Russia’s Missing Peacemakers
Why the Country’s Elites Are Struggling to Break With Putin
RUSSIA, the Russian Revolution, Siberia, the Peter and Paul Fortress, were magic words to us young revolutionists in Zurich in 1912. We saw the Russian exiles who came to that city in the light of Russian literature. The fact that this most recent generation of refugees from the Tsar was completely different from the heroes of the famous novels did not affect us. What reality can be stronger than a preconceived ideal?
Our Russians were absolutely unsentimental. They used sentiment now and then, as politicians often do. All of them had flight, deportation and a court trial behind them. But it never occurred to them to speak about their past. They would have regarded such talk as childish or as an offense against good taste. They were attractive not only because of their readiness to discuss everything, their willingness to teach without pedantry or didacticism, but, above all, because of their ardent interest in every problem. They were all eternal -- and eternally young -- students whose thirst for knowledge would never be quenched. In contrast, a French or German Socialist lost his curiosity about mankind as soon as his prudent leaders presented him with a job in the political or administrative machine, or sent him to Parliament.
The Russians we knew in Zurich also displayed the dross in human nature, and sometimes it was as apparent to the beholder as the stains on their clothes. The energy they wasted intriguing against each other would have sufficed to rule a gigantic empire. Yet this must be granted: they were not self-satisfied. Every one of them was in a state of permanent revolution against himself, against his closest party comrades, and against God. These exiles felt the war and the postwar problems directly, concretely, in their own flesh. Politics never left them for a moment. It was like a chronic illness. They dreamed of it, and if they talked in their sleep, surely it was only of things political. Their hope was to track down the germs of war. They worked like bacteriologists to disclose its essential causes. These they hoped to find in books about the recent past.
I clearly recall Karl Radek standing in the middle of his room in front of a hill of books. Radek was the man who, according to all the respectable citizens of Europe, was commissioned by Moscow and the Third International to organize the postwar putsches in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Spain and Lithuania. For relaxation Radek read detective stories before going to bed; he once told me that he had to escape the pressure of politics for at least one hour in every twenty-four. The day after each important event of the war he had a pamphlet ready, but only rarely did it find a publisher. Martov, the best stylist among the Russian exiles, nicknamed him "Pamphletovich." The Russians, and particularly Radek, liked to be published in German. Just as Hebrew is a sacred language to the Jews because the Lord of Creation spoke it, so German was sacred to the Russians because it was the language of Karl Marx.
Martov for years had been at the opposite revolutionary pole from Lenin. Since the first year of the twentieth century he had been the leading polemicist of the Socialist tendency called Menshevism. This was rooted in the German and French traditions more than in the Russian. He fought the other Socialist faction, the Bolsheviks, because he felt that they and their leader Lenin harbored dictatorial ambitions.
Delicate in build, sickly, somewhat stooping, with a pale face partly covered by a dishevelled beard, with hollow cheeks and kindly, shining eyes, Martov used to sit surrounded by friends in the Café St. Annahof. Every two or three hours he changed tables. At intervals, he would retire to write, returning later to read an extraordinary essay in German, French, Russian or English, according to his audience. Sometimes he vanished for days. Worried newcomers to his circle who asked where he had gone would be told that he had buried himself in some library to study the latest happenings in France, Germany or Russia. Lenin said of him: "Martov studies himself into error."
Lenin had no difficulty in defeating an adversary who refused to understand the necessity of unrestrained violence. Less than two years after Lenin's accession to power, Martov was compelled to leave Moscow, to emigrate once more. A few days before that cruel end, during which his nerves died one by one in a long agony, Lenin, scarcely able to speak, murmured to his wife -- they were perhaps his last words -- "I hear that Martov, too, is dying?" Martov had died of tuberculosis a few months before.
In Zurich, during the first months of war, Lenin and Martov had come close to each other, and both were happy about it. But their accord was short-lived and they soon began a furious battle of ink against each other. Martov told me that, in the last analysis, Lenin was only the brigand chief of a party that had no real existence. These harsh words of course only increased my desire to see Lenin. I met him in a restaurant which served home-cooked meals, run by a Frau Prellog on the second floor of a dilapidated, weather-beaten house in a narrow little street near the Limmat Quai. The restaurant was in reality a dimly lit corridor, long and narrow, with bare walls and a long, unpainted wooden table that took up most of the space. The place smelled more like a moldy cellar than a restaurant. One door served as the entrance; another, always open, led to the kitchen. Around the table sat six to eight guests on wooden chairs; an equal number of chairs were usually empty. Frau Prellog was extremely busy, as she both cooked the meals and served her customers. She had lived in Vienna for a long time and spoke a peculiar Swiss-Austrian dialect. She was a plump blonde in her early forties, far more appetizing than her thin soups, dried-out roasts and cheap desserts.
