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Let the Reader Beware

Lenin: A Biography, by David Shub (Doubleday and Company; $5).

I’ll Never Go Back: A Red Army Officer Talks Back, by Mikhail Koriakov (E. P. Dutton; $3).

Tell the West, by Jerzy Gliksman (The Gresham Press; $3.75).

Of these three books, only one, David Shub’s biography of Lenin, is a useful contribution to an understanding of Russia and the Russians. The other two are not unfamiliar specimens. Each is an undocumented, uncorroborated narrative of harrowing personal experiences in the Soviet Union. Neither has any particular literary, autobiographical or historical merit. Both are frankly propagandistic denunciations of certain phases of life under the Soviet regime.

Unfortunately, the reader without a set of preconceptions or well-formed prejudices has few guides by which to judge the accuracy and truthfulness of such accounts. He may not, of course, depend on what newspapers or magazines publish, for such materials are approximately as reliable as the memoirs of Lemuel Gulliver. He can scarcely look to “official” reports for unbiased evidence. His sole recourse is to judge each account on the basis of consistency and inherent plausibility. The best advice the reviewer can offer is caveat lector.

I’ll Never Go Back (it seems odd for the author to consider this a matter of wide concern) is by and about Mikhail Koriakov, a former military correspondent with the Red Army Air Forces. In the spring of 1944, Koriakov experienced a profound religious awakening which led to a sudden marked revulsion in his entire opinion of the Soviet system and philosophy. On voicing his new views, he was stamped “ideologically unsound,” relieved of his post and assigned to innocuous duties. Just why he was not, as one might have expected, more severely punished, is unexplained. The greater part of the volume treats of the author’s adventures after his conversion. It is concerned principally with the brutality of the Red Army, with various incidents of rape, plunder and such other barbarisms as fell under Koriakov’s ranging eye.

One chapter describes the operations of the NKVD in Paris, whither Koriakov managed to make his way. I am unable to judge to what extent the account of the Paris episode enjoys an admixture of fact. Its verisimilitude is not enhanced by Koriakov’s disclosure that the aide to the top NKVD agent in Paris bore the name Lieutenant Mikhail Strange—too much even for my elastic sense of coincidence. The style of the work and the admirable disinterestedness of its author are epitomized in this small sample: “The color red infuriates bulls. It enrages me, too, whether it bears a hammer and sickle or a swastika.”

Tell the West, despite its absurd title, is a more convincing narrative. Arrested by Soviet border guards in 1939 as he attempted to escape to Lithuania, Jerzy Gliksman, a lifelong Polish Socialist, was sentenced to five years of penal servitude in one of the immense prison camps scattered throughout northern Russia. These, it appears, are largely populated by political prisoners (mixed together with common criminals) who are given the opportunity through road building, logging and other forms of hard labor to expiate their heresies and redeem themselves. Though not in good health, Gliksman managed somehow to survive two years of crushing toil, hunger, cold, disease and filth.

In September, 1941, when most Polish political prisoners were amnestied, Gliksman was released to find service with a Polish military unit; after the war he emigrated to the US. His story impresses one as essentially honest and sincere. It is a limited but probably truthful description of one man’s experience in the vast  forced-labor system now apparently an indispensable part of the Soviet economy and production machine. The system is one which the lovers of liberty everywhere must abhor. It is also well to remember that its causes cannot be ascribed to the aberrant minds of Stalin and the Politburo. They are to be found instead in Russian and European history and in Russian and European social and economic problems, of which we know little and apparently desire to know even less.

It is evident that David Shub in preparing his biography of Lenin had only exiguous and secondary sources from which to gather fresh data. Modern revolutions, as Joseph Barnes has pointed out, “devour their own records” as well as their own children. Shub has succeeded, nevertheless, in composing an impressive, relatively objective and often fascinating work. It gives a clear, useful account of the events leading to the Revolution and of that incredible period of chaos and ferocious violence during which the Bolsheviks came to power and wrought their totalitarian state. Only a fanatical, ruthless genius, an “amoral realist,” a fearless “professional revolutionist,” could have turned the wild confusion of the early Revolution into an irresistible weapon and with its help made himself the master of 180 million people.

