Thursday, November 03, 2011

Conspirator: Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappaport

Subtitle: The Making of a Revolutionary

(Book Review)

There are a million and one books about Lenin.

What recommends this book in particular is how well it’s written. Helen Rappaport is one of those rare historians who makes history sound like a story.

I’ll just quote a couple paragraphs to illustrate this. In this chapter, Lenin is travelling across Finland, and being housed along the way by the Finnish underground railroad for Russian politicals. He was supposed to get off the train at Abo railway station, where he would be met by the Borg family. However when he didn’t show up, the Borg family assumed he had been picked up by the political police.

By 2.00 a.m. there was only one logical conclusion that could regretfully be reached: the gendarmes had picked him [Lenin] up en route. And then, suddenly, came a soft thud at the window. Down below, standing in the soft white glow of the snow, stood a lonely figure, clutching a small suitcase. Lenin, fearful of knocking at the front door at this time of night, had thrown a snowball up at Borg’s window to attract his attention.
He had indeed almost fallen into the hands of the Okhrana [Tsarist Police]. Leaving Helsingfors by train he soon spotted that he was being tailed by two agents. When he got off the train at Karis to have some supper in the station buffet the men followed and watched him closely. He had to get away from them; they would arrest him the minute he got off the train at Abo, the end of the line. So, as the train gathered speed out of the tiny station of Littois (Littoinene), the last before, Abo, he slipped out on to the running board, threw his suitcase ahead of him and leaped from the train. Luckily, a deep snowdrift broke his fall. The two agents decided it was not worth risking their necks to follow, and as he watched the red of the train’s tail lights disappear into the night, Lenin heaved a sigh of relief. He picked himself up and trudged off in the crackling frost the seven miles of country road into Abo, his only point of reference in the dark, looming pine forest on all sides.
At Borg’s apartment, seeing that he was frozen, hungry and exhausted, the Finns removed Lenin’s coat and boots. As he lay on the divan to recover, Borg’s wife Ida fed him hot milk with cognac and rubbed spirit on his hands and feet to get the circulation going. By now extremely agitated at the thought of being captured, as soon as Lenin heard there was still a chance of catching the Bore I [the ship], he insisted on being found a sledge so that he could leave straight away. Ludwig Lindstrom, who was to be his guide, told him that it would be very hard finding the way in the snow and the dark and they would have to wait till morning. Lenin was hysterical that the spooks would catch up with him before then. “I’ve already been in Siberia and I don’t want to end up there again!” he exclaimed. If Lindstrom wasn’t prepared to take him, he would set off on foot, alone and head north for the Gulf of Bothnia. He’d walk all the way to the northern border with Sweden at Torneo if he had to: “I’ve walked further distances in Siberia.”

That wonderful storytelling alone is enough reason to just lose yourself in this book for hours at your local coffee shop.

The subject material of this book is fascinating as well. Rappaport makes the decision to cover the beginning of Lenin’s life only very briefly, and to skip the end of his life when he was in power. As the title suggests, Rappaport focuses only on his years as a political exile in Europe.
This was a wise decision. Not only is this the period usually neglected by other writers, but it’s arguably the most fascinating part of Lenin’s life. The games of cat and mouse with the police, the fierce political squabbling among the exiled Russian community in Europe, and the idealistic pre-revolution socialist community in Western Europe are all fascinating.

Although Lenin is the most well-known of the Russian socialists, in some ways his story is the least interesting, and Rappaport will sometimes use Lenin’s life as a jumping off point to describe some of the various adventures of the Russian socialist community at the time (dodging police while smuggling in illegal literature or gun running).
Rappaport is particularly interested in highlighting some of the women in the Russian underground, who have largely been left out of history, but about whom she has fascinating stories to tell.

As for Lenin himself:
For the amateur historian, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of a polarizing figure like Lenin. Every book I’ve read on Lenin has given me a completely different picture of the man than the one before it, to the point where I’m not sure what to believe.

In this book, he is portrayed as an obsessive intellectual who spends hours in the library everyday, and who sometimes ignores the political events in the real world around him because he is so obsessed with working out his theories. (Rappaport writes that both the 1905 Revolution and the 1917 Revolution caught Lenin off-guard).
In today’s world, where politicians are thought of as almost anti-intellectual, it is surprising to think that Lenin, so obsessed with books and having such poor social skills, was able to manipulate his way into being the leader of a large country.

Which is not to say Lenin wasn’t a politician. The Lenin in this book is a Machiavellian type personality who uses all sorts of dirty political tricks to get his way. He splits the Russian Socialist movement into two parts—Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, then fights bitterly to make sure his Bolshevik faction gets into control. He demands total obedience from those in his faction, and won’t tolerate any views dissenting from his own. Based on the picture Helen Rappaport paints of him, it’s not hard to see how this would be the same Lenin who would go on to create a very authoritarian regime. At one point in the book Lenin is having a talk with a constitutional democrat, and he ends by saying, “Someday we’ll be hanging people like you off of the lampposts.”

Rappaport also highlights the women in Lenin’s life such as his long suffering wife and mother-in-law (who accompanied Lenin on his travels all over Europe) and a woman Lenin appears to have had an affair with—Inessa Armand. Rappaport tries to counter decades of hagiography which make Lenin into some sort of asexual revolutionary monk and instead portrays him as a man with sexual desires who might well have looked for satisfaction outside of his marriage.

A very well-written book, well worth checking out.

Link of the Day
Status of Forces Agreement


Helen Rappaport said...

A Google Alert brought me to your wonderfully generous and perceptive review of my book. Thank you so much! All best wishes, Helen Rappaport

Joel said...

thank you very much for taking the time to comment on my humble blog. I really enjoyed your book.