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Thu Jun 29 02:28:40 MDT 2000
By Scott McLemee; Scott McLemee is a contributing editor at Lingua Franca.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
By Nikolai Bukharin.
Translated by George Shriver.
Introduction by Stephen F. Cohen.
Illustrated. 345 pp. New York:
Columbia University Press. $28.95.
OF all the early Soviet leaders, Nikolai Bukharin had perhaps the greatest
range of interests and talents. He was a lifelong student of the natural
sciences, a gifted painter and caricaturist and an experienced journalist.
He read widely in literature (Russian, European, American). His writings on
economics from the early 1920's are among the most sophisticated
theoretical works by a Bolshevik; they display a close familiarity with
contemporary Western sociology, which Bukharin did not (like his peers)
dismiss as mere bourgeois mystification. And all this intellectual vigor
was joined to a warm and unpretentious personality. In the document usually
called his "Testament," Lenin noted that his young protege was "rightly
considered the favorite of the whole party."
But brilliance and charm are no match for raw cunning -- in politics least
of all. During the intraparty struggles following Lenin's death, Bukharin
joined Stalin in an alliance against Trotsky's "left opposition." Whereupon
Stalin did a volte-face to isolate another danger: the "right opposition,"
namely Bukharin and his co-thinkers, who wanted a mixed economy
incorporating both state-run industry and a vigorous market in agricultural
products. Politically neutralized -- his policies consigned to the dustbin
of history by the forced collectivization of the peasantry -- Bukharin
nonetheless remained an important functionary for the Soviet Government
through the mid-30's. Then, at the Moscow trials, he was named a major
co-conspirator in numerous acts of sabotage, espionage and assassination.
His performance in the docket was strange, almost playful. While confessing
to most of the charges, Bukharin contested the details of the case --
calmly tearing it to shreds.
The trial's outcome was never in question. Sixty years ago this March,
Bukharin was taken to an execution cell, shot, then effectively written out
of Soviet history. Abroad he was remembered, if at all, mainly as the
prototype for Rubashov in Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon." He began to
resume the dimensions of a figure significant beyond the circumstances of
his death only with Stephen F. Cohen's "Bukharin and the Bolshevik
Revolution" (1973). This detailed account of Bukharin's political career
and policies also elucidated his distinctive Marxism, with its heterodox
emphasis not on violent change but on the tendency of societies toward
equilibrium, even in post-revolutionary periods. A tiny but persistent
movement to rehabilitate him came to fruition in 1988 when, under Mikhail
Gorbachev, he was finally exonerated.
A few years later, Cohen, a professor of politics and Russian studies at
Princeton University, was granted access to a portion of the archival
material on Bukharin, including four substantial works composed while he
was in prison: two works of Marxist theory, a collection of poems and an
unfinished novel. The novel, now published in George Shriver's solid
English translation as "How It All Began," is a work of very lightly
fictionalized autobiography. It seems that Bukharin intended to take the
story of his alter ego, Kolya Petrov, up to the 1917 Revolution. But the
manuscript breaks off just before the revolution of 1905, with Kolya in his
teens -- barely conscious of politics, though that is about to change.
With its swarm of well-delineated minor characters (and their families),
"How It All Began" is very much the work of a man with a feel for the
19th-century novel. Kolya Petrov, like his creator, is a product of the
intelligentsia. His parents meet as schoolteachers; his father, in
particular, is a "type" very familiar from Russian fiction: liberal-minded
but ineffectual and vague. After losing his teaching position, Ivan
Antonovich becomes a civil servant in a rural town, where his
disinclination to torment the Jews arouses suspicion. Bukharin depicts the
mediocrity of the provincial middle class, not in the tones of a commissar
sentencing it to oblivion, but with humor -- as when describing one of Ivan
Antonovich's all-night card games: "Tottering, the honorable gentlemen
would make their way, like shellshocked soldiers, into the yard, where
shivering from the morning cold, they would stare at the sky that was
growing pale and in which the stars could be seen barely twinkling; they
saw to their natural needs, then returned once again to poisoning
themselves, others and the air with cognac, tobacco and the heat of the
The family's steadily declining fortunes barely impinge upon Kolya's
awareness of the world. The novel is episodic, like childhood itself, and
most of the episodes are very happy -- a series of friendships, hobbies and
misadventures, somewhat reminiscent of Mark Twain (whom Kolya reads, along
with Moliere and Tolstoy and books on science). Quite a few pages are given
to lush and detailed descriptions of flora and fauna in the Russian
countryside. Eventually Kolya realizes that not everyone leads such an
idyllic life. Unlike some of the peasants he meets, he eats meat every day,
and the thought fills him with anger and shame. The discovery of class
differences is handled believably, as one element in the gradual
development of Kolya's psyche, rather than as some apocalyptic episode in
which the Bolshevik-to-be is formed.
If not quite a great novel, it is certainly a very good one: more evidence
of the man's exceptional talents. In the introduction, Cohen recounts how
the prison writings were unearthed and gives an expert account of their
place in Bukharin's intellectual biography. And he notes that the
manuscript of "How It All Began" contains very few corrections. Bukharin
wrote it at high speed, in barbarous conditions -- with all the vividness
of a life flashing in front of his eyes.
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