These were the qualities of Lenin, the slender, bald, ascetic philosopher, Mongolian in feature, Machiavellian in principles, Jesuit in self-discipline. Never was there a man more ardent for revolution, more single-mindedly devoted to the task of obliterating, at whatever cost and by whatever means, the existing order. His beloved elder brother was hanged, while Lenin was still a boy, by the Czarist police. His first dedication sprang from revenge, but his aims soon outgrew all personal motives. His objectives went beyond socialism, beyond moderate reforms, beyond all the ideals of polity except those which would achieve the untrammeled dictatorship of the proletariat.

He was, of course, too much the contemptuous intellectual to have faith in self-rule by a constituent assembly of the proletariat even after the “yoke of capital” had been lifted, the “exploiters” suppressed and all opponents eliminated. “The Soviet socialist democracy,” he wrote, “is in no way inconsistent with the rule and dictatorship of one person: the will of a class is at times best realized by a dictator who sometimes will accomplish more by himself and is frequently more needed.” Freedom, equality and the will of the majority Lenin regarded as “high-sounding slogans”; talk about political liberties as “mere chatter and phrasemongering.”

Lenin’s life was for the most part a sequence of bitter and perilous episodes. In his younger period he was initiated into a career of conspiracy marked by intervals of imprisonment and Siberian exile; when he arrived triumphantly at the Finland Station in 1917, be had not set foot on Russian soil in a decade. His poverty-stricken years in a succession of miserable rooming houses; his “shuttling existence” as a political emigré; his indefatigable labors as an editor, writer and pamphleteer; his round of endless clandestine meetings with co-conspirators in the cafes and meeting halls of Munich, Brussels, London and

Geneva—all this was borne in the certainty that the moment of opportunity would not finally be denied him.

Lenin’s successful part in the Revolution itself, the overthrow of the Kerensky government, the silencing of the constituent assembly and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, was the crown of his preparations and practice in self-discipline. When the time for action came, he permitted no considerations of principle, morality or friendship to temper his conduct. He was fearless and endlessly resourceful; what he could not seize by force he gained by fraud. He was as adept at planning the tactics of street fighting as in creating the framework, constitution and decrees of the new state. Those who came after him, one judges, had neither his abilities, his fanatical conviction nor, for that matter, his modesty. As Shub points out:

Lenin might well have said: “I created the Bolshevik Party. I was the brain of the November Revolution. Several times, when our power seemed about to crumble, I saved it by bold improvisation, by signing an unpopular peace in 1918, by introducing the NEP in 1921. I created the Comintern and gave it the revolutionary theory and strategy through which Russian Bolshevism became a world force.” Lenin could rightfully have said all this, but he never did, for no dictator in history was less vain. In fact he was repelled by all attempts on the part of the men around him to set him on a pedestal.

All such adulation he considered “un-Marxist.” When on his fiftieth birthday a monster celebration was staged in his honor, he consented to appear only after the “barrage of idolatry was over. ‘Comrades,’ he said, ‘I must thank you for two things: for today’s greetings and even more for excusing me from listening to the anniversary speeches’.”

Shub draws a skillful portrait of Lenin’s personal traits. He threw himself into all activities with equal enthusiasm: reading, writing, chess, long country walks and outings, fraternization with peasants and workers, debates with his comrades, playing with children. He was at once a “tireless hunter of falsehoods” and the fabricator of gross falsehoods and charges against his political opponents. He was merciless in punishing the slightest defection, yet, when he felt it served the cause, could forgive even the traitors within his party. He was an implacable enemy of religion, which he described as the “opiate of the people, a sort of spiritual liquor, meant to make the slaves of capitalism drown their humanity and their desires for a decent existence”; he was so deeply moved by music that he told Gorky he could not listen to it often because “it affects my nerves.” An extraordinary man of extraordinary contradictions— “theoretician,” “folk leader,” “Utopian” and “realist.”

I remember the story of another biographer of Lenin who one day during the late 1920’s visited the British Museum, where Lenin had spent many hours in reading and study, to see whether he could find someone who might recall the great man’s habits and eccentricities. He was referred to an ancient attendant who was wholly unable at first to recollect the object of inquiry. “A small man,” suggested the biographer, “with a bald head, a beard, Mongolian eyes, thick nose, serious, intent and hungry-looking, etc., etc.” A light suddenly dawned. “Oh, ‘im,” said the attendant, “yes, I remember; now what ever ‘appened to ‘im?” Shub has provided us with a satisfying answer.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.