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HOW IT ALL BEGAN: The Prison Novel.\o7 By Nikolai Bukharin\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Russian by George Shriver (Columbia University Press: 346 pp., $28.95)\f7

June 07, 1998|RICHARD LOURIE | Richard Lourie is the author of a novel, "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin," and is working on a biography of Andrei Sakharov

Everyone liked Bukharin. He stood out among the founding fathers of Russian Communism--men of legendary dedication and severity who were in every sense of Dostoevsky's word "possessed." Bukharin was playful, affectionate, artistic. Even when part of the elite that ruled Soviet Russia, he found time to shimmy up trees as he had as a boy and, in middle age, to fall passionately in love with Anna Larina, whose acerbic and moving memoir, "This I Cannot Forget," chronicles their life together.

Even Stalin liked Bukharin. That did not in the least prevent Stalin from having Bukharin arrested in 1937 and, in the last of the three great Moscow show trials, having him accused of a series of crimes including plotting the assassination of Lenin. The historical record offers ample reason for Stalin to bear a grudge against Bukharin who, in the days when a sort of fierce, crude democracy was still operative within the party, often opposed Stalin on various issues. The truth, however, was less complicated than that. Stalin operated from a single, simple principle--kill all rivals.

Bukharin was arrested in February 1937, the year when the Great Terror reached its crescendo, and was held in Lubyanka, the headquarters of the secret police, which also contained cells for especially important prisoners. Lubyanka is in the heart of Moscow, just a few minutes from the Kremlin, and it is not out of the question that Stalin paid a visit to Bukharin to discuss the terms of their deal. In any case, it does seem clear that some sort of a deal was struck between them. In exchange for cooperating at the trial, Bukharin was apparently assured that no harm would come to his family and that he would be allowed to write in prison, where he was working on three books--"The Transformation of the World," a volume of poems; "Philosophical Arabesques," an intellectual summa; and an autobiographical novel, "How It All Began." In a letter written from prison, Bukharin implored Stalin: "I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear. . . . Don't let this work perish. I repeat and emphasize: This is completely apart from my personal fate. . . . Have pity! Not on me, on the work!"

Both men reneged on their deal--Bukharin nobly, Stalin, of course, ignobly. At his trial, Bukharin confessed to the crimes of which he was accused but did so with so many qualifications and equivocations that Stalin must have been irked, to say the least. Bukharin's wife was not executed but was hurled into the Gulag and their son disappeared into the grim world of Soviet orphanages and foster homes, only to be reunited with his mother in 1956. Bukharin was allowed to write and, miraculously, his manuscripts survived in the KGB archives. About their author's "personal fate," there was never any question.

Now, Bukharin's autobiographical novel has been translated into English, the prose sections well rendered, the copious poetry quoted less so, with a useful and intelligent introduction by Princeton scholar Stephen F. Cohen. Covering the period between the late 1880s and the 1905 Revolution, the novel is unpolished and unfinished. Its last line is: "He felt very bitter and angry at himself. . ," though the tone of the book is neither angry nor bitter. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It does of course contain passages about pre-revolutionary Russia that can be read as a veiled indictment of Stalin's Russia--"You have transformed your party into a barracks. . . . You have killed all freedom of criticism among yourselves and you want to extend this barracks to include everything and everyone. We humbly thank you. But the only response we can make to such invitations is a categorical no, and again no."

And there are many pages devoted to the young hero's awakening social conscience. Like many of the best young people in Russia, Bukharin and his alter ego in the novel came to communism through both reason and compassion, as well as from a natural Huck Finn-like spirit of rebellion and hatred of hypocrisy and pomposity. ("The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is the hero's favorite novel.) One official is described: "He was nothing but a belly on short, little legs, stuffed into a uniform."

But I would think it a mistake to read too much social significance into this work, which is really more poetic than political. As Bukharin writes: "Children, like grown-ups, have their superstitions, prejudices, heartfelt dreams, ideals, and unforgettable incidents in life, which are stored in the memory forever and which suddenly, at terrible or tragic moments in life, come swimming into consciousness, surprisingly vivid, in full detail, down to the wrinkles in somebody's face or a spider's web illuminated by the evening sun."

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