3 books on Soviet communism

June 15, 2012

1. Edmund Wilson wrote two massive — but not a word too long — critical studies: “Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War”; and To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, an interpretive history of the ideas that led to the Russian Revolution of 1917 (the Finland train station in St. Petersburg was the point of reentry into Russia by the revolution’s principal architect, the previously exiled Vladimir Lenin). Newly republished as an FSG Classic (paperback, $18), “To the Finland Station” comes with Wilson’s introduction to the 1971 edition (the book first came out in 1940). There he accepts the criticism that he went too easy on Lenin in the book, his excuse being that much more information about Lenin’s behavior became available after the writing. “It would appear,” Wilson concludes, “that Vladimir Ilyich showed special consideration and kindness only to people who did not disagree with him, but was quite harsh and rude with others.”

2. Lenin’s exile lasted more than two decades and stretched from the boondocks of Russia to London, Paris and Geneva. Although beset at times by loneliness and boredom during those years, he was a model of self-discipline. “He planned each day down to the final minute,” writes Helen Rappaport in Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (Basic; paperback, $18.99), “allotting set amounts of time for work, rest, and recreation. . . . He remained mentally vigorous, engaging nonstop in a voluminous correspondence with activists in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and underground cells across Russia.”

3. It was Lenin’s successor as communist in chief, Josef Stalin, who made Victor Serge persona non grata. Born in Brussels to anti-tsarist exiles, Serge went to Russia in 1919 to join the young revolution, but by the end of the ’20s he’d been arrested for disloyalty, and in 1936 he left the country for good. In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary , translated from the French by Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis (New York Review Classics; paperback, $17.95), Serge evokes the literary boomlet he found in the Russia of 1922: “Boris Pilnyak, Vsevolod Ivanov, Konstantin Fedin. Their works were intense and impetuous, saturated with virile humanism and a critical spirit. . . . The great tradition of Russian literature, interrupted during the stormy years, was being born again in the second year of peace! It was miraculous.”

Dennis Drabelle

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