As a teenager living in Moscow, where my father served as British naval attaché, I remember a curious event held in a large auditorium in a corner of the Kremlin to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. It was curious because on the one hand there was a series of suitably strident speakers present to remind us that the legacy of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, all three of whom glowered down from red-draped portraits flanking the podium, was indeed secure for the ages. There were some impressively purple-faced rants and staccato lines spoken against the West in general, and a stout defense of the self-sacrificing action of the Soviet people in having generously responded a few years earlier to the request of their fraternal Czech comrades for immediate protection against imperialist subversion in particular. It was all morbidly compelling theater in its way, and I recall feeling grateful that we had an official invitation to be there, without which the whole scene might easily have assumed the general air of one of those missile-filled underground lairs or councils-of-war meetings with spotlit circular tables beloved of the James Bond movie franchise that suddenly turn bad for Bond and end up with him strapped to a marble slab with a laser beam pointed at that lower portion of his anatomy most required for his continued success as a womanizer.

As I say, though, it was all very odd. After we had listened to the men in their uniformly austere black suits and heard ourselves forcefully denounced as representatives of the decadent West, something more like a conventional party atmosphere came over the room, where young women in skirts of a sparing cut poured tall glasses of champagne and handed round bowls heaped with black caviar (in 1977, at least, the Soviet social experiment seemingly didn’t extend to any pretense of sexual equality: the men did the speaking, and the women distributed the snacks), while, in a surreal touch, the strains of the Beatles’ Abbey Road wafted over the sound system. It almost seemed as though there were two Soviet Unions on show that day: the hardcore state of the Bolshevik revolutionaries who had overthrown the Romanov yoke in 1917 (before going on to murder both the tsar and his young family), whose social and political heirs stood in the room before us; and another land altogether that appeared to be in the transitional phase of reconciling itself to the practicalities of the hated capitalist system. As Alexei Leonov, the cosmonaut who was the first man to walk in space, and on hand that day to extol his nation’s scientific progress, privately told us in perfect English: “Frankly, what Comrade Leonid Ilyich [Brezhnev] most desires for the country is stability, and in that sense celebrating a revolution goes against the grain of our modern political philosophy.”

Which somehow all leads to the question of how, if at all, we should consider the legacy of one Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to the world as Lenin, a century after his death on January 21, 1924. On the one hand, it still appears to be possible, if not fashionable, to venerate the Great Revolutionary Scout as a socialist thinker of unusual profundity, selflessly dedicated to the egalitarian ideal, a tireless organizer, aggressively anti-imperialist, a fanatical redistributor of land and wealth, and ultimately a martyr to the cause of world revolution for which he struggled throughout his adult life. He died at the early age of fifty-three of a stroke seemingly precipitated either by the slow oxidation of the bullets that remained lodged in his body following a 1918 assassination attempt—or sheer overwork.

Set against these qualities, there is of course another possible interpretation of Lenin’s gift to humanity: that of an utterly centralist and authoritarian approach to government that served as the blueprint for several of the world’s subsequent tyrannical monsters, from Mao Zedong to Ruhollah Khomeini, from Ho Chi Minh to Idi Amin, to name just a few of the many examples available, and whose malign influence is far from extinct today. It seems only fair to conclude that Lenin was a man blissfully unencumbered by critical self-doubt, or by qualms about the wrenching human costs borne by others in the pursuit of his ideologically pristine goals. Like all true revolutionaries, he saw himself as an instrument of higher purpose, endowed with a visionary faith. Lenin knew that his actions would at first be resisted and misunderstood by the forces of reaction—or “wreckers,” as he termed them—but he believed that the irresistible logic and purity of his views would prevail in the end, regardless of whether or not a few people got their hair mussed in the process.

