Go here for my previous thoughts on Solzhenitsyn’s work and my review of August 1914.
As you will have read in my previous article, imaginary serial reader of this blog, I am something of a Solzhenitsyn fan. To cut a long story short (something Aleksandr himself would rarely do), Solzhenitsyn wrote a large set of historical novels leading on from each other with hundreds of characters mapping the defeat of Russia in the Great War right up to the revolutionary years of 1917. He called this set of novels “The Red Wheel” and Solzhenitsyn must have seen it as his great life’s work having published volumes from 1971 to 1991 and envisioning it as a complete history of the formative years of the Soviet state that he experienced first hand. However, this “Wheel” is rarely read amongst Solzhenitsyn’s work, with Ivan Denisovitch, Cancer Ward and First Circle very much forming his best, most famous and most readable works. However, having delved into some of his denser, more historical and less widely read works, I decided to tackle August 1914, the first novel in the Red Wheel (again, review here).
August 1914 to my pleased surprised works very well as a self contained novel and is quite entertaining as well as being a sort of fictionalised social history of the war. In fact, it’s much more fun and readable than something like the Gulag Archipelago. However, having already read thousands of pages of Solzhenitsyn’s works I am unlikely to go on and read the rest of the Wheel (especially as I am not even sure it is fully published).
The Red Wheel then is Solzhenitsyn’s folly – something he worked hard on but which few people will read and will not be what he is remembered for. He must have had some inkling of this when he saw how long the project was going to take him and wrote and published selected chapters from the Wheel books as a separate volume that focused on the actions of the man in the eye of the storm: Vladimir Lenin.
The kernel of the idea of releasing the separate volume (entitled “Lenin in Zurich“) must have been to publish the chapter on Lenin from August 1914 which had been suppressed in the original copy (and in fact, my version) but also to try and approach the man as a whole rather than scattering him amongst the entire swathe of history between several novels. To the reader it is a real boon, focusing the socialist-style many-heroes style of narrative down to a singularly heroic or villainous individual to cast him during his years of exile and uncertainty rather than the figure of pomp and state that he became as Chairman of the Soviet Union.
It’s a real boon to the reader as it cuts down hundreds of pages to a clear focused narrative across just 255 pages, which is just the ticket for someone who has just finished August 1914. For those that aren’t going to go any further, Lenin in Zurich seems to be the authorially abriged version – the day trip – which I am happy to delve into. Did I also mention that I bought both this and August 1914 for a dollar each in a closing down book store? That too.
So, enough preamble – the book itself.
This book is of course a portrayal of one man who would become an icon and it certainly feels like a real and fully fleshed out portrait that is immediately convincing to anyone who has studied this period of history. Most tellingly, it is a warts and all depiction that mostly focuses on Lenin’s flaws, though he does in some respects emerge from this devil’s mirror as something of an anti-hero too, which I’ll explain later.
Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin is a horrible, horrible person, an obsessive control freak who is almost incapable of working with others in the long term. He’s irritable, never willing to admit he was wrong about anything and is loathing and distrustful of anyone except himself. Lenin is, in short, a nightmare blind date.
We meet Lenin in hard times. Having managed to found the Bolshevik party (albeit through an act of destruction in splitting the Social Democrats into two factions), he is now a forgotten figure no longer considered relevant in Russia. Lenin missed the boat in 1905 which was the first big revolutionary action in Russia and had been left dawdling on the sidelines whilst others founded Soviets and drove the actions and became socialist heroes. As a result, he is completely irrelevant in terms of Russian politics and in a typical act of spite has begun to resent Russia and the Russian people and turns his focus to helping revolutions elsewhere. His main effort is to try to start a revolution in Switzerland, which is completely deluded as he is not Swiss, not widely accepted in the Swiss revolutionary politics and he struggles over time to understand just how content and prosperous the Swiss people are. To compound his misery, he has very few allies as it has always been his way to subvert democracy by demanding splits, splitting groups smaller and smaller until he is in the minority but his handful of followers which he assumes are loyal but often aren’t. His demands for total domination of his followers mean that he would rather split a group up than enjoy its success. His followers often leave him as Lenin is a good theorist and hard worker but he’s not charismatic and doesn’t speak well to crowds. One by one, most of his allies have deserted him through choice, been so insulted by him as to leave or have been exposed as Tsarist agents in the most embarrassing way. In short, the Lenin of this period is a man destined to fail, as Trotsky would say headed “to the dustbin of history”.
