A hundred years after he came to power, Lenin’s is a face that everyone recognises. We all have our impressions of the man: my own include a marble version by the coat racks in a Russian archive where I work in Moscow, and a lump of a statue on the square nearby. In Soviet times, almost all public buildings had a portrait of the leader on display, although when it came to private space a calendar with kittens was what most people preferred.
The Lenin portraits are becoming rarer now – they have been disappearing for almost 30 years – but if you happen to be near Red Square you can still drop in on the man himself. Inside his ugly mausoleum, Lenin is deader than the clumsiest urban bronze. His very suit is dowdy, as if cut for some unloved great-grandparent. The cult that put his statue into every small-town square in Russia has drained the last sparks of humanity. Ostensibly so reverent, it turned its hero into a wax doll. His lips no longer moved, of course, but Stalin reduced him to a prop, a grotesque ventriloquist’s puppet.
Intrigued by this historic conjuring trick, I resolved to find out about the real man. My search began on a spring afternoon in the old part of Zurich, Lenin’s final European home. When he left it, in April 1917, he ceased to be an illegal conspirator, another exiled Russian in scuffed boots and bat-like coat. Accompanied by his wife, his ex-lover and an assortment of supporters, he strode through Zurich Central Station and embarked on the most momentous rail journey in history, the ride that took him on to Russia and his future as the world’s first Soviet head of state. But he started out from a European city and he always saw the continent as his political home.
Another trick the Soviet ventriloquists pulled off was to turn Lenin into their exclusive property, a Russian figure towering above the outside world. The man would never have agreed. He revered Germany and German intellectuals; he admired Europe’s cultural and economic successes. He even learned his rhetoric by watching Sunday speakers in Hyde Park. Walking round Zurich, I could not forget that he was largely made in Europe, part of a pan-Continental socialist movement whose heyday ended with the First World War. Whatever happened later, he always saw his revolution as European, even global.
Lenin loved Switzerland: he liked the mountains and the bracing walks, and he did not mind about the food. As other parts of Europe shut their doors to foreigners, Switzerland became his haven, a place where he could work and talk. Above all, he enjoyed its libraries. His favourite, beside the medieval Predigerkirche, still looks as it did when he worked there. Although he lived five minutes’ walk away (in cramped and airless rooms above a sausage factory), it was here that he passed some of his happiest hours. He was sure to be waiting outside when the doors opened each morning, eager to claim his customary desk and line up his pre-sharpened arsenal of pencils.
That Zurich library was the place where, in 1916, Lenin completed his extended essay “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, a work that helped to justify his revolution the following year. The research for it was prodigious. In a few months, he read 148 books and 232 articles in English, French and German, including works by Aristotle and Hegel. In a different age, he might have lost himself in books; he would have made a formidable headmaster.
The Soviets exaggerated Lenin’s so-called genius, but he was certainly tenacious and quick. What he was missing was the gene for self-doubt and humility. The man’s arrogance left others panting in his wake. Years earlier, in his student days (when he was balding fast), friends used to joke among themselves that he had such a big brain that it was pushing his hair out.
The baldness became a defining feature, but what Lenin’s acquaintances in Zurich remembered was a small and energetic man: informal, quick to crack a joke. He was a good listener, too, which is surprising in a character more usually associated with dictatorship. When Russian exiles came to Switzerland he was always keen to question them, to know each secret of their lives and thoughts. He listened to Swiss workers, too, and took an interest in the minutiae of local industrial production. A new arrival might be made to perch on one of Lenin’s battered chairs and detail every aspect of his work. But everyone was also catechised about the revolution and the working class.
Lenin lived entirely for the cause he served and expected his followers to do the same. Whatever else helped him to power, that single-mindedness was critical. “Lenin is the only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation 24 hours a day,” a fellow exile wrote of him, “who has no thoughts but of revolution, and who even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution.”
The wartime debate among socialists in Europe is largely a forgotten one. Soviet propagandists ensured that Lenin would appear to dominate, as confident as any prophet with his eyes fixed on the way ahead. But the reality was more confused, and even Lenin sometimes worried that his destiny was falling behind schedule. Just days before the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, he told Swiss workers that he feared he might never live to see the revolution he was working for. At such times, he put his faith in the idea that life must constantly improve, accepting Marx’s view of History (with a capital H) in the same breath as Darwin’s natural selection or human technological progress. Capitalism was wrong, imperialism was worse, and therefore working people must eventually defeat both threats and liberate themselves. Lenin was never fatalistic – he was obsessed with action and leadership – but whenever the machinery of revolution stalled he was sustained by that logical certainty.