The historical circumstances which gave Lenin his moment on the world stage have complex roots. Their most obvious trigger was the acquiescence of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II to his generals’ demands for first mobilization for—and then full-blooded participation in—the great European conflagration that broke out in late July 1914. In one of those at once mundane but significant twists of fate on which great events so often turn, the Russian imperial family’s counselor and faith healer, Grigori Rasputin, was away at his home in Siberia when the war clouds so suddenly darkened. He set out immediately to the state capital, Petrograd, in order to advise the tsar to resist the belligerents at court, but was stabbed by a demented female admirer before he could reach his destination and ultimately arrived too late to influence affairs of state. Russia’s subsequent losses on the battlefield in the years 1914 to 1917 were the major point of disaffection not only among the “grey mass” of the nation’s peasant-soldiers but also in the civilian population as a whole. The drift towards revolution was further accelerated by chronic bread shortages, mass demonstrations, and the pathological incompetence of the ruling elites, which ranged from an apparent state of torpor on the tsar’s part to the ruinously counterproductive measures of several of his senior ministers and regional police chiefs in violently suppressing the growing but still containable popular exasperation at the situation both at home and abroad.

It was to this febrile atmosphere of domestic unrest and accumulating military losses that Lenin came to decisively stamp events from the moment he returned from exile in the spring of 1917. Born in 1870, he was the bookish younger son of a modestly prosperous provincial family who had been radicalized by two events that happened around the time of his eighteenth birthday: the execution of his elder brother Aleksandr for an attempt to murder the tsar and his own subsequent expulsion from university for having taken part in a student protest against bread prices. He was prodigiously intelligent, a competent writer and an electrifying orator, fanatically dedicated to the cause, and above all supremely indifferent to even the most reasoned pleas for moderation or restraint in pursuit of his goals. None of his revolutionary colleagues, such figures as Trotsky, Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev, and Nikolai Bukharin among them, showed anything remotely close to his degree of utter self-belief in the movement and complete willingness to do whatever it took to see it through to the bitter end.

In a letter to Zinoviev on June 26, 1918, Lenin wrote:

Only today we heard in the Central Committee that in Petrograd the “workers” wanted to answer the assassination of [the Marxist revolutionary] Volodarsky with mass terror, and that you restrained them. I protest decisively. We compromise ourselves. Even in the resolutions of the Soviet we practice mass terror. . . . We are in an arch-war situation. We must work up energy and the utmost terror against counterrevolutionaries, especially in Petrograd, the result of which is decisive.

When seeking examples of Lenin’s unsparing ideal in practice, the historian is somewhat spoiled for choice. One might consider, for instance, the extended bloodbath that followed the Bolsheviks’ occupation of Crimea following the defeat of the White Army, which effectively ended the protracted Russian civil war. It has to be said that Lenin and his generals were not noted for their magnanimity in victory. Between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand White soldiers or sympathizers were executed, many of them hanged from lampposts in the streets of Sevastopol with crudely fashioned placards around their necks. Wounded troops and civilians alike were dragged from hospitals and killed. To read the details of the continued horror is to experience a sort of macabre fascination with the sheer variety of the barbarism on display. While many of the victims were shot or simply hacked to death with sabers, others were taken out to sea and drowned or marched to distant fields by day to dig the same graves they would occupy at night. All this, and much more besides, was perpetrated in the name of the people’s revolution.

We need not, perhaps, linger further over the well-documented excesses of both the 1917 upheaval or its aftermath, in which the consolidation of power in the hands of a few ultimately triumphed over such nebulous concepts as the dictatorship of the proletariat and the desirability of representative government. It’s enough to note in this latter context the strange case of the short-lived All-Russian Constituent Assembly in Petrograd, which convened in early 1918 to discuss how executive power might best be distributed between locally elected councils of industrial workers, soldiers, and peasants. This fleeting exercise in practical democracy lasted for twelve hours after Lenin himself had dismissed it as a “bourgeois” concept and walked out of the chamber, pausing to instruct the Red Guards stationed at the door: “There is no need to disperse the assembly. Just let them go on chattering as long as they like and then break up, and tomorrow we won’t let a single one of them back in.”

