Lenin: A New Biography
The image of Lenin, and not only in those countries where it is better described as an icon, provides a major crux in our understanding of the history of our century. And how ideas about him have changed! Back in the Seventies, the present reviewer published a short biography of Lenin in Frank Kermode’s Modern Masters series. Though thoroughly critical, it reads very mildly today. Cyril Connolly of all people, reviewing it together with the series’ book on Gandhi, while praising mine in general commented that Lenin’s ruthlessness had done more good to humanity than Gandhi’s peacefulness. It is not that Connolly was notably well disposed toward communism; the point is, rather, that it shows how a fairly favorable view of Lenin had seeped into the intellectual atmosphere, one of many similar examples which could be adduced.
There was also the sheer historical panache of a figure largely remembered as the man who had created his own party in 1903, had kept it going, with well under 10,000 members as late as 1912, and in 1917 had seized and then held power in a major empire—had “cast the kingdoms old/Into another mould.” And, dead in 1924 at the age of fifty-three, he largely left the blame for the system as it developed to his successors. There is something in Orwell’s way of putting it, that Lenin was “one of those politicians who win an undeserved reputation by dying prematurely.”
This was not how Lenin was seen while he lived, when he appeared to very many people as an alien thrown up from nowhere amid the chaotic disintegration of a barbaric society. Only to a few did he appear as a socialist revolutionary speaking the accustomed language of European Marxism. It can now be seen that these two views are not incompatible.
Dmitri Volkogonov is a former Soviet general and, as he himself has said, he is not a historian. His book is thematic rather than chronological and is best described as an examination, with examples, of the nature of Lenin, and of Leninism; it has sections on a variety of figures who were involved—Plekhanov, Martov, Kerensky, and others, and on Lenin’s own entourage in and after his own lifetime.
It is somewhat of a relief, especially in the case of a subject on whom so many earlier works exist, not to be taken once more step by step through the particulars of the factional struggles of the first decade of the century, the intricate details of the civil war, and so on. The editor and translator, Oxford Russian historian Harold Shukman (himself the author of several books on this theme), tells us that he has cut much of the original two-volume Russian edition that was “excessively familiar to a Western reader.”
The book’s great contribution is that Volkogonov is the first to use the 3,724 documents on Lenin hitherto withheld as in one way or another damaging to his image, together with much other previously inaccessible material; time…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.