In Zurich, I was struck by the absurdity of it. The mere idea of progress was becoming obsolete in 1917. For evidence, you need do nothing more than stroll from Lenin’s quarters to the Cabaret Voltaire, which still stands on the bottom corner of his street. When he was living up the hill, this was the home of Dada, the wartime movement that rejected order, reason and virtuous self-improvement. Even as Lenin was proclaiming Soviet power, there was something quaint, even old-fashioned, in the idea that human beings could perfect their world.
However innovative early Soviet culture proved, attracting artists from across the world, I suspect that at its heart there was a measure of nostalgia. The First World War blew great holes in the dream of human perfectibility. Soviet fantasies were attractive precisely because they offered to patch those up, to make things better, get us all back on our feet.
But revolutions need more than beautiful ideas. The Soviet state was born in violence and shaped with merciless determination. Lenin played a central role in its creation. In some ways its eventual character – anarchic provincialism cropped and stretched to fit a template as unkind as the mythical Procrustean bed – remains the best guide to the inner workings of the man. He was ever labouring, crushing himself as well as history to fit a shape. But no biographer is satisfied with that. Yearning to look beyond the politics, each seeks to turn the leader into someone like ourselves.
His sex life is a favoured starting point, but the reality of that was dull. Lenin met his future wife when he was 24 and remained with her (more or less) until he died. Nadezhda Krupskaya was serious, loyal and committed; she made a perfect consort for this gifted and difficult man. The only other woman in the case was a well-to-do mother-of-four, Inessa Armand, with whom Lenin had a brief physical affair. Instead of engaging in torrid rows with his wife, however, Armand befriended her. The pair would sit and mend the leader’s clothes. They also shared the burdens of their man’s unending party work: the letter-writing and accounts, the maintenance of international contacts. Lenin was an exile and a socialist, but somehow he missed out on all the absinthe and late-night cigarettes.
It bears repeating that Lenin’s priorities were exclusively political. He chose his friends for their commitment and broke with almost all of them on points of principle. He was the first to suffer from his own relentless discipline, giving up pleasures such as chess and music because they distracted him. Even the hiking that he loved was designed to maintain his fitness for the day when revolution came.
Abjuring sentimental pacifism, he carved out a position on the far left of the European anti-war socialist movement, enjoining the working class to turn its weapons on the rich. His message was bloodthirsty even by wartime standards, but his tenacity got him noticed. In April 1917, when officials at the German foreign ministry were looking for someone to destabilise the Russian empire and destroy its capacity to fight, Lenin’s was the name that topped the list. It was the German government that got him home and German gold that helped finance his subsequent campaign.
In Russia’s capital, Petrograd, the revolution was already two months old. Lenin was not the first exile to come home to brass bands and popular applause. A few weeks previously, the Georgian socialist Irakli Tsereteli had arrived from Siberia and immediately assumed a prominent role in the directly elected Petrograd soviet. Three days before Lenin, the grand old man of Russian Marxism, Georgy Plekhanov, had arrived at the Finland Station to a hero’s welcome. The crowds turned out for other liberated exiles, too, including the well-known Bolshevik Lev Kamenev and a louche young man called Joseph Stalin. In the chaos of springtime Petrograd, each made some impact on the revolutionary cause, but none had the volcanic force of Lenin. He stepped off the train from Finland, after eight days of relentless tension, at 11.10pm on Easter Monday. His feet had barely touched the ground before he began his first great speech. His words were shocking, electric and terrifying.
Lenin’s secret was simple: he would give shape to Petrograd’s inchoate disappointment, bringing new focus to the people’s anger, fear and hope. But that first night his audience thought he was mad. He dismissed any thought that democratic Russia had been coping splendidly without him. This went against the grain for some; at the point when he returned, the revolutionary government was moving towards agreement on the conduct of the war, a painful process that involved calming the fears of Russia’s allies (Britain and France) and indicating how liberties should not be taken by its enemies (Germany and Austria-Hungary). In thrashing out this policy, Petrograd’s ill-assorted leadership had begun to coalesce: the businessmen with monocles, the professors and lawyers, the writers and the whey-faced former exiles of the left. There were dissenters on all sides, including left-wing members of Lenin’s faction, but the majority saw merit, even hope, in fragile unity. In his first breath in Petrograd, Lenin savaged the lot of them.
He told his listeners that workers had no interest in the capitalists’ war. The people should be armed, but their opponents were the bourgeoisie – the landowners and businessmen – not German proletarians. Lenin also insisted that his party should stop co-operating with the representatives of the old bourgeoisie, the men in suits who still sat in the government. Only the soviets, he said, could speak and act for workers as the next stage of the revolution dawned.
Within three months this clarity, which looked insane on that first night, became his party’s greatest strength. But Lenin’s very popularity turned him into a political target. In July 1917, accused of treason in connection with that fabled German gold, he fled to Finland in fear for his life.
