A Source of Light

Power and the Soviet Elite

by Boris I. Nicolaevsky, edited by Janet D. Zagoria
Praeger (for the Hoover Institution), 275 pp., $6.95

Khrushchev; drawing by David Levine

Boris Ivanovich Nicolaevsky, who died on February 22 of this year, was a great historian of the Russian revolutionary movement, who had lived through, or close to, much of what he described. He became a revolutionary early in youth—a Bolshevik first, then a Menshevik. he experienced arrest and exile, along with all who followed the life of a devoted enemy of Tsarism. By the time the revolution came, Nicolaevsky was a leading Menshevik and soon became a member of their central committee. He remained in Russia until 1922, when he was allowed to emigrate. The Bolsheviks were as yet only killing or hounding to death the socialist revolutionaries and the anarchists: the turn of the Social Democrats was to come a few years later. Nicolaevsky knew everyone, had read everything, had discussed everything. He knew his way about an archive in an instinctive manner, like that of a native threading his path through the jungle. It was because his method was so instinctive, based on so much experience and knowledge that could not be specifically pinpointed, that Nicolaevsky was such a wonderful guide to all students of the revolutionary movement who were fortunate enough to be able to seek the help which he never refused. There is no one to take his place, and much of his vast knowledge has inevitably been lost with him. Even so, a tremendous contribution remains. There are his books and a large number of historical articles. Perhaps Nicolaevsky was at his greatest as an editor of documents. Six large volumes of edited and fully and fascinatingly annotated documents relating to the history of the Soviet Communist Party between 1906 and 1912 are available to scholars, though in manuscript form. They form the one single most important source for the revolutionary history of this rather obscure period. It is no exaggeration to say that anyone who ignores this material in writing about the period will write nonsense.

About a quarter of this book is taken up with something which is somewhere between the living of history and the writing of it—the famous Letter of an Old Bolshevik, and a long interview in 1904 with Nicolaevsky on the subject of the visit of Bukharin to Paris in 1936. When the Letter was first published, it was not known, of course, that it had been based on conversations with Bukharin, and indeed everything was done to conceal this fact, in Bukharin’s interest. After the “trial” and killing of Bukharin the need for secrecy became less imperative, and the source became gradually known. Nicolaevsky’s record of his talks with Bukharin now supplements the Letter, and forms a most important source in itself, both on Bukharin and on the history of his times. The Letter provided the first analysis of the struggle in which Stalin was engaged against his colleagues who were desperately casting around for some way of getting rid of him…

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