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Book Review

Conspirator: Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappoport
Ian Mitchell

elen Rappaport has written a study of Lenin’s life as a revolutionary exile in Europe, and had called it Conspirator. When I mistyped this, my spell-checker miscorrected it and gave me “Constipator”. I often notice incorrect spell-check corrections that seem absolutely right. This was one of the best, because Lenin’s legacy to Russia has been an inability to digest new ideas, techniques, even people. Arguably the country still suffers, nearly a century later, from economic constipation.

Ms Rappaport’s Lenin is in most respects ordinary, even dull. He was dull partly because of his one extra-ordinary feature, which was his obsessional focus on his great dream of power and violence. At a secret meeting in London in 1905, a British Special Branch detective who hid in a cupboard in the room where he was giving a talk reported that Lenin demanded “bloodshed on a colossal scale”, without mercy, “in Russia first, and then from one side of Europe to the other”.

Why? To bring about a better world? Ms Rappaport does not speculate on the logic which enabled Lenin to arrive at the conclusion that the conduct of the regime in Russia justified drowning the whole of Europe in blood. Yet this, surely, is the fundamental question about Lenin. Violence came to be the central tenet of Bolshevism, especially after it achieved power. Why did Lenin hate life so much?

The Bolsheviks said they were fighting for social justice, yet Lenin’s first Commissar of Justice, Nikolai Krylenko, said: “Execution of the guilty is not enough. Execution of a few innocents as well will be even more impressive to the general public.” Law, then, was to be nothing more than a demonstration of the power of the regime to commit whatever evils it chooses to commit.

Some people would argue that that principle still operates, and that Lenin’s legacy is seen in the courts of Russia today. Property, especially on a big scale, really is theft. This is, therefore, an important point. But I could find no way into it with Ms Rappaport’s book, until my computer suggested that Lenin’s most important role in Russian history was not his successful conspiracy to overthrow the Tsar but his stultification of Russian thought and constipation of the Russian spirit. Lenin and his followers clogged up what might be called the intellectual digestive system of the nation, which still cannot get rid of the turgid idea that it is better to have new rockets than well-maintained roads.

But life does not grow by killing. That fact was not apparent to Lenin and his followers (unless you call the NEP a tacit admission of the failure of violence as a way of forcing food out of farmers). The present state of Russia, which has an economy almost completely devoid of innovation, and a culture which is creative only in its extremities, is a vivid illustration of this fact.

Lenin destroyed a country which in his youth had been one of the world leaders in both wealth and culture (see “The Destruction of Russia”, Passport June 2009), and he put nothing in its place except Soviet power. His was the bleakest vision imaginable. It transformed dullness into a religion. In that context, Ms Rappaport’s book becomes more interesting.

Thus we learn, for example, that when he lived in Paris Lenin “turned his back on most of the cultural life of this great European city and resisted the constant urging of his colleagues to go out and enjoy himself more.”

Likewise in London, he had no understanding of the human side of the life of the working classes of the East End, amongst whom he lived and on whose behalf he was supposed to be labouring. He was baffled by their habit of going to the music-halls and watching humorous lampoons of the ruling class. Why were they laughing when they should have been either manning barricades or sitting at home studying Marx? They weren’t dull enough for the man of blood.

Throughout his life in exile, Lenin lived amongst the expat community, yet without having anything to do with it. He knew nothing of the locals and their culture, and was uninterested in the Russians around him. He was completely isolated from everyone except his fellow constipators.

Lenin was a misanthrope and an autodidact who hated—really hated—being contradicted. He was enraged, for example, when the Bolsheviks in the 4th Duma actually tried to co-operate with other delegates in order to achieve something positive. He split the party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks over this issue. This level of rage at independent thought is not the sign of a strong will but of a diseased mind.

Ms Rappaport has subsequently written that she thinks Lenin contracted syphilis in a Paris brothel in 1902. (So he did get out and enjoy himself, only secretly!) In a long footnote in this book (p. 331), Ms Rappaport introduces this possibility as explaining her subject’s gross misanthropy since his temper, headaches, irritability, sleeplessness and periodic loss of appetite were, apparently, conventional symptoms of second-stage syphilis.

After the Revolution, Professor Ivan Pavlov (of dog fame), who was probably the most distinguished scientist working in early Soviet Russia, and one of the few of any standing who knew Lenin, concluded that he was “a madman with syphilis of the brain”. It seems the great constipator did not die of a stroke, as we have been told for so long, but of venereal disease.

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