One hundred fifty years after his birth, it seems biographers are paying ever more attention to Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. While the revolutionary and statesman known as Lenin is the object of an immense literature, for the last couple of decades, it seems rather more attention has turned to the man himself — from his pre-revolutionary biography to his personal life.
In part, this is driven by the 1990s opening of Soviet archives, which had once forbidden researchers from delving too deeply into a state icon’s more human dimension. We could also cite a certain “defanging” of the Bolshevik leader, combined with an academic turn to questions once considered trivial: perhaps most emblematic is Carter Elwood’s amusing essay on “What Lenin Ate.”
Yet such a turn to what Elwood (citing Nikolai Valentinov) calls the “non-geometric Lenin” does not just mean downgrading his historical stature. Rather, disembalming him and looking closer at his personal existence can shed light on the world he revolted against — and how his particular notions of political action and organization took form.
We see this in Robert Henderson’s new book The Spark That Lit the Revolution, a study of Lenin’s spells living in London between 1902 and 1911. A former curator of the British Library’s Russian collection, Henderson richly portrays the intellectual life surrounding one of the Library’s most famous visitors — and the revolutionary party that began to take form among the exile milieu.
Henderson’s title is a play on words, if a slightly misleading one: there was not much of a British trigger for October 1917, though London was one among the early centers of Iskra (“the Spark”), exile organ of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). In 1902–3, Iskra was produced in London with the aid of the Social Democrat Federation (SDF) man Harry Quelch at 37a Clerkenwell Green, today home of the Marx Memorial Library.
Ulyanov first reached London in April 1902, together with his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, following three years of exile in Siberia and then short spells in Switzerland and Munich. Beyond the interests of exile organization, the pair had no particular connection to Britain: the couple had neither contacts nor a gift for English; their Russian translation of Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s Industrial Democracy was based on a German edition rather than the original.
Henderson colorfully illustrates the émigré circles in London. There were Social-Revolutionaries, the heirs to the terrorist-populist tradition, anarchists and RSDLP members, who all came together in such meeting places as the Free Russian Library. Based just off Brick Lane, in Whitechapel, it was home to the “East End Socialist Lecturers’ Society” — and a major social hub of the Jewish and Russian revolutionary milieu.
Central, here, was Apollinariya Yakubova, a revolutionary in her early thirties who had already been a pioneering socialist in Petrograd alongside Lenin and Julius Martov. A teacher and enthusiast for socialist “Sunday schools,” Yakubova’s Society organized lectures at Liberty Hall on everything from free love to English history. This was combined with social events like a three-part soiree that boasted talks in Russian and Yiddish, a slideshow of scenes from the French Revolution, and dancing till 3 a.m.
This “Little Russian Island” in East London was, however, mainly a space for political organizing — and this was certainly how Lenin saw it. Alongside his Iskra work, he delivered a lecture at Liberty Hall in November 1902 where he railed “against the Social-Revolutionaries for two hours, during which time he never paused and never once looked at the faces of the audience.” His harsh polemical style was also noted by a Liberal MP whom he confronted at a talk on imperialism: “His shabby clothes helped to detract from his appearance, but he was evidently an intellectual.”
A library curator, Henderson is naturally interested in the material aspects of Lenin’s studies in London — including his repeated failed applications for library cards, under a variety of pseudonyms. Lenin never sounds happier than when talking about books: he not only beamed about his hours in the British Museum’s library, but also offers a materialist analysis of its wonders: “the British bourgeoisie doesn’t spare any money where this institution is concerned and that’s as it should be . . . the British are merchants after all: they need to trade with Russia and so need to know all about her.”
Aside from his library time — and contacts with Londoners like Quelch — Lenin, however, remained resistant to British culture. He appears to have shared Krupskaya’s disdain for “the bottomless inanity of English petty-bourgeois life”; he was “interested by the English muffins, which he had never tasted before,” but otherwise Russian in his tastes.
Perhaps surprisingly, missing from this picture of disinterest in all things British is the question of whether Lenin spoke English with a London accent — or possibly even a Dublin one. In her Reminiscences of Lenin, Krupskaya tantalizingly refers to how they each found it easier to understand Irish people than Londoners — at least before they started lessons with an English tutor.
Even in their East London enclave, the Russian émigrés were marked by the world around them. First was the mounting pressure against foreigners — the anti-“alien” mood that led, in 1905, to the first anti-immigrant legislation. As well as antisemitism, the xenophobic climate had a particular anti-Russian thrust due to the Dogger Bank tragedy of October 1904, where the tsar’s navy fired on Hull fishermen, killing two. But added to this was the mounting hope — and then sense of defeat — that followed Russia’s 1905 revolution, as the tsar first conceded small reforms, then crushed the opposition.
Lenin’s time in London was, in fact, a key phase in the development of the RSDLP, with the growing divide between its Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. If sometimes centered on apparently arcane organizational disputes, this split came to represent two different ideas of social democracy: on the one hand, the Mensheviks’ search for alliance with liberals, and on the other, Lenin and his comrades’ drive toward a tighter revolutionary party at the head of a worker-peasant alliance.
Britain was more open to émigrés than other liberal democracies: the 1903 and 1907 RSDLP congresses (each involving both factions) were moved to London after originally being mooted for Brussels and Copenhagen, respectively. This repression owed to the combined forces of tsarist diplomatic pressure as well as wary domestic authorities. But throughout Lenin’s time in London, the “Little Russian Island” — and RSDLP congresses — were under observation by both British and Russian police.
This did not mean that they understood well what they were watching. This is strikingly apparent in the police accounts of the Bolshevik-dominated “conspirators’ congress” in April 1905, which followed Russia’s military defeat to Japan and the onset of revolution. The tsar’s leading man in London, Jean Edgar Farce, wrote home of one participant, a “35-year-old man, rather small, yellowish complexion, freckles, brown hair, little blonde beard, black suit, black felt hat” — without knowing who he was.
British police had little more insight. One Special Branch officer claimed that, thanks to a tip-off from the landlord of the pub where the congress was held, he was able to eavesdrop from inside a cupboard. Accounts vary as to whether the policeman thus hidden in the Crown and Woolpack was even able to understand Russian: his filing from the next session of the congress, at a different pub, lamely reported that it had passed a vote “for revolution.”
The tsarist agent who failed to identify the man in the felt hat — the sumptuously named Monsieur Farce — cuts a rather tragic figure in this book, forever bewailing his Okhrana superiors’ disinterest in funding a proper effort to trail the Iskraites in London. In this turn-of-the-century context, the specter of the “bomb-throwing anarchist” — or its Russian populist analog — rather more troubled the regime than the more theory-oriented circles around Lenin.
Such an outlook also colored the British tabloids’ attempts to dramatize the staging of the 1907 RSDLP congress — combining Red Scare with a certain fascination for these émigré revolutionaries. Hence the May 25, 1907 Penny Illustrated Paper luridly depicted the congress with a photomontage headlined “Plotters Against a Throne” — a picture of the unassuming venue was cast against the backdrop of a ball-shaped bomb with a snaking fuse.
The London press was particularly fascinated by women members of the RSDLP — whom it termed “suffragists,” for want of any other British analog. The Mirror salaciously presented a “young girl delegate” who called for “war at any price,” and, it worried, spoke of “barricades and bombs much as the average English girl will chatter about bridge and lawn tennis.” In an era of increasing restrictions on immigrants following the 1905 Aliens Act, the press cast the Russian revolutionaries as violent and otherworldly.
In contrast to such demonization, Henderson allows us to see a human Lenin. Enthusiasts for his Iskra interventions were struck that the real man was much younger than his writing made him sound — and with more of a sense of humor. Checking the stenograph of one of his 1907 congress interventions, Lenin is unable to speak, his body gripped by “happy, loud, full and unconstrained laughter” when he is quoted as damning a “powerless duck” (bessil’naia utka) when, in fact, he said “weak subterfuge” (bessil’naia uteka).
Of particular focus in Henderson’s account is Lenin’s love life — and his intimate relationship with Yakubova, the teacher at the heart of the East London Socialist Lecturers’ Society. Where Soviet accounts long refrained from portraying Lenin as more than husband to Krupskaya — even the 1981 film Lenin in Paris was coy about his relationship with Inessa Armand — Henderson here tells of another “love” that continued from Russia to London, before a political split with painful personal consequences.
We began by noting a turn in history writing away from the Lenin portrayed by both Soviet hagiography and its opponents — the depersonalized Lenin, which had reproduced his own obsessions with Marxism as “science” and programmatic dispute. With the literal pulling down of Lenin statues across the former USSR, the interest in a more “flesh-and-blood” version of the man seems obvious — an understanding that can reflect on his material existence and inner life while refraining from mere pop psychology.
This is not a wholly unbeaten track. Valentinov’s Encounters with Lenin and its call to discover the “non-geometric Lenin” dates back to the 1960s. We could similarly look to a text like Karl Radek’s 1924 account of the fateful rail journey from Zurich to Petrograd, which whimsically recounts the Bolshevik leader’s invention of a ticket system for the train’s toilet — as well as his secret satisfaction at being greeted by well-wishers. The embalmed corpse on the Red Square is hardly the only Lenin we know.
But with its walk-on roles for Leon Trotsky, Maxim Gorky, and Peter Kropotkin, The Spark That Lit the Revolution especially succeeds in evoking Lenin’s life within the émigré milieu — an apparently marginal scene whose activity proved decisive in shaping the revolution of 1917. Fussy, confrontational, and obsessed with books and study, Lenin was also a part of this world. He was an exile, the younger brother of an executed revolutionary and the leader of a faction whose success seemed anything but likely.
One hundred fifty years after Lenin’s birth, Henderson’s book does something to bring him back to life. So, happy birthday, Lenin — we’re glad that Monsieur Farce didn’t catch up with you.