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The afterlives of Lenin

Discussed in this essay:

Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait, by Victor Sebestyen. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 592 pages. $35.

Lenin on the Train, by Catherine Merridale. Metropolitan Books. 368 pages. $30.

Reminiscences of Lenin, by Nadezhda Krupskaya. Haymarket Books. 584 pages. $24.

The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution, by Tariq Ali. Verso. 384 pages. $26.95.

Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through, by Slavoj Žižek. Verso. 256 pages. $19.95.

“Lenin lives!” That was the slogan in the Soviet Union for almost seventy years, even though Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet state, died only seven years into its existence. Uncharismatic and impatient with personal adulation in life, Lenin became, after his death in 1924, the object of a popular and official cult, which was used first to legitimize his successor, Joseph Stalin, and later to bolster the de-Stalinization campaign of Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev. The iconic image shows Lenin on a podium, a small, balding man in a three-piece suit and worker’s cap, his arm outstretched to the future.

Now the future has arrived, in the form of the centenary of the Russian Revolution, in which Lenin’s Bolsheviks came to power. But the man lives no longer, not even as metaphor. The Lenin of the Soviet cult was blandly flawless. His body was preserved and displayed to the public in a dedicated Mausoleum in the Kremlin, and his reputation was supposed to be similarly unchanging and eternal. To be sure, there was a high degree of turnover, retrospectively speaking, among his political associates: Leon Trotsky and other comrades in arms disappeared early, thanks to the miracles of photo editing, while Stalin became a fixture at his side. Then, in the mid-1950s, Stalin vanished as well, leaving Lenin in solitary grandeur.

“Giant Lenin Head, Ulan-Ude, Buryatia, Russia” © Michael Kirchoff

Under Khrushchev, reform-minded Soviet intellectuals such as Roy Medvedev held up Lenin and “Leninist legality”—the allegedly law-bound and nonarbitrary procedures of the 1920s—as the model to which the country should return. But already on the horizon were dissidents who were no more admirers of Lenin than they were of Stalin. Finding himself in Switzerland after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in the 1970s (like Lenin sixty years earlier), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote the entertaining novella Lenin in Zurich, a savage but oddly empathetic third-person monologue replete with Lenin’s beloved exclamation marks and underlinings. Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin, in his mid-forties, is tormented by the fear that the revolution to which he has dedicated his life will never come and that his own potential for leadership on the world stage will go unrealized. A central theme of the book is the temptation of “German gold,” which was on offer during the First World War to revolutionaries—Russian and Irish—who might have been able to destabilize their countries to Germany’s benefit. German gold was also a major preoccupation of Dmitri Vol­kogonov, one of the leader’s Russian biographers. Volkogonov was once a Soviet Leninist, but became convinced by the revelations of the early 1990s on post-Revolutionary repression that Lenin—not Stalin—was the real founder of Soviet totalitarianism.

The Soviet state died suddenly, in 1991, an unintended consequence of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. A Communist Party survives, the direct descendant of the Bolsheviks, but it is a minor player in contemporary Russian politics. The centenary posed a dilemma for Vladimir Putin’s regime, which has struggled with where to put Lenin and the Revolution in the new post-Soviet narrative of Russian history. After contemplating a “reconciliation” theme, Putin seems to have decided against public commemoration altogether.

Outside Russia, there have been scholarly conferences and books galore to mark the anniversary, but the prevailing atmosphere is more like a wake than a celebration. Before 1991, whatever you thought about the Russian Revolution, it had to be accounted a sort of success, in that it had founded a nation. Now, by the same logic, it looks like a failure. Socialism, despite a recent resurgence of interest among the young in the United States—witness Bernie Sanders—has lost many admirers. The days when such systems governed a third of the world and seemed to offer a serious challenge to Western democracy are only a memory—and perhaps not even that to the generations that came of age after the Cold War. Lenin, however, remains fascinating to many, both as a politician and as a personality. Indeed, there are so many Lenins in the literature that it can be quite bewildering.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who in 1901 took the revolutionary pseudonym Lenin, was born in 1870 in Simbirsk, to a respectable Russian family. (There was some Kalmyk, Jewish, and German ancestry, but that was par for the course in the multiethnic empire.) As a state inspector of schools, his father earned hereditary noble rank. Vladimir, the family’s second son, was in his last year of high school and headed for university when, in 1887, disaster struck: His older brother, Alexander, was arrested for participation in a conspiracy to kill the tsar and, despite his family’s pleas for clemency, hanged. Although revolutionary terrorism was by no means so reviled among the late-nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia as it is today, the family was shunned by Simbirsk society, and Lenin never forgot this evidence of the craven nature of the bourgeoisie. He soon became a revolutionary himself, and was forced to drop out of Kazan University, where he was studying law, after his first arrest.

Lenin embraced Marxism, which in Russian terms meant renouncing terrorism, identifying the urban working class rather than the peasantry as the potential revolutionary force, and trying to educate workers in illegal socialist study circles. It never took the tsarist police long to discover these circles and send the organizers to prison or exile; Lenin was exiled to Siberia in 1895. He was soon joined by fellow revolutionary Nadezhda Krupskaya, a pedagogical theorist of assertively nonglamorous type, whom he had met in St. Petersburg Marxist circles. They married in 1898, and on their honeymoon they worked together translating Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s History of Trade Unionism into Russian. It was that kind of marriage, the opposite of frivolous, but probably no other was conceivable for either.

Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin, written under pressure from Stalin in the years after her husband’s death, has been an invaluable source for anyone writing on Lenin’s life before the Revolution. The book, finished in the early 1930s, has just been reissued, though unfortunately without annotation or commentary. (It was first published in full in English in 1970.) Paradoxically, it eschews the personal, reflecting Krupskaya’s sense of what was appropriate for a committed revolutionary and the fact that she was even more of an opponent of the Lenin cult than Lenin himself.

As Victor Sebestyen, a British journalist who covered the breakup of the Soviet Union, points out in his well-told but uneven new biography, Lenin the Dictator, almost all of the people closest to Lenin throughout his life, including his mother and one of his sisters, were women. Although the familiar form of address (the Russian equivalent of the German du or French tu) was prevalent in both émigré revolutionary circles and the early Soviet political leadership, hardly anybody outside his family ever used it to Lenin. In politics, he had male associates and disciples, but often broke with them over doctrinal issues, perhaps reflecting an unspoken fear of challenge to his leadership.

In 1900, Lenin was released from exile and allowed to go abroad. Thanks to financial support from his mother, he and Krupskaya remained outside Russia almost without interruption until 1917. Unlike many revolutionaries living abroad, Lenin was a disciplined and ascetic man with a strict daily routine. He seems to have judged his places of emigration—London, Paris, Kraków, Bern, Zurich—largely by the merits of their public libraries. The other things that mattered to him were mountains and hikes, during which he was joined by Krupskaya—and also, beginning in 1910, by the beautiful Inessa Armand, an upper-class French-Russian revolutionary with whom Lenin fell in love. True to her principles, which rejected the bourgeois concept of marriage as a form of ownership, Krupskaya accepted the affair and even befriended Armand and her children.

