Everyone liked Bukharin. He stood out among the founding fathers of Russian Communism--men of legendary dedication and severity who were in every sense of Dostoevsky's word "possessed." Bukharin was playful, affectionate, artistic. Even when part of the elite that ruled Soviet Russia, he found time to shimmy up trees as he had as a boy and, in middle age, to fall passionately in love with Anna Larina, whose acerbic and moving memoir, "This I Cannot Forget," chronicles their life together.
Even Stalin liked Bukharin. That did not in the least prevent Stalin from having Bukharin arrested in 1937 and, in the last of the three great Moscow show trials, having him accused of a series of crimes including plotting the assassination of Lenin. The historical record offers ample reason for Stalin to bear a grudge against Bukharin who, in the days when a sort of fierce, crude democracy was still operative within the party, often opposed Stalin on various issues. The truth, however, was less complicated than that. Stalin operated from a single, simple principle--kill all rivals.
Bukharin was arrested in February 1937, the year when the Great Terror reached its crescendo, and was held in Lubyanka, the headquarters of the secret police, which also contained cells for especially important prisoners. Lubyanka is in the heart of Moscow, just a few minutes from the Kremlin, and it is not out of the question that Stalin paid a visit to Bukharin to discuss the terms of their deal. In any case, it does seem clear that some sort of a deal was struck between them. In exchange for cooperating at the trial, Bukharin was apparently assured that no harm would come to his family and that he would be allowed to write in prison, where he was working on three books--"The Transformation of the World," a volume of poems; "Philosophical Arabesques," an intellectual summa; and an autobiographical novel, "How It All Began." In a letter written from prison, Bukharin implored Stalin: "I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear. . . . Don't let this work perish. I repeat and emphasize: This is completely apart from my personal fate. . . . Have pity! Not on me, on the work!"
Both men reneged on their deal--Bukharin nobly, Stalin, of course, ignobly. At his trial, Bukharin confessed to the crimes of which he was accused but did so with so many qualifications and equivocations that Stalin must have been irked, to say the least. Bukharin's wife was not executed but was hurled into the Gulag and their son disappeared into the grim world of Soviet orphanages and foster homes, only to be reunited with his mother in 1956. Bukharin was allowed to write and, miraculously, his manuscripts survived in the KGB archives. About their author's "personal fate," there was never any question.
Now, Bukharin's autobiographical novel has been translated into English, the prose sections well rendered, the copious poetry quoted less so, with a useful and intelligent introduction by Princeton scholar Stephen F. Cohen. Covering the period between the late 1880s and the 1905 Revolution, the novel is unpolished and unfinished. Its last line is: "He felt very bitter and angry at himself. . ," though the tone of the book is neither angry nor bitter. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It does of course contain passages about pre-revolutionary Russia that can be read as a veiled indictment of Stalin's Russia--"You have transformed your party into a barracks. . . . You have killed all freedom of criticism among yourselves and you want to extend this barracks to include everything and everyone. We humbly thank you. But the only response we can make to such invitations is a categorical no, and again no."
And there are many pages devoted to the young hero's awakening social conscience. Like many of the best young people in Russia, Bukharin and his alter ego in the novel came to communism through both reason and compassion, as well as from a natural Huck Finn-like spirit of rebellion and hatred of hypocrisy and pomposity. ("The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is the hero's favorite novel.) One official is described: "He was nothing but a belly on short, little legs, stuffed into a uniform."
But I would think it a mistake to read too much social significance into this work, which is really more poetic than political. As Bukharin writes: "Children, like grown-ups, have their superstitions, prejudices, heartfelt dreams, ideals, and unforgettable incidents in life, which are stored in the memory forever and which suddenly, at terrible or tragic moments in life, come swimming into consciousness, surprisingly vivid, in full detail, down to the wrinkles in somebody's face or a spider's web illuminated by the evening sun."
And what comes swimming back most vividly into Bukharin's consciousness are people, the beauty of nature, the odd detail. His kindly, feckless father is described as a man who "goes out to buy sausage and comes home with a canary." The contents of boys' pockets are rendered with loving detail: "bread crumbs and the sticky legs of grasshoppers, the eyes and wings of flies, remnants of worms and microscopic bits of soil--just the kind of aromatic tobacco mixture an old witch would like."
There is nothing cowardly or escapist in Bukharin's return to the beauty, freedom and pain of his childhood. Another communist intellectual, Aleksander Wat, the Polish poet and author of the brilliant and harrowing memoir, "My Century," also found himself in Lubyanka, where, to his own surprise, he found solace in reading Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." Somehow, in extreme situations, it is immersion in the radiant particulars of daily life, the little things, that is truly consoling and spiritually refreshing. Bukharin, sentenced to death, in unbearable anguish over the fate of his family, found strength and a measure of peace in swimming upstream to his origins, to the time and places where "it all began."
But children are also natural philosophers, asking the big questions, which they later find embarrassing, sophomoric, but to which everyone must return at the end. The deaths of a close friend and his brother impel the hero to claw at the wall of the great mystery. Couldn't science find some way of re-creating the individual from his cells? "Then again, what would happen to the Earth if nobody died? It would get filled up with people, like sardines in a can." Oddly enough, Bukharin's alter ego seems to find the answer to his philosophical quest in a novel by the politically reactionary Dostoevsky that "shook him to the core. . . . Dostoevsky described how people of the future would feel after they had lost their faith in God and the immortality of the soul and were going without the consolation of their thousand-year-old faith." Dostoevsky described a world that both accorded with Bukharin's communism and his need to make sense out of death. People "would wake up and hasten to kiss one another, in their hurry to love, knowing that their days were short, that that was all that remained to them. They would work for one another, and each would give to all, all the fortune they possessed, and that alone would make them happy."
There is something very Russian about Bukharin's burst of literary activity while in a death cell, a belief that writing is not only an instrument of analysis but a spiritual discipline that can restore a man's youth, sanity and courage. Because of the circumstances in which it was written and the desperate purposes it was to serve, this book was of greater significance to its author than it can be to any reader. Its most likely audience will be those with an interest in 20th century Russia and communism, yet no one reading this book in context can fail to be moved by its author's valiant struggle to behold his own life one last time.