When I reached the restaurant Lenin had not yet arrived, and I sat down with Kharitonov, a friend who had undertaken to introduce me to him. The company fascinated me. The men were all young, bold-looking, enigmatic figures. The only lady at the table was not enigmatic at all. She was called Red Maria, not because of her political opinions, but because of her red-blond hair. Maria had a regular, oval face like a Madonna, big blue eyes, long eyelashes and a bass voice which contrasted strangely with her delicate appearance. She immediately asked us, in a voice which drowned out all the men, who we were, what we wanted, who had given us Frau Prellog's address and whether we intended to become regular customers. We could see that the whole group were rather suspicious of us. I explained that I wanted to speak with Mr. Ulyanov -- Lenin was known here by his true name. At that Maria became voluble. She said, among other things, that the Ulyanovs were excellent people.
When Lenin arrived with his wife, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, he took a seat near Red Maria. She found in him a willing listener, indeed he listened to her so attentively that it did not occur to me to interrupt. Moreover, her tale of woe interested me. Her troubles were of a worldly, material kind. She said that she had had two lovers; now one was a soldier in Italy, the other in Germany. This war, she continued, was nothing but a robbery of men, a dirty trick invented by the rich. Then she went on to tell the favorite story of ladies of her kind: that she had to support her old mother and younger sisters and brothers. Nadezhda Konstantinovna, too, listened with interest.
Gradually, the other guests left the restaurant. Only Lenin, his wife, Kharitonov, Maria, Frau Prellog and I remained at the long table. Shortly before our arrival Frau Prellog had quarreled with Maria. Lenin tried to effect a reconciliation between them, and succeeded. Frau Prellog was not too stubborn; like Maria, she loved any opportunity of telling her troubles. She complained that some of her guests had failed to pay their bills, that meat was expensive, that soon it would be rationed. This, she said, was a measure directed only against the poor. Wealthy people, of course, would always manage to get their steaks. Oh, this accursed war! She could not understand why the soldiers did not shoot their officers and return home without further ado. Lenin's face shone with pleasure at these words. He looked at us with a satisfied air.
When we left the restaurant it was late in the afternoon. I walked home with Lenin.
"You see," he said, "why I take my meals here. You get to know what people are really thinking about. Nadezhda Konstantinovna is sure that only the Zurich underworld frequents this place, but I think she is mistaken. To be sure, Maria is a prostitute. But she does not like her trade. She has a large family to support -- and that is no easy matter. As to Frau Prellog, she is perfectly right. Did you hear what she said? Shoot the officers! A magnificent woman. Such opinions are very important."
In front of their house in the Spiegelgasse I took leave of Lenin and his wife.
"I should like to talk with you about things in greater detail," I said. "We can't do it at Frau Prellog's."
"Yes, with pleasure," he said. "I read an article you wrote about disarmament. That reminds me: Radek told me you were friendly with Martov. Do you sympathize with the Mensheviks?"
"I am neither Menshevik nor Bolshevik," I replied. "We in the Werdstrasse are the most radical group of all and we have our own theory."
"I see, I see," Lenin nodded. "That is very interesting." Then, after a short silence: "Come to see me tomorrow at 4 o'clock; I'll keep that time open for you."
My friend Kharitonov had not walked to the Spiegelgasse with us. The next day when I went to see Lenin there, I asked him to go with me. As soon as we entered the room, I began to speak. After about half an hour I noticed something like an expression of boredom on Lenin's face and stopped.
"What you have just said," he declared, "is false; completely, utterly false. We cannot be against every war. We must instead learn to distinguish the character of each particular war. We admire, for instance, the French revolutionary wars against old Europe, we admire Cromwell's campaigns, we admire Washington's war against London.
"We are against this particular war, which began in August 1914, because its aim is the further enslavement of the five continents, the promotion of the export of capital. This war is the continuation of the policies pursued between 1898 and 1914. Every war is an instrument of politics. This war is an instrument in the hands of the Russian Tsar, the German Kaiser, the Berlin, Paris and London bankers. I am against these people, and for that reason I hope that my country suffers a cruel and crushing defeat. It is my duty to hope so. Do you know the real meaning of this war?"
"What is it?" I asked.
"It is obvious," he replied. "One slaveholder, Germany, who owns one hundred slaves, is fighting another slaveholder, England, who owns two hundred slaves, for a 'fairer' distribution of the slaves."
