Literature shaped the political culture of the Russia in which Vladimir Ilyich Lenin grew up. Explicitly political texts were difficult to publish under the tsarist regime. The rasher essayists were holed up in asylums until they “recovered”: in other words, until they publicly recanted their views. Novels and poetry, meanwhile, were treated more leniently – though not in every instance.
The chief censor was, of course, the tsar. In the case of Pushkin, the “father of the people”, Nicholas I, insisted on reading many of his verses before they went to the printer. Some, as a result, were forbidden, others delayed, and the most subversive were destroyed by the frightened poet himself, fearful that his house might be raided. We will never know what the burnt verses of Eugene Onegin contained.
Nonetheless, politics by other means and in a variety of different registers permeated Russian fiction in a manner without parallel in any other European country. As far as politicised literature and literary criticism went, the Russian intelligentsia were spoilt for choice. They devoured the acrimonious conflict between the powerful critic Vissarion Belinsky and the dramatist and novelist Nikolai Gogol, whose cutting 1842 satire Dead Souls had invigorated the country and been read aloud to the illiterate.
Success, however, proved to be Gogol’s undoing. In a subsequent work, he recanted, writing of stench-ridden peasants and defending illiteracy. In the preface to the second edition of Dead Souls, he wrote: “Much in this book has been written wrongly, not as things are really happening in the land of Russia. I ask you, dear reader, to correct me. Do not spurn this matter. I ask you to do it.”
Angered, Belinsky broke publicly with him in 1847. Belinsky’s widely circulated “Letter to Gogol” gave the recipient a long, sleepless night:
I know the Russian public a little. Your book alarmed me by the possibility of its exercising a bad influence on the government and the censorship, but not on the public. When it was rumoured in St Petersburg that the government intended to publish your book [ Selected Passages from Correspondence With Friends] in many thousands of copies and to sell it at an extremely low price, my friends grew despondent; but I told them then and there that the book, despite everything, would have no success and that it would soon be forgotten. In fact it is now better remembered for the articles that have been written about it than for the book itself. Yes, the Russian has a deep, though still undeveloped, instinct for truth.
In later years, critics became much more vicious, lambasting novelists and playwrights whose work they considered to be insufficiently empowering.
This, then, was the intellectual atmosphere in which Lenin came of age. His father, a highly cultured conservative, was the chief inspector of schools in his region and much respected as an educationalist. At home, Shakespeare, Goethe and Pushkin, among others, were read aloud on Sunday afternoons. It was impossible for the Ulyanov family – “Lenin” was a pseudonym adopted to outwit the tsarist secret police – to escape high culture.
At high school, Lenin fell in love with Latin. His headteacher had high hopes that he might become a philologist and Latin scholar. History willed otherwise, but Lenin’s passion for Latin, and taste for the classics, never left him. He read Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Juvenal in the original, as well as Roman senatorial orations. He devoured Goethe during his two decades in exile, reading and rereading Faust many times.
Lenin put his knowledge of the classics to good use in the time leading up to the October revolution of 1917. In April of that year, he broke with Russian social-democratic orthodoxy and, in a set of radical theses, called for a socialist revolution in Russia. A number of his own close comrades denounced him. In a sharp riposte, Lenin quoted Mephistopheles from Goethe’s masterwork: “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.”
Lenin knew better than most that classical Russian literature had always been infused with politics. Even the most “apolitical” of writers had found it difficult to conceal their contempt for the state of the country. Ivan Goncharov’s novel Oblomov was a case in point. Lenin loved this work. It depicted the inertia, indolence and emptiness of the landed gentry. The book’s success was celebrated by the entry of a new word into the Russian lexicon: oblomovism, which became a term of abuse for the class that helped the autocracy survive for so long. Lenin would later argue that this disease was not confined to the upper classes alone, but had infected large sections of the tsarist bureaucracy and filtered downwards. Even Bolshevik apparatchiks were not immune. This was a case where the mirror held up by Goncharov really did reflect society at large. In his polemics, Lenin often attacked his opponents by comparing them to almost always unpleasant and sometimes minor characters drawn from Russian fiction.
Where the country’s writers differed (and they were not alone in this, of course) was on the means necessary to topple the regime. Pushkin supported the 1825 Decembrist uprising that challenged the succession of Nicholas I. Gogol satirised the oppressions of serfdom before rapidly retreating. Turgenev was critical of tsarism but disliked intensely the nihilists who preached terror. Dostoevsky’s flirtation with anarcho-terrorism was transformed into its stunted opposite after a terrible murder in St Petersburg. Tolstoy’s assault on Russian absolutism delighted Lenin, but the count’s mystical Christianity and pacifism left him cold. How, Lenin asked, could such a gifted writer be a revolutionary and a reactionary at the same time? Over the course of half a dozen articles, Lenin unpicked the deep contradictions at play in Tolstoy’s work. Lenin’s Tolstoy was capable of providing a lucid diagnosis – his novels recognised and expressed the economic exploitation and collective anger of the peasants – but not of formulating a cure. Instead of imagining a properly revolutionary future, Tolstoy had sought consolation in the utopian image of a simpler, Christian past. In “Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution”, Lenin wrote that “the contradictions in Tolstoy’s views and doctrines are not accidental; they express the contradictory conditions of Russian life in the last third of the 19th century”. Tolstoy’s contradictions thus served as a useful guide for Lenin’s political analysis.
