The Spark That Lit the Revolution: Lenin in London and the Politics That Changed the World 
by Robert Henderson.
I.B.Tauris, 270 pp., £17.99, March 2020, 978 1 78453 862 0
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Lenin​ liked London. He arrived in April 1902, not long after his release from Siberian exile, and spent about a year in the city before moving on to Geneva, returning for several briefer visits over the next decade. Like a good tourist, he explored the East End on foot and investigated the rest of the city from the top of a bus. He went to local workers’ meetings he had found out about from announcements in the newspapers and listened to Irish orators in Hyde Park. He didn’t have much to do with the English, that nation of shopkeepers, but being an itinerant Russian revolutionary he didn’t have to. There was no need to be grateful to them for their generous right of asylum or award them points for liberal tolerance. The local Russian émigrés, a ramshackle, quarrelsome lot but generous to new arrivals, were the relevant community from Lenin’s standpoint, but even they didn’t matter to him a great deal. Lenin liked London primarily because he had fallen in love. The object of his love was the British Museum – or rather, the great circular reading room of the library (now renamed the British Library, stripped of all its grandeur and romance and moved to the Euston Road) that was then the hidden heart of the Museum. His favourite seat is said to have been number L13.

This last detail is not in Robert Henderson’s book, which leads me to wonder whether it’s wrong. Henderson, a former Russian curator at the British Library, knows everything there is to know about Lenin’s love affair with the BM, and tells it all. This is a level of detailed Leniniana seldom encountered since the demise of the Soviet Union, but even those diligent Soviet researchers who used to track Lenin’s every move and hour didn’t know the BM as Henderson does. It’s what gives his book its charm. I hadn’t anticipated enjoying yet another report about Lenin in emigration, quarrelling with one fellow revolutionary after another, developing rashes from ‘over-tension’ and writing endless revolutionary polemics. Lenin was living in London the year before his intransigence split the embryonic Russian Social Democratic Labour Party at its 1903 congress in Geneva, so I expected yet another detailed immersion in the party’s factional politics. But, happily, readers will find little on ‘the politics that changed the world’ or even ‘the spark that lit the revolution’ – other than some discussion of London printing arrangements for the newspaper Iskra, or ‘Spark’, which Lenin edited until 1903. This is essentially a book about the everyday life of émigré Russian revolutionaries in London in the early 20th century.

While the intensity of Lenin’s feeling for the British Museum sets him apart, he wasn’t the only Russian revolutionary to use its reading room. ‘They all, without fail, would … register as readers,’ Henderson reports, and he has ferreted out applications from more than ninety of them, including Prince Peter Kropotkin, Sergei Stepniak, Vladimir Burtsev and Vera Zasulich. Lenin was more difficult to track down than some, as he first applied under his London pseudonym of Dr Jacob Richter and later under his own name of Ulyanov, registered by the BM as Oulianoff – but Henderson found him in the end. ‘I came from Russia in order to study the land question’ was Dr Richter’s reason for desiring admission, and study it he duly did, usually arriving early in the day and working in the library until the afternoon. He spent ‘half his time there’, his wife recalled, and was eloquent in its praise. ‘How pleasant and comfortable it is to work there,’ he told a young Russian disciple. You had your own desk, with room to spread out your notes; books were brought almost immediately; the reference department and specialist staff had no equal; and you could find Russian books there that you couldn’t get in Petersburg or Moscow. Altogether, Europe could offer ‘no better library than the British Museum’.

This was not a fleeting love affair, soon forgotten. In 1908, Lenin came over from Paris for more than a month to work in the British Museum on his philosophical treatise Materialism and Empirio-criticism. He also presented his own published works to the library, as detailed in an appendix to Henderson’s book: at least four separate donations, including The Agrarian Question by V.C. Oulianov, presented by the author, Rue des deux ponts 17, Geneva, 14 March 1908, and Development of Capitalism in Russia by V. Ilin, presented by Mr Oulianoff of the same address, 11 April 1908.

But there were other libraries in London too. A key institution for the émigré community was the Russian Free Library at 16 Whitechapel Lane, up a rickety staircase smelling of ‘cabbage and fried fish’ (it was next door to the kosher ‘Russian Odessan restaurant’), to a dusty room full of shabbily dressed patrons reading Russian and Jewish newspapers. The Free Library had been set up by Aleksei Teplov, a former member of the violent revolutionary organisation Narodnaya Volya (‘People’s Will’), with the moral and financial support of a more established cohort of Russian revolutionaries, including Vladimir Burtsev, then editor of the historical magazine Byloe, and V.G. Chertkov, Tolstoy’s literary executor. This was the ‘cultural hub of the Russian East End’, complete with excursions to museums, botanical gardens and London Zoo, as well as the predictable socialist lectures, at which both Lenin and Trotsky spoke in 1902. It also served as an informal employment agency for translators and language teachers.

Since there were Russian revolutionaries in London, there had to be revolutionary conferences. Russian Social Democratic Labour Party congresses were held in London in 1905 and 1907, with Lenin in attendance on both occasions. Henderson quotes Victor Sebestyen’s assessment of the 1905 congress – in his recent book Lenin the Dictator – as ‘probably the most pointless of all the various leftist conferences before 1917’. Henderson disagrees, but such gatherings did take place under challenging circumstances. The head of the Russian secret police claimed that a third of the delegates at the 1907 congress were in the pay of his service. Russian spies weren’t the only ones paying attention: Scotland Yard was in the game too, and at the 1905 congress, held in an upstairs room of the Crown and Woolpack in Clerkenwell, one of its Special Branch men hid in a cupboard to eavesdrop, though he probably knew no Russian. Despite the revolutionaries’ precautions against infiltration by unauthorised persons, the same man got into another meeting under heavy disguise and was able to report that ‘a vote on revolution’ had been carried by 21 to seven.

Police spy stories provide some of the liveliest pages of The Spark That Lit the Revolution. Especially good is an account by a Russian police spy, Jean Edgar Farce, detailed from Paris to work in London, about the difficulties of plying his trade in an English context. In a letter to his superiors in 1906, Farce complained of how hard it was to operate in a place where, unlike in Paris, there were ‘no doormen whose souls can be bought for 100 sous’: ‘If you knock on the door and make up some story to obtain further information, 99 times out of 100 the door will be shut in your face and you will be reported to the tenants.’ It’s poignant, now, to learn that ‘in London, everyone knows what time their post should arrive,’ and if it comes late ‘a simple complaint to the central post office’ will result in ‘postal detectives’ being notified and the dispatch of ‘one or several lettres-trappes’ (a mystifying phrase that Henderson leaves untranslated and unexplained).

Among M. Farce’s targets in the London community of Russian émigrés were Konstantin Takhtarev and his wife, Apollinariya Yakubova. Takhtarev, a graduate of St Petersburg University and the Medical-Military Academy, had served his revolutionary apprenticeship in Russia, including a prison spell, before arriving in London in the late 1890s and finding lodgings off Tottenham Court Road – convenient for the British Museum, to which both he and his wife soon acquired readers’ cards. Their visits to the BM were duly monitored by Farce. Takhtarev, the son of a general, presumably had independent means; in any case, he was known for his generosity to other Russians, including Lenin and his wife. This was despite doctrinal differences: Takhtarev was inclined to the moderate side of Russian social democracy, which usually inhibited social relations with Lenin. But Lenin continued to treat him in a polite and comradely way, perhaps partly out of fondness for his wife, the female lead in Henderson’s story.

A woman of ‘rare beauty’ possessed of an ‘unconquerable spirit’, Apollinariya Yakubova has clearly won Henderson’s heart, and he thinks she won Lenin’s, too. Like Lenin’s younger sister, Olga, and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Yakubova was a graduate of the Bestuzhev Courses in St Petersburg, Russia’s first higher education institution for women. She became a revolutionary in the early 1890s and – like Lenin, Krupskaya and Takhtarev at various points in that decade – was arrested for her activities. Rumour has it that before proposing to Krupskaya – with their marriage allowing them to spend their Siberian exile together – Lenin had proposed to Yakubova and been turned down. Henderson exhaustively canvasses this possibility before deciding to accept the opinion of an earlier commentator that ‘such matters cannot be documented’ and so one should ‘move on’. Yakubova seems to have had the hardest time of the four – she was held in prison for 14 months before being sent into exile – and it wasn’t until 1899 that she escaped, making her way to Latvia via Berlin, where she met up with Takhtarev and they married. In London, as well as extending hospitality to new Russian arrivals and doing her own work in the British Museum, Yakubova helped Aleksei Teplov run the Russian Free Library’s lecture series (her own contribution was ‘A Short Course in English History’) before becoming the group’s secretary and treasurer when it was formalised as the East End Socialist Lecturers’ Society.