We follow his personal life in exile which underlines how horrible he is as a person not just because his single-minded devotion to quarrelling and insulting those with even very minor ideological differences but also in the way that his socialist ideals have crumbled somewhat in that he despises most other people and is less interested in improving people’s lives through socialism than by bullying his own ideas through and exacting some sort of violent revenge against the elites. His mind runs with violent fantasies about the revolution itself but he doesn’t care at all or speak at all about a socialist dream in the way that someone like Krushchev would. He comes across as someone who works hard on his own ideas but could never work for someone else, as for his income he scrounges somewhat hypocritically off his mother’s wealth. He is desperately horrible to his wife and seeing himself as a genius, assumes that she and he have an unspoken bond that she will serve him like a butler until the day he dies and allow Lenin to conduct an affair in front of her eyes. Nadezhda is even expected to help Lenin hide his infidelity from his mother.
Lenin’s mistress at this point refuses to speak to him and though he himself is unfaithful, he jealously is unable to cope with the idea of her being with other men. Though she is a progressive socialist in her own right, Lenin treats her with condescension, allowing her to play at being a revolutionary without ever taking any of her ideas seriously. The fact that they are both socialists seems to be how they met but Lenin has no interest in dating a real socialist with her own ideas – he only wants a servant. He wants an idol he can worship – a stone one, unable to speak back or make her own decisions. It is no wonder she cuts him off entirely and leaves him a spoilt teenager writing letters whilst his wife watches.
So Lenin has hit rock bottom and even gathering a few people for a reading in a library is an achievement now. At one stage, he almost thinks of giving up completely and moving to America, which surely must flag an image in reader’s heads of an alternate reality Lenin as a Brighton Beach New York Taxi Driver. That Solzhenitsyn is able to bring this world statesman through such an embarrassing expose to the point where he is almost at the point of giving up his dream is impressive.
But that’s not all.
Solzhenitsyn follows through to the beginning of Lenin’s redemption, an encounter with Parvus, the flash successful hero of 1905. Parvus is “Lord Flashheart” to Lenin’s “Blackadder”. He seems like the leader Russia should have had rather than Lenin’s bearded, nerdy nutjob. He’s handsome, confident, successful and rich. He orchestrated the 1905 Petrograd Soviet and is much more famous and successful than Lenin as a revolutionary, having earned a fortune in exile from business. Lenin has some pride that he lives in poverty as a proletarian compared to this rich big shot, but other than that Parvus is everything Lenin wants to be. He views Parvus as his nemesis and only equal, but the feeling in Parvus is not mutual. Lenin delusionally sees them as equals despite how low on the ladder he is compared to Parvus. Parvus is working for the Germans and the Germans are willing to help a revolution in Russia to end the war. As Parvus mistakenly believes that Lenin has spies in Russia (he doesn’t have anything), he offers Lenin German financial help and Lenin, tempted but unable to work with anyone turns it down.
However, now that the war situation has become so bad, Lenin re-contacts Parvus and takes him up on his offer. This is where Lenin achieves his salvation and proves himself at least something of an anti-hero. He takes Parvus’s help and money and resolves to return to Russia to take up the mantle there and make history (and become the Lenin we all know about). However, he does so in full knowledge that Parvus is probably trying to double cross him so that his paymasters the Germans can conquer all of Russia easier. He is correct, as Parvus has long abandoned his socialism. Lenin will proceed and triple-cross Parvus, skewing this twisted plan by this genius to help the Germans roll over Russia. Lenin is a wretched, powerless mess but in his sneaky and cunning usurpation and deception of Parvus can return to Russia and realise his dream.
For such as short book to contain the dramatic note of bringing a great figure of history so low both in personal reputation and in his political standing in the plot is enough to interest me but as the book also masterfully picks up pace toward’s Lenin’s phoenix-like rise to remind us that whatever we think of him, he was the one who won out in the end.
“Six months from now we will either be ministers or we will be hanged!”
The portrayal of Lenin as a sort of hateful schizophrenic who madly believes in his own historical importance and ability to change the world is well dramatised but ultimately although this is another skillful Solzhenitsyn book, I have to admit that unlike August 1914, this is probably one for those who have studied Russian history before. If you don’t have much surrounding knowledge of the period or little pre-existing interest in Lenin, you’ll probably walk away from this book (if you finish it) thinking, “what the hell was that”? But Solzhenitsyn was writing for people who were already fascinated by this figure. He clearly wants to make sure you know this “hero” is nothing but a snivelling, misogynist, arrogant fool but one who is incredibly historically impressive nevertheless.