From a Life of One Possessed : LENIN: A New Biography, <i> by Dmitri Volkogonov (The Free Press: $30; 500 pp.)</i>
Could I have imagined, even in my most bizarre flights of fantasy, that I would review a historical book on Vladimir Lenin? Even more, that this book would be written by a three-star general in the Soviet army? From my student years in the 1950s, when my parents were imprisoned in the gulag, to 1980, when I was expelled from the Soviet Union for the crime of writing, nothing struck me as more tedious than those countless Lenin biographies by high-ranking state historians.
Times have really changed. Now I read Dmitri Volkogonov’s “Lenin” and I have trouble putting it down. I even find myself eager to write about it here!
“Volkogonov” is Russian for “chasing wolves.” A rather appropriate name, don’t you think, for a man who has written a trilogy of books about the leaders of Russia’s 20th-Century revolution: Stalin, Trotsky and now, most important, a leader of leaders, Lenin. This titanic work is probably the most significant in the series, in no small part because it draws from the hitherto inaccessible archives of the Soviet Communist Party.
Apart from the story’s main hero and the host of other historical personalities, there is another character worthy of note: Gen. Volkogonov himself. In the introduction he tells us: “As a former Stalinist who has made the painful transition to a total rejection of Bolshevik totalitarianism, I confess that Leninism was the last bastion to fall in my mind.”
For my part, I should confess that as a lifelong anti-Stalinist and anti-Leninist, it is hard for me to believe that a man of about my own age ever could have sincerely defended such a bastion in his mind. Then again, I am ready to concede that my presumption is biased.
Anyway, the bastion has crumbled. Why else would Gen. Volkogonov be giving us this brilliant, impartial “factography” rather than another “well balanced” Soviet interpretation of the facts?
What a gleeful scene, these still smoking ruins, but I can’t help whispering another confession. It seems to me that from under the rubble, one survivor, a little evil spirit, has managed to escape. Hovering over the scene, he casts the remnants of his spell over some former guards of the bastion. The survivor’s name, of course, is Vladimir Lenin.
For Volkogonov, while revealing the outlandish deception, perfidy, ruthlessness and cruelty that Lenin has personified, nevertheless seems to restrain himself from talking about his character’s dullness, mediocrity and stupidity in pursuing his ultimate goal, the triumph of the proletariat. In fact, he manages to find in his subject an “exceptional mind and broad theoretical knowledge.”
Volkogonov, it seems, views Lenin as a powerful demon of the 20th Century, a grandiose “super-revolutionary” who outlined the major currents in our tragic time.
The question would arise inevitably: Was Lenin a Demon or Petty Demon? Was he, in other words, a powerful devil akin to Mephistopheles or just another senselessly evil man like the perverted schoolmaster of Fyodor Sologub’s novel “The Little Demon”? As far as I am concerned, Lenin has never belonged to the 20th Century, with its quest for liberalism and pluralism, its complicating science, modernist art and religious existentialism. Rather, he was a fiend of 19th-Century positivism, a dying-in-mildew philosophy that inspired narrow-minded vulgar Marxists and other fans of universal classification. Lenin inherited their “dialectical-materialistic values” and then developed them to the level of utmost absurdity.
Bluntly rejecting the “accursed questions” raised by Tolstoyan and Dostoevskyan worlds as “idealistic garbage” (not to mention the Symbolists’ apocalyptic vision), Lenin stood for a mechanical model of the world that only he understood; then he feverishly tried to reshape human life in accordance with the positivist classification, i.e. class theory.
At the turn of the century Lenin worried that he had missed the boat, that his theories were getting dated. The First World War, however, salvaged the Marxist classification, at least in Russia. He had jumped aboard at the last moment, for only under the condition of war--that is, only during a recess in the development of the new age--could Lenin’s appeal be so broadly heard and understood. He said to the mediocre masses: Do it now, otherwise we’ll face a completely different world, completely different rules of the game.
In the first chapter of “Lenin,” Volkogonov, now a senior military adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, observes that “it was difficult to imagine Lenin as young. . . . At the age of 25 he was recalled as young only by his identity papers. You would have said he couldn’t be less than 40 . . . the faded skin, complete baldness, apart from a few hairs on his temples . . . the sly, slightly shifty way he would watch you, the older man’s hoarse voice. . . . It wasn’t surprising that he was known in the Saint Petersburg Union of Struggle as ‘the Old Man.’ ”
By 1909, according to sources both in and outside this book, Lenin, then 39, was in a state of depression. His famous organizing power was ebbing away, and along with his hair he was losing his belief in the inevitability of the proletarian revolution. His tryst with the irresistible Party temptress Inessa Armand, however, stirred him up physically, emotionally and mentally. Life, all of a sudden, offered him a new perspective: You should win, if not for the proletariat, then for her! Here is a new cherchez la femme for you!
Let us put aside for a moment all of the atrocities Lenin committed in the course of his struggle and follow the dramatic line of this love affair, the one purely human experience he appears to have had in his life. Working fiercely for a cosmically inconceivable victory, Lenin finally triumphed. But shortly after being enthroned in the Kremlin as the supreme ruler of the gigantic country and a firebrand of the World revolution, this short, prematurely aging man loses Armand, the only human being he ever loved, to typhus. Shortly thereafter, he himself is afflicted with an incurable cerebral sclerosis. What a sad story, what true melancholy!
However, we cannot limit ourselves by the frames of his personal drama. Dmitri Volkogonov provides us with a full scope of historical events, which were the inseparable parts of this Gogolian character’s lifetime. Stepping over his devastated bastion, the outstanding historian, like Virgil, leads us into Russia’s 20th-Century “demoniana.”
