Lives of Lenin

The Life and Death of Lenin

by Robert Payne
Simon & Schuster, 672 pp., $8.50

Lenin: The Compulsive Revolutionary

by Stefan T. Possony
Henry Regnery, 418 pp., $7.95

Impressions of Lenin

by Angelica Balabanoff
University of Michigan, 176 pp., $5.00

The Life of Lenin

by Louis Fischer
Harper & Row, 724 pp., $10.00

1964 promises to be a vintage year for biographies of Lenin. It is, after all, exactly four decades since his death in 1924. It also happens to be the year of the formal dissolution of “world Communism” into rival camps; but this unexpected event is in the nature of a bonus from the viewpoint of authors and publishers concerned with the personality of the man who started it all. As matters now stand, the proper procedure, for anyone with an urge to be up-to-date, is to begin with the image of the prophet—shrouded and embalmed in his gloomy mausoleum—and then work backward to 1917, and forward to the present year, when this new Islam dissolved into hostile empires centered around Moscow and Peking. In this way one obtains the correct historical perspective, and at the same time links the subject with immediate topical concerns, such as the relation of Russia to Asia. We are all getting expert at this kind of thing. Before long anyone equipped with a college degree and a typewriter may feel able to join the fray.

Meanwhile here are these new biographies: all fairly solid, all based on wide reading, all addressed to the general public, though remarkably dissimilar in scope and level of comprehension. Mr. Payne’s is the easiest to read. It is also the easiest to forget. The particular genre to which it belongs may be said to have been established by the various nonprofessional biographers of Napoleon: notably those among them who insisted that his death on St. Helena was not due to cancer, or the climate, but to the machinations of the British, or to poison administered by someone in his entourage. Mr. Payne, a firm adherent to the conspiracy theory of politics, asserts that Lenin was poisoned by Stalin. Perhaps he was. Trotsky thought Stalin might have had a hand in the matter, and it would certainly have been consistent with the rest of his career if in January 1924 he had manipulated the situation around the dying man to his own advantage. But the fact remains that Lenin had suffered repeated strokes, or brain hemorrhages, in the last two years of his life, and during those final months was a very sick man indeed: his last attempt to dictate a letter occurred in March 1923, ten months before his death. So even if Mr. Payne is right, it does not amount to much.

Apart from this bit of sensationalism, which should help to promote the sale, Mr. Payne’s work is standard amateur biography. Being the work of a literary man, it is consistently readable; it is also consistently superficial and cliché-ridden. Lenin, one learns, was a great destroyer in the tradition of the terrorists portrayed in The Possessed: indeed the authentic embodiment of the “professional revolutionary” foreshadowed by the sinister Nechaev—Bakunin’s luckless emissary to the student youth. The acorn of sense in this notion is relentlessly expanded into a forest, and in the end …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.