Monday, 22 June 1998

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Lenin in Zurich (1975)

Translation: H.T. Willetts, 1976
Edition: Penguin, 1978
Review number: 71

As the title suggests, Lenin in Zurich is Solzhenitsyn's novelisation of the time spent by Lenin in Switzerland during the First World War, before he returned to Russia in 1917 to begin the revolution. The book follows on from August 1914, to become part of a series examining the origins of the Soviet Union.

The major part of the novel comprises chapters from a longer work, which means that you start with chapter 22 and it is followed by chapter 49 - a little disconcerting. I'm a little surprised it was printed in this form, as it is quite a short novel (around a fifth of the length of August 1914). The missing chapters do not make you feel any lack of continuity except for the jumps in chapter numbers.

I didn't enjoy the book, and the main reason for this was that Solzhenitsyn is totally unwilling to concede that any of the originators of the revolution might have had a pleasant, non-hypocritical thought. He writes the character of Lenin himself in the first person, and most of the thoughts he ascribes to him are contemptuous of the masses, of the aristocrats and of the bourgeois. His driving urge is seen to be to increase his personal standing by breaking up any movement within the socialists which looks toward anyone other than himself. The other leaders - of whom Lenin is also contemptuous - are not portrayed in any better light. Surely at least some of these people must have believed in what they were doing; surely at least some of them must have felt that a revolution would help people?

I have felt that Solzhenitsyn's standards went down after he moved to the West - or before that, when his output became more documentary in style rather than novelistic. Nothing that I have read in his output matches A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Cancer Ward or First Circle. He has allowed himself to be overcome by his bitterness, and a one-sided writing style results. (In the earlier books, the non-prisoners are just as much victims as the prisoners, and this makes everything work much better.)

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