Once there, he pondered the bleak news from Petrograd. The war was going badly for Russia. The tsar might no longer be in charge, but nothing else in the army had changed for the better. As the summer wore on, desertions ran to tens of thousands and regimental discipline collapsed. Meanwhile, the pressure on production workers, especially those in the armaments and transport industries, grew ever more intolerable, while prices rose and food supplies remained erratic. Strikes once again left factories at a standstill, but the left-liberal government had no convincing answers. Even some socialists, in so far as they remained committed to defensive war, appeared to share responsibility for the mounting hardship, rage and fear. Only one party stood out from the rest, the one that had been calling for an end to fighting all along, the one that promised workers their time had come.
Lenin had won that argument, but he remained cautious. State power in a tormented Russia was a prize few cared to win. From July to early September, the leader urged compromise and creative delay. But something changed in mid-September. In his borrowed Finnish dacha, Lenin may have heard that the provisional government was at last considering peace talks with Germany, a development that might eliminate his party’s obvious political edge. Drawing on ideas that he had explored back in Zurich, he may have thought the time was right for a European revolution that Russia had a duty to lead. Whatever the reason, he started calling for an armed uprising. His letters even outlined the strategic moves. Once again, his followers were horrified. As he had done when he reshaped his party’s policy in April, Lenin faced the task of convincing them.
It was a job that called for all his bullet-proof self-confidence. With the government cracking down on dissent, even the journey back to Petrograd was risky. Disguised in a wig, Lenin arrived in such secrecy that he surprised his own lieutenants. Two weeks before his celebrated coup, he was a beardless refugee, hammering a suburban table as his comrades sat and stared. But the speeches that he gave that October were among the best he ever made. He did not view his revolution as a local matter, nor merely as a power-grab. In Zurich, he had come to see his country as the weakest link in the chain of global imperialism, the link whose rupture would begin the liberation of the world. If lost, this moment might not come again. As he put it to a midnight meeting in a borrowed room way out of town: “History will not forgive us if we do not take power now!”
This is the Lenin everybody knows, the one in all the portraits. He strides towards the future or he rages at the crowd, but everything he does is right and he can be relied upon to know the way ahead.
In fact, the coup in late October that overthrew Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government was a disputed affair: to the end, some of Lenin’s comrades urged a democratic deal and power-sharing. Then came the details, practical and gritty, which Lenin trusted to a group of stalwarts working round the clock. He provided the leadership – he never seemed to tire in those first critical weeks – but he relied on Leon Trotsky and his armed detachments of Petrograd workers, on members of the Baltic fleet, on his Latvian guards. In the provinces, where his revolution encountered early resistance, the comrades clung on through sheer energy. The Bolsheviks’ hour might have come, but none of Russia’s problems had been solved.
It took arrogance to hold the line throughout the civil war. As Russia tore itself apart, Lenin proved as obstinate as he was merciless. He could order the deaths of tens of thousands – terror became a propaganda tool – and he encouraged class-based hate without compunction. Yet all this was his duty, not some sadistic rampage. Tight-lipped and sober, always with a pen to hand, he never ventured to appear in military uniform. He took no joy in bloodshed, never witnessed executions. There was no white horse for this man to ride, nor did he tour the front lines of his own long war. As flies swarmed on the corpses in the streets and other people’s libraries were burned for fuel, he worked an 18-hour day and never grudged the paperwork.
His authority was legendary. At his new office in Moscow in the Kremlin, Lenin was the ultimate arbiter, the indispensable voice of the future. There was no proper challenger. But that was also his final problem, because it meant there could never be an heir. However loftily he towered over politics, the private Lenin knew that he had failed. He had seized power for the world, but even Europe let him down. In Germany and then Italy and central Europe, the spark of revolution flickered briefly and died. Soviet Russia was becalmed in a sea of hostile capitalist powers, unable to proceed with its global communist mission. Lenin died in January 1924. His revolution had not brought about the future he had planned for it.
At the end of my journey, the biggest surprise is not the monstrosity of Lenin’s vision (we are all familiar with that) but the sentimental clutter in which he lived. His apartment in a respectable part of Petrograd, where he spent three months in the spring of 1917, returning every night from late-running meetings at the headquarters of his party’s paper, Pravda, does not reflect futurism or the glories of a communist new world – the rooms could have been designed for characters out of Dickens. Every cushion and pillowcase is edged with fancy needlework, each surface crowded with knick-knacks. Lenin may have changed the course of history, but his imagination stopped at beaded lampshades and a matching shaving set. The effect is suffocating, yet it was this gentility for which so many died.
Imprisoned in a sanitorium by his final stroke, Lenin must have pictured these old rooms, revisiting the wooden clock, the copper bath, his mother’s framed studio photograph. That embalmed corpse is very dead; the horror is all here.
Catherine Merridale is the author of “Lenin on the Train” (Penguin)
This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution