Thursday 7 January 2010

The personal and the political

Conspirator: Lenin in Exile, by Helen Rappaport (Hutchinson, 2009)

Conspirator: Lenin in Exile begins with the hanging of Lenin’s older brother, Aleksandr Ulyanov, at Shisselburg in 1887, for leading an amateur bomb plot against Tsar Alexander III. In his final days, Aleksandr, ‘one of the last of a generation of romantic idealists’ and advocates of Russian populism with its distinctive brand of flash-in-the-pan terrorism, asked only for a volume of his favourite poet Heinrich Heine. On the same day the remaining Ulyanov boy, known to his family as the boisterous Volodya, was finishing a maths exam.

The narrative follows through Volodya’s exemplary youth, financially supported by the hard work of his recently deceased father, a ‘humane and conscientious’ public servant involved in raising educational standards. He studies law at university. Here he discovers Karl Marx and develops a distracting enthusiasm for the ideas and real hero of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to be done?. A thoughtful and vivacious Vladamir gets involved in dissident discussion groups until sent on three-year exile to Shushenskoe, the ‘Siberian Italy’, much to the chagrin of his mother. Here he’s joined by teacher, activist and comrade Nadezhda Krupskaya, who becomes his lifelong helpmate and wife.

Fast forward to the stormy consolidation of revolutionary newspaper Iskra (‘the spark’) where a moody Plekhanov demands two votes on the editorial board. Realising the need to break from the old guard, ‘N. Lenin’, after all his years of study and work, can now outline his own position in What is to be Done? (1902). The pamphlet’s modest impact is noted by even the Tsarist secret police - the Okhrana - who snap at the heels of the couple throughout their seventeen year long exile.

Before long, a Dr and Mrs Richter are moving to the ‘stronghold of capitalism’, London, and settle in Holford Square where Nadya’s notoriously bad cooking is tutored by the kindly but bemused landlady Mrs Yeo. 37 Clerkenwell Green’s printing press is engaged, and frequented by the polite Ilyich between visits to the reading room of British Museum in Bloomsbury and weekend turns at Speakers’ Corner. The couple develop a taste for fish and chips, visit local working men’s clubs for discussion and debate. They’re bombarded by loud company eager for news and instruction in their tiny, under-heated kitchen, regularly woken by late night knocks at the door (once from a young Leon Trotsky). And so Rappaport’s narrative takes us on, criss-crossing Europe with a tapestry of tiny detail, until the armoured train at Moscow thirty years from where we began.

The politics of the personal

In the fashion of biographies focusing on the personal life of historical figures, this one gives a thorough airing to Lenin’s personal relationships: with his mother-in-law, wife and ‘mistress’ Inessa, whilst steering mostly clear of the content and influence of his work. Rappaport has previously written about the last days of the Romanovs, the Tsarist royal family with whom the Bolsheviks successfully did away, in the bestselling Ekaterinburg. She describes herself as ‘a woman, a feminist and a non-academic’ and her aim in biographising Lenin is to foster an alternative approach to an old subject. This is done by placing a firm spotlight on his formative years and giving his wife the role she’s due yet scarce afforded by male biographers (1). Both aspects serve the broader aim of countering official Soviet hagiography.

Following the general direction of Francis Wheen’s celebrated 1999 biography of Marx, promoted as the first major book on him since the end of the Cold War, this one similarly and quite sensibly doesn’t force itself in traditional communist or anti-communist camps. Instead, it simply aims to contextualise and reconnect with ‘the man’ lost behind decades of ideological obfuscation on either side. This ultimately involves just as much rejection of Western propaganda from that period as it distrusts Soviet hagiography, though the first is much less obvious. It simply suffices to place a question mark above excessive ‘male-centricism’ common to both, invoking an actually quite watered-down feminism to lend moral authority and motivation to exploring the founder of the USSR afresh.

And it’s absorbing. We learn that Lenin’s headmaster noted down his enjoyment of solitude as a youth, that he enjoyed bike rides and long walks with his wife, made friends with a Jewish shopkeeper in Geneva and bounced his son on his knee, could be moved to tears by classical music, was seen playing chess with the poet Apollinaire on the boulevards of Montparnasse. The effect is to convey Lenin’s wide experience and broad humanity, fuelled by a voracious appetite for new ideas and experiences. Compared with Marx, Engels and Trotsky, Lenin is often seen as the cold fish of Marxism’s founding fathers; here he comes into his own as a lively and compelling companion. This book is a firm nod to the practical man with his hidden wells of passion.

Much of his adult life was spent living under the harsh constraints of konspiratsiya, meaning roughly ‘secrecy’, and Rappaport mentions many fellow political activists led insular and uncertain lives, communicating only when necessary and with a variety of shifting aliases and abodes: the Lenins were poor, and very nearly made a virtue of it. The spells of severe headaches Lenin suffered and Nadya’s thyroid condition interfered with their work, and they rarely had money for medicine. Rappaport well documents the almost school-boyish nature of the Bolsheviks’ codes. The gentle reminder that revolutionary life was often physically brutal and mentally exhausting, filled with time-consuming tasks and still in the process of professionalisation is a helpful counter to the romantic view of a ready-made political dissent in the early twentieth century.

Lenin in disguise

What gradually emerges is a picture of a man who lived solely for his politics. Lenin even considered his body a ‘machine for revolution’ (revealing the enduring influence of Chernyshevsky), was hugely energetic, obsessively punctual, madly hard-working - a real dynamic force. His days were spent writing, reading, in meetings, dictating correspondence, going for a walk, snatching a short sleep. We follow back to London in 1907 for the exhausting Fifth Party Congress in an Islington church; onto Paris with its annoying ‘bourgeois profligacy’ in 1909, where Lenin pawns the watch of sympathetic music hall composer Montéhus, who is later rewarded with a gold watch from the Soviet government; to ‘This Damned Switzerland’ in 1914-16, where the couple’s one luxury is two bars of nut chocolate on a Thursday afternoon. The map at the beginning with its looped dotted line and the quirky picture inserts (including mug-shots and ‘in walking gear’) is a great geeky addition.

The trouble with politics

This is all thoroughly enjoyable and useful in contextualising Lenin as he wrote his various works, manoeuvring and making use of the rich experiences and minds of pre-revolutionary Europe. It provides a rich opening into what often seems a period of history with too contested a legacy to be covered in much depth in the general culture. But who, and what, is this book for? It’s difficult not to notice the ‘post-Ideology’ premise keys into a popular mood that is simply generally suspicious of anything with a whiff of Ideology (capital ‘I’). Instead, it favours finding new meanings in the personal and private (a sort of ideology with a small ‘i’), which shows just how discredited the political animal has become - and across both sides of the traditional political divide.

Indeed, this trend spans much broader than the history of the Soviet Union or even events obviously connected to the historical contestation between capitalism and its detractors. The BBC recently aired a documentary about a bolshie Thatcher on her rise to power, concentrating on the delicate balance she had to strike with her frankly devoted husband; a biography of a sane, solid Leonard Woolf aimed to redress the balance with his better-known though slightly mad and flighty other half. This is history at its most psychological and frequently pathological-seeming, it carefully explores the crossed lines of relationships to their inevitable breaking points, thrilling in its invasion of the intimate and scrupulously dramatic.

It’s as if everything outside the boundaries of the personal (usually equated with the domestic) gets, quite literally, cut off from view. The very idea of trying to affect and interact with society more broadly is understood and judged solely through its effects on those close personally, especially in this period on women, who had little formal equality, less actual equality and often bore the brunt of domestic burdens. This unusual focus is a wonderful dramatic device which shows off the writer’s mastery of form and pathos. But rather than serving to make a broader point about the basic practical and emotional support all people need from somebody or other, (and probably more often in the past with its lack of labour-saving devices), instead, this simply confuses judgements of personal character with the bald fact there’s always boring work to be done.

