Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappaport

London, 1902: In April Lenin and his wife persuaded the landlady of 30 Holford Square into taking them in as tenants. Although just a couple of minutes walk from the choking smoke and din of the slums of Kings Cross, the house was one in a row of respectable brick-built Victorian terraced houses fronted by iron railings and faced a communal garden square. In return for a shilling a week Lenin and Nadya had two small rooms on the first floor. The back room served as both kitchen and dining room and was where Nadya's mother slept when she joined them later that year. The front room was where Lenin worked and he and Nadya slept, crammed in with their books and writing materials. They bought some cheap furniture: two tables, two iron bedsteads, a couple of chairs and a few pieces of cutlery and crockery. They bought linoleum to cover the floors, but no pictures or decorations. They had to bring their coal and water up from the basement and dispose of their dirty dishwater in the yard out back. Nadya cooked as best she could on the open fire in their rooms or a tiny primus stove.

Their landlady was a paragon of bourgeois respectability; Where was "Mrs. Richter" (aka Nadya)'s wedding ring?, she asked. Whatever was "Dr. Richter" doing hanging curtains on a Sunday, or walking across Holford Square with an unwrapped loaf of French bread under his arm? She wasted no time telling them such things were not done in England. "Though completely unused to English ways", the Yeo's later insisted, they kept to themselves and were "good, quiet tenants", always respectful and paid their rent on time. "Mrs. Richter" was a sweet, kind lady who became very fond of their tabby cat, talked to it often, taught it to shake hands and meow good morning. As for the studious Dr. Richter, one could not fail to notice his highly educated manner and quickness of thought and action. "His face was alive with great intelligence," though in every other respect he seemed a "most ordinary little man."

As time went on, however, Mrs. Yeo became increasingly alarmed at the procession of foreigners with peculiar black beards coming in heavy topcoats for meetings in Dr. Richter's rooms. To her horror, they sat on the floor. Even more perplexing was the fact that they were all too poor to eat or drink and did nothing but sit and talk late into the night. Her neighbors didn't like all the comings and goings of suspicious foreigners in their neighborhood. Soon Lenin and his compatriots rented five rooms close by to serve as an editorial office for Iskra and for agents visiting from Europe. It served as a clearing house for illegal propaganda and a shop for producing illegal passports; an untidy and shambolic "crash-pad" with the smell of boiling soup and the stink of cigarettes pervading the air. Lenin visited every day for meetings but was quick to retreat to the Spartan and orderly conditions back at Holford Square.

On arriving in London, Lenin immediately accessed the facilities of the "richest library in the world", the domed reading room at the British Museum in Bloomsbury. It was his lifeline. His daily visits gave shape and routine to his life. Marx, Blanc, and Mazzini had all resorted to this oasis of peace and scholarship during their time in London. Officials at the British museum would come to remember the modest Russian as well. He had "an amazing capacity for work and simply swallowed books." No one else. they asserted, asked for such vast quantities.

A problem that made itself felt as soon as they arrived in London was the quality of Lenin and Nadya's English. They had problems attuning their ears to the peculiar cadences of the spoken language, especially as spoken by the working classes. He found three people- a clerk, a workman and an employee of the publishers George Bell and Sons to exchange Russian lessons for English. But the best way of learning the language was to go out and about and hear it spoken. The best place to do this, in Lenin's opinion, was Speaker's Corner at Hyde Park on a Sunday morning, an area designated for anyone desiring to speak in front of an impromptu audience. There Lenin listened intently to speakers at the atheist and socialist platforms, as well as the Christian evidence and Salvation Army ones. He may well have heard the young George Bernard Shaw who spoke often in defense of civil liberties in Hyde Park at that time but often he paid more attention to the crowds than speakers.

Contemporary London and its working people were of far more interest to Lenin that its museums and galleries, which he found tedious. After studying detailed maps of the city, he and Nadya went out exploring working class areas on foot; the filthy, winding back streets with washing strung across them, where pale, sickly children played in the gutter and drunken workmen consorted with prostitutes outside cheap public houses. When they got hungry and afford it, they ate in cheap restaurants and came to like fish and chips from the Little Inn or Adam's Chop House on Gray's Inn Road. He went to Whitechapel to see first hand how the immigrant Russo-Jewish poor lived. The traffic was extraordinary, the energy and vitality of London life - albeit capitalistic - thrilling. All round him Lenin could grasp at the raw material of socialist argument and mold it to his own purpose.

Although Lenin was not a drinker, he realized that the public house culture of London and its music halls was an important facet of working class life. It's culture intrigued him - not just in London but also in Munich, Paris, Zurich, and many of the other cities he visited. There was something about the subversiveness of the British music hall - in its use of innuendo and often savage satire to make fun of public figures and issues in the news- that particularly appealed.

Getting into the countryside was also important for Lenin in Nadya through-out their seventeen years of exile. Whenever the weather was fine, they sought out their favorite haunt, Primrose Hill. It was only sixpence on the bus from Kings Cross, and they could visit Karl Marx's grave in nearby Highgate cemetery before standing on the hilltop to view the "smoke wreathed city" stretched out below them. Sometimes they took sandwiches and went beyond the suburbs in search of field paths into the real English countryside.

Another essential component of Lenin's life in London was seeking out political debate. There was no shortage of clubs and discussion groups for foreign immigrants in the East End. He spoke once after a speech by the journalist and politician John Morley on foreign policy at the Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel:

"What is the use of you coming to the East End and talking about foreign policy? Go down to Limehouse or Shadwell and see how the people live. Their slums, bad food, low wages, impoverishment, degradation, and prostitution - that's where your foreign policy should lie. They are the victims of your capitalist organization."

By the time Lenin finished delivering an extended criticism of the English social system, everyone had taken notice of him and a heated but friendly debate ensued. But wherever he went around London, Lenin was scathing about speakers who "talked rot". To his mind, many educated British socialists were in fact supporters of the liberal bourgeoisie, isolated from the mass of proletariat. He dismissed trade unionism in Britain as parochial and petty but he was impressed by the class instincts of the British workers. Although he dad some contact with two members of the British Social Democratic Federation, he made no attempt to mix with other British socialists while he was in London. They remained largely oblivious to his presence in London. "Richter" was just one of many shadowy Russians who came and went at that time.

Zurich, 1915-17: Lenin's mother died in Petrograd on July 25, 1915. Letters expressing his grief have not survived. Eventually he received a small share of what was left of his mother's estate, but now both he and Nadya had both lost the crucial financial support they had intermittently recieved from their mothers and their personal emotional links to Russia were now broken. Life in Zurich that winter became even more cheerless and impoverished. Lenin did not enjoy hanging around in cafes full of revolutionary wing-bags any more than he had elsewhere. He avoided emigrant clubs and stuck to a small circle of a dozen or so people. But he felt fettered. His circle seemed to be growing smaller by the day, the political life around him less and less intense with his Bolshevik group scattered in small pockets across Europe. Sometimes he ventured forth from the library to take part in discussions at the Zur Eintracht, where he could read the free newspapers and hold meetings in its lecture room. The Cafe Adler was another haunt. But perhaps the most famous venue favored by the eclectic mix of bohemians, exiles and emigres who haunted Zurich during the war years was the Cafe Odeon on Limmatquai. Here James Joyce, Albert Einstein, the young Benito Mussolini and even the legendary Mata Hari had savored the coffee and cake. Lenin went there to catch the latest of the six daily editions of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung and the international magazines.

Their new front rooms at 14 Spiegelgasse faced the Cabaret Voltaire, home since February to a new and anarchic form of entertainment, Dada. While he had no truck with futurism and cubism and other isms currently considered to be "the highest revelations of the artistic genius", the subversive nature of Dadas performance aroused Lenin's curiosity. "He must have heard our music and tirades every evening from across the street" wrote Hugo Ball. Richard Huelsenbeck recalled a visit by Lenin and Romanian painter Marcel Janko. Tristan Zara claimed to have exchanged ideas and played chess with Lenin. Hans Richter saw him often in the central library on Zahringerplatz.