"How can you expect to foster hatred of this war," I asked at this point," if you are not, in principle, against all wars? I thought that as a Bolshevik you were really a radical thinker and refused to make any compromise with the idea of war. But by recognizing the validity of some wars, you open the doors for every opportunity. Every group can find some justification for the particular war of which it approves. I see that we young people can count only on ourselves. We refuse to accept a new justification of war even in the name of science."
Lenin listened attentively, his head bent toward me. He moved his chair closer to mine, while Krupskaya, who until this moment had been sitting on her bed like an impassive ghost, broke into a broad smile. She seemed suddenly interested and pleased. This irritated me, because I took it as a sign that she was against me. There was a short silence in the room. Lenin must have wondered whether he should continue to talk with this boy or not. I, somewhat awkwardly, remained silent.
"Your determination to rely upon yourselves," Lenin finally replied, "is very important. Every man must rely on himself. Yet he should also listen to what informed people have to say. I don't know how radical you are or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself, and then let the devil and the fools worry about whether one is radical enough. War, however, does not ask me, nor the other Bolsheviks, nor you, whether we accept it."
He looked at me intently, as though trying to read my thoughts, and then went on in a hard voice: "At any rate, one thing is astonishing to me: you and your friends want to transform this entire world which reeks from every pore with baseness, slavery and war, and yet you renounce the use of violence in advance."
"Not at all," I explained, deeply offended. "We do not renounce violence, because that would mean that we renounce the revolution."
"Well, well," said Lenin, "what then is war? What is it but a form of violence? The twentieth century and modern imperialism have mobilized the masses. Every rebellion, every revolution is only a form of war. You can't separate war from revolution or revolution from war. The line of demarcation between them is indefinite and shifting. You cannot say where war ends and revolution begins. Those who expect the revolution to grow out of a peaceful situation, from so-called orderly conditions, do not desire it at all. Revolutions arise in the most complicated situations; most often they result from so-called transitional situations, which contain the sharpest contradictions. I took part in one revolution in Russia, in 1905. It consisted of a number of struggles in which all the discontented classes, groups and elements of the population took part. Among them were large groups who harbored the wildest prejudices and pursued the vaguest and most fantastic aims. There were little groups in the pay of Japan. There were profiteers and adventurers."
I listened with growing curiosity and interest. An hour, perhaps two, went by. Calmly but persistently he tried to convince me. Now and then he raised his finger and pointed at me. He spoke slowly and searchingly, in German with a Russian accent. Sometimes he could not find the word he wanted, and I would suggest one to him. He would nod his head almost imperceptibly and thank me. I became so interested in his ideas that I wanted to ask him not to stop. And my mistrust vanished. This man, who spoke so seriously about the revolution, I thought, was certainly no counter-revolutionary. I felt ready to reconcile myself with him. From an innate inclination to friendship, and also from my fear of being seduced by arguments that I was unable to answer at that moment, I said suddenly, without apparent reason: "Comrade Lenin, will you give me your word of honor never to betray the revolution, like the other leaders of Socialism who are pro-war?"
He had to collect himself before he could understand my question. Kharitonov, who until now had not said a word, burst out laughing, and so did Krupskaya. Their laughter seemed to me an expression of bad taste, and on the part of Kharitonov a direct betrayal, the beginning of an enmity. Lenin did not laugh. My question surprised but did not seem to displease him.
"Distrust," he said, "is a good quality in a revolutionary. I shall always try to do my best. But you must promise me to do the same."
"What must I do?" I asked eagerly.
"Learn," said he. "Stop talking so wildly and vaguely. I say that not only to you but to your friends. You always talk of revolution in general. This is just as false as to talk about war in general. Nothing can be more dangerous for young people than to know the names of things, but not their real meaning. Only a traitor or a stupid person can speak today of revolution without war, or of total disarmament."
"We shall correct our thesis on disarmament," I said, quite shaken.
"There won't be much left of it once it is corrected," he said, "or else our conversation has been in vain."
He rummaged in a drawer for a piece of paper and said: "In my article for your magazine I wrote: 'An oppressed class which does not strive to learn the use of weapons, to practice the use of weapons, to own weapons, deserves only to be mistreated. If the war today creates only fear in the petty bourgeoisie, only reluctance to make use of weapons, only terror before blood and death, we on the contrary say in answer to this feeling: capitalist society has always been terror without end. If an end by terror is not being prepared for this society, we have no reason to despair. The demand for disarmament in the present-day world is nothing but an expression of despair.'"