It also means missing the more subtle point that even though Lenin’s vanguard party offered women more real equality than anywhere else at this time, nevertheless most of its top theoreticians and leaders were men. It may well be true that deeper-rooted and more traditional ideas about the place and talents of women still held sway at this time in the minds, talents and habits of even these progressives. Maybe there’s a deeper point to be made, that saying there’s equality is one thing; having the education, opportunity, experience, recognised authority and perhaps someone like a wife to lean on privately for support is quite another. At very worse this whole approach sells short proper feminism by aligning it with an anti-intellectual rejection of politics with a capital ‘P’, which reflects the malaise of mainstream liberal politics far more any new or particularly female perspective. Indeed, it’s ultimately the failure of socialism that has led to a return, albeit in muted form, to an identity-based brand of gender politics in the first place, which either inflates or misunderstands these more subtle and residual ideals about social role and aims to garner its authority by gorging on them back through the past.

Indeed, what seems buried underneath the broad trend is a sense of disenfranchisement; as if having ideals, aspirations and role models is a childish bad habit the twentieth century should have educated us out of by now. In fact, the contemporary culture seems to militate against ideals altogether, since ideals are exclusive, decisive, discriminating - and bound to be proved false gods later down the line. So there’s strikingly little hint of the achievements of this astounding figure who saw further than any of his generation, whilst his ideas are laid carefully out of bounds. At the same time, an implicit ideal of moral austerity seems to colour the climate. In dislocating Lenin’s life from the content of his work, Rappaport presents him for today’s readers mainly through his flaws, in homage to the best tradition of the tragic heroes of historical theatre. This neatly serves to pull him down from his hagiographic heights and hang him firmly on the same peg as the rest of us.

The broad trend is a sense of disenfranchisement

In this vein the book also presents a more mature Lenin: a remote yet zealous, argumentative and obsessively planning man whose character contrasted with the stable loyalty of the three women who surround him - and to great dramatic effect. Lenin is the driven, ruthless tactician, whilst his wife is frequently described as ‘slovenly’, deferential in her manner and caring little for her appearance. He’s always writing home in the ongoing search for funds, urging Nadya to do the same. Rappaport notes that personally she disliked Lenin’s amorality and ruthlessness, a fact which comes through strongly at times in her writing.

In short, this man harbours a dangerous and arrogant assumption of being above - and in control of - events:

‘For all his undoubted polemical and political gifts Lenin never seemed to appreciate the one essential: that history never runs to any preordained schedules; time and again he would find himself having to improvise and amend his tactics to fit the changing political situation.’ (p121)

It is difficult to see how Lenin’s supposed to get out of this one: if he predicts the turn of events accurately then he’s wrong for believing they’re pre-ordained; if he improvises to accommodate events as they unfold then he’s wrong for compromising his dogmatism by improvising.

It’s ironic that stepping back from understanding his ideas is deemed necessary for understanding the man - which just goes to show how difficult it is to make sense of Lenin without exploring Leninism. It also shows the futility of banging on about Leninism in a climate deeply ambivalent, confused, maybe even a little shy and certainly still working out, its meaning in the present. Of course Lenin was ruthless and in the narrow sense of it amoral: the question is whether you think it was worth it. Trotsky would later claim in Their Morals and Ours, that any action was justified in pursuit of the struggle for socialism. Its historical failure and the rapid ascent of Stalinism in the Soviet Union made this harder for many to swallow; the seemingly impossible future for any alternative to capitalist society casts much murkier light on the matter still.

The trouble with Lenin?

So understandably, the main criticism of Lenin isn’t explicitly about his politics, but more on his ‘moral’ failings: that he had cowardly tendencies and no problems hiding behind others. This is conveyed most strongly in the chapters on Inessa Armand, Lenin and Nadya.

