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From a Life of One Possessed : LENIN: A New Biography, by Dmitri Volkogonov (The Free Press: $30; 500 pp.)

October 16, 1994|Vassily Aksyonov | Vassily Aksyonov is the author, most recently, of "Generations of Winter" (Random House)

Could I have imagined, even in my most bizarre flights of fantasy, that I would review a historical book on Vladimir Lenin? Even more, that this book would be written by a three-star general in the Soviet army? From my student years in the 1950s, when my parents were imprisoned in the gulag, to 1980, when I was expelled from the Soviet Union for the crime of writing, nothing struck me as more tedious than those countless Lenin biographies by high-ranking state historians.

Times have really changed. Now I read Dmitri Volkogonov's "Lenin" and I have trouble putting it down. I even find myself eager to write about it here!

"Volkogonov" is Russian for "chasing wolves." A rather appropriate name, don't you think, for a man who has written a trilogy of books about the leaders of Russia's 20th-Century revolution: Stalin, Trotsky and now, most important, a leader of leaders, Lenin. This titanic work is probably the most significant in the series, in no small part because it draws from the hitherto inaccessible archives of the Soviet Communist Party.

Apart from the story's main hero and the host of other historical personalities, there is another character worthy of note: Gen. Volkogonov himself. In the introduction he tells us: "As a former Stalinist who has made the painful transition to a total rejection of Bolshevik totalitarianism, I confess that Leninism was the last bastion to fall in my mind."

For my part, I should confess that as a lifelong anti-Stalinist and anti-Leninist, it is hard for me to believe that a man of about my own age ever could have sincerely defended such a bastion in his mind. Then again, I am ready to concede that my presumption is biased.

Anyway, the bastion has crumbled. Why else would Gen. Volkogonov be giving us this brilliant, impartial "factography" rather than another "well balanced" Soviet interpretation of the facts?

What a gleeful scene, these still smoking ruins, but I can't help whispering another confession. It seems to me that from under the rubble, one survivor, a little evil spirit, has managed to escape. Hovering over the scene, he casts the remnants of his spell over some former guards of the bastion. The survivor's name, of course, is Vladimir Lenin.

For Volkogonov, while revealing the outlandish deception, perfidy, ruthlessness and cruelty that Lenin has personified, nevertheless seems to restrain himself from talking about his character's dullness, mediocrity and stupidity in pursuing his ultimate goal, the triumph of the proletariat. In fact, he manages to find in his subject an "exceptional mind and broad theoretical knowledge."

Volkogonov, it seems, views Lenin as a powerful demon of the 20th Century, a grandiose "super-revolutionary" who outlined the major currents in our tragic time.

The question would arise inevitably: Was Lenin a Demon or Petty Demon? Was he, in other words, a powerful devil akin to Mephistopheles or just another senselessly evil man like the perverted schoolmaster of Fyodor Sologub's novel "The Little Demon"? As far as I am concerned, Lenin has never belonged to the 20th Century, with its quest for liberalism and pluralism, its complicating science, modernist art and religious existentialism. Rather, he was a fiend of 19th-Century positivism, a dying-in-mildew philosophy that inspired narrow-minded vulgar Marxists and other fans of universal classification. Lenin inherited their "dialectical-materialistic values" and then developed them to the level of utmost absurdity.

Bluntly rejecting the "accursed questions" raised by Tolstoyan and Dostoevskyan worlds as "idealistic garbage" (not to mention the Symbolists' apocalyptic vision), Lenin stood for a mechanical model of the world that only he understood; then he feverishly tried to reshape human life in accordance with the positivist classification, i.e. class theory.

At the turn of the century Lenin worried that he had missed the boat, that his theories were getting dated. The First World War, however, salvaged the Marxist classification, at least in Russia. He had jumped aboard at the last moment, for only under the condition of war--that is, only during a recess in the development of the new age--could Lenin's appeal be so broadly heard and understood. He said to the mediocre masses: Do it now, otherwise we'll face a completely different world, completely different rules of the game.

In the first chapter of "Lenin," Volkogonov, now a senior military adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, observes that "it was difficult to imagine Lenin as young. . . . At the age of 25 he was recalled as young only by his identity papers. You would have said he couldn't be less than 40 . . . the faded skin, complete baldness, apart from a few hairs on his temples . . . the sly, slightly shifty way he would watch you, the older man's hoarse voice. . . . It wasn't surprising that he was known in the Saint Petersburg Union of Struggle as 'the Old Man.' "

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