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Lenin: His Life and Legacy 
by Dmitri Volkogonov, translated and edited by Harold Shukman.
HarperCollins, 529 pp., £25, October 1994, 0 00 255270 1
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Lenin: A Political Life. Vol. III: The Iron Ring 
by Robert Service.
Macmillan, 393 pp., £45, January 1995, 0 333 29392 4
Show More
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‘Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!’ Mayakovsky’s words became one of the most quoted Soviet slogans and remained so for decades. And they were not entirely devoid of meaning. Whether or not the dogmas labelled Leninism bore much resemblance to Lenin’s original ideas, they continued to fulfil a legitimising function for the regime, albeit among a diminishing section of the Soviet population. And just as the corpse in the Lenin mausoleum looked fairly lifelike thanks to the skill of Soviet embalmers, so, too, did Soviet ideologues maintain the illusion that Lenin’s theory of socialist revolution still influenced the actions of the USSR’s rulers. Given this, and given the hold of the gerontocracy in the years preceding perestroika, it was even possible to see the point of another ubiquitous slogan: ‘Lenin is more alive than all the living!’

Not any longer. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Lenin cult has been systematically destroyed. Thousands of streets and squares, parks and museums, factories and farms, not to speak of towns and cities, have been renamed. Many of the busts, portraits and statues have been demolished or removed to less public settings. Most of the vast number of works by or about Lenin which used to feature prominently in every Soviet bookshop have been pulped or consigned to the warehouse. A dwindling number of nostalgic Communists still carry pictures of Vladimir Ilich on demonstrations, and in the flea markets there is some demand for Leninist memorabilia, but that is all. In the former Soviet Union, Lenin is now well and truly part of history.

This ought to be a great advantage for his biographers. Previously impenetrable Moscow archives containing large quantities of materials about Lenin’s life and work have begun to open their doors to researchers. And more important, the disappearance of the state he created means that biographies of Lenin need no longer be loaded with value judgments about the Soviet Union.

Dmitri Volkogonov enjoyed unique access to hitherto unpublished Lenin documents in the former Central Party Archives (3724 in all, he tells us) and to other classified material of major significance, including records of Party Conferences and Congresses. His vivid account of Lenin’s life and times covers much ground already familiar to the Western reader, but it also contains a considerable amount of new and sometimes fascinating detail. Lenin’s largely non-Russian ancestry, concealed in Soviet texts, is restored to his biography. Only his paternal grandfather was an ethnic Russian; his pateral grandmother was German, and on his mother’s side, his grandparents were half-Jewish, half-Swedish and Kalmyk respectively. Extracts from previously unknown correspondence between Lenin and Inessa Armand strongly suggest that they had an intimate relationship. The complex sources of the Party’s pre-Revolutionary funds and the bitter disputes over their control are described at some length and there is new information from the records of the Provisional Government’s counter-intelligence service about German aid to the Bolsheviks between 1915 and 1917. The substantial scale and remarkably casual distribution of Soviet subsidies to foreign Communist Parties, at a time of dire conditions for much of the Russian population, is described with unsuppressed indignation. (One ‘Comrade Thomas’, a Comintern employee though not even a party member was allowed to disburse 1.22 million gold roubles in Germany in 1921, much of it unaccounted for, before a commission set up by Stalin relieved him of his responsibilities.) The archives yield more examples of Lenin’s advocacy of the use of terror against actual or potential enemies. His proposed response to Estonia and Latvia’s secession in 1918, for instance, was: ‘Cross the frontier somewhere ... and hang 100-1000 of their civil servants and rich people.’ New data about Lenin’s physical deterioration in the last three years of his life is provided, fuelling fresh speculation about its effects on his political judgment and actions.

Volkogonov’s book is undoubtedly a valuable addition to the existing literature on Lenin. What it is not, unfortunately, is a work of analysis. There are major gaps, with little on Lenin’s early career, his creation of the Bolshevik Party, or the conflicts in the Soviet leadership after the Revolution; not only is Lenin’s theoretical work treated as though it consisted simply of rationalisations of ulterior motives, but the book is clearly written for Russian readers in order to dispel any illusions they might still retain about Lenin and Leninism. Dispassionate assessment is not the author’s style: his preference is for sweeping, sometimes banal, sometimes bizarre generalisations. ‘Bolshevism destroyed everything in Russia ... There can scarcely have been another man in history who managed so profoundly to change so large a society on such a scale.’ Lenin in fact died lamenting that Communism had had little impact on Russian society; but throughout his book Volkogonov’s assumption is that everything that happened in Russia after 1917 can be attributed to Lenin. ‘Thanks chiefly to Lenin’s efforts, the Bolsheviks succeeded in convincing the Russian people that the path to happiness lay through lawlessness, arbitrary rule and violence.’ The Russian people? Or the Soviet political élite, of which General Volkogonov was once a member? The author’s hostility to his subject results in other curious statements. Lenin, he says, was ‘unused ... to the demands of a working routine’; his ‘lack of experience of government’ meant that his ‘knowledge of the various functions of state was superficial’. These are at least debatable, but the assertion that Lenin attended only seven out of 173 meetings of the Council of People’s Commissars between August 1918 and his death is simply incredible.

