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I’m cheating a bit today. I do that from time to time. Vladimir Lenin was not a writer (although his complete collected works fill 55 volumes with over 3,000 documents). He was not a cultural figure in any strict application of that term. But you don’t need me to tell you that Lenin’s influence on Russian art, literature, music and other cultural activities after the beginning of the 20th century was enormous. If you look at the list of tags to the left you will see I have “preferred” Joseph Stalin when writing about the state’s effect on Russian art. Isn’t it time Lenin got his due?
Lenin, like that ever-buzzing gnat Stalin, is on one’s mind a lot today. There are so many reasons for that, I will end up skipping most. But here are a few:
1) Lenin lived in London. as the plaque above shows, in 1908. He lived at 21 Tavistock Place (the building is now numbered 36) while he was – yes – writing one of his essays, “Materialism and Empirio-criticism.” Not exactly beach reading, but, hey – neither is anything I do. London and Russian culture are deeply intertwined. I’m not talking about Roman Abramovich and the Chealsea football team, I’m talking about Herzen and his group of intellectuals and revolutionaries in the 19th century. Vladimir Nabokov spent time in England as a young man, matriculating at Trinity College in Cambridge. That experience was reflected in at least two of his novels, Glory and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. These days its not culture but politics, dirty politics, that dominates the Russia-England connection. The murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, probably at the orders of Vladimir Putin, stands at the center of that.
2) As these words are typed into my computer, the world is on a Vladimir Putin watch. He disappeared on March 5 and it is currently March 14. Where did he go? Nobody knows. There are lots and lots of rumors, but one of them is that the guy who oversaw the murder of Litvinenko has masterminded the “disappearance” of Putin. Probably not, but it’s one of the rumors out there, and it’s got me thinking about London. You see, as things have gotten worse and worse in Russia for thinking people over the last three years, we see definite signs that the Russian state, under the tutelage of Mr. Putin, is returning more and more to policies, attitudes and practices originally put into place by Mr. Lenin and his wayward pupil Mr. Stalin. We are currently seeing an outflux of intellectuals and writers that may soon match the peak emigrations of the 1980s, 1970s and 1920s. It was Lenin who codified “emigration” as a useful government policy when he oversaw the so-called “philosopher ships” in 1922 and 1923. That was sort of his attempt to be humane. Rather than arrest, torture and murder them, like he was doing to many “lesser” people, he had great Russian minds put on boats and sent abroad. A book was written about this in 2007: Lesley Chamberlain’s Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia.
3) Lenin’s tastes in literature and art were quite simple and direct. He liked the Russian classics such as Tolstoy, but was suspect of classics like Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, in fact, after the Russian Revolution, went into a period of 40 or 50 years in eclipse. He never quite disappeared – he was too strong for that – but his works were hard to find and were not “appreciated” by official critics. Dostoevesky, by the way, owes a certain debt to one of England’s greatest writers, Charles Dickens, and there is a Dickens-Lenin connection, as reported by none less that George Orwell, who satirized Lenin’s ideas brutally in his novels Animal Farm and 1984. In his essay “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun,” Orwell wrote that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was read “to Lenin on his deathbed and according to his wife, he found its ‘bourgeois sentimentality’ completely intolerable. Now in a sense Lenin was right: but if he had been in better health he would perhaps have noticed that the story has interesting sociological implications.”
4) Lenin was the guy who honed, if not perfected, the use of chaos, confusion, misinformation, lies, fear, terror and violence as a basis to build a political power base. (The “perfection” he left to Mr. Stalin and we are seeing this method revived in new forms under Putin – or his successor? – today.) This is why Russia inseminated world literature with such an embarrassment of riches throughout the 20th century. Ivan Bunin, Nabokov, Yevgeny Zamyatin (Orwell’s biggest direct influence) and Marina Tsvetaeva are just a few of the major figures who left or were driven out of the Soviet Union in the early years. It’s easy to see why these individuals skipped town. Look at the list of some who didn’t – Osip Mandelstam, Isaak Babel, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold were all murdered in prison. Tsvetaeva chose to come back home and ended up hanging herself. That is work Mr. Lenin can take credit for.
5) Lenin liked Maxim Gorky. Gorky liked Lenin sometimes, and even liked Stalin sometimes. Solzhenitsyn hated Gorky. I often don’t trust Solzhenitsyn (while admiring him greatly), but I share his dislike of Gorky. Does that put me within the six degrees of separation with Lenin?
Whether it does or not, I feel entirely safe in stating that I and my contemporaries in Russia today are grappling with the living legacy of Vladimir Lenin. It is a world of madness, suspicion, evil plots, dastardly deeds, death and assassination.
I feel as safe saying that as Lenin surely felt safe cozying up to his books and working on his revolutionary essays in his London abode. Thanks, London. Thanks a lot.