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Conspirator: Lenin in Exile Paperback – 1 Apr 2010
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"Vivid ... Lenin's ruthless determination to seize power in October 1917 probably owed much to his awareness that he had but one chance to escape the world of paranoia and conspiracy in which he had operated for so long, and that Rappaport evokes so successfully." (Nick Rennison Sunday Times)
"Pretty much essential reading for anyone interested in Russian history" (Scott Pack)
"In Helen Rappaport's vivid account, we finally have a worthy counterpart to Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin" (George Eaton New Statesman)
"Helen Rappaport presents an exhaustive, almost week-by-week account of this period when the great Bolshevik (at times, almost the only Bolshevik) and his wife Nadya hopped from one European city to another, dodging secret policemen, living from hand to mouth and tirelessly writing, debating, organising, plotting, plotting, plotting . . ." (Roger Hutchinson Scotsman)
A revealing look at Lenin's 17 year exile and the role he played in bringing Revolution to RussiaSee all Product description
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The success of Rappaport's work, however, is that she is able to recount and analyse the life of Lenin in exile without allowing the events that were to come later to in any way foreshadow or influence her words. We are therefore treated to a recount on his life based on it's merits alone, and so are able to also form a picture of Lenin the man, as well as Lenin the revolutionary.
I would cerainly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in Russian Revolutionary history, or indeed anyone with an interest in the role of the individual in history.
All that said, "Conspirator" is in its genre a good effort and a fun read, and that is nothing to sneeze at. As Lenin is generally a despised figure in the West, making him the protagonist is a courageous choice, and focusing on his period in exile rather than his period in power lends the book a historical interest even for people already (somewhat) familiar with the man's life. Rappaport is specialized in Russian subjects and this shows: she understands the nature of Czarist Russian society well and does not attempt to conceal its absurdly backwards and oppressive nature. She has equally little trouble with getting across the atmosphere of the many cities Lenin lived in and travelled through on his endless treks across Europe to organize an opposition in exile. The writing is generally excellent, and what makes the book particularly interesting is her attention for details often ignored in the more common quick overviews of Lenin's life abroad: there is much information particularly about his stays in Finland and in Galicia, which are rarely mentioned. Interesting as well are Rappaport's descriptions of the encryption and smuggling methods used by the exiles to communicate with other exiles or with Russia, often much less successful at evading the Russian secret police, the Okhrana, than is often claimed in more explicitly appreciative histories.
Finally, she also gives due credit to a host of secondary figures, both in Russian party organizations and in exile, who are usually rarely mentioned because they did not become prominents later on - not in the last place the many women organizers, not usually party leaders but nonetheless of great significance for getting the RSDLP's illegal resistance work off the ground. Rappaport describes herself as a feminist historian, and the major roles given to Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's wife, and Inessa Armand, his sometime lover, are well justified. Nonetheless, it is somewhat striking given this commitment that the author nonetheless engages in many cliché descriptions of the women in the narrative: there is constant mention of what a woman was wearing, whether she was any good at cooking, whether she was beautiful, and so forth. Certainly these patriarchal criteria would have been seen as important at the time, but that is no reason to focus so much on them now. It is telling nobody in these type of popular histories ever seems to worry about whether Lenin or Trotsky or Radek were attractive looking, and if they went slovenly dressed - as Lenin certainly often did - this is immediately seen as a sign they were free of vanity. Perhaps Rappaport meant this more as a description of the impressions of the time, but in that case, this is not properly specified. It would be interesting to once read a popular history about political subjects where all the male protagonists are judged by essentially aesthetic criteria!
All in all, the book makes for entertaining and informative reading, whether one likes or dislikes Lenin. To my taste, it still relies too strongly on the clichéd description of Lenin as the violent fanatic bent on power, although there have been much worse, more one-sided readings than this, and there is no doubt Lenin did have a domineering, disciplined personality and a remarkable lack of tact. For getting an impression of the way he lived his life, personally and socially, while in exile in many parts of Europe, this book can hardly be improved upon. It is also a refreshing thing to have Lenin taken seriously as a politician and an organizer, together with many others, before the actual events of 1917: both because this dispels the myth of the revolution coming out of nowhere due to the evil conspiracies of a few people, and because it shows how much of Lenin's theoretical work actually was aimed at resolving practical and organizational obstacles to the revolutionary mass organization he had in mind, an aim he felt was constantly being frustrated. For much of his life, Lenin was totally remote from any real power, and his pre-1917 oeuvre should be read with that in mind. One can forget the silly final chapter with the obligatory dismissal of his efforts towards revolutionary socialism, as this is par for the course in liberal popular history-writing. One can also overlook the absence of many major sources on Lenin's political-theoretical work, especially the main works of Lars Lih and Neil Harding. For all that, "Conspirator" is an entertaining and relatively balanced read, and informative enough to keep even those in the know going.
I found that this book is extremely well paced. It pauses and ponders over scenes and incidents, but it avoids the danger of becoming bogged down by an overabundance of complicated philosophical analysis and discussion. The interest never flags, and the entire book is an enjoyable read. The extremely thorough "Notes" section is a real treasure trove, and is well worthy of regular consultation during reading sessions.
Lenin's portrait is very finely drawn - the workaholic, the obsessive, the intolerant and uncompromising, the theoretician, the evangelist, the professor, the eternal student, the rabble-rouser, the egocentric and the bully. His frequently shabby behaviour towards his wife Nadya Krupskaya and to his amanuensis and mistress Inessa Armand, as Rappaport rightly points out, was deplorable - Lenin could be cruel and callous in the extreme - and not only in his dealings with women. His male collaborators and associates, too, could also become the victims of his vicious streak if they were foolhardy enough to disagree with his own line of opinion, if they failed to carry out his instructions to the letter, or if they were likely to pose a threat to his own position. The portraiture of many of the other characters who flit on and off the stage is also delightfully sketched: for example, Rappaport makes some amusing observations concerning the lack of conventional domesticity exhibited by comrades Martov and Zasulich (slovenly habits about food; cigarette ash everywhere). There are a number of other instances of wry humour, e.g. "konspiratsiya" - which she defines as "the utmost secrecy or stealth in the avoidance of detection" - reads as though many of its aspects were bizarre and clumsy, even though it may frequently have been effective. Comedy, however, is most certainly not the prevailing atmosphere within the book: there are tragedies, economic problems and other personal difficulties, disappointments, and (for Lenin and his crew) moments of pathos, both in the course of the events which Rappaport describes, and in their consequences.
"Conspirator" is an exciting account of the years in exile, and displays Helen Rappaport's customary skill and verve. It provides an excellent fresh insight into Lenin the man (and, incidentally, into Nadya Krupskaya). The book should appeal to a very wide readership. Even though it does not cover Lenin's life in its entirety (and nor, for that matter, does Krupskaya's own Soviet-approved biography of her husband, which closes in 1919), "Conspirator", within the terms of the chronological limits it sets itself, is among the most useful, most readable and most forthright of the biographical studies of Lenin to have appeared so far. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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