He was silent for a while and then concluded, with emotion: "Study and re-study war and revolution. Great things are going to happen soon, they are bound to happen. Yes, everything may be changed from top to bottom, overnight."
To be treated as an equal, despite all the sharp criticism, was a new experience for me. The other Russians, with all their patience and friendliness, had always been distant. They contented themselves with expounding their own ideas. They never said: go home, open your mind, try to understand things for yourself, learn. With Lenin I had the impression that I was an important ally, and that I had to study hard to pass the real test of revolution. I did not know then that Lenin spoke seriously to everyone who was interested in serious questions.
"Do you think," I asked him excitedly, dropping my theoretical preoccupations, "that the revolution will break soon?"
"Perhaps in two, perhaps in five, at the latest in ten years."
Lenin's plan was unparalleled in comprehensiveness and boldness, covering all the continents and seas and containing all the elements of the future "total" strategy. He set himself up in opposition to all the warring powers as the representative of another power, and declared relentless war of annihilation against them. He did this not abstractly, not in principle only. He had a definite, concrete strategic scheme according to which he organized the struggle against the warmakers in Berlin, Paris, London and St. Petersburg.
He started from the premise that every war does away with the outworn conventions, shatters the protective shell of a given society, sweeps away everything that has outlived its value, and brings into play the profound drives and forces of that society. He regarded it as his chief task to get into contact with these emerging drives and forces, to organize them in the service of his movement and to direct his action according to their development.
The official strategists of the warring powers used a strategy that may be called horizontal; Lenin had his own "vertical" strategy. Horizontal strategy is in general based on things as they exist, on known facts. A given number of regiments, brigades or divisions move on such and such roads, in such and such directions. They fight such and such engagements, all integrated and directed by the general staff so as to accomplish the broad purpose of the war. Lenin's vertical strategy was based on the powerful forces latent in man. At first these are potential forces; they become actual only as the result of a long political process. Once developed, these forces must be directed by the engineers of revolution, by a small, lucid revolutionary minority. Vertical strategy must cautiously mobilize these changing, still indeterminate, still indefinable forces, and concentrate them for the achievement of its political purposes.
In wartime, political opposition is conceivable only in connection with revolutionary activities. Lenin did not plan invasions from the outside, but from the inside. Every revolutionist must work for the defeat of his own country. To bring about this defeat, the discontented classes in each country must seize the barracks, government offices and other centers of the belligerent imperialists. The main factor was the violence, the force of the attack. The chief task of vertical strategy was to coördinate all the moral, physical, geographical and tactical elements of the universal insurrection, to join together all the hatreds aroused by imperialism on the five continents.
Lenin noted these potential elements of struggle with painstaking exactitude. Every day he commented at length on those little news items published from time to time in obscure sheets, which, to his mind, indicated latent popular unrest. Every day he wrote articles which formed a sort of political diary. He wrote as though thousands awaited his comment, as though a typesetter were standing outside the door. In reality there was only a leaden, echoless silence.
Lenin was always absorbed in the map of the world. He had an extraordinary feeling for the composition of social bodies, for their political specific gravity, so to speak. To him, the little states were an important element in the anti-imperialist fermentation, a means to be utilized in the total strategy. "The little nations," he wrote, "though powerless as independent factors in the struggle against imperialism, can play an important part in it." For that reason, according to the ever-changing requirements of an all-comprehensive strategy, he was for the right of nations to self-determination. Though an internationalist to the marrow of his bones, he could be nationalistic as a means to the end. He was not only for Irish equality in a common parliament with the English, for Czech and Ukrainian representation in the Austrian and Russian parliaments, but for the right of complete separation.
He advocated colonial uprisings as a revolutionary instrument and a strategic requirement, in order to set in motion simultaneously all the anti-imperialist forces. "In the colonies and semi-colonies there live nearly a billion persons, more than half of the population of the planet. Movements of national liberation in these countries are either very strong already, or are continuing to grow and mature." To coördinate all these elements and link them up with the revolutionary upsurges in the cities was for him the prerequisite of the revolution. The uprising of the industrial workers, the peasants and the lower middle class must be merged with the aspirations of the oppressed nations and colonies. Sooner or later, he thought, an international alliance between the oppressed nations and the revolutionary proletariat would take place.
Sooner or later? Yes, for should Lenin not triumph during this war, should his Third Front, which was just coming into being, not be victorious, then one of the two warring coalitions would win the war -- Germany's or England's. An imperialist peace of plunder would be concluded, and twenty years later, he wrote on October 1, 1916, a war would break out between Japan and the United States. That war "will mean for Europe a retrogression for several decades. History often makes gigantic leaps backward."
