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On the Trail of Lenin’s Muddy Galoshes

National Post, 7 October 2000

Book Review
Lenin: A Biography, by Robert Service
Harvard, 592 pages, $54.50

Lenin: A BiographyLenin would have loathed this book. Not because Robert Service, a distinguished Oxford historian, has hacked and slashed his way through Lenin’s private life, spreading allegations of drug abuse and sexual perversions. (He hasn’t.) No, Lenin would have hated any biography. Like most modern dictators, he liked to pose as a humble servant of history, aloof from such bourgeois indulgences as autobiography. Of course, this also helped him to evade rather more important concerns — morality, for instance, and even hard facts.

It’s important to keep this in mind while reading Service’s new biography of the Bolshevik revolutionary, born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov. For Service suggests that the shroud of mystery surrounding Lenin’s life was draped by the Soviet censor rather than by Lenin himself. The author boasts in his introduction that he was “fortunate to be in Moscow on the day when the central party archives were ‘unsealed’ … and to use the new historical freedom.” A dust jacket photo continues this theme, showing Service poised to enter the gloomy recesses of the former Party archives, a secret Lenin file under his arm. The result, he hopes, is “something that has hitherto been impossible to achieve: a biography.”

This is ungenerous, to say the least. Among the most recent of many fine biographies is the magnificent, eccentric and unsurpassed volume by the late Russian general and historian, Dmitri Volkogonov, who had unfettered access to the archives. It has been condensed and available in English for over five years.

But Service’s book is an unusually intimate portrait of a man who shunned intimacy. Born in 1870 in the sleepy Russian town of Simbirsk, Lenin was the third of six surviving children born to Ilya Ulyanov, a school inspector and hereditary nobleman. Service has unearthed some marvelous family accounts of Lenin’s childhood. Testing out his trembling, infant legs, one-year-old Vladimir would inevitably “bang his head and raise a desperate roar throughout the house.” His siblings recognized a “malicious aspect” to his behaviour: He once twisted the legs off a papier mache horse given to him for his birthday. On another occasion he “stamped over a collection of [his brother's] theatre posters,” and grabbed his sister’s “favourite ruler and snapped it in two.” But wait, there’s more: “On occasion,” continues Service, “he ran into the hall in his muddy galoshes.”

This is biography as it should be, preserving the grit and mundane reality of everyday life. Service has an unerring sense for the telling detail. Lenin was notoriously fastidious, scolding family members over half-sewn buttons or unpolished shoes. Before beginning his work day, he would buff up his desk; even in prison he polished his own cell floor. He “detested waste,” writes Service, and when receiving “letters with blank spaces, he cut off and kept the unused parts.” After quitting smoking, Lenin would theatrically open windows whenever a colleague dared to light up.

Even some familiar details from Lenin’s life have the power to shock in Service’s retelling. When the Volga region is hit by a terrible famine in 1891, 21-year-old Vladimir refuses to help his sister’s relief efforts, declaring coldly that famine is “a progressive factor” for the revolutionary cause.

Meanwhile, as a young nobleman living off the income of his estates, Lenin insisted on prompt rent payments from the hungry peasants who worked his land.

And like most people who are indifferent to others’ suffering, Lenin made sure to protect his own personal comfort. Even his sister observed that “Vladimir Ilich did not have the quality of self-sacrifice.” When he was arrested by the Tsarist secret police and exiled to Siberia in 1897, his family paid for a comfortable train berth for the cold trip east, while his arrested comrades were left to make their own way, some on foot and in manacles. After arriving at his place of exile, Lenin rented a house, hired a 15-year-old serving girl, and enjoyed himself. “Everyone’s found that I’ve grown fat over the summer, got a tan and now look completely like a Siberian,” wrote Lenin to his family. “That’s hunting and the life of the countryside for you!” Political prisoners under Lenin’s rule would have a rather rockier time of it.

But Service seems to lose his way in the second half of this biography, as Lenin lays the foundation for the Soviet dictatorship. The drama and horror of early Soviet Russia is rendered in bloodless and rambling prose. In a chapter entitled “War Leader,” Service somehow manages to avoid talking about the Civil War — and Lenin’s role in it. Lenin’s approval of poison-gas attacks against Russian peasant rebels barely rates an aside. The famine of 1921, one of Europe’s most terrible human catastrophes, gets a sentence. Lenin’s brutal attack on the Russian Orthodox Church is treated in a single paragraph. Yet nothing revealed Lenin’s character so vividly as these last two events. At the height of the famine, Lenin wrote hysterically to the politburo, in a passage not quoted by Service: “It is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy.” Lenin, as usual, when faced with human misery, could think only of political advantage.

But archives rarely yield up such awful treasures, and Service’s research proves this. For among 3,714 previously secret Lenin documents at the old party archives, Service gives an official citation for only one — it is from the file he holds in his hand in the dust jacket photo, and it has been published in English at least twice already. (He quotes from the official Soviet edition of Lenin’s writings well over a hundred times.) Despite historians’ best efforts, Lenin remains as defiantly elusive in death as he was in life.