An autopsy is ugly, but sometimes is necessary.
As C. S. Lewis admitted in the prefatory remarks toThe Screwtape Letters, it can be profoundly disturbing — even debilitating — for an author to set himself the task of examining evil from the inside. Like an autopsy, it’s an ugly but sometimes necessary task.
Lenin in Zurich (1976), by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, performs such an autopsy on Marxist socialism from the point of view of Nikolai Lenin himself. The book was published as a stand-alone novel, even though its narrative, broken up into parts, also appears in the author’s epic series of history novels, The Red Wheel. Its closest literary analogue is indeed The Screwtape Letters (and perhaps Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita). What drove Solzhenitsyn to shrink his vast, capacious spirit so it could fit into the nasty little tin box that was the mind of an ideologue was the necessity to explain. In fact, his The Red Wheel is an attempt to construct a counternarrative of the history of his country, one meant to stand against the accounts produced by the snuffling hordes of Western historians sympathetic to socialism, who have insisted over the decades on propagating a long list of myths about what happened to Russia in the twentieth century.
The most popular fantasy, which endured the longest despite the inexorable release of evidence to the contrary, pictures Lenin as a fundamentally progressive revolutionary, whose attempt to liberate Russia was tragically hijacked by the thuggish Stalin — whom true believers will try to insist was not even really a Marxist, but merely a bandit who adopted an ideology to cover his hunger for power. No one who reads of the massive repressions ordered by Lenin, or peruses the letters in which he greets with glee the news of peasants executed for “hoarding” their own grain, or of helpless clergymen starved to death can innocently accept this myth. Indeed, a single telegram sent by Lenin in 1918, long available to the public, should have sufficed to put to rest the myth that he was merely a “liberal in a hurry.” As he wrote his subordinates on August 11 of that year:
1. You need to hang (hang without fail, so that the people see) no fewer than 100 of the notorious kulaks: the rich and the bloodsuckers.
2. Publish their names.
3. Take all their grain from them.
4. Appoint the hostages in accordance with yesterday’s telegram.
This needs to be done in such a way that the people for hundreds of versts around will see, tremble, know and shout. They are throttling, and they will throttle the bloodsucking kulaks.
Telegraph us concerning receipt and implementation.
PS. Find tougher people.”
Solzhenitsyn does much more than document statements like this one; in Lenin in Zurich, he goes back before Lenin’s sudden rise to power — as a cat’s paw of the Kaiser’s Germany, which was desperate to knock imperial Russia out of the war — to explore how a highly talented intellectual, whose politics were impeccably “progressive,” could at the same time be such a narrow, bitter dogmatist who was coldly willing to murder unarmed civilians by the thousands and deport countless more to internment camps to freeze or starve. In the novel, Solzhenitsyn depicts Lenin’s conflicts with rival socialists in exile, whom he attempted to lead by turns through bullying or flattery. Having convinced himself that he had arrived at the only plausible action plan for putting Marxism into practice, he regarded anyone who differed even on tactics as, in effect (and perhaps in intention), a saboteur. Lenin’s tactic, as he repeated over and over again, was to “split the Party!” until he had pared away anyone who was not completely docile. What remained was a rump of a rump of a faction, which in 1917 skulked in Swiss exile with few connections left back in Russia. As the narrative progresses, Lenin appears more and more like some crank conspiracy theorist who spends his days uselessly hectoring a shrinking band of fanatics and servile followers. Indeed, it seems implausible that such a man could come to manage a hen roost, and the terrible knowledge that he will soon gain absolute, life-and-death power over a vast continental empire imbues the novel with an almost unbearable irony. Reading it is like watching a bus full of innocent refugees head off a cliff, in excruciating slow motion.