“Kto kogo?” revisited

Kto kogo? (no comma), from Lenin’s 1921 speech, is often cited in various political contexts. It is often translated as “Who Whom?” (with or without a comma), which is neither technically incorrect nor particularly helpful. In old times, “Kto kogo?” was a question spectators would ask while watching an A vs. B contest, such as a wrestling match, a sports game, or a fistfight. “Which of the two do you think is going to win?”

It’s much simpler than “who can do what to whom?” or “who plans whom, who directs and dominates whom, who assigns to other people their station in life, and who is to have his due allotted by others?” If “we” are fighting, or have a stake in the fight – and since it’s politics rather than political science, “we” always are and always have – it’s a binary choice: either we beat them or they beat us.

In 1921, Lenin supported the “new economic policy,” or the NEP. The Bolsheviks had to let capitalism back in, he explained, because there was no other way out of the postwar devastation. Russia did not even have the proletariat (!) – according to Lenin – because heavy industry had been destroyed. The principal risk, however, was that the bourgeoisie could regain political power. Preventing it would be harder than winning the Civil War. In my not-so-literal translation:

The whole question is, which will overtake the other? If the capitalists manage to organize themselves first, they will drive out the communists and there will be no further discussion about it. We need to look at these things soberly: which will come out on top? Will proletarian state power prove able, relying on the peasantry, to keep messrs. capitalists properly bridled, in order to direct capitalism into a state estuary and to create a capitalism subordinated to the state and serving it?

Stalin simplified this in 1929 to a little-red-book format:

The fact is, we are living according to Lenin’s formula, “who whom”: either we pin down the capitalists and fight – as Lenin used to put it – the last decisive battle against them, or they will pinfall us.

As usual, the (soon-to-be) great leader was being less interesting than his teacher.

As a reminder, “Kto kogo?” is pronounced with a “v,” ktaw kuh-VAW, in modern Russian.


  1. Kto kogo also has the meaning “who belongs to whom”, because kogo is both the accusative and the genitive of who.

    • It is both, indeed, but in this context the genitive does not seem to signify possession. “Kto chey” would work as “who is whose,” more or less.

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