Volkogonov is less the biographer than the counsel for the prosecution. This might seem an odd role for the former colonel-general who was deputy head of the Main Political Administration of the Soviet Armed Forces during the conservative regimes of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. As a leading figure in the section of the party apparatus responsible for ensuring the political loyalty and ideological compatibility of all military personnel, he is unlikely in those days to have described Lenin as anything less than the greatest political genius of the 20th century, if not of all time. What changed his mind? Why did this ‘former Stalinist’, in his own words, make ‘the painful transition to a total rejection of Bolshevik totalitarianism’? Partly, it seems, because of what he saw in the archives during perestroika, when he was head of the Institute of Military History, and later as a special military adviser to Boris Yeltsin. But revealing though these materials may have been, Lenin’s flaws were hardly invisible before access became possible. Volkogonov is quite candid about the main reason for his and others’ loss of faith in Lenin. ‘We began to doubt his infallibility above all because the “cause” which he launched ... has suffered a major historical defeat.’ This strongly suggests that Volkogonov was less a true believer whose god failed than a senior manager whose firm went bankrupt.

At any rate, Volkogonov leaves his readers in no doubt as to his book’s main message. Lenin was a man of ‘malevolent and perfidious’ ideas whose revolution was a disaster for Russia, lasting decades. This is underlined in an epilogue dealing with Soviet leaders up to and including his present employer’s arch-rival, Mikhail Gorbachev. There are some good anecdotes, but the claim that the numerous references to Lenin they contain indicate his lasting influence on his successors is highly dubious. It is curious that a former propagandist should take their formal recitation of Leninist phrases at face value.

Robert Service’s Lenin trilogy is a work of a very different kind. The final volume covering the period from the spring of 1918 to Lenin’s death has benefited from access to some of the sources used by Volkogonov, though far from all, which is a pity since Service would have made much better use of these materials. Mainly, though, like the preceding two volumes, it is based on close reading of a wide range of published sources. The result yields a genuinely revealing portrait of Lenin as revolutionary and theorist, party leader and head of government. He emerges from Service’s account as a ‘political giant’ and a man of striking contradictions: astute realist and utopian idealist, pragmatic politician and dogmatic zealot, ultra-centralist and libertarian visionary, revolutionary intellectual and merciless critic of the intelligentsia. While the focus is on Lenin the politician, the description of his personal characteristics – his total self-confidence, his phenomenal energy and powers of concentration, his ‘magpie-like’ capacity to absorb information – provides a much more plausible account of his extraordinary achievements than Volkogonov’s portrayal of a man out of his depth in affairs of state. Service also shows Lenin’s constant political manoeuvring and scheming, making and breaking of alliances, and contradictory pronouncements for what they were: the stock in trade of an astute politician, rather than the behaviour of a demonic conspirator.

This is undoubtedly the best study of Lenin the political leader written to date, and it is likely to remain so for some time. Its value lies above all in its masterly account of Lenin’s strategy and tactics in the critical struggles in the Bolshevik Party, the Soviet state and the international arena. Service’s accounts of the Ninth Party Conference in September 1920, meeting in the aftermath of the Red Army’s failed invasion of Poland; of the trade-union controversy in the winter of 1920-21; and of the volte-face which produced the New Economic Policy in 1921, for example, could hardly be improved on. Where interpretative insights are concerned, the contribution to understanding Lenin is less obvious. While there are many shrewd observations, Service basically restates an old line: Lenin was a ‘militant state interventionist’ and ‘enthusiastic state terrorist’, who not only promoted the idea of totalitarianism, but actually invented it. While Service is more scholarly than Volkogonov, both see Lenin as a ruthless fanatic with exceptional political skills. And both hold him responsible for Russia’s violent, often tragic history since 1917.

Like all biographers both authors tend to exaggerate the role of agency in historical causation. Neither is greatly interested in the general context of their protagonist’s actions. The question of terror is a good example. Lenin’s advocacy of terror is vividly related, but there is barely any mention of his opponents’ use of identical tactics. Indeed, Volkogonov argues that White terror was different in that ‘it emerged spontaneously from below.’ Leaving aside the matter of the White generals’ improbable innocence, this raises the question of how far Red terror was the result of grassroots militants settling scores with the ‘class enemy’. The research of social historians of the Russian Revolution, such as Diane Koenkov, S.A. Smith and Ronald Suny, has shown that the Bolshevik leadership in and immediately after 1917 was not only more susceptible to pressure from the masses than might have been thought, but driven by events as often as it directed them. It is also remarkable that there is no reference to the international background to the Russian Civil War – namely, the carnage of World War One which saw the leaders of the most civilised countries in the world sending millions of their own and other countries’ citizens to their deaths.

What this suggests is that sifting through unpublished documents about Lenin is, in the final analysis, less important than seeing him in context, reacting to the pressures exerted on him by other individuals, groups, social forces and political circumstances. Only in this way is it possible to grasp his significance as the greatest revolutionary of the 20th century. The importance of doing so, moreover, doesn’t only concern the past. It is fashionable to describe the Post-Modern world as having left revolution behind, to see 1989 and 1991 as marking the definitive end of any revolutionary challenge to capitalism. But revolution is the product of structure as well as of agency; and the contradictions of the international economic system, the inability of the leading nations of the world to resolve them, and the potential appeal to the exploited and underprivileged of a radical alternative to capitalism, have hardly diminished since Lenin identified them.

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