Welcome to What Would They Play?
I'm Charlie, I'm a storyteller, creative writer, and author; I handle the historical sections of the articles.
And I'm Dan, a Commander player who is obsessed with building thematic decks. I connect the stories to Magic cards to create decks that reflect the vibrant tales of the past.
We take famous or not-so-famous figures from history and make Commander decks based on their lives, philosophies, and histories.
Our articles are meant to be part history lesson, part deckbuilding guide. We believe that decks can be expressions of personal philosophies, so a fun way to learn about historical figures -- and flavorful brews -- would be to speculate about what sort of Commander deck a given person would play, given their times, opinions, and philosophies.
It's like a history class, only using the medium of Magic: the Gathering.
This is meant to be an accessible glimpse at the people in question, not a rigorous or definitive biography; we have sources at the end of the article for that!
Let us begin!
Note: We're both anarchists of varying types. We are in the middle of a section on the Russian civil war, and it sadly, is impossible to talk about the Russian war without having a cursory knowledge of Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders and their repression of workers and anarchist movements.
These events are skipped over, minimized, ignored, or shamelessly justified by other (regrettably more mainstream) treatments of the man and the leadership of the Bolshevik party. While we don't have time to delve into every single way that Lenin and his ilk betrayed the Russian revolutions in principle and in deed, we can at least list some of the big ones.
Who Was Vladimir Lenin?
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was an authoritarian theorist and opportunist most famous for his hijacking and subsequent destruction of the Russian Revolutions. He was involved in the early days of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party with Plehkhanov, and held a grudge for the execution of his brother by the tsarist government in 1887, about a decade prior.
"It was Plehkhanov who founded the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1898--the same party Lenin deliberately split and brought under Bolshevik or 'majority' control in 1903. Plekhanov said Lenin's Bolsheviks confused 'dictatorship of the proletariat' with 'dictatorship over the proletariat'".1 As the founder of the Bolshevik Party, Lenin seeks to establish power in a game of Commander in the same way: by gathering a party. This is easy with as his commander. A five-color deck reflects the goal of uniting the workers of the world under a single Communist banner, though this deck is fairly low on red cards, the color of freedom.
Another person who knew Vladimir Lenin before his exile from the Russian empire was the writer Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya (better known by her pen name, Teffi). She shared time at a magazine with Lenin in St. Petersburg, and had ample opportunity to observe him and his character:
"Naturally, Lenin had no friends and no favorites. He didn't view anyone as a human being. And he had a fairly low opinion of human nature. As far as I could see, he considered every human being to be capable of treachery for the sake of personal gain. A man was only good to the extent that he was necessary to the cause." This suggests a sacrifice theme for his deck, which we'll get into below (just don't call it aristocrats).
Lenin believed that the ends justified the means--the ends, of course, always being that the Party Lenin would be in charge.2 "Anything that forwards the cause of revolution is good," is not as morally sound a personal motto as it might appear--Lenin borrowed this mentality from the nihilist terrorist and perpetual cringelord Nechayev (so much so that one of Lenin's biographers, Robert Payne, dedicated a whole chapter in his work to Nechayev and referred to Nechayev as a forerunner to Lenin) and mixed it with a rigid, authoritarian reading of Marxism to create his amoral, Machiavellian politics.
This really tells you everything you need to know about Lenin. It was all about him and his personal--party--power--and the deliberate use of terror to create and maintain that power. First last and always.
In 1917, the German government plucked Lenin from where he had been living in exile and sent him back into the Russian empire in a bid to have him agitate for peace with Germany. Lenin had been forced to flee during Kerensky's repression during the July Days, but finally returned in time to take advantage of unrest in October to gain power that had thus far eluded him and the Bolsheviks.
October Revolution and Revolt (1917)
Kerensky's provisional Russian government was doing fine, from its point of view, until it wasn't. The "democracy" of the Provisional Government was uncomfortably close to the autocratic rule of the tsar it replaced, and it took another bit of civil unrest to shake free Kerensky's grip.
The October Revolution started with strikes and riots and they only escalated from there. Local democratic labor councils, known as soviets, held power over whole industries, factories, and neighborhoods. The anarchists entered into an with the Bolsheviks to put an end to the "democracy" of Kerensky and usher in a truly social revolution.3
Lenin had and understood, in his cynical, calculating way, that this grand revolt, this upwelling of direct democracy and unionism from the working class and peasants, the army deserting en masse, could not be contained by bourgeois democracy. So instead he did his damnedest to position the Bolsheviks and himself to steer this uprising towards their own ends by co-opting the language and structures of the revolution.
The revolt mechanic plays a major role in Lenin's Commander deck, and it allows him to gain advantage through the sacrifices of others. Some revolt payoffs, like
and are good party members as well. Other party members, such as and set up the revolt triggers with their sacrifice abilities, as do the tokens produced by and . Still others like and are better off being the ones sacrificed.
Anarchist P. Arshinov, a contemporary and capable historian summarized the formation of the Bolshevik state under Lenin thusly:
The success of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution - that is to say, the fact that they found themselves in power and from there subordinated the whole Revolution to their Party is explained by their ability to substitute the idea of a Soviet power for the social revolution and the social emancipation of the masses. A priori, these two ideas appear as non-contradictory for it was possible to understand Soviet power as the power of the soviets, and this facilitated the substitution of the idea of Soviet power for that of the Revolution. Nevertheless, in their realisation and consequences these ideas were in violent contradiction to each other. The conception of Soviet Power, incarnated in the Bolshevik state, was transformed into an entirely traditional bourgeois power concentrated in a handful of individuals who subjected to their authority all that was fundamental and most powerful in the life of the people - in this particular case, the social revolution.
Lenin, pre-October, was, in effect, creating as much good will as possible to get into power, after which good will would not be a factor and he and the Bolsheviks could do as they pleased. His much-quoted State and Revolution is a key example of this cynical promise-mongering. Saying what people want to hear is nothing new in politics, but Lenin took it to great heights, reading the essentially left-wing anti-state mood of the Russian people and writing things like The State And Revolution to ingratiate himself with them, fully intending to do the opposite of what he had said with the power of a rebuilt state behind him.
The anarchists weren't blind to this. Writing in December, shortly after the October coup, the noted anarchist Maksimov wrote:
"Our aid to the Bolsheviks must end at the point where their victory begins...we will go with the Bolsheviks no longer for their 'constructive' work has begun, directed towards what we have always fought and what is a brake on progress--the strengthening of the state....we must go to the lower classes to organize the work of the third--perhaps the last--revolution."
Repression and Civil War (1918-1921)
To give a full account of the Russian Civil War is beyond the scope of this article. We'll limit it to some remarks about Lenin's conduct and policies during the Civil War (a very short summary of the Russian civil war: various revolutionary factions, including anarchists, socialists, liberals, etc., under the nominal rule of the Bolsheviks ("Reds"), fought the entente-funded and provisioned White Army which was made up of the former ruling class, the wealthy and most of the higher ranking military officers keen to see a return to either bourgeois democracy or autocracy.
Under Lenin's leadership the Bolsheviks promised peace, land, and bread. This is roughly how it played out:
Peace: Lenin learned from the lessons of Kerensky and sought to end the formal war with Austro-Hungary. To this end, and over the objections of actual revolutionaries, he made a disastrous peace with Austro-Hungary in the form of the Brest-Litovsk treaty. This "peace" was swiftly undone by a vicious multi-party civil war worse by far than the First World War that Lenin had just "extricated" Russia from, and at the cost of selling parts of the former Russian empire, like Ukraine, to the Austro-Hungarians.
Land (socialization and restoring to the commons of): Nope.
Bread (to eat): Double nope. Mass starvation, military conscription, intimidation, and confiscation of foodstuffs (even the seed for the next years harvest) were depressingly common policy during the Russian civil war under the Bolsheviks. All of this and worse was justified under the confusing phrase "war communism".4
The Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno (who I wrote a book on that you can pre-order here), it's worth noting, met Lenin in a brief trip to Moscow in 1918 and was none-to0-impressed by the Bolshevik leader. Makhno would go on to make two strictly military alliances with the Bolsheviks during the course of the civil war against the White Army; both times the Bolsheviks immediately betrayed the anarchists the moment the threat had passed.
According to Payne, one of Lenin's biographers: "Lenin never watched an execution squad at work, never saw the effects of the terror he created. He rarely traveled outside Moscow; for weeks on end he remained within the walls of Kremlin, spending all the available time in his study, poring over documents, sending out telegrams."
Lenin was insulated, in every way, from the consequences of his actions before, during, and after the Civil War--save for the odd assassination attempt, which never came from actual counter-revolutionaries (capitalists, imperialists, White-Guardists) but from the very people he and the leadership of the Bolsheviks had comprehensively and repeatedly betrayed: the anarchists and the socialists.
A laundry list of Lenin and the Bolsheviks' crimes, betrayals, and sins is too long for this article.
When Lenin speaks of "the Party" he means "slavish obedience to my will and dicta." But a major one that is under-remarked upon is the recruitment and employment of former tsarist officials--military officers, ministers, torturers, members of the secret police, etc. These "zombies" of the old order were given back the power they had recently been shorn of during the heady days of the revolution. Their expertise in hunting down revolutionaries was put to use by the Bolsheviks in short order against their rivals5.
These returning autocrats are represented in the deck with the embalm and eternalize mechanics. Once again, these mechanics are the domain of many party members, fromand to the legendary . and give extra bonuses for all those embalmed and eternalized tokens, and can even get a second use out of any of them.
Co-opting Russia's Workers Rights and Unions with the Party (1921-1924)
Once the Russian Civil War ended with a Bolshevik victory, there came an accounting for promises made. Lenin had promised (and made these promises with the full knowledge that he would never implement them once in power):
- Abolition of the military
- Abolition of the gendarmes (police, secret and not so much)
- The "withering away" of the state and ruling classes (spoiler alert: the Bolshevik leaders became the new ruling class)
- Commoning of land and abolition of currency
- Freedom of association, assembly, and speech
But promises, and the decrees the Bolsheviks passed to that effect early in the Revolution, were window-dressing and served to insulate Lenin's Bolsheviks from criticism. Lenin later admitted as much in 1921, after brutally crushing the Kronstadt sailors rising (formerly praised as the most militantly communist members of the revolution by no less than Trotsky) who had essentially demanded that the Bolsheviks KEEP their promises.
What Lenin actually did was create an autocracy using the language of liberation. The autocratic theme in Lenin's deck shows up in a variety of rule-setting and control cards. protects his life total, while , , and punish opponents who try to get too far ahead. shows the importance of the Party above everything else.
To paraphrase a lifelong revolutionary and communist, Miasknikov, who suffered greatly under Lenin:"Lenin raised his hand to the bourgeoisie but he struck the working class." Workers who had patiently borne absolutely everything inflicted on them during the civil war by the Bolsheviks had enough and struck. The Bolsheviks responded in much the same way Kerensky's Provisional Government and the tsars before them had--with secret police, shooting striking workers, harassment, and intimidation. Anarchists and socialists in particular were executed or sent to forced labor camps, called gulags, and free speech and a free press were suppressed. There was no room in the Bolshevik party, even among the most seasoned or intelligent, for divergence from Lenin's autocratic line. Miasknikov wrote Lenin shortly before being thrown into a gulag: "Which class now supplies the greatest number of people arrested on charges of counter-revolution? Peasants and workers to be sure. There is no Communist working class. There is just a working class pure and simple."
Lenin didn't lead a revolution--he just updated the systems of control that the tsarist government used to oppress the people and called it communist. Even he later admitted, at the end, that all he had done by passing the NEP (new economic policy) was pass state capitalism into effect--an updated sort of exploitation. This insistence on 'party unity' and unfliching lockstep had dire repercussions.
Legacy and Death (1924)
Lenin was an authoritarian. His politics were of the gallows, the secret police, and autocracy. He modeled the terror he and the Bolshevik leaders used to maintain power in Russia on the terror of the French Revolution--proving, to paraphrase the great anarchist Kropotkin, that he and the Bolsheviks had shown only "how revolution is not to be done."
Lenin was the murderer of bottom-up, genuine revolution, and set the mold for twentieth century dictators--Stalin and Hitler both took exhaustive notes and lessons from Lenins rise to, and monopoly on power. He and his peers hired ex-tsarist officials, instituted the creation of secret police, forbade free press, created work camps for dissenters, and deliberately starved, tortured, and murdered the people of the former Russian empire.
In Lenin's life, he gave a great gift to imperialists, capitalists, and fellow authoritarians: the narrative that revolutions must by necessity be authoritarian, that the ultimate choice before people hoping to improve the world is between free market capitalism and state capitalism. Lenin murdered more revolutionaries--anarchists, socialists, and dissidents in his own party--than the capitalists could ever hope to.
Vladimir Lenin's full decklist is below!
Don't Call It Aristocrats: Vladimir Lenin's EDH DeckView on Archidekt
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer
View this decklist on Archidekt
- Godless Utopia by Roland Elliot Brown page 46
- This stance is the opposite of the standard anarchist approach to revolution and morality which states that "The means must match the ends."
- It is worth noting that from the anarchist point of view, the Bolsheviks were the best of a bad lot in terms of allies in the run up to the October coup and civil war, up to a point. The Mensheviks, the anarchists noted, followed Marx's dictum to combine with the bourgeoisie to create the proper "centralization and concentration of production..." Even some Bolsheviks thought this way (like Alexandra Kollontai), and the Social Democrats had lost any support they might have had from anarchist circles with the advent of Kerensky and the crushing of protest during the July Days. The chief virtue of the Bolsheviks, to anarchist eyes, was that they were leaving behind Marxism in steps and coming closer to anarchism in practice if not in theory--and even until the later part of the civil war, there was considerable overlap in membership and cooperation between the groups in military matters, particularly against the White Army. For more on this, see Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, edited by Paul Avrich.
- "Yet the anarchist critique remains valid: the usurpation of soviet power by executives, abolition of democracy in the armed forces, 'dictatorial' one-man management, creation of a highly centralized economic structure based on the institutions inherited from tsarism, packing and disbanding of the soviets, expanding bureaucracy, and so on--all these occurred BEFORE the civil war broke out in late May 1918." (Bloodstained: 100 years of Leninist Counter Revolution by the Friends of Aron Baron page 102)
- Teffi, a contemporary and critic of Lenin's, noted that ultra-reactionary aristocrats were called 'bison'. Like bison, the joke went, the far-right aristocrats were an endangered species and protected by the government. Lenin took this a step farther and hired back the worst of the torturers, spies, and White Army generals to run the Bolshevik state.