In This Review

Lenin: Life and Legacy
Lenin: Life and Legacy
By Dmitri Volkogonov
The Free Press, 1994, 509 pp

For those wondering what a serious Russian historian would say about Lenin when given a chance to write freely, here is the answer. Volkogonov, a career military officer, adviser to Boris Yeltsin, and biographer of Stalin, has reread the man whom his generation revered beyond mortality, tracked him through the archives, and viewed him through the eyes of defeated or disgraced contemporaries. The new Lenin he meets, while intelligent and far more galvanizing than his peers, is a man of potent but noxious qualities -- an iron will in the service of an intense, narrow, dogmatic mind; enormous energy without a moral compass; and a vast self-confidence unleavened by compassion for anyone other than one or two of those close to him. More important, this driven figure believed that his society could -- indeed, must -- reach justice and democracy through violence, terror, and the dictatorship of the proletariat, where proletariat stands for party.

In Russia, Volkoganov's biography will feed a sentiment already well-rooted, albeit in a scholarly and measured way. From the films of Stanislav Govorukhin and the bitter essays of Russian nationalists, many have come to see 1917, the revolution, and Lenin's dream (or, more accurately, his obsession) as a monstrous tragedy of which the Russian people are the sad, sad victims.

For Western readers, the impact is likely to be less clear. In principle, much excitement should attend the appearance of a work whose author had full access to party, police, and, particularly, the Politburo archives from these early years. In fact, however, it is a bit disappointing to discover how little these materials add to the picture we already have of Lenin, his life, and his leadership. They do shed new light on Lenin's last months, after the incapacitating stroke of March 1923: on the progress of his disease, the role played by Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and the way all this was handled by Stalin and other members of the leadership. The sections dealing with the evolution and deliberations of the party's leading organs during these first years in power are also useful and fascinating.

The archives hold massive numbers of documents, and doubtless Volkogonov could make his way through only portions of them. What he found, however, embellishes rather than alters the image of Lenin constructed in previous Western biographies, particularly the most critical of them. The book's real value for a Western audience is not so much the interpretation he provides but the additional weight he gives to interpretations that see Lenin as the forerunner of Stalinism, not as the author of a revolution betrayed by Stalin.