Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"Lenin's Private War"

Lesley Chamberlain is a prolific writer, critic and journalist. Her most recent books are Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia and Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia.

She applied the Page 69 Test to Lenin's Private War and reported the following, starting with the text from page 69:
Nikolai Lossky, for whom Lazarevsky and Tagantsev were colleagues and Ukhtomsky a family friend was deeply distressed. This was the moment when the family considered escaping from Russia. But like so many they were deterred by the hope for Russia’s recovery. (82) Zamyatin wrote that Gorky had taught the intelligentsia to overcome its doubts and have faith and that was indeed how they lived. (83) Since they could not yet know of Lenin’s true policy their hope was cruelly strengthened by NEP. That was the painful irony of 1921-2. ‘To all intents and purposes life seemed to be on the mend and to many it even seeemed to be booming…the streetcars were running, the shops and markets were open’ Even Nadezhda Mandelstam was partly seduced, although ‘everyday brought something new to fill us with horror and destroy any hope of recovery’. (84)

The Soviet side was constantly calculating, pitting its image abroad against its real needs at home. The greatest problem that NEP brought for the regime was the presence of foreigners who might undermine its authority or give it a bad press. Archive material has revealed how Lenin didn’t want the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and future Nobel Peace Laureate Fridtjof Nansen in the country in late Spring 1921, for fear that ‘he’ll catch us napping.’ (85) The request of an American journalist to visit in July 1921 was turned down for the same reason. Above all the Bolsheviks were adamant that no one at home or abroad should believe they had changed their policies and were giving way to capitalism. If the West sensed too much relaxation it might encourage France and Britain to mount an anti-Communist crusade. (86)

But journalists and other foreigners were not in Russia to check up on the progress of NEP. By summer 1921 the whole world had been alerted to the Russian famine, and many came to see how they could help. The disaster of 1921 would claim five million lives. Prominent Russians founded the All-Russian Public Committee to Help the Hungry (VKPG), while Gorky issued an appeal to the world ‘I ask all honest European and American people for prompt aid to the Russian people…’ (87)

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Lesley Chamberlain writes:

The year 1921, following the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War, saw Lenin equally keen to consolidate his power at home and abroad. With the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP) he relaxed the economic stranglehold of the war years, but tightened his ideological grip. The intelligentsia were slow to realise what was happening, until a number of St Petersburg professors, one of the country’s best-known poets, and many others were rounded up and shot by the political police in August. Sixty-one innocent victims were murdered in the Tagantsev Affair, and it prompted many academics and poets to think again whether they should not emigrate. As some departed, that suited Lenin, whose clear plan was to rid the embryonic Soviet Union of as many public figures as possible who were critical of the planned Marxist-Leninist future. The twelve months to August 1922 deepened the personal crisis of men of various political persuasions who had no wish to leave the country they loved, and yet increasingly they feared for their lives. I’ve called the time they lived through the Paper Civil War. There was no more fighting, but these men were treated as the Red enemy.

Lenin meanwhile worked hard to convey to foreign powers like Britain and France and the United States that his regime stood for socialism and world peace. The extent of his deception has been uncovered in the archives opened after 1991. Russia’s foreign relations were complicated by the famine which meanwhile took hold of the country, as a consequence of the prolonged war economy, It took a prominent individual like the writer Maxim Gorky to appeal to the world for aid, which US President Herbert Hoover were prepared to deliver if given free access to the people and places where help was needed. Lenin, reluctant to lay his struggling country open to outside inspection, took the aid then closed his borders again. When he finally expelled the sixty or so most troublesome writers, journalists and academics hostile to him in autumn 1922 he had prepared the way for the world’s first totalitarian state, the USSR, to come into being in December.
Read an excerpt from Lenin's Private War and learn more about the book at Lesley Chamberlain's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue