Context — November 8, 2017, 12:18 pm

Tomb Raiders

The afterlives of Lenin

This month marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, when Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik uprising in Petrograd that eventually gave rise to the Soviet Union. “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,” wrote Sheila Fitzpatrick in “Tomb Raiders,” her essay on the many interpretations of Lenin that have emerged since his death in 1924. Below is an excerpt of Fitzpatrick’s essay, which was published in the July 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Reviewed in the essay is Victor Sebestyen’s new biography, Lenin: The man, the dictator, and the master of terror, which he will be discussing with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn biographer Michael Scammell on November 14, at 7:00 p.m., at Book Culture on Columbus in New York City.

“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.

Read the full article here.

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From the July 2017 issue

Tomb Raiders

The afterlives of Lenin

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