Henderson’s book includes six glossy photographs of Yakubova, out of a total of 29 plates, and a 12-page postscript (‘Apollinariya’s Story’) on her later fate. I liked the look of her from the pictures. As a young woman she was lively-looking and attractive (‘rare beauty’ may be going too far), but her face becomes more strained over time, the expression more set. She and Takhtarev returned to Russia in 1906, and she gave birth to a son, Misha, not long after, when she must have been almost forty. But then the story turns sad: she soon fell ill with TB and, after long periods of medical treatment that separated her from her husband and son, died a few months before the outbreak of the First World War. Takhtarev became a sociologist at the maverick ‘reflexologist’ Vladimir Bekhterev’s Psycho-Neurological Institute in St Petersburg until, in 1924, the year of Lenin’s death, his lectures were banned, presumably for lack of Marxist orthodoxy; he died of typhus in 1925.

Of these four young revolutionaries arrested in St Petersburg in the mid-1890s and meeting up again in London in 1902, the only one to survive beyond her mid-fifties was Krupskaya, who died in Moscow in February 1939, having just turned seventy. She is an also-ran in Henderson’s story; her later life, in contrast to Yakubova’s, merits no postscript. Krupskaya’s early friendship with and later estrangement from Yakubova is examined, and her memoirs of Lenin are used for background, but otherwise she is featured, cursorily, only as Lenin’s ‘dutiful wife’. Noting her various unflattering party nicknames (‘fish’, ‘herring’), Henderson quotes Jean Edgar Farce’s unappealing description of her in 1905 as a 32-year-old woman, tall, brown hair, blinks her eyes, walks with a slight stoop, dressed in dark grey’.

It is nothing new for Krupskaya to have a bad press, whether from contemporary revolutionaries and police spies or later historians. A Russian police report made a few years after Farce’s (quoted by Krupskaya’s biographer, Robert McNeal) is even more unflattering: ‘tall, about forty years old, medium brown hair, thin, stoops, grey eyes, small nose, thin lips. Dressed always slovenly.’ Nikolai Valentinov, a Menshevik who met Lenin a few years after the London period and felt that Krupskaya disapproved of their friendship, judged her in his Encounters with Lenin to be ‘intellectually … a very commonplace woman … unfeminine’, with a tendency to enunciate truisms ‘in the tone of a schoolmistress’. This was taken up by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his virtuoso act of ventriloquism, Lenin in Zurich, in which his narrator reflects that he had been right to choose Krupskaya over the ‘more vivacious and nicer looking’ Yakubova, since even ‘on the most trivial of subjects’ Krupskaya’s ‘thoughts and feelings never differed from his own’, but later notes that their conversations had started to bore him: ‘Her replies, delivered with long-winded solemnity, were so obvious as to be superfluous. Never a fresh and original response.’

For those brought up Soviet citizens, as Solzhenitsyn was, the problem with Krupskaya was that, in her unsought role as relict and eulogist of the lost leader, her image was so solemnly and drearily good. For Western historians, perhaps the main problem was that, of the three Bolshevik women anyone had heard of, she was the non-glamorous one who wasn’t interested in sexual emancipation – the opposite to the challenging Alexandra Kollontai and Lenin’s elegant later love, Inessa Armand. Krupskaya was a feminist, of course (she kept her own name after marriage, unlike Kollontai and Armand), but the women’s issues that concerned her – crêches for working women, literacy schools etc – seemed mundane. She evidently thought that sex was boring, and celebrity too. When, in the Soviet Union in early 1930s, she was forced to entertain George Bernard Shaw and Lady Astor on a visit, she wore her oldest dress, claimed to have no sugar in the house for tea, and was straight-out rude to Shaw when, rattled by her evident hostility, he expressed the hope that Lenin had left her well provided for. To be sure, Krupskaya tended to dislike important and, in particular, self-important men, putting Shaw in a distinguished company that included Stalin and Trotsky. But rudeness, or at any rate grumpiness, was her forte, and it stood her in good stead in her career as an Oppositionist after Lenin’s death. She mocked Trotsky (also an Oppositionist, but in a competing group) for repeating the new mantra that ‘the Party is always right,’ which she found silly, and became the only leading Oppositionist who, despite all the private pressure and public heckling Stalin could bring to bear, stubbornly refused to make grovelling recantations. Bearing all this in mind, let’s go back to the beginning of Henderson’s story and try reading Krupskaya into it.