Through her political commitment, companionship and much more besides, Nadya ‘had devoted her life to Lenin and he valued her selflessness’ (p222). But when he met the passionate, cultured and uninhibited Inessa Armand, a new and energetic party activist who was ‘elegant and feminine in an instinctively French way’ (p194), Rappaport says that she presented him for the first time with emotional and sexual challenges. She was given a key role co-organising an important Party conference. He was ‘enchanted’. The three developed an uncomfortable ‘ménage a trois’ and went walking together. Nadya was by all accounts unhappy and offered to leave Lenin in either 1911 or 1913 so he could be with her (p199). She was refused.

An un-posted letter written by Inessa to Lenin in January 1914 is supposed to hint at the extent of their relationship in Paris:  ‘I could get by without your kisses if only just to see you’ (p223). Experts examining a wodge of Lenin’s old physicians reports are as yet undecided whether he actually died from syphilis, which Rappaport suggests other evidence from the time suggests (2). This bid to prove his unfaithfulness is not quite so innocently in pursuit of the pure facts of the matter as it might make out; on the other hand, it’s no doubt wise to take official hagiography with a pinch of salt.

Nevertheless, this theme of unfulfilled love returns as Inessa attempts to develop her own work on the family, marriage and free love and sends her work to be checked by Lenin in 1915:

‘Sexuality was not a Marxist subject and he responded in the only way he could - with dry and dispassionate theory…she was politically incorrect in her interpretation of “free love”; it was a bourgeois concept not a proletarian one.’ (p243)

While this advice makes sense from a political perspective, the juxtaposition of dry intellect and passionate emotion, iron-willed restraint and its equally wilful absence, produces a strong dramatic tension in the text that reveals Inessa in a balmy sensitive haze. At heart, this is a variation on the old story of worldly duties that come between lovers, the tender tug between social pressures and private desires. Only here, instead of resolving tensions through making a suicide pact to ensure mutual destruction (such as in Romeo and Juliet), what we get is social revolution. It’s interesting that it’s one of the most compelling ‘human’ stories, and one of the most dramatic, that comes to the fore when looking at Lenin’s life outside of his role in the making of 1917.

And interestingly, these chapters have strong resonances with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin in Zurich, which follows Lenin as he prepares in Geneva for what becomes the Russian Revolution of 1917. Written by an exile of the Soviet regime who was born in 1918, fought in the Second World War, was sent to labour camps (fictionalised in Day in the life of Ivan Denosivich) and later moved to the US, the short book starts off inside the head of Lenin as he makes his plans. It tracks the unhappiness of his wife, which she can’t hide from her mother, hints heavily at an affair - if not childish dependence - when it comes to Inessa, and describes a strange incident of a transformative experience of a very self-aware woman on a horse. Lenin is portrayed as putting off making a firm decision, constantly hanging back, afraid to commit himself.  Whatever the political views of Solzhenitsyn, there’s little hint of the revolution betrayed in this text, though its niftiness as a story and humanity are memorable.

Conspirator has its own humanity, but what hangs in the air after it’s gone is a tone of motherly admonishment. In both books, it’s ultimately the less-touched-by-hagiography women who offer a different way into the early history of the Communist world and hence understanding what happened there; their characters like slim ciphers to be decoded and still decided by whoever has the time and inclination. Whilst it’s easy to be sympathetic to the desire to give these women their due (Nadya was in fact recognised for her contribution to Soviet educational policy), the difficult pill to swallow is that this means recognising their contribution to, or even slighting by, Lenin on an explicitly personal level - even when both were committed and highly-disciplined revolutionaries. 

Despite the difficultly always clearly demarcating the personal, especially in a time where there was scarce time for the latter,  this book at least proves that men make history, only not in circumstances of their own choosing.


1) Interview on Me and My Big Mouth
2) A retrospective diagnosis says Lenin had syphilis, New York Times, 22 June 2004


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