From the eyewitness accounts by Trotsky and his wife to the rather cooller perspectives of recent historians, the historian selects the best accounts of a terrifying life
Weighty subject matter … The huge granite head of Berlin’s Lenin statue in the process of being dismantled.
Helen Rappaport is an historian and Russianist with a specialism in the Victorians and revolutionary Russia. Her books include Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs and No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. She lives in Oxford. Her latest book, Conspirator, reconstructs Lenin’s years in exile, moving from city to city across Europe fomenting revolution, and is published by Hutchinson this week.
“Finding 10 readable and – more importantly – revealing monographs on Lenin is quite a tough call. Not very many exist. That’s because the Soviet hagiographers for decades so carefully controlled the documentary record on him that they ensured a boring, sanitised view of the Great Leader that has virtually nothing honest to say – in Russian at least, and certainly not until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Books in English published in the west have been similarly frustrated by a lack of penetrating primary source material except amongst Russian exiles who had the freedom to say what they thought. Lenin’s voluminous letters are at times revealing but with their relentlessly hectoring tone are not an easy read. There are no candid diaries by him and – worst of all – from a populist point of view, absolutely no kiss and tell memoirs that dish up the dirt. Here, in no particular order, are my 10 best in English:”
1. Encounters with Lenin by Nikolay Valentinov
Valentinov escaped exile in Russia to join Lenin in exile in Geneva in 1904 as an eager young underground activist. He was for an all too brief time a loyal and admiring acolyte until he saw the darker side of Lenin and became disenchanted by his inflexible political thinking and his ruthlessly domineering behaviour. A wonderful, illuminating source.
2. Lenin: Life and Legacy by Dmitri Volkogonov
The best post-Soviet book by a Russian available in English. Volkogonov is as unequivocally critical of Lenin as he is of Stalin in his companion biography. Contains some interesting revelations from the newly opened Soviet archives to which Volkogonov had exclusive access, particularly about German financial support for the Bolsheviks in 1917, and clearly shows the roots of Stalinism in Lenin’s policies.
3. Memories of Lenin by Nadezhda Krupskaya
This, like it or not and despite its limitations, is the holy grail. Krupskaya, who as a young revolutionary married Lenin in 1898, was the only person who remained consistently close to Lenin throughout the last 27 years of his life. She went on to be the dogged keeper of the flame after his death in 1924. Unfortunately she never said a single controversial word about him, his behaviour, or their life together, but nevertheless this is a valuable and sometimes fascinating source.
4. Days With Lenin by Maxim Gorky
The best literary memoir of Lenin by the great socialist writer; at first a friend and admirer of Lenin and later an outspoken critic of the Bolshevik takeover. Brief but telling in its detail, especially of Lenin at the London Congress of the RSDLP in 1907 and during his visits to Gorky on Capri in 1908 and 1910. Essential reading.
5. On Lenin: Notes Towards a Biography by Leon Trotsky
Episodic and frustratingly incomplete, these notes were to form the basis of a biography that Trotsky sadly never wrote. It is nevertheless a fascinating source, full of insight and a perceptive portrait of Lenin’s single-mindedness and his relentless, all-consuming drive towards revolution in Russia.
6. Lenin by Marc Landau-Aldanov
An interesting curiosity, written by a Russian émigré and translated from French. This early (1922) western take on Lenin during his lifetime is a fascinating read for its analysis of the communist experiment in the making. It pinpoints the most disturbing aspects of Lenin’s despotism in a brilliant chapter on Lenin’s personality, likening him to a moral and intellectual cross between Savonarola and Tartuffe, “a madman with the lunatic’s cunning … a man who knows the masses without knowing anything of men”.
7. Impressions of Lenin by Angelica Balabanoff
Balabanoff, like many, was at first impressed by Lenin’s tremendous dynamism, but after breaking with the Bolsheviks she left Russia and joined the Italian socialists, taking an increasingly jaundiced view of him from the distance of exile. Like Gorky’s, this brief memoir is the most human portrait of the man and contains some brilliant and disturbing flashes of insight into Lenin’s ruthlessness and amorality.
8. Lenin: A Biography by Robert Service
If you need a quick fix on Lenin, his life and political career, then this is the best standard popular biography to date. It has benefited from access to the archives after the fall of communism and is particularly revealing about Lenin’s family background, his relationship with his mother and sisters Anna and Mariya, as well as charting the difficulties Krupskaya had in getting on with them.
9. Three Who Made a Revolution by Bertram D Wolfe
One of the great, authoritative and insightful studies of the rise and development of Russian Marxism, closely interweaving the political careers of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. Long but highly readable, it is still a valuable standard 45 years after publication.
10. The Life of Lenin by Louis Fischer
One of three major Lenin biographies published in the mid-60s, this perceptive account is by a Jewish-American journalist who was based in Moscow from 1922, where he actually knew Lenin and became an expert on the Soviet system. Not particularly strong on Lenin’s years in exile, it is extremely good on his years in power from 1917.