The émigré revolutionary scene was full of squabbles and mutual suspicion, and Lenin—though professing to abhor petty faction-fighting—quarreled as much as anyone. He was largely responsible for splitting the underground Marxist party into Bolsheviks (Lenin’s minority group) and Mensheviks (most of the party) in 1903, and for perpetuating the rift thereafter. During this time, Lenin had only intermittent contact with revolutionaries inside the Russian Empire—underground “committee men” like Stalin—most of whom spent years either in prison or in exile and tended to be impatient with the feuds of the émigrés, though they acknowledged their intellectual authority and leadership.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 prompted a temporary surge of patriotism in Russia and other belligerent countries, to which even socialists were not immune. Lenin, however, was steadfast not only in opposing the war but also in regarding Russia’s defeat as the best hope for revolution. Stuck in Switzerland, which remained neutral, Lenin chafed at his inactivity. His frustration was exacerbated by the sudden collapse of the tsarist regime in February 1917 and the establishment of the liberal Provisional Government, which found itself ruling the new republic in awkward dual harness with the socialist workers’ soviet (literally “council”) that had been set up in Petrograd. Lenin and other émigrés were desperate to return, but how, when return involved crossing enemy territory? After complex third-party negotiations, Berlin provided a sealed train to transport the Russians from Zurich through Germany to Sweden and thence back home. Lenin departed with some thirty others in late March 1917, arriving at Petrograd’s Finland Station on April 3 (by the old calendar; it was April 16 by the Gregorian calendar used in the West, which Soviet Russia was to adopt the next year). It all happened so suddenly that the Lenins barely had time to return the books they had borrowed from the Zurich Public Library.

The trip was controversial at the time, and has remained so for generations of scholars; now, the British historian Catherine Merridale has devoted a whole volume to the subject, Lenin on the Train. Lenin was widely criticized for agreeing to the arrangement; he was also suspected of secretly accepting German gold or of being a German agent. The current consensus, with which both Merridale and Sebestyen agree, is that there were indeed secret negotiations, which Lenin, for understandable reasons, concealed, and that he did receive German money (although probably not until after his return to Russia), but that if the Germans thought they had thereby “bought” Lenin and made him their pawn, they were wrong. Unmentioned in either writer’s account is the fact that some weeks after Lenin and his group had run the reputational risk of taking the deal, about 200 other revolutionaries, including Lenin’s sometime friend and rival Julius Martov, returned quietly to Russia, without any reputational consequences, on a second sealed train.

The local Bolsheviks gathered a crowd to greet Lenin, but, having accepted the general embrace of revolutionary unity, they were startled by his message: no support for the Provisional Government (“all power to the soviets”) and an immediate withdrawal from the war. But with radical workers and soldiers coming around to his point of view from the middle of the year, Lenin pulled hesitant colleagues in the party toward the idea of an insurrection. This was accomplished on October 25–26 (old style), under the mantle of the national Congress of Soviets. The Provisional Government was ousted with little bloodshed, and a new government, the Council of People’s Commissars, took over. The Council was made up almost entirely of Bolsheviks, and at its head sat Lenin.

A great deal of ink has been spilled over the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in October 1917. For orthodox Marxists, it was “premature,” since Russian capitalism had not yet reached maturity, and therefore its proletariat was not strong enough to launch a socialist revolution. Another controversial subject that generated much heat in American Sovietological circles during the Cold War was whether the Bolsheviks had democratic legitimacy, in which case they staged a “revolution,” or did not, in which case it was just a “coup.” Sebestyen takes the latter view. He also follows Orlando Figes, the author of the widely read A People’s Tragedy (1996), in portraying the whole event as a kind of Keystone Cops episode, in which the storming of Petrograd’s Winter Palace took “more than fifteen hours, amid a catalogue of errors that would have been farcical if the stakes had not been so high.”

Merridale avoids the question by virtually omitting the Revolution from her story, which jumps from the arrival at the Finland Station to a couple of postscript chapters, the first on German gold, the second on the fate of Lenin’s traveling companions as well as other political associates, many of whom came to a bad end under Stalin. It is an abrupt change of tone in a narrative that had previously shown Lenin in a rather positive light; the shift is compounded when she cites the verdict of Alexander Shlyapnikov, an Old Bolshevik who clashed sharply with Lenin in the early 1920s and was later purged by Stalin. “The Soviet dictatorship, a government that promised freedom for all working people,” Merridale writes, echoing Shlyapnikov, “had created a tyranny.”

Sebestyen makes a similarly abrupt shift: With October, which comes two thirds of the way through his biography, his somewhat less sympathetic Lenin suddenly turns into an evil genius embarking on a reign of terror. This character, however, is unbelievable, probably because Sebestyen’s reading on this period is too patchy to render an informed and persuasive account of how Lenin operated in power. He gives us a short history of Soviet repression from 1917 to 1924, including the dismissal of the elected Constituent Assembly, the creation of the Cheka, and the terror of the civil war period, as well as the execution of the imperial family, the outlawing of opposition parties and newspapers, and the 1921 ban on “factions” within the Bolshevik Party itself. This may sound like the behavior of a dictator, but it is more complicated than that. The Bolsheviks claimed that their rule was, on some deeper conceptual level, a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the party being the self-styled “vanguard” of that class. For their opponents this was just a cover for one-party rule, that is, a dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party, which was a reasonable conclusion. The difficulty comes with the matter of Lenin’s personal role in the party dictatorship.

Stalin would later draw the logical inference that the seat of leadership in a party dictatorship ought to be the party’s top decision-making organ, the Politburo. But Lenin saw things differently. While he was a member, and primus inter pares, of the Politburo, he didn’t even keep an office in its building. The official position he held, from October until his death, was chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars—a government, not party, body that functioned as a cabinet directing the state bureaucracy, with Lenin in the role of prime minister. It was from there that he oversaw the nation’s business. Despite the revolutionary context and the banning of other political parties, this was still a more conventional form of rule than the one that would emerge under Stalin. Not only was Lenin’s rule not formally a personal dictatorship (as Sebes­tyen recognizes), it was not functionally one either.

Yet Sebestyen goes on arguing the point. “Having achieved power illegitimately,” he writes, “Lenin’s only real concern for the rest of his life was keeping it.” Really? You don’t have to be a Lenin lover to recognize that there were other things on his mind as well. He was learning to run a country—different from leading a party or a revolution—and trying to work out how a socialist state should interact with capitalist states. When he pushed the New Economic Policy, which involved a partial resurrection of the market he had earlier sought to abolish, through the party in 1921, Lenin was looking for a way to keep the economy running and the population fed without abandoning the ultimate aim of socialist nationalization or alienating the party cadres. He was worried about the danger of Russian dominance in a multinational Soviet Union, and therefore insisted on a federative structure of national republics (Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, and so on). He was preoccupied by the problem of bureaucratization and the withering of the participatory soviet structure that had been such a striking feature of 1917. Popular education—the field in which Krupskaya worked after the Revolution—was his long-term remedy, though he managed only to suggest some (not very promising) short-term fixes.

Sebestyen notices this last concern (he has read Krupskaya’s Reminiscences), but wrongly interprets it as a sign that Lenin was incapable of distinguishing between important and trivial issues. Schools and libraries were not trivial to Lenin, either before or after October. The man who thought education reform was one of the most urgent tasks of the revolutionary regime, crucial for the achievement of socialism, was the same Lenin who was urging mass shootings of priests and confiscation of church gold. A good Lenin biographer needs to be able to deal with that paradox, not ignore it.

Anyone looking for a more concrete sense of the difficult decisions that the revolutionary leader faced should turn to The Dilemmas of Lenin, the new book by Tariq Ali, a British-Pakistani journalist, political commentator, and activist. Ali has a confident grasp of the man and his context (unlike Sebestyen, he knows about the second sealed train), and, rather surprisingly, he is also good on Lenin’s private life. But Ali, too, errs on one side: He is better at presenting the good qualities of his subject than showing how the good and the bad side of Lenin coexisted. A leading figure of the international left, he thinks that

had Lenin lived another five years, the country and the party would have moved forward differently. The New Economic Policy would have been dismantled with greater care, and [Stalin’s] brutal leap to industrialisation might not have transpired. Nor would Lenin have killed off the bulk of Old Bolsheviks on the Central Committee and the country as a whole.

