Revolutionary Silhouettes


"Zinoviev has won the reputation of being one of the most remarkable orators on the international scene – a very difficult feat."

Grigory Ovseyevich Zinoviev

When I arrived in Geneva in 1904 I joined the editorial staff of the central organ of the Bolshevik section of the Party. At that time we were busily engaged in seeking agents and in organizing cells among as many of the émigré student colonies as possible. It became apparent that this was not the easiest of tasks, as the Mensheviks were strongly entrenched everywhere. Furthermore the numerous Bundists [1] and the socialist groups of other non-Russian nationalities were hand-in-glove with the Mensheviks. No one supported us; we were the most isolated and the least accommodating of all the parties. Consequently we cherished every ally we could find. From Berne we received an enthusiastic letter with an offer of service, signed by ‘Kazakov and Radomyslsky’.

When I went to Berne to give a lecture, I naturally made it my first task to meet these Bernese Bolsheviks. At the time Kazakov appeared to be the keener of the two. Subsequently he played a certain part in the history of our Party under the surname of Svyagin. He worked in Kronstadt, was exiled and, I think, sentenced to hard labour. While in detention during the war he joined the French army and was killed.

Radomyslsky, on the other hand, did not immediately strike me as very promising. He was rather a fat young man, pale and sickly, who suffered from shortness of breath and was, I thought, too phlegmatic in temperament. The loquacious Kazakov never allowed him to get a word in edgeways. However, after we had been in permanent touch with them for some time we became convinced that Radomyslsky was an efficient lad and we came to treat Kazakov as what he was – a very glib talker.

Revolutionary Bio Final Lenin 2When I arrived in Petersburg after the revolution I learned that Radomyslsky, under the name of Grigorii, was working in the Vassilevsky Island District and working very well, that he was a candidate for the Petersburg committee, which he entered, if I am not mistaken, very soon after my arrival. I was very pleased to hear such good reports of our young student from Switzerland. I soon met him personally and at his request I edited a whole series of his translations.

In the midst of some great dispute during the stormy election campaign for the Stockholm ‘Unification’ Congress, Zinoviev and I spoke up jointly in defence of our line. It was here that I first heard him addressing a meeting. I immediately appreciated his ability and was also somewhat surprised: usually so quiet and rather delicate, he warmed during his speech and spoke with great animation. He had a massive and unusually resonant tenor voice. Even then I realized that this voice could dominate an audience of thousands. To these remarkable physical qualities was plainly added an ease and fluency of speech which sprang from mental resourcefulness and a remarkable grasp of logic, from the ability to see his speech as a whole and not to allow details to dull his grip on the main theme. In time comrade Zinoviev systematically developed all these qualities and made himself into the outstanding master of the spoken word that we know today.

Naturally Zinoviev’s speeches are not as rich or as full of new ideas as the real leader of the revolution, Lenin, and he cannot compete in graphic power with Trotsky, but with the exception of these two orators, Zinoviev has no equals. I do not know of a single S.R. or Menshevik who is in the same class as Zinoviev (again, except Trotsky) as a crowd orator, an orator of the streets or of the mass meeting.

As a journalist Zinoviev is marked by the same qualities as Zinoviev the orator, namely the clarity and accessibility of his thought and a smooth and easy style, although what makes Zinoviev so particularly valuable as a tribune – the remarkable, tireless, dominating power of his voice is lost in print.

I do not believe, however, that Zinoviev owes the high place which he already occupied in our Party long before the revolution and the historic part that he is playing now merely, or even chiefly, to his talents as a speaker and journalist. At a very early stage Lenin came to rely on him not only as a politically experienced friend who was wholly inspired with Vladimir Ilyich’s own spirit, but as a man who had a profound understanding of the fundamentals of Bolshevism and who possessed a political intellect of the highest order. Zinoviev is undoubtedly one of the principal counsellors of our Central Committee and belongs unquestionably to the four or five men who constitute the political brain of the Party.

As a person Zinoviev is an extremely humane man, a good man who is highly intelligent, but he is literally rather ashamed of these qualities of his and is sometimes over-ready to buckle on the armour of revolutionary hardness.