It is interesting how devoted Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was to the idea of punishment by hanging. The most popular method of settling scores during his lifetime was shooting; no wonder one of the most popular slogans then was “Up against the wall!” But in the numerous papers discovered by Volkogonov in the Party archives Lenin scurries about, building gallows:
“Hang the kulak ringleaders!” “Those Cossacks must be hanged without a trial!” “Hang kulaks, priests and landowners!” “Comrades! The kulak uprising in your district must be crushed without pity. . . . An example must be made. Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers!”
It cannot be excluded that the shadow of a noose over his elder brother Alexander had haunted Lenin all his life. (Alexander was executed in 1887 for participating in a plot to assassinate the czar.)
Then again, for the sake of impartiality we must admit that he never shirked any other way of class education. Fortunately for future historians, Lenin has turned out to be a true “graphomaniac”: Since his diligent emigre studies at the London public library, he marched along his path, filing countless memos, pamphlets and instructions, here and there dropping some perfectly venomous notes. Volkogonov has tirelessly collected enough of them to surprise even seasoned Sovietologists.
As early as 1911, in Paris, long before Lenin seized power, he wrote of his political opponents, the Socialists of various non-Bolshevik factions: “One should push such people up against the wall, and if they still don’t give in, trample them into the mud!” The latter prescription was taken simply as a not quite gentlemanly figure of speech, but later it became a popular saying among Stalin’s dreaded secret police, the NKVD: “We’ll trample you into the Gulag mud!”
In 1918 Lenin sends a telegram to the city of Kazan: “Comrades! Crushing of all White guards . . . will be carried out in an exemplary, ruthless manner. . . . With ardent greetings. Lenin.”
He telegraphs Saratov: “Shoot conspirators and waverers without asking anyone or any idiotic red tape!”
He cables Astrakhan: “Catch and shoot speculators and bribe-takers! These swine have to be dealt so that everyone will remember it for years!”
And he advises Trotsky: “You shouldn’t spare the city . . . because what is needed is remorseless destruction!”
Along with these open messages, there were, Volkogonov points out, quite a few ciphered ones probably containing even more horrid instructions. Lenin established the Bolsheviks’ sinister propensity for euphemisms. In the upper left corner of many memos concerning some hostages or arrestees a resolution made in his own hand might be found: “To the archive!”--meaning, to the gallows.
Many orders like that were given in casual conversation over the telephone. An old Bolshevik in his memoirs recalls with the awe “the precise reply Lenin gave to the question ‘Who should be killed in the royal family?’ It was, ‘The whole ectenia ,’ that is the entire House of Romanovs. That was pure genius!”
Speaking about Lenin’s genius, we cannot avoid at least mentioning his attitude toward religion. In 1918, during a discussion with Leonid Krasin he spun wisdom for the generations to come: “Electricity will take the place of God. Let the peasant pray to electricity; he’s going to feel the power of the central authorities more than that of heaven.” It is easy to imagine a dark smirk on his face after pronouncing such a sentence.
Having researched all this material and woven it skillfully in this biography, Volkogonov still finds it within himself to be forgiving: “Lenin cannot be accused of a personal cruelty. His was more the social, philosophical cruelty of a leader. His main argument for the use of terror was that it was in the interests of the proletariat.” In other passages, he tells us that Lenin was a modest family man who loved cats and ordered Swiss clothing and French rolls through his secret Comintern agents.
However, readers of these pages will have a hard time believing that someone so domestically kind could be so philosophically cruel. It is more likely that Volkogonov still has some allegiance to his “old convictions,” or that he simply could not imagine otherwise.
On the other hand, Volkogonov also writes: “The leaders of the revolution had become the priests of terror.”
Volkogonov’s conclusion is no less striking than his preceding revelations: “Lenin was both a demon of destruction and a demiurge of creation.” I wonder, what signs of the demiurgical activity can we spot in this book: the bloodthirsty revolutionary tribunals, the firing squads, the gallows and poison gas for the Tambov peasants, the concentration camps and the hostage taking?
Volkogonov justly states: “History neither accuses, nor justifies. It is a means to understand, to discern the patterns that characterize a distant age.” He must be given great credit for writing this book. Due to his extraordinary work we can broaden our understanding of this not-so-distant age, and once again, as though it was anew, arrive at this conclusion:
In the first quarter of the 20th Century, a vast land in the Eastern Hemisphere and a more or less mature society was taken over by a bunch of utterly possessed people led by a puny man who was at the same time a pathological liar, a pathological traitor and a pathological executioner. In addition to these qualities, he had a fondness for the toiling masses. Judge for yourself what role a personality can play in history.
A historical book, in my opinion, can be valued highly, if it, apart from its scholarly significance, provides the images vivid and tangible in terms of the characters’ historical lives and physical lives, and even metaphysical lives as well. I have never written any historical books, but in a recent novel I took poetic license to write a short digression in which Vladimir Lenin is reincarnated as a male squirrel. One critic reprimanded me for this “silly poetical aside” in an otherwise not bad novel. I was somewhat nonplussed, but then Volkogonov’s book arrived with two striking citations in it.
The first was taken from “The Instant Photography,” a work on Lenin by Alexei Kuprin. “I couldn’t stop looking at his eyes. . . . What surprised me most was their colour. . . . Last summer in the Paris zoo, seeing the eyes of lemur, I said to myself in amazement: at last I found the colours of Lenin’s eyes!” The second citation was taken from another writer, Ariadna Tyrkova: “Lenin was an evil man. And he had the evil eyes of a wolf.” This gave me a short metaphysical triumph over my critic’s sharp comments: If a lemur, if a wolf, then why not a squirrel?
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.