Is a fugitive always a coward? If he spends his time diligently working on behalf of his principles, wasting not a moment, scornful of those who do less, then he may be a revolutionary, a genius, a rebel – and a conspirator. Helen Rappaport (Russian history specialist and author of
The Last Days of the Romanovs) paints a portrait of a driven man, sometimes briefly human enough as he plays on the floor with his landlady’s child, sometimes coldly calculating, and always the dictator of his surroundings, once found, once settled in. His wife, Nadya, would certainly have attested to that, as she often experienced “utter melancholy” while serving the great man who perhaps more than any other person was responsible for the deep entrenchment of the word “communism” in the psyche of the modern world.
Lenin and his wife were in exile for seventeen years, living in poverty, moving often, never having a home, a child, a pet. He did manage, however, to have a mistress, Inessa Armand, “beautiful, sophisticated, and multilingual,” whereas Nadya, who suffered from a thyroid condition, was asexual and dowdy. The bitterness of those years away from the revolution he intended to forge wrought in Lenin a fire to lead, and when the opportunity arose he seized it with vigor, becoming an icon for a people denied religious ones.
When Lenin and Nadya lived in London, in different tiny flats, he became well known at the library of the British Museum, where he studied with such dedication and read with such apparent zeal that the staff never forgot him. He hired a tutor to teach him English and liked to haunt Hyde Park and hear the free speech of the English proletariat (and the lunatic fringe). Meanwhile, Nadya dutifully cooked, talked to the cat, and transcribed Lenin’s many writings. In Poland (“almost Russia”), the couple rode bicycles and went ice skating. Unlike other Russian émigrés, Lenin was not a drunkard, a dreamer or an empty orator; he was following his charted course, ever engaged in describing, calculating, and fomenting the struggle.
When the pair hurriedly left Zurich, Nadya did not have time to retrieve her mother’s ashes, which she had planned to carry to Russia, and they had to burn papers and leave many of their possessions. At Finland Station,
Lenin had his finest hour, making an inspired speech on behalf of “the people” who must “fight for the social revolution, fight to the end, till the complete victory of the proletariat.” They needed, he told them, “only peace, bread and land.” In the end, the people would have none of those things, and Lenin would die, back home, of syphilis. His body was publically entombed so that those without peace, bread or land could have at least a messiah to worship in the long, dark days ahead.
Rappaport, exploring the till-now cold trail of Lenin’s exile in Finland and Poland, as well as piecing together known facts about his sojourns elsewhere, has given us a fascinating view of this ruthless and determined man. As the title indicates, the practical effect of Lenin’s philosophy was not its idealistic call to communal sharing of resources but its need to operate covertly, its secrets held jealously among a few powerful and cruel men to whom the concept of true sharing was unknown. As Rapapport states, what was needed to be and become a Lenin was not heroism or self-sacrifice, but “a unique kind of iron-clad, remorseless will.”