Portraits of a Revolutionary

Portraits of a Revolutionary

Bukharin, Nikolai, How it All Began [or, The Prison Novel]; Columbia University Press; New York: 1998.

Larina, Anna, This I Cannot Forget: The Memoirs of Nikolai Bukharin’s Widow; W.W. Norton & Company; New York and London: 1993

Review by Janet Bolton

“If I was more than once mistaken regarding the methods of building socialism, may my descendants judge me no more severely than did Vladimir Ilyich. We were the first to pursue the same goal by an as yet untrodden path. The time, the mores were different. Pravda would print a page for discussion, then everyone debated, sought the right path, argued, and made up and proceeded onward together.

[From Bukharin’s letter “To a Future Generation of Party Leaders,” written in 1937 as he awaited his arrest on charges of conspiracy against the Soviet Union.]

Nikolai Bukharin spent just over one year in Lubyanka Prison before his show trial and execution in March 1938. In a frantic burst of creativity, while enduring imprisonment, interrogation and the mental anguish of preparing to confess to hideous crimes, he wrote four significant works. Locked in Stalin’s personal archives for decades were: Socialism and Its Culture (the second volume of an anti-fascist work he had begun before imprisonment); Philosophical Arabesques; a collection of poetry; and the last, his prison novel.

How it all began is a classic coming of age tale about a young boy in late 19th century Russia. Writing more autobiography than fiction, Bukharin barely disguises himself in the protagonist, Kolya Petrov. The story recounts his parents’ fall into poverty, his childhood (and enduring) passions for nature and art, his classical education in a “gymnasium,” his emotional and intellectual struggle to understand death and mortality, and the beginnings of his political awakening.

The memoir ends – in mid-sentence – when Kolya was only 15 and Bukharin – thirty-three years later – was about to be executed. How much more interesting Kolya’s life was to become as he joined the Bolsheviks in 1907, was exiled in 1911, returned to revolutionary Russia in 1917 and became a chief theorist and leading member of the Soviet government.

The memoir’s origins in Lubyanka are defied by its leisurely pace and dense descriptions, but that pace perfectly suits the rich, internal life of a precocious child Bukharin evokes. The author evokes a time long past, where even the earliest memories of childhood are distinct and compelling.

One almost familiar scene is a description of a social/political gathering of young radicals in a student’s apartment. The still friendly rivals are debating their political positions. The Social Democrats have Lenin’s What is to be Done? close at hand as they argue with the Socialist Revolutionaries about Russian particularism, the role of terrorism, and the relationship between the peasantry and the working class.

Both the memoir’s editor, Stephen Cohen, and its translator, George Shriver, point out occasions where Bukharin would seem to be commenting as much on the Soviet Union as on Tsarist Russia, or may even be carrying out a veiled polemic against Stalin’s rule. This is a doubtful interpretation, and does not do the work justice. The novel/memoir’s strengths lie elsewhere, in the perceptive descriptions of the people Bukharin knew, the relationships among them, and his surroundings.

This mature self-portrait of a child and adolescent provides considerable insight into the man Bukharin became. Still, the memoir ends too soon. For readers more interested in politics than psychology, the final result may be disappointing.

Much more is to be learned from Anna Larina’s memoirs, This I Cannot Forget. Only twenty-two years old at the time of Bukharin’s arrest, Anna Larina memorized Bukharin’s letter “To a Future Generation of Party Leaders,” and carried it with her through Stalin’s jails, prison camps, and internal exile, reciting it daily. She wrote it down on more than one occasion, only to destroy the written version out of fear, until 1956.

Anna Larina’s own story is fascinating, though her husband, Bukharin, is the subject of her memoirs. Bukharin was a friend of her family’s, and of her father, Yury Larin, in particular. Larin was a Bolshevik and economist, a man with a severe disability who was nonetheless a prolific author and leading revolutionary intellectual. Because of the two men’s friendship, Larina knew Bukharin throughout her childhood.

Larina’s writing is remarkable. Her story is not told in a linear fashion. Instead, she has put together segments of different “stories.” Written over many years, they nonetheless fit together into a seamless whole. These tales include her childhood memories, especially of her father and Bukharin, her later, romantic relationship with the much older Bukharin, the final separation from him and their son, her imprisonment with its isolation, deprivation and interrogations (including by an old acquaintance, Beria), and a glimpse of the decades in exile.

