Conspirator: Lenin in Exile

Review of Conspirator: Lenin in Exile, by Helen Rappaport (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010)

On March 1, 1887, Russian police foiled an assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander III.  Three young members of the self-proclaimed "Terrorist Section" of the People's Will (Narodnaya Volya), an underground group which hoped to mark the sixth anniversary of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by tossing bombs into the carriage of his successor.  Luckily for the Tsar, the inexperience and suspicious behavior of the terrorists alerted investigators, who stopped "The Second the First of March" from taking place.  Alexander III escaped unharmed, and on May 8, the three instigators, along with two planners, were hanged.  One of those executed was Aleksandr Ulyanov. 

Cover of Conspirator: Lenin in Exile Paperback by Helen Rappaport
Cover of Conspirator: Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappaport.

Conspirator:  Lenin in Exile, by Helen Rappaport, describes the personal and political development of Aleksandr's younger brother, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, over the space of thirty years: from the provincial town of Simbirsk near the Volga River in 1887 to Finland Station, Petrograd, in 1917, where the man now known as Lenin urged his followers to prepare for revolution.  Thoughtful, unbiased, and well-researched, Conspirator provides a refreshing account of the formative years of one of the 20th century's most seminal figures. 

Rappaport's narrative can be divided into three main themes. The first introduces the reader to the revolutionary milieu from which Lenin arose.  Russia of the late 1800's was an era in which covert action and even violence against the state enjoyed, at least among youth, considerable support.  For example, students at the university where Aleksandr Ulyanov attended praised the "heroism" of the five would-be assassins, framing the terrorists' attempt at regicide as a "struggle for freedom and justice" (5).  The allure of revolution is especially clear within the Ulyanov family itself: the father, Ilya Nikolaevich, was "a conscientious public servant loyal to his czar" (12), yet five of his six children would face imprisonment or exile because of their political activity.  Radicalism, besides arising in response to Tsarist policies, also gained legitimacy from Nikolay Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?, a novel that inspired "a whole generation of idealistic Russian revolutionaries" and which the young Lenin read five times (14).  Lenin's commitment to activism strengthened in college, first at Kazan University and then at the University of St. Petersburg, where he, like many of his peers, studied Marx, finding the theory to be a "sound and scientific" means for political change (6).  Soon after graduation Lenin abandoned a legal appointment in the capitol in order to write political pamphlets full-time.  Rather than portraying Lenin as a fanatic, Rappaport provides a context for his commitment. 

The second theme which Rappaport explores is konspiratsiya, meaning "secrecy or stealth in avoiding detection" (47).  The world of the Russian revolutionary in Lenin's time was a world of coded messages, secret knocks, fake passports, and letters written in invisible ink.  The danger of arrest by the Department for the Protection of Order and Public Security, or Okhrana, was ever-present.  Furthermore, as the brother of a known terrorist, Lenin was already destined for a life of police surveillance.  After returning to Russia in late 1896 from a trip to Switzerland where he met the "father of Russian Marxism," Gregory Plekhanov, Lenin was arrested and charged with distribution of illicit material.  Exiled to Siberia, Lenin nevertheless managed to keep in contact with Marxists throughout Russia and Europe, aiding in the founding of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1898.  He also married Nadezhda Krupskaya, an exiled fellow activist.  Finishing their sentences in 1900, Lenin, his wife, and mother-in-law began a clandestine life that spread across Europe's major cites.  Jumping from Geneva to London to Paris and elsewhere, they never lived better than hand-to-mouth, but they usually managed to stay one step ahead of the Okhrana.  Along the way, Lenin's political ideas began to crystallize.  Frustrated by the difficulties of distributing the illegal RSDLP paper Iskra within Russia, Lenin borrowed the title of Chernyshevsky's novel, What Is to Be Done?, to arguefor the creation of a vanguard party that could withstand state repression while leading the working class in revolution.  But, seeing in Lenin's vanguardism the danger of dictatorship, much of the RSDLP, including Plekhanov and a young Trotsky, rejected this advice.  In the 1903 party congress, the party split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.    Initially, it was Lenin's Bolshevik faction which was the RSDLP's weaker half. 

Finally, Rappaport believes that much of the thanks (or blame) for keeping Lenin politically viable should be given to the women in his life.  In addition to the political assistance provided by his wife and mother-in-law, Lenin also relied on money given by his mother and sisters.  But the most significant aid came from Inessa Armand, a French Marxist who had spent much of her life in Russia and met Lenin in Paris in 1909.  At that time, Lenin's prospects were bleak.  Compared to that of Trotsky, Lenin's role in the 1905 Revolution was insignificant, and with the political repression that followed, his influence waned even further.  He "was approaching forty, his political career was at its nadir, and the battles were never-ending" (195).  Armand, however, revitalized Lenin's career.  Absolutely dedicated to Lenin (she was, for a time, his mistress) and able to speak Russian, German, English and French, Armand coordinated the activities of revolutionaries across 37 European cities.  Such was Armand's importance that the Okhrana considered her to be Lenin's "right hand" (241). 

In summer 1911, she, along with Lenin and his "yes-men" Zinoviev and Kamenev, taught a Party School for Bolsheviks in the south of Paris.  Then, in the summer of 1912, when an upsurge in workers' protests led to a momentary loosening of Tsarist control, Armand returned to Russia to campaign for the election of Bolsheviks to the Duma.  She also contributed to the Bolshevik's paper, Pravda, which was legally published from 1912-1914.  After Bolshevik opposition to World War I led to the loss of Pravda's legal status and the further marginalization of Lenin's views within European socialism, Armand participated in conferences against the war, ensuring that Lenin's voice was heard.  Indeed, had it not been for the activism of Inessa Armand, it is conceivable that Lenin would not have been influential enough in April 1917 for the German government to consider it worth the trouble of transporting him back into Russia.     

Rappaport provides a fascinating account of the idealism, intrigue, and external support which together spurred Lenin to launch the Russian Revolution.  Given the amount of detail and expert use of primary sources, including police records from London and Russia, one might be surprised to learn that Conspirator: Lenin in Exile is a "trade" book.  At least in this case, however, Rappaport's "non-academic" status does her subject no harm.  Unlike other works on Lenin, such as those by Robert Service and Richard Pipes, which seek to find precedence for Soviet crimes in Lenin's early behavior, Rappaport's study largely avoids interpreting past events through a presentist lens.  It is precisely this approach which makes Conspirator such a refreshing read.