The senior guard present, a sailor named Anatoli Zhelezniakov, remarking that he was tired, in due course mounted the speaker’s podium and, gun aloft, announced that the proceedings were closed. When one of the delegates demurred, Zhelezniakov terminated any further discussion on the matter by firing his weapon into the ceiling. That concluded the session. The date happened to be January 6, 1918, which if nothing else helps to put into its proper context the great collective wound supposedly inflicted on Western democracy precisely 103 years later. Crass as it may be to use the word “only” in relation to civilian casualties, it might fairly be applied to the events in Washington, D.C., of January 2021, when four individuals (all Trump supporters) died. In Lenin’s case, by contrast, the coercion through terror that took wing from the enforced closure of the Petrograd assembly was just getting started. In a foretaste of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen death squads of a generation later, “enemies” of the regime, or any other ideological backsliders, were swiftly rounded up and forced to kneel by ditches so that their executioners need only shoot each one in the back of the head before continuing down the line. Many other victims were hanged, thrown from windows, buried alive, pulverized, crucified, beaten to death, chained in boxes filled with rats or poisonous snakes, immersed in vats of boiling water, or, conversely, stripped naked before being hosed down and left outside in the freezing weather to become a solid ice statue. A single bullet to the skull must have seemed almost providential in certain circumstances.

Lenin himself not only approved of such barbarism; he positively encouraged it. Told that a local Soviet congress had passed a resolution proposed by the Bolshevik leader Lev Kamenev to abolish the death penalty, he became incandescent with rage:

Nonsense! How can you effect a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself? What other means of repression are there? Prisons? Who attaches significance to them?

Historians apparently now know almost everything about the systematic and large-scale abuse of human rights that occurred under Lenin’s rule, which paved the way for the continuing cycle of political denunciations and consequent summary deaths and assassinations that characterized the Stalin regime that followed. But nobody can ever calculate the exact number of those killed or repressed in the name of social progress. Estimates for the four years from January 1918 to January 1922 range from 140,000 to 250,000, although some historians put the true figure at closer to a total of 1.5 million victims: a high price to be set against Lenin’s status among his remaining apologists, more of whom are to be found these days in Western academia than on the streets of Russia. His life lends itself to the “great man” school of politics, something progressives in the universities otherwise abjure. In a modern age when even infectious disease is the subject of stultifying partisan conflict, Lenin at least had the vision and the will to get things done—or so the reasoning goes. That may help to explain why there are those amongst us today who continue to venerate an individual so reluctant to admit to self-doubt, and, conversely, so happy to murder or mutilate his enemies on trumped-up charges forced out of them by torturers or to have them rounded up and sent to the gulag to give the fantasies of conspiracy or bourgeois contamination some apparent credence. This was a man who clearly felt no compunction about reversing course and breaking promises when the survival of the regime demanded it.

“We repudiate all morality which proceeds from [external] ideas, ideas which are outside class conceptions,” Lenin once informed an eager audience of Young Communists. “In our opinion, morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of the class war. Everything is moral which is necessary for the annihilation of the old exploiting order. . . . Our morality consists solely of close discipline, and in conscious war against the enemy. . . . We do not believe in any other principles of morality, and we will expose this deception.”

Perhaps it’s going too far, but not, I think, going entirely in the wrong direction, to suggest that Lenin’s real legacy to our modern society in the West lies in the ever-worsening delusion that the state might properly interest itself in every aspect of our lives, down to the smallest details of how we forgather, communicate, worship, travel, and educate our children—surely one of the unpalatable but undeniable lessons of the whole protracted COVID ordeal. A century after its founder’s entombment, Leninism lives on, at least in the sense of the state’s relentless interference in our lives, and the pervasive self-hatred among those who blithely excuse the excesses of the present while vilifying those of the past, just as the Great Scout himself advocated.