M. F. Shatrov
M. F. Shatrov; drawing by David Levine

These nights in Moscow Peter Verkhovensky climbs out of a coffin-shaped trapdoor, comes down to the footlights, a greenish white face glistening against a darkened background, and harshly declaims the message of Dostoevsky’s Devils. For the intensely silent Soviet audience it is closer to lived experience than to literary fantasy: revolutionary socialism achieves equality for nine tenths of the population by enslaving them to one tenth. Outstanding individual talents destroyed, obedience exalted above all other virtues, guilt shared in the denunciation and removal of suspect people—that is what makes everyone equal, ashamed to have his own belief. Conscience withers away.

The play is defiantly entitled The Dictatorship of the Conscience. The author, Mikhail Shatrov, wants to persuade the audience that conscience was sovereign in Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that it has never been lost in the hearts of good Soviet people, and will win its ultimate triumph over the monstrous values of Verkhovensky that Stalin built into the system. Shatrov has put that message not only in two controversial plays of the glasnost period but also in six earlier plays about Lenin. He began to write them after the Twentieth Party Congress of 1956, at which Khrushchev denounced Stalin as a bloody tyrant and called for “the restoration of Leninist norms.” And he kept on writing them during “the period of stagnation,” when the Brezhnev generation stopped the process of de-Stalinization but kept up the worship of Lenin.

Shatrov’s personal history taught him that love of Lenin requires denunciation of Stalin. In 1937, when he was five, his Communist father was arrested, secretly condemned, and shot; his uncle, A.I. Rykov, who had been premier of the Republic, was forced to revile himself at a show trial before he was taken back to prison and shot in the back of the head; his mother was arrested when Mikhail was seventeen and beginning to sense his vocation as a playwright. Stalinist mores permitted the offspring of such stock to train for nothing more than engineering, but he persevered and is now, at fifty-six, a major official of the Union of Theatrical Workers as well as the most influential and controversial playwright of the Gorbachev era.

A short, round man, with horn-rimmed glasses usually jammed up into his white hair, Shatrov delights some and alarms others by the increasingly radical bent of his historical dramas, and by the modernist theatrical devices that point up the link between then and now, between the past reality enacted on stage and the present reality of the audience out front. As the first act of The Dictatorship of the Conscience draws to a close a charming actor steps out of his role to carry a microphone into the audience for a little talk show on the issues that have been raised. He doesn’t ask the most obvious question about the play, whether the fire-and-brimstone speeches of the Stalinist characters are not far more memorable than the hearts-and-flowers declamations of the Leninist characters. I would have answered without any hesitation. Sentimental Leninism is no match for fiendish Stalinism, not in the theater at any rate.

In Further…Further…Further! Shatrov’s most recent play, which is currently having tryouts in provincial theaters, shocking speeches abound, delivered from the revolutionary left as well as the right. Rosa Luxemburg recites her 1918 letter from a German prison which hailed the Bolsheviks for overthrowing the old order, and predicted the new one:

Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinions, life in every public institution dies out, becomes a mere appearance, and bureaucracy alone remains active. Public life gradually falls asleep; a few dozen extremely energetic and highly idealistic party leaders direct and govern; among them in reality a dozen outstanding leaders rule, and an elite of the working class is summoned to a meeting from time to time to applaud the speeches of the leaders and to adopt unanimously resolutions put to them. In essence this is the rule of a clique, and of course their dictatorship is not the dictatorship of the proletariat but the dictatorship of a handful of politicians…. Socialism without political freedom is not socialism…. Freedom only for active supporters of the government…is not freedom. Freedom is always and uniquely for those who think differently.

To this the stage Lenin of 1988 shouts “Bravo, Rosa!”—quite unlike the state-building Lenin of 1918, who denounced such talk as an opening for counterrevolution, while he assiduously built just such a system as Rosa described. Indeed he added mass terror and, by 1921, a formal ban on “opposition” even within the ruling party.

Each generation creates such pictures of the past as it needs for current purposes. The actual past confines and shapes that creative process, but Shatrov’s imagination tries to break free. He claims that he has outgrown his initial fascination with the thought, “That did not happen, but it could have,”1 but the change is in the devices he uses, not the imagination that controls them. He has come to use documents of the actual past to construct “a drama of facts”—so that the corpse in Red Square will rise more vividly from its confining monument to tell Soviet audiences what might have been: their great revolution did not have to generate “barracks socialism,” a phrase of Marx’s much in vogue these days. A free form of socialism could have emerged if Lenin had not had a stroke, and it will yet emerge if Soviet citizens resume the founding father’s earnest quest for a system based upon a sense of moral worth (chest’), and on conscience (sovest’).


