Troika and terror
Theatre - The playwright David Pinner on Lenin's extraordinary love life
For many years I wanted to write a play about Stalin's "guru", Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, now commonly known as Lenin, to complete my Stalin trilogy. I could not find a dramatic/human structure in which to explore Lenin's character but, with the opening of the Soviet archives in the Kremlin in the early 1990s, many hitherto unknown facts about both his public and private lives came to light. It was always rumoured that Lenin had had an affair with the beautiful half-French, half-Russian fellow revolutionary Inessa Armand, whom he met while in Paris. This was confirmed when his mistress's intimate correspondence with him was discovered in the archives. Even more remarkable was the revelation that during the Lenin-Inessa affair, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's wife, became a close friend of Inessa's, so much so, that the three of them often travelled together. The depth of the friendship between the two women was such that when Inessa died of cholera, Krupskaya and Lenin (who were childless) helped to bring up Inessa's children - none of whom was Lenin's. The conflicts and changing relationships within this remarkable troika form the basis of my play, and the politics provide the terrifying background to this extraordinary love story.
Lenin's approach to politics was every bit as extraordinary as his private life. Many people still believe that the man was an icon, a benign, wise and caring Bolshevik whose political philosophy was perverted by the monstrous, despotic Stalin - whereas the truth is quite different.
Inspired by the nihilist Sergei Nechaev, Lenin espoused the use of wholesale terror from a very early age. In Nikolai Chernyshevski's novel What Is To Be Done? - the title that Lenin appropriated for one of his own works - Chernyshevski wrote: "Robespierre and his Jacobins were too mild. In Russia we need a Triple Terror [one] which really terrifies." In his copy of the book, Lenin scribbled a note next to this quotation: "Excellent!" The playwright Gorky called Lenin "the thinking guillotine".
Lenin not only believed in the efficacy of terror to solve most problems, but he abhorred concepts such as "democracy" or "freedom", calling them "bourgeois shit". His language was renowned for its vituperative scatology. He thought every form of socialism other than his own was "filth". The British Labour Party he treated with scorn: "It is the job of every Communist to support the Labour Party leaders as the rope supports the hanged man."
Although in my play I use a certain amount of dramatic licence, much of the following exchange, which took place in 1911 between Lenin and Yuli Martov, the leader of the Mensheviks, is verbatim.
LENIN: The only hope of making the revolution work is if it's controlled by a centralised party, with terror as one of its principal weapons. Whereas you Mensheviks' idea of a party, Martov, is just a flabby monster with saggy tits.
MARTOV: It's senselessly utopian to try and violently impose socialism on an economically and culturally backward country like Russia, which is awash with peasants who are congenitally conservative, and will never countenance a revolution against their precious Tsar.
LENIN: Then we'll have to have the revolution without 'em, and make 'em follow the party line later.
MARTOV: That's despotic madness. If you forcibly plant a European ideal in Asiatic soil, all you'll achieve is the spawn of the dragon's teeth. Then thousands of slave-masters with their whips will spring out of the ground to terrorise the population into being socialists.
Martov's prophecy came to full fruition in the late 1930s, when Stalin took Lenin's "centralised" idee fixe to its logical conclusion, with the Yezhovina (the Time of Yezhov). Yezhov was Stalin's chief of the NKVD (the secret police of the time) and, together, he and Stalin turned Russia into a slave camp, at best, and, at worst, a death camp.
Lenin's Bolshevik movement was financed by money from bank robberies and prostitution, both of which the younger Stalin was engaged in, with Lenin's connivance. Other than working as a lawyer for a very short while, Lenin never did a day's paid work. He lived on money provided by his mother, and had more holidays than any politician in the last century. As he says to his wife: "Why hasn't Mother sent us any money this month? Does she expect me to work for a living? Doesn't she realise that as a full-time revolutionary, I haven't time to work?"
Lenin "suffered for the Bolshevik cause", when he was imprisoned in a tsarist jail for a brief period in the early years of Bolshevism, but he avoided the kind of danger that Stalin or the other revolutionaries endured. When Lenin was exiled to Siberia, he was still able to marry Krupskaya in a church when "forced" to do so by his mother-in-law. But "exile" under the tsars was very different to being "sent to count the birches" (the trees on the way to the Siberian slave camps) under Lenin or Stalin.
Lenin was a coward, running from demonstrations, his skull glistening in the sunlight. On the night of the October revolution, he disguised himself in a wig and catnapped on the floor of Trotsky's room while Trotsky was left to deal with the messy business. Lenin was a bourgeois Puritan who was terrified of becoming obsessed by anything but politics. He gave up ice-skating, chess and listening to Beethoven because he loved them so much. He tells Armand while she is playing the Apassionata to him, "When I come to power, I may have to ban Beethoven. His compositions move me to the depths of my being. A politician must never be moved deeply by anything but politics, otherwise he'll forget that his job is to bang people on the head."
The Soviet archives reveal that the famous "sealed train" that brought Lenin, his wife and his mistress home to Russia after the fall of the Tsar was the result of Lenin's treason. Lenin made a secret deal with the Germans, who provided him with the train and who used him, in Martov's words, "as a revolutionary cancer to destroy Russia's stability by providing you with all that money - and God knows what else - on their train".
In the wake of the October revolution, Lenin set up his own secret police, the infamous Cheka, under the Pole Felix Dzerzhinsky. On Lenin's orders, "Iron Felix" curtailed free speech and banned trades unions. Just as Ivan the Terrible mistrusted the Russian people, so Lenin surrounded himself with foreigners such as Dzerzhinsky and the Georgian Stalin. His Latvian bodyguard drove Lenin in his Rolls-Royce to his dacha, previously owned by a millionaire.
When the civil war erupted between the Reds and the Whites, Lenin used poison gas against his enemies and opened slave camps for his victims. As a result, the Kronstadt sailors, who initially were on the side of the Bolsheviks, protested that "Lenin's secret police make the Tsar's look like French gendarmes".
In 1918, Fanny Kaplan made an attempt on Lenin's life, for which she was summarily shot without trial. This prompted Lenin to unleash the Red Terror. In his own words: "It's because there's been comparatively so little bloodshed that we still haven't got a proper dictatorship. Our regime is incredibly mild. It's more like milk pudding than iron. That's why it's imperative we get the workers to dish out terror, too. They've got to bloody themselves, along with the rest of us. Dictatorship means unrestrained power based on unremitting force. In Gorky's words, 'It's the logic of the axe.' Dzerzhinsky and his Chekists must make their arrests at night. Don't look for evidence that the accused has acted against the state. The only question Iron Felix needs ask is, to what class does the accused belong? If there's any doubt, just shoot him. And hang those blood-sucking kulaks in their thousands in full view of the people, so that everyone will see and tremble. When we capture White generals, organise public show trials, then shoot them. From now on, hostage-taking should become state policy. We only need to carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million inhabitants. As for the rest, they must be liquidated without fear or favour."
After Armand's death in 1920, which utterly devastated Lenin, he ordered the death penalty for priests. As Lenin tells Stalin, "Because of the civil war, we're forced to export most of our grain to Italy, so there are millions starving. The roads are littered with thousands of dead bodies, and cannibalism is rife in the countryside. The Church should be giving 'all its riches to the needy people', but it isn't. Therefore, in the name of the people, we must remove all the valuables from all the churches and monasteries. Then we'll secure for ourselves a fund of several billion gold roubles."
STALIN: (laughing) You really are an inspiration, Vladimir Ilyich.
LENIN: I try. While Dzerzhinsky's at it, he should ransack every synagogue and mosque. Tell him to pile up the executed priests in the local ravines. Then the peasants will know for certain that their exploiters have gone to their non-existent maker. We're also being much too soft with the Mensheviks. Arrests should be stepped up. Send the adults to those new camps in western Siberia. Despatch their children to the Arctic. Use cattle trucks to deport Cossack women and children from the Don and Kuban region.
STALIN: Why not just shoot 'em all? As I'm always telling Molotov, "Death solves all problems. No man, no problems."
Stalin plays a small but very crucial role in my play, which, in the main, focuses on Lenin's often amusing domestic life. Indeed, at the opening of the play, Lenin is discovered in a yellow-and-black-striped bathing costume looking like an angry wasp, his wife having caught him flirting with a younger woman down by Stuttgart Lake (on holiday again). The play concentrates on the ups and downs of the ever-changing intimate relationships within the Lenin troika. One moment, his wife, Krupskaya, is jibing at his mistress, Armand, and the next, they are crying in one another's arms while Lenin, oblivious to their mutual suffering, plans yet more death and destruction with Stalin. The women join together to try to humanise Lenin, but Lenin, who is always suffering from an excruciating headache, has been told that he will die young and believes it. He can listen only to the time bomb in his skull and not to the prompting of his heart, insisting: "There is so much to do, and so little time!" As a result, his totalitarian brainchild explodes upon the world, and millions are killed and millions more enslaved.
David Pinner's Lenin in Love opens on 19 October at the New End Theatre, London NW3 (020 7794 0022), and runs until 12 November. The text of the play is published by Oberon Books next year