Zinoviev has always acted as Lenin’s faithful henchman and has followed him everywhere. The Mensheviks have affected a slightly scornful attitude to Zinoviev for being just such a dedicated henchman. Perhaps we Forwardists were also slightly infected by this attitude. We knew that Zinoviev was an excellent Party worker, but we knew little of him as a political thinker and we too often used to say of him that he followed Lenin as the thread follows a needle.

The first time that I heard a completely different assessment of Zinoviev was from Ryazanov. I met Ryazanov in Zurich, where Zinoviev was also living, and fell into conversation with him about various leading Party members. Ryazanov mentioned that he often met Zinoviev: ‘He is a tremendous worker. He works hard and intelligently and by now he is so well versed in economics and sociology that he has far surpassed most of the Mensheviks in those subjects, even, I would say, all the Mensheviks.’ This commendation from such a scholar as Ryazanov, incontestably the most learned man in the Party, was once again a pleasant and unexpected surprise to me.

When I finally joined the main stream of Bolshevism, it was to Zinoviev in Zurich that I turned. We recalled our earlier good relations and agreed on the terms of a political alliance in literally half an hour.

The above short chapter from Volume I of The Great Revolution is so far from being exhaustive, even as a ‘profile’, that I think I should add a few more lines at this point.

Many Bolsheviks, perhaps indeed all of them, have grown enormously in stature since the revolution: great tasks, great responsibilities and broad perspectives break only the weaker vessels and always serve to enlarge people who have any degree of intelligence and energy.

Yet possibly not one of our Party figures has gained so much in stature during the revolution as Grigorii Ovseyevich Zinoviev.

Lenin and Trotsky have, of course, become the most widely known (whether they are loved or hated) personalities of our epoch, almost all over the globe. Zinoviev recedes slightly in comparison with them, but on the other hand Lenin and Trotsky have so long been regarded in our ranks as men of such enormous talent, as such incontestable leaders, that their colossal increase in stature during the revolution can hardly have evoked any particular surprise. Zinoviev, too, was greatly respected. Everybody regarded him as Lenin’s closest assistant and confidant. Knowing him to be a talented speaker and journalist, as a man who was hard-working, quick-witted, wholly devoted to the social revolution and to his Party, anybody could have predicted that Zinoviev would play a major role in the revolution and in a revolutionary government. But Zinoviev has undoubtedly surpassed many people’s expectations.

I well remember how during the organization of the Third International the Menshevik Dan, then still in Russia, said with wry sarcasm: ‘What a magnificent advertisement for the Third International – to be headed by Zinoviev.’ Of course the First International had been headed by Marx and there can be no comparison between them, but it would be interesting to know whom the scornful Dan was thinking of as the head of the Second International? The Second International had at various times some very big men in charge of it but the chairman of the Third International has no grounds to fear comparison with any of them. Here his enormous abilities have been given full play and here he has acquired his unquestionable authority.

From the very beginning it was obvious that Zinoviev was not discouraged by the crushing responsibility of the post with which he had been entrusted. From the start, and in increasing measure with time, he has displayed astounding level-headedness in the discharge of his functions. Always steady, ever ingenious, he has emerged with honour from the most trying circumstances. People often say with a smile of Zinoviev that he is a man who has acquired such vast experience as a parliamentarian that he can easily dominate any opposition. Zinoviev’s skill as a chairman has indeed earned general admiration, but of course the occasionally fairly difficult problems of diplomacy which Zinoviev has to solve are eased for him to a significant degree by the fact that in the ranks of the Third International there rarely arise problems which cannot be dealt with within the framework of Party discipline and links of profound friendship.

There is not a single element in the whole vast current of affairs of the International which escapes Zinoviev’s attention. In so far as one person is capable of grasping world politics, he is that person. Who does not know Zinoviev’s revolutionary determination in all international controversies, his implacability, his exacting demands, his strict adherence to principle, thanks to which many of our foreign neighbours – and at times renegades within our own ranks – talk of the iron hand of Moscow, of dictatorial Russian methods? Yet whilst being firm where necessary, Zinoviev simultaneously displays the maximum of adaptability and ability to compromise in rebuilding a shattered world.

