. 17 Sofiskaia Naberezhnaia, and lunch with Mr. Vanderlip and the young sculptor from London.
The old servant of the house waited on us, mournfully conscious of the meagerness of our entertainment and reminiscent of the great days of the past when Caruso had been a guest and had sung to all that was brilliant in Moscow in the room upstairs. Mr. Vanderlip was for visiting the big market that afternoon — and later going to the Ballet, but my son and I were set upon returning to Petersburg that night and so getting on to Reval in time for the Stockholm boat.