Krupskaya​ disliked London. Her Reminiscences of Lenin – written in the early 1930s under vigilant Soviet political surveillance that only partially blurred her individual voice – painstakingly list the things Lenin liked about the city. Although many of these were things they did together, she doesn’t associate herself with his liking but simply reports it. ‘We’ appears in the context of unfavourable impressions: ‘We know little about English socialists in their home surroundings. The English are a reserved people …’ On landladies and their families: ‘We were able to study to our heart’s content all the abysmal philistinism of petty-bourgeois English life.’ ‘We found that all those “ox-tails”, skates fried in fat and indigestible cakes were not made for Russian stomachs.’ There are no songs of praise about the British Museum. It rates a few brief mentions, and backhanded ones at that: for instance, that Lenin didn’t like going to museums – ‘I mean the ordinary museums, not the British Museum, where he spent half his time’ – and, when forced (evidently by Krupskaya) to leave the reading room and look at the BM’s collections of medieval armour and Egyptian vessels, he quickly became bored.

Unfortunately, Henderson didn’t find out – or at least doesn’t tell his readers – whether Krupskaya had a reader’s card for the museum. If we assume that she did not – unlike all the other Russian revolutionaries, including Yakubova – the contrast between Lenin’s experience of life in London and Krupskaya’s appears in a wholly new light. Up to this time, they had been more or less equals, first as revolutionaries and then as exiles. In St Petersburg, Krupskaya had her own job, teaching at a workers’ evening school, and a sense of vocation as a teacher never left her. Now she was stuck as an émigrée in London, with a theoretical knowledge of English that turned out to be unusable in practice, and forced for the first time to be a housewife, which she disliked both in practice and in principle, and was, by general consensus, no good at. ‘To get the best out of a foreign country, you have to go there when you are young and are interested in every little thing,’ she had written to a correspondent in Russia in 1901 (when she was 32 and clearly didn’t think of herself as such). From London in 1902 she wrote to Lenin’s sister Maria to say that ‘Volodya is getting really interested, as with everything that he does’ – but that, she implies, was a fortunate quirk of his temperament. Krupskaya, for her part, had become ‘strangely averse’ to writing letters because there was nothing interesting to write about. Don’t, whatever you do, come abroad to live, she wrote to another friend; she wouldn’t wish it even on an enemy. ‘People somehow fade terribly quickly here. A person arrives full of joy in life, talks about everything under the sun, and in two months all the spirit has gone out of him.’ Except for Lenin, of course, but then he had his love affair with the British Museum. ‘He usually went there first thing in the morning, while Martov’ – Julius Martov, who was running Iskra with Lenin – ‘and I … would go through the mail together.’ In this way, she wrote in her Reminiscences, Vladimir Ilyich ‘was relieved of much of the tiresome routine’.

It wasn’t just that Krupskaya disliked London. She must also, and quite specifically, have disliked the British Museum. The eleven-volume Soviet edition of Krupskaya’s Pedagogical Works includes a 700-page volume on libraries in which the British Museum gets a single mention. This is in an article on ‘Lenin’s work in libraries’ which repeats the sentence from her Reminiscences about his spending ‘half his time’ there. In her own person, Krupskaya had approving words for the American public library system (known to her only at second hand), and she wrote warmly about ‘our’ work in Swiss public libraries, especially the Zurich one. Yes, ‘our’ work. ‘We’ is back here, both in her accounts of Swiss library work and in Lenin’s. They were working together on their separate research projects in the Zurich city library when revolution broke out in Russia in February 1917. When the chance finally came to return in April, courtesy of the German ‘sealed train’, Krupskaya was given two hours to pack up the household, pay the landlady and ‘return books to the library’.

Unlike Lenin, who sent the British Museum copies of his work, Krupskaya didn’t offer any of her publications, including her Reminiscences of Lenin. Henderson may be right that Krupskaya took against Yakubova because of Lenin’s earlier attachment to her. But that affection, even on Henderson’s account, was infinitely less than his love for the British Museum. Krupskaya, whose aversions were strong and stubborn, if often obliquely expressed, and who tended to view Lenin’s enthusiasms with a healthy dose of scepticism, had even more reason to dislike the BM than to dislike Yakubova and English landladies. Indeed, it may be that this aversion was reciprocated. Henderson occasionally cites the 1930 Russian-language edition of Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin in his book, but never the most complete Soviet edition of 1957. This is presumably because he works out of what is now the British Library, which, falling below the high standards of comprehensive acquisition noted by Lenin, failed to get a copy.

