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. 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 Onegincontained.
Nonetheless, politics by other means and in a variety of different registers permeated Russian fiction in a manner without parallel in any other European country. As far as politicised literature and literary criticism went, the Russian intelligentsia were spoilt for choice. They devoured the acrimonious conflict between the powerful critic Vissarion Belinsky and the dramatist and novelist Nikolai Gogol, whose cutting 1842 satire Dead Souls had invigorated the country and been read aloud to the illiterate.
Success, however, proved to be Gogol’s undoing. In a subsequent work, he recanted, writing of stench-ridden peasants and defending illiteracy. In the preface to the second edition of Dead Souls, he wrote: “Much in this book has been written wrongly, not as things are really happening in the land of Russia. I ask you, dear reader, to correct me. Do not spurn this matter. I ask you to do it.”
Angered, Belinsky broke publicly with him in 1847. Belinsky’s widely circulated “Letter to Gogol” gave the recipient a long, sleepless night:
I know the Russian public a little. Your book alarmed me by the possibility of its exercising a bad influence on the government and the censorship, but not on the public. When it was rumoured in St Petersburg that the government intended to publish your book [ Selected Passages from Correspondence With Friends] in many thousands of copies and to sell it at an extremely low price, my friends grew despondent; but I told them then and there that the book, despite everything, would have no success and that it would soon be forgotten. In fact it is now better remembered for the articles that have been written about it than for the book itself. Yes, the Russian has a deep, though still undeveloped, instinct for truth.
In later years, critics became much more vicious, lambasting novelists and playwrights whose work they considered to be insufficiently empowering.
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.
At high school, Lenin fell in love with Latin. His headteacher had high hopes that he might become a philologist and Latin scholar. History willed otherwise, but Lenin’s passion for Latin, and taste for the classics, never left him. He read Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Juvenal in the original, as well as Roman senatorial orations. He devoured Goethe during his two decades in exile, reading and rereading Faust many times.
Lenin put his knowledge of the classics to good use in the time leading up to the October revolution of 1917. In April of that year, he broke with Russian social-democratic orthodoxy and, in a set of radical theses, called for a socialist revolution in Russia. A number of his own close comrades denounced him. In a sharp riposte, Lenin quoted Mephistopheles from Goethe’s masterwork: “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.”