“Every one of my plays,” Shatrov insists, “every one was banned, and broke through [to publication and staging] with enormous difficulty.”2 He made that proud complaint to a recent conference of historians and writers, which asked itself why imaginative writers like Shatrov have been leaders in the critical examination of Soviet history while professional historians have done worse than nothing. They have written whatever the current Party bosses have required. Worst of all: they have heaped evasions and dismissive formulas around the crucial topics that the bosses would rather not hear about, such as the successive waves of mass terror from 1918 to the early Fifties, the brutal realities of collectivization, and the stultification of cultural life. The system that has enforced such servility emerges vividly in a document that Shatrov quoted to the conference, a letter of January 27, 1982, demanding the suppression of his play That’s How We’ll Win! (Tak pobedim!). The director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, A.G. Egorov, urged the chairman of the KGB, Yuri V. Andropov, not only to remove the play from the theater, but also to see to it that “appropriate ministries and offices close off all channels for the possible appearance of similar works.” The heresy to be extirpated, Egorov said, was the replacement of “the real problem” that Lenin’s revolution faced, how socialism was to be built in our country, by “a different, made-up problem: what kind of socialism should be built.”

Evidently Andropov’s KGB was willing to tolerate some discussion of alternative socialisms—glasnost did not spring from the brow of Gorbachev—for the play remained in the repertory of the Moscow Art Theater, where it is still put on about twice a month. Shatrov has never been one of those rebellious writers, like Sinyavsky or Solzhenitsyn, who knowingly transgress, most obviously by publishing abroad what Soviet bosses ban at home. He has wriggled out of one ban or another, staying within the official mentality at its left margin, stubbornly exploring the border where Soviet bosses distinguish between constructive criticism and intolerable desecration. He and his kind have been among the few refreshing features of Soviet history, a constantly renewed assortment of almost rebellious writers—or shall we call them licensed critics?—nudging an oppressive system toward reform.

Among them Shatrov made an astonishing choice of genre: the play about Lenin. In 1936 Stalin’s Central Committee demanded that such plays be written to promote faith in the existing regime as the continuer of the founder’s sacred cause. Displaying to the masses the holiest icon of the state church, plays about Lenin have been not only censored but picked apart and redesigned at the very highest level. Their best-known creator before Shatrov, Nikolai Pogodin, had to do updated versions to suit the bosses’ changing moods. So the play about Lenin would seem a hopeless medium for a critic of the system’s basic values, yet a potentially powerful medium, if any readiness for critical reflection can be found within official skulls.

To an outsider That’s How We’ll Win! (1981) seems hardly critical at all; it is much closer to a medieval passion play than to a modern drama of ideas. Lenin is shown in the months before his death in 1924, reviewing his incomplete mission, struggling to point his followers along the shining path, away from dark roads to some vaguely sketched perdition. He is painfully isolated among his leading disciples, none of whom comes near the absolute goodness and supreme wisdom that radiate from the great head. Humble members of “the people” appear as anonymous workers and peasants, with factual reports and lamentations that the master transforms into allegorical insights. He is not always gentle with “the people.” Those who rose in rebellion against the Soviet state, in Kronshtadt most notably, and in Tambov province, he declares to be unwitting instruments of the reactionary devil, who must be put down with force, but also with rue. Shatrov’s 1981 Lenin wrings his hands a bit as he builds the one-party state, but shows none of the liberalism that would appear in the Lenin of 1988. It is the suffering of the people and the inadequacy of his successors that he laments, not the one-party state or the denial of free expression to those who think differently,


One needs an insider’s eye, perhaps even a watchdog’s nose, to detect in That’s How We’ll Win! the discussion of alternative socialisms that provoked the director of Marxism-Leninism to demand suppression of the play. In his letter to the KGB he specified the discouraging picture of Lenin’s isolation among his disciples and the approving picture of Lenin’s 1921 turn to the New Economic Policy, which released the peasantry from forced grain requisitions and encouraged them to produce for sale on the market. No doubt the director’s reaction was excessive, even from an insider’s viewpoint. I feel sure that Soviet audiences carry away from this play far more reverence than doubt about the system that calls itself Leninist. Yet embarrassing questions would occur to a thoughtful viewer. Lenin’s chief comrades do not appear on the stage, but they are described, most notably in his notorious “testament;” which found fault with each one and therefore, in the context of the play, comes to imply that none was worthy to take the founder’s place. However gingerly, the play points to the problem of legitimacy in Soviet history. Most of Lenin’s disciples were condemned in the Thirties; the condemners were condemned in the Fifties; and Khrushchev, who tried to “restore Leninist norms,” was turned into a “blank spot” by his successors, who are now scorned by theirs. How is a thoughtful Soviet citizen to maintain faith in the continuity of Lenin’s cause? What was his cause, which needs to be continually rescued from a procession of unnameable successors who have distorted and debased it?

