Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lenin in Zurich

Notwithstanding the fact that Solzhenitsyn’s trilogy on World War I is basically unreadable, Lenin in Zurich (material related to Lenin compiled into its own stand-alone novel) is worthwhile. It gets at the heart of the author’s real concern with the World War I era: Bolshevism and its embodiment, Lenin. Self-evidently, Lenin in Zurich focuses on an interesting moment in Lenin’s life, his time in exile waiting patiently for revolution to break out in the motherland.

The Swiss backdrop is fascinating and the author isn’t afraid to dwell on the paradox of a radical revolutionary dwelling in comfortable, scenic, bourgeois Switzerland. The irony that Solzhenitsyn was dropped off in Switzerland after being exiled from the Soviet Union must have played a part in his fascination with this period in Lenin’s life.

Explosion damages monument to Lenin in St. Petersburg

What kind of man is Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin? He’s intelligent and argumentative and single-minded. He’s hard-working and scholarly too. He’s also vindictive and petty, incapable of compromising with socialist allies as well as bourgeois enemies. Lenin had a need to be in charge, completely in charge. In Solzhenitsyn’s opinion, Lenin’s intractable nature dictated everything, including his theory of a tightly controlled, professional revolutionary elite. The decision to board the train to Russian receives special emphasis, and serves as the book's denouement. To Solzhenitsyn, the deal reveals Lenin's cynicism and, to a lesser extent, special concern for his personal safety. One could come up with a different interpretation of this episode, and indeed of Lenin in general, but Solzhenitsyn's attempt to portray this seminal figure in Russian history is worthwhile and not entirely biased by the author's prejudices against the system Lenin helped to create.

It’s hard to accept stable Switzerland as site of revolution. Yet Conrad’s Under Western Skies shows that revolutionary activity thrived in free places. E.H. Carr’s Bukharin reminds of his own time in the country. But the counter-revolution also resided there, and we shouldn’t forget that Nabokov lived there too in his final years.


  1. This puts me in mind of the Tom Stoppard play "Travesties," which explores the 1917 Zurich experiences of Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara and speculating about their meeting.

  2. Wow. Stoppard's the man and I should read that. Have you read Stoppard's Coat of Utopia (in three parts) about the revolutionary movement in the late 19th century? I hope to post on that soon. I didn't know about Travesties at all..