Printer Friendly

Lenin: A New Biography.

Dmitri Volkogonov, Translated by Harold Shukman Free Press, $30

The picture is of Lenin sitting at his desk in the Kremlin, scribbling yet another of his endless orders, notes, and jottings having to do with the running of the Russian Revolution. But this one is not about purging generals, executing White Russians, sending landowners into exile, or expelling wayward party members. This is an instruction about "sanitary rules for the inhabitants of the Kremlin." It reads, "All those arriving [by train] shall before entering their accommodation take a bath and hand the dirty clothes to the disinfector [at the baths] ... Anyone refusing to obey the sanitary regulations will be expelled from the Kremlin at once and tried for causing social harm."

Tried for causing social harm? For being scruffy? With such stories, some never before told, the indefatigable Russian military historian Dmitri Volkogonov has given us a glimpse of the Lenin that official Soviet historians did not want anyone to know: of how Lenin, leader of the people's revolution, laid the foundations of the gulags and cruel repression of the church and the intelligentsia, and of how he launched a cult of personality. In this first look at long secret Communist archives, Volkogonov finds Lenin becoming "maniacally ruthless in his use of unbridled violence"--overseeing orders to shoot on the spot those citizens who refused to give their names and to immediately execute the eldest member of a family which concealed weapons. "We did not realize," writes Volkogonov, "that despite the common sense of his ideas on cooperative farming, Lenin was always profoundly hostile to the peasants."

To go on a search of these archives with Volkogonov is to be led behind a massive steel door in the basement of the former Central Committee Building in Moscow's Staraya Square and to emerge with Lenin in a devil's costume, fangs bared, tail twitching, terrorizing the populace. In this vault, on special shelves, in special metal boxes, Volkogonov, formerly a Stalinist army officer and now a liberal historian of Soviet history, was the first to be given access to more than 6,000 of Lenin's unpublished documents.

The cause--the Great Idea--for which Lenin fought so uncompromisingly and for which millions lost their lives now lies in ruins, its idols literally toppled from their plinths, its socialist icons torn down. It is now up to historians like Volkogonov to use the new material emerging from the disorganized Moscow archives and assess Lenin's role in the 74-year experiment of Soviet communism. Volkogonov admits, "It is hard to write this"; hard for him especially because he was one of those taken in by the idea. After a lifetime of service, he had to conclude, along with millions of others, that Leninism was a huge, cruel mistake. Given the chance to examine "Father Lenin," a man who was often pictured as a more humane figure than some of his successors, Volkogonov is convinced that nothing good could have come of the experiment, not the way Lenin ran the affairs of state.

As Director of the Institute of Military History and an army colonel-general who remembers how he wept with the other young lieutenants at Stalin's funeral, Volkogonov was allowed into the secret Central Committee and other archives as perestroika was born. He was trusted. In his loyalty to the Motherland, he had set aside the fact that his father was shot in 1937 for possessing "politically questionable printed matter," and that his mother died in exile. He dug out material in the archives others had rejected as politically unacceptable and published, first in Russia in 1988, a long critique of Stalin.

After the failure of the 1991 coup against Gorbachev, Volkogonov was given access to the secret Lenin cache--documents which had been carefully excised from the five party-sanctioned editions of Lenin's collected works. In a masterly first distillation of these and thousands of other pages from Soviet archives, plus a full range of Western sources, Volkogonov has mounted a powerful offensive on the most celebrated Communist icon. He includes additional documentation on Lenin's genealogy--the Leader was not of proletarian or even poor peasant origin, as his Soviet biographers contended. Lenin's paternal grandfather was a Russian town-dweller who earned a living as a tailor, and his father was a teacher of physics and math. His mother was the daughter of a Jewish doctor. There is new, though still inconclusive, documentation on the German funding of the Bolsheviks during World War I. And there are letters--true gems--concerning Lenin's friendship with his revolutionary companion, Inessa Armand. The official Soviet editors had long suppressed the numerous letters between the two--especially one in which Lenin, in a moment of romantic weakness, admits he can't "come to his senses" because her letters were so full of sadness after their separation. Finally, there is a fresh picture of the dying Lenin, beset with heart attacks and loss of speech.

This is not ordinary biography. It does not begin at the birth and end with the death. It does not linger on the human interest side of Lenin as, for example, Ronald Clark did in the last Western biography, published in 1988. There is no Chekhovian picture of Uncle Illyich.

In his eagerness to pillory Lenin, Volkogonov overreaches, trying to blame Lenin for the excesses of Stalin. Volkogonov claims, "By his actions Lenin taught Stalin ruthlessness, his implacability, his cunning, his purposefulness. ..." Are we really to think such traits did not come naturally to Stalin?

"Close association with Lenin," Volkogonov writes, "may have taught Stalin a foul-mouthed intolerance of inadequate officials." Volkogonov found a memo Lenin sent to Stalin in 1922 complaining about the financial experts he and Kamenev had taken on. Lenin wrote, "We'll always be able to find shit-awful experts; let's start with some sensible ones ... you've got to straighten out these useless swine who can't present accounts ... Teach these arseholes some responsibility about producing complete and accurate figures ..." (Of course, Stalin needed little help in becoming foul-mouthed and tyrannical.

No one would challenge Volkogonov's assertion that having destroyed first the Tsarist and then the bourgeois dictatorship, Lenin replaced them by the dictatorship of his Party. Nor that Lenin was a utopian fanatic. But Volkogonov goes much further. "The appalling purges of the 1930s are commonly associated with the name of Stalin, but the true father of the Bolshevik concentration camps, the executions, [and] the mass terror ... was Lenin." Against the background of Lenin's terror it becomes easier to understand Stalin's inquisitions, he says. "Lenin did not merely inspire revolutionary terror, he was also the first to make it into a state institution." Easier to understand, yes, but, again, should Lenin bear the responsibility for what Stalin did in a time of peace?

Volkogonov recalls how Stalin combed the archives and the world after Lenin's death, paying huge sums for any of Lenin's letters and notes so he could be sole interpreter of Leninism. The result was not only the removal of thousands of documents from academic study but also, as Volkogonov says, Stalin's "invulnerability, his diabolical strength was his monopoly on Lenin."

And yet Lenin was open to many interpretations. "As a theorist, Lenin was profoundly contradictory," Volkogonov writes, "a fact for which his successors were profoundly grateful, since they were always able to find the appropriate quotation ..."

And so the debate will continue.

Peter Pringle is the New York correspondent for The Independent of London.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Pringle, Peter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
Previous Article:Speak Now Against the Day.
Next Article:Just Good Politics: The Life of Raymond Chafin, Appalachian Boss.

Related Articles
Socialist Realist Painting.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters