False Messiahs: Soviet Saviors

Adolf Hitler’s name is synonymous with genocide. His regime caused about 11 million deaths across Europe. But Joseph Stalin was responsible for the deaths of roughly twice as many Soviet citizens. And it was Stalin’s mentor, Vladimir Lenin, who founded Soviet communism and insisted that terror was indispensable to political power. Could such men rise again? 

In this series on false messiahs, we’ve looked at the human experience. Our collective history is littered with examples of political leaders who prey on people’s religious impulses to gain control and maintain power.

Benito Mussolini’s fascist cult appealed to aspects of traditional Catholic religion. Adolf Hitler used the power of spirituality to empower his brutal Nazi cause. And it was no different in the communist Soviet Union. Despite being publicly atheistic, both Lenin and Stalin looked to elements of Russian orthodox religion to bolster their claims to power.

Vladimir Lenin was the mind behind the one-party state, concentration camps and state-sponsored terror. Within weeks of coming to power, he argued for the creation of the secret police to spy on and terrorize the people. In order to wrest control and create a society of his own making, he promoted conflict between the Soviet people. The ensuing five-year civil war brought about the deaths of 1.5 million.

During that time, Lenin survived a failed assassination attempt which led to further enhancement of his messianic image. Sociologist Victoria Bonnell writes that now Lenin “was characterized as having the qualities of a saint, an apostle, a prophet, a martyr, a man with Christ-like qualities, and a ‘leader by the grace of God.’”

One of Lenin’s disciples was Joseph Stalin. As a young man Stalin attended an Eastern Orthodox seminary, where he trained for the priesthood. He soon gave it up for anti-tsarist political violence and eventually joined the Bolshevik Revolution. Five years later he would rise to general secretary of the Communist Party.

Stalin learned many brutal methods from Lenin, whom he idolized. According to one contemporary, Stalin “worshiped Lenin, he deified Lenin. He lived on Lenin’s thoughts, copied him so closely that we jokingly called him ‘Lenin’s left leg.’” Following Lenin’s death, Stalin saw to it that his hero would not be forgotten. Biographer Edvard Radzinsky explains that Stalin decided to present Russia with “a new god, in the place of the one overthrown by the Bolsheviks. An atheist Messiah, the God Lenin.” Lenin’s body was embalmed and placed in a mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. To this day he’s on display like a holy relic.

Stalin would go on to become tsar—and God’s representative on earth, according to traditional Russian thinking. Like others before him, he used religious symbolism to extend his dictatorial rule.

During the height of Stalin’s rule, a painting appeared showing the leader as Jesus at the Last Supper. Over his shoulder is an image of John the Baptist looking like Lenin. Such cynical manipulation of religious sentiment underscores the duplicity of what in pure numbers was arguably one of the most murderous regimes in human history.

In 1929 Stalin set about liquidating Soviet farmers. Their removal, together with his collectivization of agriculture and acceleration of industrialization, left the countryside desperately short of food. This led to a famine, which caused the death of 5–8 million people. In 1937, the Politburo gave orders to exterminate “the most hostile anti-Soviet elements.” Indiscriminate arrests and killings were augmented by deportation of large numbers of other nationalities. Despite the Allied victory over Axis powers in World War II, more than 20 million died in the USSR, of which about 7 million were civilians. Stalin’s willingness to sacrifice his people had not waned.

He died in March 1953, having promoted Lenin’s cult and advancing his own messiahship for three bloody decades. Overwhelming malice and brutality meant that neither Lenin nor Stalin could ever deliver anything approaching utopia. They were yet two more examples of counterfeit saviors.