Lenin did not communicate to me his grandiose, complex and many-sided conception of war in one short conversation. I visited him frequently under pretext of asking his advice on lesser matters, but really to create opportunities for drawing him into conversation. I often went with him to meetings of Swiss workers which he sat through silently, listening with interest.
He was completely absorbed in the war. He tried to show its economic necessities, its internal laws, in his book "Imperialism, the Final Stage of Capitalism." Every day he went to the library and brought home statistics and reports of the international cartels. He often spoke of his book. He worried about having to compress a gigantic mass of material into 120 pages. (According to his contract with the publishers his book could not exceed that length.) He was a strange sort of scholar, as nervous as a young student before an examination. He also suffered from not being allowed to use strong language in his book, for his publisher was a neutral, and the contract forbade personal attacks on the "opportunists," as Lenin called them. One day I asked him why he worked so hastily and nervously and spent so much time in the library. He replied: "A work that is not completely checked to the last word, cannot be regarded as even begun."
When Lenin discussed politics, one had the feeling that he spoke not as an individual, but as the leader of a great unknown power, whose very spirit was as strong as territories, armies and bureaucracies. This feeling was correct; he was the unknown Caesar of all the tendencies at work against the world of that time. He was the brain of the inner changes in the social body, the forces and elements set free by the war, the process of remolding and recasting the political structure of the world. In him these unconscious changes found their conscious expression. "Only from the changes that take place in the soil of the spirit," says Hegel, "can the new arise."
These reflections on Lenin are not retrospective. They were not brought forth by the fact that he finally succeeded in becoming the head of a Great Power, and that his Russian venture, for better or worse, will challenge the world for centuries to come. The thing that surprised us least about Lenin was that he achieved power. The ten to twelve people who saw him regularly several times a week were convinced of his destiny, firmly convinced that, should there be a revolution in Russia, he would become the successor of the Tsars.
He himself suffered from depression and felt fettered; all he had was the prospect of wider horizons. Sometimes, particularly in the last months of his exile, it seemed to him that his circle was growing smaller and smaller, the life around him less and less intense. So many tested friends of his youth, so many old comrades deserted him. The whole Bolshevik Party at that time consisted of a few friends who corresponded with him from Stockholm, London, New York and Paris. In addition, he had financial worries and was overworked. In 1914, his wife had inherited 2,000 rubles. They lived on this sum for two years. Lenin made efforts to obtain work on an encyclopaedia that was being published in Russia. He finally obtained it toward the end of his exile, but his fee was insignificant. He was at the end of his resources.
But for all his troubles, he roared like a wounded lion when the Tsar's emissaries in Switzerland tried to do what he himself was to do at Brest-Litovsk two years later: negotiate a separate peace. "Russia," he wrote, "intends, with the help of Japan and that very same Germany with which she is now at war, to defeat England in Asia, so that she may annex all of Persia, complete the partition of China and so forth. . . . In 1904-1905 Japan, with the help of the British, defeated Russia; now she is cautiously preparing to defeat England with the help of the Russians. . . . There is a Germanophile party in Russian government circles, among Tsar Nicholas' courtiers, among the nobility and the army."
Lenin knew that if the Russian diplomats succeeded in pulling their wounded and bleeding country out of the war his chances would vanish for many years. He now directed all his fury against the Socialists of the different countries. Every Socialist who spoke of peace was a traitor, a scoundrel, a charlatan. Just as they had up until now handled all the war business of their rulers, he said, so they would take care of their peace business also and save them from bloody catastrophe. "In brief," he told me one day, "the rôles are brilliantly distributed. The government and the military clique wage war. The liberals talk about freedom and democracy. The Socialists talk about peace."
Lenin's hidden, yet ever-growing impatience during this period found an outlet in his persistent and stimulating explanations to us. Krupskaya in her memoirs complains of her husband's depression in those trying days and says: "Young people from Germany, Italy and other countries were then in Zurich and Ilich wanted to share his revolutionary experience with them as much as possible."
It is often said that the past is distorted in our minds and turned into a paradise, that everything in it is seen in a softer light. But those impressions of our encounters with people and events which remain alive, which are in profound harmony with our own innate natures and which shape our perceptions and intellects, are not more and not less an idealization of reality than is our appreciation of our daily bread. At a later period, Leninism, raised to the rank of a state religion, thoroughly disgusted and horrified me. The revolution worn as a lackey's livery with Lenin's picture on the buttons seemed to me an absolute negation of life itself. But I have never forgotten Lenin's approach to things and his manner of seeing them, although he later turned his face in a direction completely different from mine.