Commentary Magazine


The Bolsheviks, by Adam Ulam; Russia and History's Turning Point, by Alexander Kerensky; The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by Ren

Lenin's Russia

The Bolsheviks.
by Adam Ulam.
Macmillan. 598 pp. $9.95.

Russia and History's Turning Point.
by Alexander Kerensky.
Duell, Sloan & Pierce. 558 pp. $8.95.

The Mind and Face of Bolshevism.
by René Füloep-Miller.
Harper Torchbook. $2.95.

“Lenin is more alive than all those living now,” read a huge government placard I spotted in the center of a Soviet city. It was an interesting slogan, rather mystical for a party that has inscribed atheism and scientific materialism in capital letters on its banner. But quite apart from whether the belief in the eternal character of Lenin's mission can be squared with scientific materialism, the slogan is certainly a typical illustration of the central importance that Lenin and everything concerning him still retains in the Soviet Union. Lenin's birthday and the day of his death are still among the most important anniversaries. “Lenin collections” are still put out almost every year, though one would think that the bottom of the barrel had been scraped long ago. But somehow, books keep turning up from all over that Lenin read at one time or another, with the notes that he made pencilled in the margins. Lenin as an authority on all things ideological is quoted as often as, if not more frequently than, ever before. There are admittedly good practical reasons for this, since most of Lenin's contemporaries and successors, from Trotsky, Bukharin, and Stalin to Khrushchev, are unquotable. It is, needless to say, much wiser for a Soviet historian or economist writing in 1966 to quote Lenin than, for example, Kosygin or Brezhnev, for Lenin's place in history is secure, his authority cannot possibly be affected by anything that may conceivably happen this year or the next. There is a museum right at the corner of Red Square devoted to the history of the October revolution which is virtually consecrated to the life of Lenin; one of its rooms, for instance, contains the Rolls Royce Lenin drove in 1921, another has samples of handicraft work done by the “pioneers” in a remote Ural village. The visitor is bound to reach the conclusion that Lenin prepared and carried out the revolution of 1917 almost single-handedly.

_____________

Yet the cult of the individual was part of the Russian tradition long before Stalin, and this adoration of Lenin is not of recent origin. It started during his lifetime—though Lenin, who was not at all a vain man, did nothing to encourage it—and was given fitting expression in the decision in 1924 to embalm Lenin rather than to bury him.

One must realize moreover—and this is a very important point indeed—that much of this adulation is spontaneous; there was little need for encouragement from above. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that many Soviet citizens, and especially the younger ones among them, have developed considerable sales resistance to the official propaganda put out by, and on behalf of, the various government and party agencies. They may talk with irreverence of Stalin, of Khrushchev, and even occasionally of some who have not yet been relegated to the dustbin of history. But most of them will no more doubt the infinite wisdom and goodness of Lenin than would Luther, for all his hostility to the Pope, have doubted the wisdom and goodness of God. The cult of Lenin has become an intrinsic part of the Soviet national consciousness as well as of Soviet folklore; he is at one and the same time their supreme hero and their chief symbol.

Nor should Western students of the Soviet scene be put off by this cult, for the simple reason that Lenin's importance was indeed very great. He did not, of course, create the Russian revolutionary movement, and his influence on it before 1917 was not even remotely as decisive as present-day Soviet historiography would like to have it. Nor was he a very original thinker; his knowledge of history, economics, philosophy, etc., ranged wide but was not very deep. He did, however, possess an almost unfailing political instinct; and it was mainly owing to this instinct and to his characteristic tenacity and singlemindedness that the Bolsheviks prevailed over their rivals in November 1917. And since that victory was the most important turning point of the first half of the 20th century, what does it matter in retrospect that Lenin was not also—as is now claimed in the Soviet Union—the world's greatest philosopher? What happened in Russia in the decades after his death was largely shaped by Lenin's ideas of how the Communist party should be organized, and how the Soviet Union ought to be ruled.

_____________

Examples of the Lenin literature in the Soviet Union can now be counted in tens of thousands of items, without mentioning the many films (“Lenin in October,” “The Man with a Rifle,” “The Blue Exercise Book,” etc.), and the innumerable pictures (Lenin with Gorky, Lenin in hiding in Finland, Lenin with his dog, Lenin convalescing, and so forth). But except for the collections of stories about his life that are used as textbooks in the elementary schools, there is not to this day a Lenin biography. During the 30's and 40's a Short Outline of his life was available, but it had been produced primarily in order to prove that Stalin was Lenin's legitimate successor. Nor—apart from Bertram Wolfe's book on Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, which remains unfinished—were there any serious studies in the West until 1964, the fortieth anniversary of his death, when a whole spate of Lenin biographies suddenly appeared; of these, however, only Louis Fischer's was of real interest.

Professor Adam B. Ulam's publishers seem to have feared that the public was already surfeited with Lenin biographies, and someone therefore decided to call his biography of Lenin The Bolsheviks: The Intellectual, Personal and Political History of the Origins of Russian Communism. But that is a gross misnomer, for Professor Ulam deals almost exclusively with one Bolshevik, namely Lenin, and his intellectual, personal, and political history. And he does so in a masterly way—this is the best Lenin biography so far.