To this one must add that Zinoviev has won the reputation of being one of the most remarkable orators on the international scene – a very difficult feat. It is one thing to speak in one’s native tongue, as do the overwhelming majority of our comrades in the Comintern, but quite another to hold forth in a foreign language. Although he has a good grasp of German, Zinoviev still, as he himself stresses, cannot speak it like a German. It is all the more astonishing, and all the more to his credit, therefore, that his speeches always make a colossal impression not only by their content but by the force and precision of their delivery. Not for nothing did the bourgeois Press state after Zinoviev’s famous three-hour speech, made in the very heart of Germany at the Parteitag in Halle: ‘This man possesses a demonic power of eloquence.’

Zinoviev also brings these qualities of firmness, tactical skill and calmness to the very difficult task of running the administration of Petrograd, which has made him irreplaceable in this job, too, despite the Comintern’s frequent requests to the Central Committee that Zinoviev should work full-time for them.

I should like to mention one more characteristic of Zinoviev – his positively romantic dedication to his Party. The normally sober and businesslike Zinoviev rises to dithyrambic heights of love for the Party in his solemn speeches made on the occasion of various Party anniversaries.

There is no doubt whatever that in Zinoviev the Russian workers’ movement has put forth not only one of its own great leaders but has also, alongside Lenin and Trotsky, produced one of the decisive figures of the world-wide workers’ movement.


Because of the scandalous forgery attached to his name by émigré Russian plotters, Zinoviev (1883-1936) is better known outside Russia than many other more interesting and sympathetic figures in the Russian revolutionary movement. As Lunacharsky says, until 1917 Zinoviev was known even to his fellow-Bolsheviks as little more than Lenin’s shadow. He was the leader’s inseparable amanuensis and aide-de-camp who literally accompanied him everywhere, a role he had taken up in Switzerland during the second emigration after the 1905 revolution. He travelled with Lenin to Russia in the famous ‘sealed train’ in April 1917 and was the only person to go with Lenin when they were forced into hiding as a result of the abortive armed insurrection during the ‘July Days’. Having fled Petrograd, he and Lenin shared a tent beside a pond near the border with Finland, pretending to be two Finnish farmhands. When it came to real action, however, Zinoviev shrank from the proposed revolutionary coup and on 10 October 1917 he and Kamenev were the only two Central Committee members to vote against Lenin on the issue of staging the armed move which was to place the Bolsheviks in power.

Zinoviev took virtually no part in the actual October revolution and Lenin did not forget his faint-heartedness: when the Council of People’s Commissars (Lenin’s cabinet) was formed, there was no portfolio for Zinoviev. However, he was elected chairman of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet in 1919, which made him the boss of the great city. In the relative safety of this office Zinoviev, who had shrunk from the thought of exposure in the firing-line in 1917, was ruthless in harrying the ‘enemies of the people’. He remained at the job until 1926, when Stalin saw to it that he was removed. His other main post for the same period was as chairman of the Third International or Comintern, the body devoted to fostering revolution abroad. (It was because of Zinoviev’s tenure of this job that his name was attached to the notorious ‘letter’.)

A born schemer, Zinoviev first sided with Stalin and Kamenev against Trotsky in the struggle for succession that followed Lenin’s death, but he then made a serious miscalculation by thinking that by switching allegiance to Trotsky he could unseat Stalin. Stalin combined with Bukharin to topple Zinoviev, who was deprived of all his offices and expelled from the Party. He climbed back in again, only to be expelled again and once more re-admitted. Stalin finally dealt with Zinoviev by imprisoning him in 1935 for ‘moral complicity’ in the murder of Kirov and then made sure that he would not survive by arraigning him at the first ‘purge’ trial in 1936, at which Zinoviev was condemned and shot.

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1. BUNDISTS: Members of the ‘Bund’, the abbreviated name (it means ‘league’ or ‘union’ in Yiddish and German) of the socialist General Jewish Workers’ Union, founded at Vilna in 1897. The Bund took part in the 1903 2nd Congress of Russian Social Democratic Party, but walked out when it failed to be recognized as sole representative of Jewish workers in Russia. Re-affiliated to Party in 1906, the Bund supported the Mensheviks. Led by Liber and others it played a big part in 1905 and 1917 revolutions. In 1920 the majority of Bundists joined the Bolshevik Party; the non-Bolshevik minority as politically suppressed.

Source: Marxist Internet Archive