Similar unanswered questions hang over The Brest Peace, one of Shatrov’s oldest plays, yet also one of his newest. He wrote it in 1962, but could not publish or stage it until 1987, when it was one of the first sensations of glasnost. I therefore went to see it with some eagerness, shortly after I arrived in Moscow this spring—and came away disappointed. What I saw was another exercise in Lenin worship, a celebration of the saintly leader isolated in rectitude among errant disciples. The twenty-five year suppression of the play expressed nothing more momentous than the slothful indecisiveness of Soviet ideological authorities. While they were dithering over the possible rehabilitation of Trotsky and Bukharin, Shatrov dared to show such nonpersons as Lenin’s comrades in the creation of the Soviet state. He did not, to be sure, present them as worthy comrades, who might deserve “political rehabilitation” as well as “civil.” (“Civil rehabilitation” merely overturns the criminal frame-up. “Political rehabilitation” restores Party membership, and therefore involves legitimation of the dead man’s political views and activities.) The Trotsky and Bukharin of Brest Peace are fools rather than miscreants; they are “caricatures,” as Shatrov disconsolately told me in an interview.

In the case of Trotsky the director is partly to blame. Trotsky appears in a shoulder-to-floor cape of white fur, then a magician’s cape of white and black silk over a natty olive-drab tunic, finally a formal evening suit with a black satin ribbon down the trousers. The face above those costumes is cleanshaven, gaunt, with large eyes to roll and lank locks to toss—nothing like the round face, round spectacles, goatee, and frizzy hair of the photographs. This stage Trotsky is a mockery of the most famous orator of the Russian Revolution. He struts and swaggers, striking poses with the extravagant self-conceit that Soviet films of the Twenties used in ridiculing Kerensky. Limp-wristed and capricious between his extravagant poses, he wins one of the two laughs of the evening with this explanation of a crucial vote: “I agree with Lenin, and therefore [an effeminate gesture] I abstained.” I could not find that line in the published text; it may be one of the ways in which the director camped up the role of Trotsky—with the author’s approval, I would assume. But the role as originally published, played in any style, would still project the first Stalinist caricature of Trotsky, the one that preceded his condemnation as a fiendish agent of the imperialist enemy and is returning to favor once again: Trotsky as a conceited theatrical poseur, of some limited use in haranguing the masses, but never a serious revolutionary leader because he lacked the “correct” strategic vision.

The Bukharin of Brest Peace is a likeable romantic youth, devoted to the “old man”—in 1918 Bukharin was twenty-nine to Lenin’s forty-seven—but so caught up in a fuzzy dream of revolutionary glory that he obstinately opposes Lenin’s realistic insistence on the need to sign a shameful surrender to Germany. That is the contested decision on which the drama is supposed to turn. Yet the author never allows the slightest doubt that Lenin was absolutely right, his comrades utterly wrong. The only dramatic tension comes from the obstacles that they foolishly put in his way—when and how will the hero triumph?—and from the anxiety that he still feels as he leaves the stage at the end. They may never prove capable of taking his place.

Shatrov missed an opportunity to dramatize the momentous turn of the Bolshevik mentality that came with the surrender to Germany only a few months after their triumph within Russia—a turn inward, a shift of revolutionary hope to emphasis on magical transformation of a peasant country, away from dreams of magical transformation in the international arena. They had seized power with the hope that the industrial workers of Germany would follow their revolutionary example and help backward Russia. But Germany remained implacably capitalist and imperial, requiring the Bolsheviks not only to admit defeat but to cede a huge amount of territory. Lenin’s reasons for accepting the German Diktat foreshadowed Stalin’s romantic vision of “socialism in a single country,” while the stubborn refusal of the majority in the Central Committee—Lenin could get his way only by threatening to resign and cause a public split—anticipated the romantic vision that Trotsky would soon set against Stalin’s. Trotsky would argue that socialism in one backward country would prove to be either impossible or monstrous, yet he would reject the logical inference, that the Communists should step down.

Those divisions were inherent in the Leninist strategy of a vanguard party making a socialist revolution in a peasant country. To read them as a contest between the all-knowing leader and his dim-witted disciples is to make a medieval melodrama of the Bolshevik Revolution, to imagine a saint’s life in place of the modern nightmare from which revolutionaries in backward countries are trying to awake. Karl Marx used the metaphor of history as nightmare before James Joyce, but Soviet writers are not yet prepared to interpret their history that way.

Stalin supported Lenin in the arguments over the Brest treaty, but Shatrov gives him no credit for that. He pictures Stalin in 1918 as a fanatic of doglike obedience to the leader, whose only original thought is to conceive the Party as a military order, like the Knights of the Sword. Made up like the famous photographs of the Thirties, this Stalin wins the other laugh of the evening when he cautions Bukharin, who has been talking excitedly about Lenin helping the Germans, that such charges may someday be used against him. (That is another line I could not find in the published text.) In any event I agree with the critic in Izvestiya (December 26, 1987), who thought that the “caricature” quality of Lenin’s “comrades-in-arms” was an excusable fault in a play written in 1962. It was, he declared, “a breakthrough to our day,” presumably because it broke the ban on mention of Trotsky and Bukharin as Lenin’s comrades, and dramatized the need for a deeper understanding of the succession to Lenin. The critic was quite silent on what that understanding might be. Certainly he did not muse about nightmarish dilemmas inherent in Lenin’s strategy.

At the beginning of The Brest Peace the highest Bolshevik leaders hurtle on stage as a gang, heads down, moving to the beat of loud discordant music. It is a frightening theatrical stroke that fits in with a young widow’s bitter denunciation of a proletarian regime for bringing death to peasants and workers, and with laments by Gorky and Blok about the impending destruction of culture. But Shatrov swamps such alarming moments with speeches by Lenin that are reassuringly banal in content—revolutions can be destructive, but ours will be different—and in theatrical style. Indeed, all the political speechifying, which gives the play its bulk, keeps the audience within the conventions that are called realist or “socialist realist.” The blanketed bundle in the young widow’s basket, to take an especially ham-handed example, stays on stage interminably as a prop for Lenin’s expatiations on the infant republic and its needs.

Such soothingly familiar show and tell brings the play to the edge of boredom, from which it is rescued, perhaps, by intermittent moments of modernist discord—by Trotsky’s bizarre costumes, by startling montage of characters supposed to be far apart in “real” space and time, most notably by the repeated song-and-dance routine of a pair of byvshie liudi (ci-devants, former top dogs brought low by revolution). That routine reminded the uneasy Izvestiya critic of Brecht’s theater, but seemed to me closer to Joel Grey’s celebrated invitation to Cabaret. Ostensibly the song-and-dance showed the philistine swamp that might engulf the revolution. Actually it evoked slightly wicked fun and games as a diversion from serious business, like the brief films of rock performances that break up the morning news on Soviet TV these days. (The garish clumsiness they add to the news program is in keeping with the style inherited from the Stalinist past, but Soviet conservatives complain anyhow.) Meaningful uses of clashing theatrical styles can hardly work to portray the Lenin that the Central Committee demanded. A founding father without flaw, whose revolutionary principles were and remain divinely pure, can be made to seem real only if he consistently appears within the theatrical conventions that signal “reality” to the audience.

When I asked Shatrov why he deifies Lenin, he said he did not; he presented Lenin as a human being with faults. Hadn’t I noticed that a love affair with the revolutionary leader Inessa Armand is intimated in The Brest Peace? I had, and thought that beside the point. But after all I was an outsider, lacking the long Soviet experience of stage Lenins, the insider’s excited sense of divinity possibly compromised by any physical representation. Soviet viewers are startled to see this Lenin performed “without makeup,” that is, with the three-piece suit but without the goatee, the mustache, and the fringe about the bald head that made previous Lenins look like the iconic photographs and paintings. Conservatives are further disturbed by this Lenin’s violent shouting and vulgar words at moments of exasperation, and they have been revolted by a little stage business that is not called for in the published text. Imploring Trotsky to sign the peace treaty, Lenin falls to his knees—almost. Not even the vainglorious Trotsky can stand such a blasphemy and catches the master before his knees have touched dishonoring ground, promising to sign.

That “genuflection of Lenin to Trotsky” figured in the long outburst by a Leningrad chemistry teacher against “advocates of some left-liberal intelligentsia socialism,” which Sovyetskaya Rossiya published on March 13. This precipitated an avalanche of protests in other papers—after Pravda gave the green light—against the paper that dared to print the letter even more than the obscure chemistry teacher who wrote it. Sovyetskaya Rossiya felt obliged to apologize on April 15, but it remains the major outlet for conservative opinion these days, and optimistic observers may perceive such blasts and counterblasts as achieving an equilibrium of opposed indignations, which could sustain freedom of expression, in the theater and the press.

A pessimist would note how scanty is the country’s experience of free expression how real and present is the danger of violent disorder, especially when stirred by such national passions as the chemistry teacher invoked. She longed for a campaign against “cosmopolitanism,” which she detected in Shatrov. She refrained from saying that he is Jewish, which is common knowledge, but she dwelt on Trotsky’s Jewishness as a reason why he could not be pictured among the creators of a truly Russian state. And she opened her letter with a quotation from Ligachev, second in command to Gorbachev, in ostensible support of her call for old-fashioned constraints on the writing of history.

In the Soviet setting people take it for granted that the editor’s decision to publish such a letter was entangled with politics at the highest level. I have never cared much for Kremlinology, so I only half listened to Soviet intellectuals vigorously debating Ligachev’s probable position on such matters, whether it is opposed to Gorbachev’s or complementary, where Iakovlev fits in, and so on. It was nice to see that ordinary intellectuals feel free to argue about such things without glancing over their shoulders or signaling for whispers with knowing gestures at the walls. With private speech so free, it was more irritating than ever to observe how fettered, stodgy, evasive, and inane most public speech still is, whether in print or on the air, including most of the tub-thumping for perestroika and glasnost.

In such a setting Shatrov’s two most recent plays have had an electric effect. They put into print and therefore on stage—on any stage in the Soviet Union where a director and the local bosses are willing to take advantage of the nihil obstat stamped on the plays in Moscow—ideas that had previously been locked in forbidden books or ventilated only in private conversations. The earlier of the two, The Dictatorship of the Conscience (1986), brings to historical topics the thrill of the moment when restraints are dropping away and it is fun to try out forbidden words in public. Shatrov imagines a newspaper staff at its periodic planning session, with the young people in revolt against the usual banalities and the cautious elders giving way to the demand for something new. A young woman has discovered, in a 1920 issue of Pravda, that theatrical groups used to stage a “trial of Lenin” as a way to win support for the revolution. She proposes to publish an updated version. Call to the stand the most serious witnesses against Lenin and his cause, she suggests, then call for cross examination and defense witnesses.

That is the playful context that permits the young journalists to summon Peter Verkhovensky from his Dostoevskian hell to shock a Soviet audience with his harsh sermon on enslavement as the inevitable result of socialist revolution, and then to come back, with reassuring wisecracks, to the “reality” of a goodnatured Soviet collective whose members discuss the moral values they all take for granted but find hard to square with their country’s history. Wicked people are shown only in successive plays within the play, distanced from the nice people who are analyzing evil by performing imagined representations of it.

Divinity does not intrude through direct representation of Lenin, so worship interferes with thought much less than in Shatrov’s other plays. The challenge that Verkhovensky gives to conventional Leninism, which evades the problem of tyranny following revolution, is reinforced by the French Communist André Marti. Wearing a semimilitary tunic and a mane of black hair that recall Stalin, he gives a chilling matter-of-fact lecture on discipline as the supreme goal of the revolution; arbitrary arrest and punishment are the indispensable way to get such discipline. A janitor comes on mocking at democracy and praising the Soviet state, for he admires officials who win reverence for themselves by showing a total power of life or death over their subjects.

Each skit requires a journalist to transform himself into an imagined witness, so the play becomes a contest in acting skills. The audience especially appreciates a virtuoso representation of an old Bolshevik caught in extortion and bribe-taking back in the Twenties. He gives a private, down-to-earth explanation of his change from a dedicated revolutionary to a venal despot, and then a public speech to the court, confessing the intolerable disgrace he has done to the cause and asking execution, by his own hand, as the only way he can make amends. Shatrov’s published text does not suggest how that self-sacrificing vindication of the Leninist cause can be made to fit with the private explanation of the crime: the victory of the Revolution gave the old Bolshevik an irresistible taste for power, which he intensified by taking money that subjects felt obliged to give him.

A stroke of theatrical genius solved the problem of fit. The old Bolshevik gives the private explanation extempore, persuasively, and then reads his public speech from a piece of paper, in the style of Leonid Brezhnev. He puts on the distinctive spectacles and the debilitated pompousness, stumbles over phrases, goes back to get them right, intermittently pauses to cough, roll the phlegm about, and shallow with a little satisfied smack. Of course, after that comic turn it hardly made sense to send him off with a pistol. But the offstage shot was a ludicrous little pop, and the actor came right back to resume his role as a journalist, pausing to acknowledge a happy ovation. Vaudeville had taken the place of tragedy, and why not? Tragic dignity hardly becomes a venal despot, or Leonid Brezhnev, and public confessions of crimes are ripe for mockery. Reformers have been publishing shocking reports of legal officials who routinely assume that their job is to win convictions by forcing confessions from the accused.

The Dictatorship of the Conscience has not provoked a conservative outcry, though the defense of Leninism is much less effective than the prosecution. The play gives Soviet conservatives the formulaic reassurance they require. Verkhovensky is obliged to admit that he is not an authentic socialist but a confidence man (moshennik), and no one asks whether the change of label alters the force of his sermon on equality achieved through enslavement. Similarly with André Marti; counsel for the defense of Leninism gets him to admit that he was expelled from the French Communist party, and no one raises questions of when and why and with what relevance to the Leninist use of terror. Those shallow rebuttals are very close to traditional Communist talk of “alien elements” in revolutionary movements, a formula of dismissal that evades the difficult historical question: Why did Lenin’s Party, on coming to power, fall so completely and for so long under the control of such “alien elements” as Stalin? The Dictatorship of the Conscience avoids that question. It is content with the usual formula of traditional churches: a pure faith is not corrupted by the impure creatures who may profess it. Christ is not tainted by Torquemada.

The purity of the Leninist faith is attested by witnesses for the defense, who simply ignore such characteristically Leninist notions as democratic centralism or the one-party state. They ignore even the dictatorship of the proletariat, which has turned into the dictatorship of the conscience without a word of explanation. Shatrov makes much of a young girl who wrote a letter to the Communist Youth paper lamenting the cynicism and corruption that prevail in her branch of the organization, and swearing that she will not quietly submit.

The most effective witness for the defense is General D.M. Karbyshev, a czarist officer who transferred his Russian loyalty to the Soviet army. When captured by the Germans in the Great Patriotic War, he refused the privileges coming to men of his rank, privileges that would have saved his life. Soldierly comradeship, he explains, obliged him to refuse. As his march to the scaffold is reenacted, with a band playing “The Slavic Girl’s Farewell” (a sentimental soldier’s song of prerevolutionary vintage), scattered members of the audience rise in spontaneous homage. Soviet schoolchildren have all been taught about Karbyshev’s martyrdom, and the Great Patriotic War is unquestionably a memory of self-sacrifice for the common good that rallies Soviet hearts around the flag. Stalin attached that powerful feeling to worship of himself, and Soviet conservatives cling to the victory over the Germans as the ultimate justification of Stalin. It is impossible to know how effective Soviet reformers have been in their efforts to separate the two—to attach pride in the great victory to some dream of a nontyrannical homeland, a dream that is called Leninist within the official mentality.

In such a dream Lenin becomes a great moral teacher, comparable to “Socrates, Buddha, and Christ.”3 The man who put that comparison on unresisting paper—a philosopher of art named M.A. Lifshits—brushed explanation aside as in the Book of Job, by telling of a good man who kept the faith through nineteen years in labor camps and is still a cheerful believer. Now that Ligachev, at the recent Party conference, has boasted of quietly sticking to his task, “building socialism,” though the inexplicable Stalinist wrath struck “members of my family,” lesser Soviet politicians may start genealogical searches for evidence that they too come of the stock that suffers for socialism without whimpering. (“Whimpering” [khnykanie] is a favorite conservative smear word for protest.)

Shatrov does not indulge in such effusions. In a newspaper interview he may exclaim, “I really love Lenin without limit!” and list the disasters that befell his family under Stalin.4 But he tells of them not to boast that the patience of Job sustains his love of Lenin, but to show how an inquiring mind and a protesting spirit came alive within the love. For more than thirty years he has been trying to explain how revolutionary action against indignity and oppression could have led to enormously intensified indignity and oppression. In his most recent play he has finally broached the most obvious, yet the most taboo question within such inquiry: Was Lenin to blame? Did his revolution set Russia on the way to Stalin’s system?

Without seeing Further…Further…Further! on the stage—it had not yet opened in Moscow when I was obliged to leave—I cannot be sure that I know the play’s response. The published text is a sprawling mass of speeches strung along a melodramatic story line. It will undoubtedly be streamlined in close interaction with a director and a company of actors, with keen awareness of the extensive press reaction pro and con, which the play has been getting since its publication in January. I take it for granted that some of the highest Party officials have been or will be involved in the final result, if only by appearing at an early performance, as they did last year to signify approval of Brest Peace. Where art leaves off and politics begins in the theatrical representation of Lenin is still hard to say, even for the author no doubt.

The melodramatic story of the new play moves through a single day, October 24, 1917. On the next day, as every Soviet schoolchild knows, the Provisional Government will be overthrown and the Bolsheviks will get the Congress of Soviets to proclaim itself the sovereign power of Russia (with the Bolshevik party as the real sovereign within the Soviets). On October 24 Lenin is still in hiding by order of his Party’s Central Committee, because the Provisional Government has ordered his arrest. He is furious at the Committee’s other, unspoken reason for keeping him away from Party headquarters at Smolny. His disciples want to put off the insurrection until the Congress of Soviets votes for it. They are timid and legalistic, fearful that a Bolshevik insurrection may fail if it openly tries to preempt the people’s will. Lenin knows that delay is “utter idiocy or utter treachery,” for a cabal of generals is preparing to seize Petrograd, to crush the armed masses, and thus to start Russia toward a monstrous dictatorship of the right. (The detailed intentions of the generals sound just like Stalin’s methods of rule.) By the middle of the night Lenin has become convinced that there is only one way to avoid such a disaster. In violation of the Party’s order he sets out for Smolny, to take direct command of the insurrection. It will therefore occur immediately and will succeed. The Bolsheviks will start Russia toward socialism, away from a monstrous dictatorship of the right.

The Western reader who wants to check that story has a variety of histories to consult, with diverse interpretations that draw on a commonly available fund of sources. Soviet readers have been imprisoned for more than fifty years within an official interpretation that requires suppression of crucial sources and vital facts. Shatrov’s new play startles such readers by breaking some of the taboos. Trotsky, for example, is permitted to challenge the story that pictures him as trying to avoid the insurrection that, in fact, he was organizing. As head of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, he was already seizing telegraph offices and train stations when Lenin arrived at Smolny to urge the troops on to the Winter Palace. But Shatrov’s Trotsky is not permitted to say that. He is pinned to his public denials, during the days of mounting insurrection, that he was organizing anything more than a defense against the counterrevolution. Those words are used to convict him of being as confused as the Mensheviks by anarchic turmoil, on his way with them to the ashcan of history, when Lenin stepped in to give Communist shape to the Russian Revolution.

So the Soviet reader gets the excitement of previously forbidden debate and the reassurance of the standard version, which raises the October Revolution, the founding act of the Soviet state, above messy politics. Lenin, virtually alone, led the people to self-rule. Anything unfortunate in the aftermath can be blamed on the incompetent and unreliable band of disciples who almost obstructed his way in 1917 and really did so after 1922, when a stroke removed him from effective control. Trotsky and Stalin, the chief contenders for leadership after Lenin, are presented as moral monsters, pursuing personal ambition within the collective cause.

The people and the revolution were always mere material for the construction of a monument to themselves, and talk of Leninism, without any understanding of its soul,…was a cover for lustful plans.

Bukharin is shown as too much the other way, too ready to compromise for the sake of Party unity, fatally lacking in the willfulness that permitted Lenin to violate a Party order when the cause required him to.

That saint and sinners story of the high command within the revolutionary Party is hardly an advance beyond Brest Peace and That’s How We’ll Win! It is still an exercise in Lenin worship (and Stalin loathing) rather than a serious confrontation with the history of the Bolshevik Revolution.5 What raises this new play of Shatrov’s to a higher level of historical discourse are the frequent interruptions of the one-day melodrama, when everyone pauses to ponder its long-term consequences. Lenin and his disciples, and a variety of critics from outside their Party, step out of their 1917 roles to debate what would actually ensue and why. They know as much as we do of the actual consequences down to the present day, and refuse to be sidetracked by the usual concentration of Soviet histories on the buildup of heavy industry, the victory over the Germans, the transformation of Russia into a superpower. They want most of all to explain why the Stalinist system of rule emerged out of the Leninist revolution.

In this exchange of opinions Lenin is not always the all-knowing deity of old. There seem in fact to be two or three Lenins on stage. In addition to the 1917 Lenin, who is furiously eager to present the Congress of Soviets with the unalterable fact of Bolshevik rule, there is a liberal Lenin of retrospective wisdom, who sees the dangers of one-party rule, the benefit of restraining those in power with rival parties, free discussion, and elections. And there is a self-questioning Lenin, who declares that he shares responsibility for the emergence of Stalinist tyranny, and finally fails to separate himself from Stalin. At the close of the play, as the other historical characters leave the stage one after another, Lenin stands waiting to be alone with the audience, to tell us something of vital importance. But Stalin will not leave, though Lenin shouts that they have nothing more to say to each other. Standing in their separate silences they are both still there as the curtain falls.