Meanwhile, Lenin was repelled by Dostoevsky’s “cult of suffering”, though the power of his writing was undeniable. Lenin’s views on literature did not, however, become state policy. Just under a year after the revolution, on 2 August 1918, the newspaper Izvestia published a list of people, nominated by readers, to whom monuments were proposed. Dostoevsky was second, after Tolstoy. The monument was unveiled in Moscow in November of that year by the representative of the Moscow Soviet, with a tribute by the symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov.
The writer who had perhaps the strongest impact on Lenin – on, indeed, an entire generation of radicals and revolutionaries – was Nikolay Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky was the son of a priest, as well as a materialist philosopher and socialist. His utopian novel What Is to Be Done? was written in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, where he had been incarcerated because of his political beliefs. What Is to Be Done? became the bible of a new generation. The fact that it had been smuggled out of prison gave it an added aura. This was the book that radicalised Lenin, long before he encountered Marx (with whom Chernyshevsky had exchanged letters). As a homage to the old radical populist, Lenin titled his first major political work, written and published in 1902, What Is to Be Done?
The enormous success of Chernyshevsky’s novel greatly irritated the established novelists, Turgenev in particular, who attacked the book viciously. This bile was countered with a burning lash of nettles from the radical critics Dobrolyubov (regarded by students as “our Diderot”) and Pisarev. Turgenev was livid. Encountering Chernyshevsky at a public event, he shouted: “You’re a snake and that Dobrolyubov is a rattlesnake.”
What of the novel that was the subject of so much controversy? Over the last 50 years I have made three attempts to read every single page, and all three attempts have failed. It is not a classic of Russian literature. It was of its time and played a crucial role in the post-terrorist phase of the Russian intelligentsia. It is undoubtedly very radical on every front, especially gender equality and relations between men and women, but also on how to struggle, how to delineate the enemy and how to live by certain rules.
Vladimir Nabokov loathed Chernyshevsky but found it impossible to ignore him. In his last Russian novel, The Gift, he devoted 50 pages to belittling and mocking the writer and his circle, but admitted that there “was quite definitively a smack of class arrogance about the attitudes of contemporary well-born writers towards the plebeian Chernyshevsky” and, in private, that “Tolstoy and Turgenev called him the ‘bed-bug stinking gentleman’ … and jeered at him in all kinds of ways”.
Their jeers were partly born of jealousy, since the subject of their snobbery was extremely popular with the young, and born also, in the case of Turgenev, of a deep and ingrained political hostility to a writer who wanted a revolution to destroy the landed estates and distribute the land to the peasants.
Lenin used to get cross with young Bolsheviks visiting him in exile, during the inter-revolutionary years between 1905 and 1917, when they teased him about Chernyshevsky’s book and told him it was unreadable. They were too young to appreciate its depth and vision, he retorted. They should wait till they were 40. Then they would understand that Chernyshevsky’s philosophy was based on simple facts: we were descended from the apes and not Adam and Eve; life was a short-lived biological process, hence the need to bring happiness to every individual. This was not possible in a world dominated by greed, hatred, war, egoism and class. That was why a social revolution was necessary. By the time the young Bolsheviks climbing Swiss mountains with Lenin were approaching 40, however, the revolution had already taken place. Chernyshevsky would now be read largely by historians studying the evolution of Lenin’s thought. Erudite party progressives happily moved on to Mayakovsky. Not Lenin.
The classicism that was so deeply rooted in Lenin acted as a bulwark to seal him from the exciting new developments in art and literature that had both preceded and accompanied the revolution. Lenin found it difficult to make any accommodations to modernism in Russia or elsewhere. The work of the artistic avant garde – Mayakovsky and the constructivists – was not to his taste.
In vain did the poets and artists tell him that they, too, loved Pushkin and Lermontov, but that they were also revolutionaries, challenging old art forms and producing something very different and new that was more in keeping with Bolshevism and the age of revolution. He simply would not budge. They could write and paint whatever they wanted, but why should he be forced to appreciate it? Many of Lenin’s colleagues were more sympathetic to the new movements. Bukharin, Lunacharsky, Krupskaya, Kollontai and, to a certain degree, Trotskyunderstood how the revolutionary spark had opened up new vistas. There were conflicts, hesitations and contradictions within the avant garde as well, and their supporter in the government was Anatoly Lunacharsky at the People’s Commissariat for Education, where Lenin’s wife, Nadya Krupskaya, worked as well. Shortages of paper during the civil war led to fierce arguments. Should they publish propaganda leaflets or a new poem by Mayakovsky? Lenin insisted on the first option. Lunacharsky was convinced that Mayakovsky’s poem would be far more effective and, on this occasion, he won.
Lenin was also hostile to any notion of a “proletarian literature and art”, insisting that the peaks of bourgeois culture (and its more ancient predecessors) could not be transcended by mechanical and dead formulae advanced in a country where the level of culture, in the broadest sense, was far too low. Shortcuts in this field would never work, something that was proved conclusively by the excremental “socialist realism” introduced in the bad years that followed Lenin’s death. Creativity was numbed. The leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom, where the lives of all would be shaped by reason, was never made in the Soviet Union – or, for that matter, anywhere else.
•Tariq Ali’s The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Rebellion is published next month by Verso. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99), go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.