This counterfactual leads to a question that is hard to avoid in Soviet history: Was Stalin the successor Lenin deserved? Those who have a low opinion of Lenin tend to emphasize continuity with Stalin. Sebes­tyen, for example, writes that Lenin “built a system based on the idea that political terror against opponents was justified for a greater end. It was perfected by Stalin, but the ideas were Lenin’s.” Those with a more favorable opinion, like Ali, generally see the two as entirely distinct. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, in a complex balance of similarities and differences.

Another person exploring this question is Slavoj Žižek, the Marxist philosopher-gadfly from Slovenia. In his forthcoming book, Lenin 2017, he acknowledges a fundamental continuity between Lenin and Stalin, which is unusual for a commentator from the left. He sees the tragedy of the Old Bolsheviks who perished in Stalin’s purges as being their inability “to perceive in the Stalinist terror the ultimate offspring of their own acts.” While he grants that things might have been better had Lenin survived in good health for another ten years, Žižek suggests that the likely outcome was “nothing essentially different: the same Stalinism, just without its worst excesses.” On only one policy issue does he suggest a clear difference in Lenin’s favor—his concern for protecting the rights of the national republics of the ­U.S.S.R., up to and including secession, over which he clashed with Stalin. Since Lenin, as Žižek writes, was “guilty of taking seriously the autonomy of the different nations that composed the Russian empire, and thus of questioning Russian hegemony,” it is ironic that in 2014 Ukrainians protesting Russian domination should have torn down his statues.

Why, in the end, should we bother with Lenin and take the trouble to read the 170 pages of texts that Žižek has assembled, together with an eighty-page introduction, still less accord him the respect that Žižek clearly thinks he deserves? He suggests that Lenin’s true lesson (like Samuel Beckett’s in Worstward Ho) is how to “fail again. Fail better.” “Let’s face it,” Žižek writes:

Today, Lenin and his legacy are perceived as hopelessly dated, belonging to a defunct “paradigm.” Not only was Lenin understandably blind to many of the problems that are now central to contemporary life (ecology, struggles for emancipated sexuality, etc.), his brutal political practice is totally out of sync with current democratic sensitivities, his vision of the new society as a centralized industrial system run by the state is simply irrelevant.

We have to “accept that ‘Lenin is dead,’ that his particular solution failed, even failed monstrously.” Still, Žižek argues, he had the courage to imagine that the world could be completely different, and the boldness, when opportunity presented itself, to try to make it so. “Reloading Lenin” (as Žižek recommends in an earlier book) means learning, from Lenin’s example, “how to make the right mistakes.” What this aphorism actually means is debatable, but it is clear that for Ali as well as Žižek the very fact that “today’s dominant ideology”—i.e., free-market fundamentalism—is “so hostile to the social and liberation struggles of the last century” makes recovering Lenin’s legacy “an act of resistance.”

You can see why Putin, thinking along similar lines, might be less than enthusiastic about recovering Lenin. True, only a small percentage of Russians polled in 2015 thought that “in the coming years, the ideas of Lenin will show people the way to a better life,” and 60 percent believed that his body should be removed from the Kremlin Mausoleum and decently buried in a cemetery (though perhaps not before “the generation who hold him dear departs”). But the possibility of a reloaded Lenin’s inspiring domestic acts of resistance cannot be wholly discounted. Putin’s grandfather may have worked as Lenin’s cook, but the grandson has always seemed to prefer Stalin the nation-builder to Lenin the revolutionary.

Like Žižek, Putin attaches particular importance to the argument between Lenin and Stalin over the Soviet constitution and the rights of constituent republics, but he holds that Stalin, advocating a closer union, was correct. Lenin laid a “time bomb” under Russia with his insistence on the republics’ right to secession, Putin argued. In 1991, the bomb went off, destroying the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that was Lenin’s creation.

is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. Her book about the experiences of her husband, Michael Danos, as a displaced person in Germany in the 1940s, Mischka’s War, will be published in September.

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