A skillful director might conceivably play up the discordant shifts from one Lenin to another, to bring out the multiple possibilities of Leninism for good and ill, but I doubt that will happen. It would be too drastic a break with the traditional faith in Leninism as a pure doctrine of revolutionary goodness, which is the major emphasis of the published text and probably will be so in the actual staging. The excitement that the play has caused rises not so much from Lenin’s declaration that he too must be criticized as from the presentation of vigorous critics to do the job. Shatrov has “given the stage to our enemies,” as the conservatives say, or presented an array of previously forbidden views of Soviet history, as the reformers say.

I have already noted Rosa Luxemburg’s startling prediction of the stultifying despotism that must follow the suppression of free speech and assembly, and Lenin’s even more startling “Bravo!” The play makes only the briefest effort to reconcile such liberalism with his position between 1917 and 1922. Maria Spiridonova, the Left Socialist Revolutionary, says that Lenin did not want a one-party system; “we” are to blame for it, the rival socialist parties that would not accept the Soviet structure of the new state. The right-wing generals and Stalin find the source of tyranny on a deeper level: Russians, unable to govern themselves, require a fearsome despot; Lenin deserves credit for inventing a new, more effective despotism when the old one had exhausted itself. Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, offers analogous explanations in a tragic mood. He appears early in the play to warn Lenin of the Stalinist system that must follow the Bolshevik seizure of power, in spite of Lenin’s pure motives, and he returns at the end to declare that no other European nation would have tolerated such a government as Stalin’s. He is not racist; he attributes Russian submissiveness to “the absence of Marxist culture.”

The cumulative effect of such opinions is to reinforce the picture of Stalin as a product and an exploiter of Russia’s backward political culture, who greatly intensified the backwardness to satisfy his lust for power. Lenin is the contrasting prophet of a new, free, socialist way of life. Through all the bad years, Shatrov declares, the Leninist prophecy has lived in good hearts and will yet triumph in outer life, if all now join in a revival of Lenin’s insistence on—what? “The revolution as a network of political and moral coordinates.” I could find nothing more specific in this latest of Shatrov’s Lenins, only the usual insistence on chest’ and sovest’, a sense of moral worth and conscience.

Shatrov has presented a Lenin of superficial sentiments, not of deep thought, whether about the sources of the moral feelings that keep people in some semblance of community or about the institutional checks and balances that might minimize the harm people can do to one another regardless of their intentions. When this Lenin is pressed about the despotic consequences of his revolution, he argues that they would not have ensued if his successors had been wiser and more virtuous. (The one specific fault he takes upon himself is his failure to get Stalin out of the post of general secretary.) When pressed harder, he falls back for his ultimate justification on what is yet to come. Past is only prologue. The beneficence of his revolution can be discovered only by getting on with it, by pressing it “further…further…further!”

The deity that calls Soviet people to that task is definitely not the old-time god of socialist wrath who must be served no matter how sorely he afflicts his worshipers. He may be the god of the sweet by-and-by, who’ll give you socialist pie in the sky when you die. But there is another possibility. The Lenin of Shatrov’s most recent play may be another prophet of an increasingly commonplace twentieth-century world, where existence precedes essence and the nature of an authentically human state cannot be known in advance of efforts to create it, efforts that are therefore burdened with a terrible risk of doing more harm than good. That is a possible reading of the drama that has Lenin set out for Smolny with foreknowledge of the disaster that may ensue, yet determined to proceed because he knows—or thinks—that inaction will guarantee disaster. A Lenin of that sort might be conducive to deep thinking about the first Communist revolution of our century, but not a Lenin who dwells on purity of heart as the justification of action and the sweet by-and-by as its reward.

It is the saccharine Lenin of the sacred heart who will probably dominate the actual staging of the play. Most of the text points that way, and so does the present climate of opinion in the Soviet Union. Deep thinking about the past would probably be disruptive of present efforts at reform. They require an intellectually shallow consensus, for they must achieve cooperation among highly diverse interest groups and clashing ideological constituencies. “A normal civilized life” is the phrase that echoes in current Soviet talk of reform as the handiest little description of the goal. The Lenin of 1917 would have dropped dead of astonished dismay, I think, if the spirit of the 1988 Lenin had appeared to him on the way to Smolny. But my imagination is that of a bookish outsider, who has not been obliged to live with the consequences of the first Lenin’s revolutionary leap from the realm of necessity toward the realm of freedom.

This Issue

November 10, 1988