Ulam describes, as many a writer before him has, Lenin's family background, and his years in exile and abroad; he provides a competent sketch of the Russian revolutionary tradition in the second half of the 19th century and then proceeds to the main part of the book—Lenin's political activities from the time he joined the Russian Social-Democratic movement up to the day of his death. There are some minor irritations—was it really necessary to give all the titles of books and periodicals in English (and only in English)? Only very well-informed students of the period will be able to use references of this kind. Nor is the announcement on the dust jacket that much material contained in the book is being published for the first time very relevant. There are, for all one knows, bits and pieces of interesting information in the Trotsky archives at Harvard and scraps of evidence published from time to time in Soviet historical journals that were used by the author. But this evidence, gathered during the last decade, amounts to very little, and does not at all affect our image of Lenin. Professor Ulam has not made any startling new discoveries; he has studied all the available historical evidence and produced a well-written, intelligent, and balanced book in which, refreshingly perhaps for a work of this character, he quotes not only the proceedings of the Central Committee but also the sayings of Mr. Leo Durocher.

_____________

Both Lenin and Alexander Kerensky were born in Simbirsk, a town on the middle Volga. At this point, however, the similarity between them ends. Kerensky, a few years younger than Lenin, became a lawyer and joined one of the more moderate groups of the Russian socialist movement. After the February revolution of 1917, he was propelled for a short while onto the very center of the political stage, first as Minister of Justice of the Provisional Government, then as Minister for War and the Navy, and ultimately, in July 1917, as Prime Minister of Russia. But in November 1917, he was deposed by the Bolsheviks. Since then, Mr. Kerensky has been living in Paris and the United States and now, in his eighty-fifth year, he has tried to recapture some of the spirit of those turbulent days and to reevaluate the political events from the perspective of five decades. Unfortunately, his book is not a great success.

Kerensky no doubt has an interesting story to tell; had he stuck strictly to autobiography, and made his narrative as detailed as possible, it would have constituted an important source for the understanding of what he rightly calls “history's turning point.” But, alas, human memories grow dim after several decades and most of what Mr. Kerensky has to say about the subject was already said in his three previous books, published between 1921 and 1934, as well as in many other works. Since there are no longer any “now it can be told” stories left to tell, we are treated to a fairly conventional, somewhat vague, and by no means complete, description of the year of decision.

_____________

René Füloep-Miller's The Mind and Face of Bolshevism first appeared in German in 1926, and was translated into English the following year. It was one of the first really ambitious attempts to describe the new Soviet culture and, generally speaking, the whole quality of life in Soviet Russia—the efforts to revolutionize daily life, the new developments in the Russian language as a result of the revolution, changes in the family, and so on. The book contained many shrewd observations as well as some glaring misinterpretations; above all, it was far too preoccupied with religious issues, such as the rebirth of Russian mysticism that allegedly took place under the Bolshevik regime. Who still remembers “onomatodoxy” (the idea of the magic power of God's name), a teaching that was adopted, according to Füloep-Miller, by a great part of the intelligentsia and a sizable section of the peasantry at the time? Though the book did make a useful contribution by disseminating factual information about life in the Soviet Union—a subject on which the wildest ideas were prevalent—it tended at the same time to perpetuate the myth of the Russian soul, and especially in Germany. And finally, without disrespect to the author, it must be said that the best thing in his book were its illustrations, hundreds of them—cartoons, reproductions of contemporary Soviet periodicals, atheist propaganda placards, constructivist and suprematist drawings—which conveyed much more effectively than lengthy analysis could, the Zeitgeist of 1926. Unfortunately, only a small portion of these pictures has been reproduced in this new edition.

_____________

Mr. Füloep-Miller's book makes engaging reading as a period piece. It was written toward the end of the early, experimental period in Soviet cultural life when Russian artists, not always to the delight of the public, were being permitted to probe new frontiers in literature and music, in painting, architecture, and the cinema. This period did not yield great masterpieces, but it was certainly a more interesting one than the wasteland which followed. These were the years when children were named Konstitutsia, Revoliutsia, and Comintern (what became of them all?), when the attempt was made to drop the word for “thank you” (spassibo) because its literal derivation was “God protect you.” It was the time, too, of America-worship, when the Bolsheviks dreamed of turning their country into a new and more splendid Chicago, as reflected, for instance in a Mayakovski poem:

Chicago: City
Built upon a screw!
Electro-dynamo-mechanical city!
Spiral shaped—
On a steel disc—
At every stroke of the hour
Turning around itself—
Five thousand sky-scrapers—
Granite suns!

But it was also the time when Sholokhov wrote The Quiet Don and when Eisenstein's Potemkin was first shown. The grotesque disparity (to quote Füloep-Miller) between the aims of the Bolsheviks and the preliminary conditions laid down for their attainment, was probably the most characteristic feature of that period. In the cultural field the disparity was no less striking between a very enterprising avant-garde and the large section of the population that was still illiterate. This period (and this disparity) came to an end shortly after the original publication of this book; both the avant-garde and the illiterates disappeared. What also happened between 1926 and 1963 is told by the author in a 35-page postscript, which is either too short or too long to provide adequate coverage.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.