In a year marking the centenary of the outbreak of a landmark European conflict that profoundly shaped the 20th century, the specific causes and wide-ranging consequences of what was once commonly known as the Great War will no doubt be closely examined and hotly debated.

Events in the Middle East are perhaps the most obvious instance of how great-power machinations during the course of that war — the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and the following year’s Balfour Declaration, for example — continue to influence current affairs.

For much of the 20th century, it was deemed uncontroversial to consider the two Russian revolutions of 1917 — particularly the second one — as the most consequential outcome of the war in world-historical terms.

The February Revolution overthrew a feudal czarist order that had withstood challenges from below for at least a dozen years. The October Revolution sought decisively to bury the past for good, and was facilitated in part by the fact that the interim regime persisted with the folly of a war in which the poorly equipped Russian army, allied with Britain and France, faced massive losses against the Germans.

The man whose single-minded determination was crucial to the Bolshevik project died 90 years ago this week, barely six years after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd. “Even in the camp of his enemies,” noted the writer Maxim Gorky, “there are some who honestly admit in Lenin the world has lost the man ‘who embodied genius more strikingly than all the great men of his day’.”

One of the more prominent figures in this camp, British prime minister Winston Churchill, is credited with the intriguing observation that if Lenin’s birth was Russia’s worst misfortune, his death was its second worst.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, to give Lenin his proper name, was in many ways an unlikely candidate for elevation to supreme power in the vast Russian realm. A fierce combatant at the intellectual level, his struggle was mainly conducted in European exile, and even among the emigre intelligentsia, he was a divisive figure. His thesis that Russia could effectively skip the bourgeois-democratic phase taken for granted in Marxist circles and transition from a largely feudal economy to a socialist one was viewed with scepticism even by some of his closest comrades.

It has become commonplace over the decades to conflate Leninism with Stalinism, and while the case for continuity is simple to make, it is open to challenge at several levels. Innumerable statues of Lenin have been toppled since 1989, most recently amid the unrest in Ukraine, but reports of their demise almost never mention the fact that the personality cult around Lenin was strictly a posthumous phenomenon that served the purpose of Stalin and his successors.

It is particularly potently exemplified by the pride of place still occupied in Moscow’s Red Square by the granite mausoleum containing Lenin’s mummified corpse, a travesty that his widow failed to prevent in the face of Stalin’s insistence. The Lenin who left an abiding imprint on world history, for better or for worse, deserves to be rescued from a resting place he never chose and would probably have abhorred.

A few years ago, the restless European intellectual Slavoj Zizek made a similar point when he noted: “One cannot separate the unique constellation which enabled the revolutionary takeover in October 1917 from its later Stalinist turn: The very constellation that rendered the revolution possible (peasants’ dissatisfaction, a well-organised revolutionary elite, etc) led to the Stalinist turn in its aftermath — therein resides the proper Leninist tragedy. Rosa Luxemburg’s famous alternative ‘socialism or barbarism’ ended up as the ironic identity of the two opposed terms: The ‘really existing’ socialism was barbarism.

“Consequently, to repeat Lenin does not mean a return to Lenin — to repeat Lenin is to accept that ‘Lenin is dead’, that his particular solution failed, even failed monstrously, but that there was a utopian spark in it worth saving. To repeat Lenin means that one has to distinguish between what Lenin effectively did and the field of possibilities that he opened up, the tension in Lenin between what he effectively did and another dimension … To repeat Lenin is to repeat not what Lenin did, but what he failed to do, his missed opportunities.

Today, Lenin appears as a figure from a different time zone: It’s not that his notions of the centralised party, etc seem to pose a ‘totalitarian threat’ — it’s rather that they seem to belong to a different epoch to which we can no longer properly relate. However, instead of reading this fact as the proof that Lenin is outdated, one should, perhaps, risk the opposite conjecture: What if this impenetrability of Lenin is a sign that there is something wrong with our epoch? What if the fact that we experience Lenin as irrelevant, ‘out of sync’ with our postmodern times impart the much more unsettling message that our time itself is ‘out of sync’, that a certain historical dimension is disappearing from it?”

There is certainly scope in that evaluation for, if nothing else, a fruitful debate.

The writer is a journalist based in Sydney. Khaleej Times.