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Book Review An illuminating testimony by a wife and comrade

Biographies have been degraded by two opposing tendencies — hagiography or character destruction. This one has restored PAUL SIMON’S trust in the genre

Reminiscences of Lenin
by Nadezhda Konstantinova Krupskaya
(Haymarket Books £16.80)

Quite rightly, the biographical genre has been treated with suspicion on the left. In principle, the focus on one “great” life or another usually exaggerates the accomplishments of the individual above those of the collective and the underlying economic and social forces.

In practice, the genre has been continuously degraded by two opposing tendencies — hagiography or character destruction.

Yet this welcome reprint of Nadezhda Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin sees the raw material of biography put to its proper socialist use as explanation for past class struggles and as guidance for future revolutionaries.

Inevitably for an account that covers a lengthy period of time, from 1893 to 1919, the busy reader is inclined to dip into the key flashpoints around the October Revolution and little else.

Yet there are real insights to be had elsewhere in this account.

Krupskaya writes both as a wife and a comrade. Furthermore, she recalls events and debates not as a passive observer but as an active and well-regarded Bolshevik in her own right.

This intertwining of the personal and the political is present right from the beginning, where the young revolutionary is eager to meet “a very erudite Marxist” at a political meeting disguised as a pancake party. She approves of Lenin’s dismissal of single issue causes, explaining helpfully his disdain for liberals due to their lack of support in the months leading up to his brother’s execution.

Her report on the 1903 party congress, which saw disputes over its political programme, the status of the Bund and editorial control over Iskra led to the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, is almost an official report, but one with lots of personal footnotes.

She explains how much preparation Lenin took in preparing for congresses and his strict impartiality as chair even when opponents diminished the debate.

Although opposed to Martov’s line, Lenin is reported here as maintaining a steady affection for him. Nonetheless she castigates the Mensheviks, including Trotsky, for being focused on personalities alone while “the comrades grouped round Lenin were far more seriously committed to principles.”

She records ruefully the years of exile and the frustrations that came from being distant from events in Russia.

The pace at which she records and analyses events speeds up from the moment that the February Revolution occurs and Lenin negotiates his return from Switzerland, yet she still deploys occasional insights into her husband’s extraordinary ability to sum up a situation.

“I can still see him before me, as large as life  … his extraordinary sober-mindedness, his clear appreciation of the necessity of an irreconcilable armed struggle.”

These recollections end as the Bolsheviks are fighting for their lives during the Wars of Intervention launched by the imperialist powers and reactionary Russian elements, with Stalin being despatched to blunt the advance of Denikin’’s forces along the southern front.

Krupskaya records her husband saying that “the revolution was a living thing” and her account demonstrates at first-hand the intertwined nature of the movement and the man himself.

A compelling and instructive read.

Paul Simon

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