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Vol. 43 No. 3 · 4 February 2021

In her fine review of my book, Sheila Fitzpatrick wonders whether I looked into Lenin’s seating preferences in the British Museum reading room (LRB, 7 January). Indeed I did. Some thirty years ago, in a short Reader’s Guide to Lenin’s associations with the library, I wrote:

Although Lenin may have had a favourite seat in the reading room, neither he nor anyone else has left any indication of which seat that may have been. Several numbers have been suggested including: G7, H9, R7, R8, and L13. In fact, the last is probably the most likely, positioned, as it was then (and indeed still is), in a row opposite the open-shelf reference works on British and European history, which he doubtless made use of on several occasions.

The same topic is discussed by Richard Bancroft, a former director of the museum, in a charming Soviet documentary from 1962 which marked the sixtieth anniversary of Lenin’s arrival in the capital.

Robert Henderson
Lower Largo, Fife

Sheila Fitzpatrick is at a loss to know what lettres-trappes – sent by Post Office detectives investigating late deliveries in Lenin’s London – might be. Surely they were envelopes posted to the relevant address in order to pinpoint who or what was responsible for the inefficiency. Historians of the postal detective service might know how the traps were sprung.

Robin Blake
London NW1

Vol. 43 No. 5 · 4 March 2021

Robert Henderson writes about Lenin’s seating preferences in the British Museum reading room (Letters, 4 February). As it happens, an Icelander, Jón Stefánsson, was researching in the reading room at the same time as Lenin. His memoir, Úti í heimi (‘Out in the World’), was published in 1949. My rough translation:

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (i.e. Lenin), 1870-1924, sat, in the first years of the 20th century, sometimes next to me in the British Museum reading room. I recognised him from pictures in the papers. He had a high, convex forehead, almost completely bald, with traces of ruddy hair, and was fully bearded. He spoke to no one and no one dared speak to him. He arrived every day before the reading room opened and always sat in the same seat, L13. I often sat at L14. He worked all day until closing time. When he went out to eat, he put all his papers in a bag and took it with him. He left his books behind to keep the seat. Once he dropped a page of writing on the floor. I picked it up and handed it to him. He said: ‘Thanks.’ His pronunciation of the ‘th’ in ‘thanks’ was as if he were German and, indeed, he called himself Richter when he applied for a ticket to the reading room. That is what Ellis, the head of the reading room told me.

Ingólfur Gíslason
University of Iceland, Reykjavík

Vol. 43 No. 8 · 22 April 2021

Ingólfur Gíslason writes that an Icelander called Jón Stefánsson, who was researching in the British Library at the same time as Lenin, recounted that Lenin pronounced the ‘th’ in ‘thanks’ as if he was German (Letters, 4 March). More likely, it was a Hiberno-English pronunciation, where the ‘th’ sound is similar to the German. According to Roddy Connolly, the son of the Irish socialist James Connolly, who was in Moscow in 1921, Lenin spoke English with a Dublin accent. Connolly’s recollection is confirmed by H.G. Wells, who met Lenin in Moscow in 1920 and noticed his Irish accent. When Lenin lived in London, his English teacher was a man from Ireland.

Paul O’Brien

Vol. 43 No. 10 · 20 May 2021

Paul O’Brien writes that the ‘Hiberno-English pronunciation’ of the ‘th’ sound ‘is similar to the German’ (Letters, 22 April). To elaborate, the German doesn’t have a ‘th’ sound (a dental fricative) of any kind. German speakers – as well as Scandinavians and others without such a fricative – substitute their native ‘d’ (voiced) or ‘t’ (voiceless). Hiberno-English does the same: dis, dem, dose, one-two-tree.

This Hiberno-English trait was very conspicuous among older Irish immigrants to the US and their descendants, among them the late (but not lamented) mayor of Chicago Richard Daley. Defending police behaviour during the riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, he is quoted as saying that ‘the police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.’ My guess is that ‘da mare’ was telling us the cops were there to preserve ‘this’ order.

Robert Hammarberg
Arlington, Virginia

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