How Lenin’s love of literature shaped the Russian Revolution RR

Published on The Guardian, by Tariq Ali, March 25, 2017.

The father of the Soviet Union was also a Latin buff who adored Goethe and liked to compare his enemies to figures in novels.  

Literature shaped the political culture of the Russia in which Vladimir Ilyich Lenin grew up. Explicitly political texts were difficult to publish under the tsarist regime (1721-1917). The rasher essayists were holed up in asylums until they “recovered”: in other words, until they publicly recanted their views. Novels and poetry, meanwhile, were treated more leniently – though not in every instance.

The chief censor was, of course, the tsar. In the case of Pushkin, the “father of the people”, Nicholas I, insisted on reading many of his verses before they went to the printer. Some, as a result, were forbidden, others delayed, and the most subversive were destroyed by the frightened poet himself, fearful that his house might be raided. We will never know what the burnt verses of Eugene Onegin contained … //

… This, then, was the intellectual atmosphere in which Lenin came of age. His father, a highly cultured conservative, was the chief inspector of schools in his region and much respected as an educationalist. At home, Shakespeare, Goethe and Pushkin, among others, were read aloud on Sunday afternoons. It was impossible for the Ulyanov family – “Lenin” was a pseudonym adopted to outwit the tsarist secret police – to escape high culture … //

… Lenin knew better than most that classical Russian literature had always been infused with politics. Even the most “apolitical” of writers had found it difficult to conceal their contempt for the state of the country. Ivan Goncharov’s novel Oblomov was a case in point. Lenin loved this work. It depicted the inertia, indolence and emptiness of the landed gentry. The book’s success was celebrated by the entry of a new word into the Russian lexicon: oblomovism, which became a term of abuse for the class that helped the autocracy survive for so long. Lenin would later argue that this disease was not confined to the upper classes alone, but had infected large sections of the tsarist bureaucracy and filtered downwards. Even Bolshevik apparatchiks were not immune. This was a case where the mirror held up by Goncharov really did reflect society at large. In his polemics, Lenin often attacked his opponents by comparing them to almost always unpleasant and sometimes minor characters drawn from Russian fiction … //

… Lenin was also hostile to any notion of a “proletarian literature and art”, insisting that the peaks of bourgeois culture (and its more ancient predecessors) could not be transcended by mechanical and dead formulae advanced in a country where the level of culture, in the broadest sense, was far too low. Shortcuts in this field would never work, something that was proved conclusively by the excremental “socialist realism” introduced in the bad years that followed Lenin’s death. Creativity was numbed. The leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom, where the lives of all would be shaped by reason, was never made in the Soviet Union – or, for that matter, anywhere else.

(full text).

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