Hans Richter recalled that the Swiss authorities seemed much more suspicious of the Dadists than they were of the "quiet, studious Russians." The Dadists, with their anarchic principles, "were capable of perpetrating some new enormity at any moment," whereas the Russians, in their own unostentatious little way, were merely "planning a world revolution".

It was hard for the Swiss police to keep tabs on them all, for by 1917 Switzerland was swarming with artists, revolutionaries, bohemians, and spies - from professionals based at the embassies to waiters, serving maids, and domestic staff in the hotels. They were bribed to watch, look and listen. Everything was reported, everything was supervised as agents circulated their daily reports, telephones were tapped, and "wastepaper baskets and blotting pad correspondence was sedulously reconstructed". No one, however, was taking much notice of Lenin; his deliberately inconspicuous lifestyle near a sausage maker on Spielelgassee was part of his tried and trusted conspiratorial method of blending into the background. The Austrian playwright Stefan Zweig who saw Lenin from time to time at the Cafe Odeon, later recalled wondering how this obstinate little man ever became so important


  1. Paris: There remain many unanswered questions about the longest and most urban period of Lenin's life in exile. Living in Paris for four years with an ailing wife, if he were going to kick over the traces of his highly circumscribed sex life ( inhibited between 1900-1915 by the almost constant presence of his mother-in-law) then Paris provided every opportunity. Lenin's official hagiographers consistently denied that he ever went near the more bohemian haunts of Paris, but this is not so. He lived in the heart of Montparnasse, and avoiding them would have been difficult. He was certinly seen at the Rotonde. Modigliani, Leger, Chagall, Soutine, and others from the Russian modernist school, as well as Picasso later, were all regulars. On one particular occasion, in a playfull mood, Modigliani set fire to the Russian newspaper in which Lenin was engrossed.. The English painter Christopher Nevinson remembered that many Russian artists at the Rotonde considered Lenin "a cranky extremist". They sometimes went to Russian meetings around the corner and listened to Lenin "in a spirit of irreverence" and "amused toleration."

    Lenin was also seen at another famous venue, the Closerie de Lilas. He liked to go there to find chess partners and was often seen playing with the poet Apollinaire. Occasionally he went across the road to the Cafe du Dome, the preserve mainly of Germain painters and cartoonists of the Munich based journal 'Simplicissimus'. Needless to say, these watering holes were also frequented by Parisian prostitutes, and rumors later circulated that Lenin had a preference for a brothel conveniently located near the Bibliotheque Nationale.

    The Russian emigre painter Evichev told the French-born American writer Julien Green the he and Lenin never talked politics: "We shared our women. Lenin was very gay and very good-natured, but, in matters of love, he was absolutely voracious." There are stories about an affair had with a young Russian activist Elizaveta de K. And then , of course, his long-time and tragic affair with Inessa Armand, of which his wife Nadya could not have been ignorant. Indeed, it seems certain that Nadya, who outlived Lenin by many years, was the principally responsible for removing this aspect of Lenin's life from the official hagiography. At any rate, no one sacrificed more to the Revolution and lived to tell about it than Lenin's wife, who managed the main part of his Bolshevic Party correspondences.

    The crowning achievement of late revisions about Lenin's sex life is the allegation that Lenin died of the complications of syphilis contracted sometime in the 1900s, rather than of a series of strokes. This is based on "the testimony of his doctors in the Kremlin and syphilis specialists in Germany and Switzerland" among whom was Professor Max Nonne who claimed to treated him with arsenic. So the official image of puritanical Lenin, fountainhead of a cult of revolutionary sainthood, who had no time for sex, has finally fallen, along with all his statutes.

    Conspirator; Lenin in Exile; The Making of a Revolutionary by Helen Rappaport, Basic Books, 2010

  2. If you wanted a modern model of "Robin Hood", shorn of his Hollywood disguise, a champion of the true sovereign against the usurper, a defender of the Celtic and Saxon natives against the Norman conqueror and arrogant priesthood, of the poor against the rich, then Joseph Stalin would be your man, at least during the period 1900-1917 when his brilliant banditry sustained the exiled Lenin and the struggling Bolshevik party as no other really could.