Larina’s purpose is never in doubt. These memoirs are a passionate plea by a widow for her late husband’s integrity and legacy. But they are also more than that. This I Cannot Forget is a detailed rebuttal of all Stalin’s accusations and a clear, careful defence.

Larina tells us how much she knew of Bukharin’s story first hand, and she reflects on the accuracy of her memory (for example, where “I do not remember the exact date of this confrontation [between Bukharin and Rykov], but I clearly recall that the weather was still warm. Rykov had run in wearing a gabardine coat and cap. Therefore it must have been no later than the beginning of autumn in 1928 that Stalin knew about the content of Bukharin’s conver-sation with Kamenev.” [p. 116]) She admits what she only knows as “hearsay,” and then refers to internal consist-encies or confirm-ing evidence. Her versions gain even more credence from her forthrightness when she disagrees with Bukharin (for example, where “I have to report the truth, galling as it is to recall it” [p. 285]).

In 1937, Bukharin was charged with “spying and wrecking; the attempted dismemberment of the USSR; the organization of kulak uprisings; conspiratorial ties with German fascists, as well as German and Japanese intelligence; terrorist hopes of murdering Stalin; the murder of Kirov; a terrorist act against Lenin in 1918 previously attributed solely to the Right Social Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan, ...” [p. 66] At the infamous show trial, Bukharin confessed to being a counterrevolutionary while denying guilt for any particular crime. In Larina’s careful but eloquent style, she refutes the charges. More than that, in Larina’s interpretation there was neither a conspiracy nor an organized opposition to Stalin by the 1930s.

Her convincing version of events includes Bukharin’s story of his conversation with Kamenev in 1928, at the height of the dispute over the New Economic Policy. Bukharin told Larina that the conversation took place at a chance encounter when Bukharin, Sokol-nikov and Kamenev were all going home from a session of the July 1928 plenum of the Central Committee. In an act of indiscretion, Bukharin “talked about [Stalin] in a tone of extreme irritation and disappointment, condemning his moral qualities as well as his political line,” [p. 112] and went on from there.

The conversation was either taped by the NKVD or revealed by Kamenev; in any event, it was not kept secret. Larina evaluates the “so-called transcript” of the conversation, published in 1929 in Trotsky’s German bulletin, and admits that it “truly reflects both Bukharin’s political views and his attitude toward Stalin in 1928, as well as the climate in the Politburo at that time.” [p. 117] What was not true, in her view, was that this chance encounter ever amounted to a conspiracy among Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Rykov, and others. It was, instead, the small kernel of truth on which Stalin and the NKVD based their charges.

Another key piece in the conspiracy case built against Bukharin came from Bukharin’s trip to Paris in 1936, in the delegation sent by Stalin to purchase the Marx and Engels archives. The delegation had to negotiate with Russian emigré Mensheviks, Dan and Nicolaevsky. Anna Larina was with Bukharin towards the end of the Paris trip, in the last weeks of her pregnancy. She could not account for Bukharin’s meetings prior to her arrival, but reports on those she did attend.

Following the trip, the Menshevik Socialist Herald published “Letter of an Old Bolshevik,” with the clear implication that Bukharin was the author. In it, the “Old Bolshevik” excoriated Stalin and his allies and spoke proudly of the author’s role in an opposition movement. The letter was, as Larina notes, a tightening of the noose around both Bukharin and Rykov’s necks.

Years later, Nicolaevsky admitted that he wrote the letter, and later still he wrote an account of private conversations with Bukharin that he claimed formed the basis for the letter. Larina is scathing in her refutation of this evidence. Unforgivably, her editor, Stephen Cohen, himself a Bukharin biographer, condenses her arguments in this, one of the most important sections of the book.

Larina’s Bukharin was emotional and highly strung, the adult version of the now familiar adolescent in the prison novel. He was taken completely by surprise as events unfolded and his world fell apart. Towards the end, he was an anguished and despairing man, undertaking a senseless hunger strike and contemplating suicide. He was also astonishingly naïve. Even as he was being relentlessly pursued by the NKVD at the behest of the Central Committee, he pleaded with Stalin to intervene on his behalf. (“Seeking salvation from his own executioner,” [p. 284] is how Larina puts it.)

Certainly, by the time she wrote these memoirs and earlier, during her own imprisonment, Anna Larina did not share her husband’s guilelessness. (One poem she composed while in prison portrayed Stalin as a black crow feeding at the carcass of the glorious revolution.) When she recounts Bukharin’s faith in Stalin it is because “I have to tell the truth, galling as it is to recall it.” [p.285]

Larina’s evidence also suggests that Bukharin had no regrets about his role in defeating the left in the 1920s, because for him those battles were about ideas, not power. Nor did he draw any connection between how that defeated opposition was disposed of and how he was then dealt with a decade later.

Stephen Cohen is not convinced by Anna Larina’s portrait. Cohen’s Bukharin had more political savvy, less naïveté. He would have had the foresight to understand Stalin’s plans for him, and been capable of having organized and maintained some opposition to Stalin’s policies, if not leadership. But in the introduction to This I Cannot Forget, Cohen’s position relies more on rhetorical questions than on argument.

In the late 1920s, Bukharin fought Stalin bitterly on the turn away from the New Economic Policy and towards forced collectivization and industrialization. He argued openly, defending the NEP and publishing his views. His position was defeated, and Bukharin was removed from the Politburo.

Did Bukharin carry on in opposition after this? Larina believes that he “considered it necessary to curtail any further struggle. Dominated by Stalin, the Party had started down a different path, disposing of Bukharin’s economic politics. Under such circumstances, he could find no more useful action than to close the ranks.” [p. 262] She also recounts in detail a Paris conversation between Bukharin and Nicolaevsky, the only discussion they held without other members of the Soviet delegation being present. Nicolaevsky asks how life is in the Soviet Union, and in particular collectivization. Bukharin’s response is worth quoting at length:

“Collectivization is a stage that is now complete; a difficult stage, but complete. In time, differences of opinion are outlived; it makes no sense to argue about what kind of legs should be made for a table when the table is already made. At home, they write that I was against collectivization, but this is a ploy of propagandists, a cheap shot. I had indeed proposed another path, more complex and not so pell-mell, that would have led in the final analysis to production co-operatives, a path that did not involve the same kind of sacrifices but would have ensured that collectivization was voluntary. But now, in the face of approaching fascism, I can say, ‘Stalin triumphed!’ [pp. 256-257]

Similarly, in his 1937 letter to the “Future Generation of Party Leaders,” Bukharin wrote that he was in his seventh year “without a shadow of disagreement with the Party.” [p.344]

At times, the debate about Bukharin has raged vociferously. Western liberals have speculated that a very different, more palatable Soviet Union might have emerged with Bukharin in the leadership. Communists have certainly wondered whether the New Economic Policy was not leading toward the restoration of capitalism; the Soviet leadership still had reasons in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s not to restore Bukharin’s reputation. Even today, in discussions about the transition to communism, about the New Economic Policy and Bukharin’s opposition to Stalin in 1928, the contested terrain is unmistakable: the fate of the Soviet Revolution.

In that historical moment of Bukharin’s opposition to Stalin’s policies can be glimpsed an alternative outcome, a different history of the Soviet Union. If a different course were followed then, could some tragedies have been averted and some crimes never committed? Could a different kind of communism have evolved? Or was what Soviet communism became the only thing it could have become? These questions are not the property of the right: they are important problems for us all.

Bukharin was, of course, not guilty of counter-revolutionary activity. The charges were patently absurd. Anna Larina spent the years after 1956 researching, writing and demanding that the Party restore Bukharin’s rightful place as a hero of the Revolution. He was finally rehabilitated by Gorbachev in 1988 – itself, perhaps, reason for more skepticism.

Yet, Larina’s Bukharin does not emerge as the potential, historical leader of an alternative direction in the Party and in the Soviet Union. He seemed truly to believe that “it makes no sense to argue about what kind of legs should be made for a table when the table is already made.” But perhaps this is because, as Stephen Cohen speculates, his wife had not seen him in the heat of political battle. Perhaps all his words were guarded by the end, including in the famous letter entrusted to Anna Larina.

Until we know more, the most fitting epitaph was written by Bukharin himself: “Know comrades, that the banner you bear in a triumphant march towards communism contains a drop of my blood, too!” [p. 345]

Spark! #13-14, pp.63-68