Lenin in Zürich Hardcover – January 1, 1976
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- Publisher : Bodley Head; First Edition (January 1, 1976)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0370106075
- ISBN-13 : 978-0370106076
- Item Weight : 15.4 ounces
- Best Sellers Rank: #3,458,558 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What Solzhenitsyn provides, then, is more of a character study than a novel in any traditional sense. And what is the character that emerges? His Lenin is hard-headed, free of illusions when it comes to matters of political power, though impractical when it comes to daily life – women's work, in his eyes. He could make mistakes. Though disdainful of Swiss socialists, he thought the revolution was more likely to break out in Switzerland, or even Sweden, than Russia – though he did not cling to his illusions once the truth became clear to him. He was an inveterate deviser of plots who kept the main goal – revolution – constantly in mind. A man without friends, one for whom others were chiefly valued for their usefulness. A revolutionary who wanted nothing more than to be given time alone so he could think, not by nature a man of action at all.
Lenin was energized by the outbreak of war in 1914 because he understood what it would necessarily bring about: the end of empires and the coming of revolution. The circumstance that Nicholas II had begun this war and that neither he nor Kerensky could end it was a gift for the Bolshevik leader. His slogan was: The world war must be transformed into a civil war. He understood that the best solution for the Romanovs – indeed, for whoever ruled in Russia – was a separate peace with Germany. He assumed (incorrectly) that the most powerful country – Germany – would inevitably win, and (correctly) that Russia's defeat would lead to the end of the tsars. Achieving his goal of seizing power would mean dismembering the Russian empire, cutting loose Poland, Finland, the Baltic States, Ukraine and the Caucasus. This was a price he was willing to pay.
But it would take four long years to get there. Impatient by nature, he was forced by circumstances to bide his time in Swiss exile, which was personally difficult for him because one of the things he hated most was time-wasting; passing an hour in unproductive idleness was enough to make him physically ill. That's why he spent day after day in the Zurich library, preparing himself intellectually for the coming upheavals.
Gripped as he was by revolutionary single-mindedness, he was disdainful of those who were less driven. He tended to treat people as instruments, and one could well call him manipulative, though always in the service of a higher cause, never for personal aggrandizement. One of his maxims was: The ability to drop people when no longer useful is the key to political success. Utterly lacking in sentimentality, he never forgot another's mistake. His deepest resentment was directed less against the class enemy than those opportunists on his own side who failed to see the light that he saw. The greatest tragedy of the 20th century was that such a man was able to seize power in such a country as Russia.
Though as already stated not by nature a man of action, he knew some secrets of leadership. Here are a few of the lessons he gleaned from years of experience:
• If something is hard, then take on a task that is even harder, and the first one will seem easier.
• The majority is always stupid – a leader cannot wait for them. A resolute minority must take decisive action – then it will become the majority.
• The moment when one is in greatest danger of losing one's head is not the moment of failure but of success.
• Individual acts of terror are senseless – only mass terrorism is effective.
Though his overriding aim is to indict Lenin in his own words, in the end what Solzhenitsyn reveals is a resolute, if unscrupulous, schemer, one who made mistakes along the way and went down blind alleys, but when the moment came was uniquely ready to take decisive action, a man who would prove less blinded by wishful thinking than anyone else. The wheel of history began to turn with the outbreak of war in August 1914, but only Lenin was able to comprehend this fully; moreover, he was the only one who knew it could not be turned back.
Putting himself in the mind of Lenin could have turned into an opportunity for Solzhenitsyn to engage in mockery. But he wisely chose not to exaggerate his portrait, and strove rather for strict fidelity to the available sources. One could say that his goal was to reveal Lenin's inhumane character from within, using not only his presumed point of view but his actual words wherever possible.
And Solzhenitsyn was uniquely qualified for this task. Illegal, underground agitation, undermining a state from within and later from foreign exile – these were just the kinds of things he knew first hand. Expelled from the USSR in 1974, he went to Zurich and later Vermont, where he gained access to new sources. The result was that these eleven chapters, originally intended as part of a larger book, became one in their own right by 1975. But it was more than just being able to use new libraries. One suspects he was able to put some of his own experiences into Lenin's mouth. As Solzhenitsyn revealed to Alexander Schmemann, an American Orthodox theologian who befriended him in the US, he himself was the novel's Lenin. It took some courage to write such an unsparing self-portrait as this.
The cast of characters is huge for such a short work. The focus is so relentlessly close to Lenin and his circle it puts demands on the reader to supply the wider context. That's why the footnotes are so necessary. Solzhenitsyn was apparently more worried about being charged with having taken liberties with the historical record than anything else; clearly he was unconcerned about being accused of having written a novel which is heavy on conspiracy planning and short on action. In the context of this book, when Lenin doesn't go to the library one day but instead hikes up to the top of the mountain overlooking Lake Zurich, it counts as a dramatic high point.
When WW I broke out, Lenin was exultant; millions of proletarians would now have weapons that could now be used against their officers and the ruling class of their own nations. He called for and hoped that civil war would come to all the participating nations of WW I, and out of that carnage a Europe-wide socialist revolution would ensue. The irony is that, according to "Lenin in Zurich", he least expected revolution in Russia, and when he first heard of the March 1917 revolution in Petrograd and the abdication of the Tsar, he thought the forces of Tsardom would eventually prevail. It would seem from reading Solzenitsyn that Imperial Germany was more interested in getting Lenin to Petrograd than Lenin himself was, at least initially.