Who Was That Bearded Man?

While Russia's progress toward an open, democratic society may be, at best, halting and sporadic, it is reassuring to know that state archives continue to forge ahead in the spirit of 1991, exposing the often unpalatable secrets of the Soviet Union with an unrelenting fervor. In the past year or so, readers have been treated to Stalin's letters to Molotov; Zubok and Pleshnekov's study of the Cold War, which drew on recently declassified Soviet reports on the state of postwar Europe; and Orlando Figes' mammoth new assessment of the 1917 Revolution: A People's Tragedy. Now it is the turn of celebrated Harvard academic, Richard Pipes, who has edited The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive, a collection of 113 documents from the Central Party Archives, which were hitherto deemed to be too sensitive for general consumption by the keepers of the communist flame.

In the informative introduction, Pipes goes into some detail about the origin of the material in this volume and his basis for selection. A further 3,010 classified documents bearing Lenin's signature still remain in the archives, none of which were included in the mind-boggling, 45-volume "Complete Works of Lenin" published during the Khrushchev era.

Reasons for concealment included the desire to omit anything that contradicted the party line ? such as documents proving funds were paid to communist organizations abroad and that violence against sovereign states was encouraged ? as well as futile, prudish efforts to protect the masses from the well-known fact that Lenin enjoyed extramarital sexual relations with Inessa Armand, the daughter of French actors, who left her husband to join the Bolsheviks.

While they cannot exactly be considered X-rated, the Lenin-Armand letters, printed here for the first time, do confirm that something more intimate than tea and sympathy was afoot. "My dear & dearest friend," Lenin wrote to her in faltering English in 1914, "Oh, I would like to kiss you thousand times greeting you & wishing you but success." In the same year, Lenin implores: "If possible, do not be angry against me. I have caused you great pain, I know it ... "

Another suppressed document adds even more weight to the popular theory, put forward most vigorously by none other than Mr. Pipes himself, that Lenin was a spy in the pay of the German government which sought to destabilize Russia and take her out of the World War I: "The Berliners will send some more money," Lenin wrote to Ya. A. Berzin, the Soviet representative in Switzerland, in 1918, "if the scum delay, complain to me formally."

However, the primary motive behind the Communist Party's suppression of this material can only have been to obscure Lenin's true character. Though his role in the Red Terror has long been known or suspected, the callous nature of his private correspondence will finally debunk any notions ? more prevalent in the West than in Russia ? that Lenin's visionary communism might have prevailed were it not for the brutality of his successor.

Take, for instance, his directive at the beginning of the Civil War to "prepare everything to burn Baku to the ground, in the event of an attack," and his order to Frunze, the commander on the Tatarstan front, to "use both bribery and threats to exterminate every Cossack to a man if they set fire to the oil in Guriev." Then there is the infamous command to the communist divisions in Penza to "Hang (hang without fail so the people can see) no fewer than one hundred known Kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers," with an addendum at the bottom of the hand-written note which coolly reads: "Telegraph receipt and implementation."

But the most brutal of all of Lenin's correspondence must have been his instructions to subordinates to launch a ferocious attack on the Orthodox Church in 1922, using as a cover, the unprecedented famine which had gripped the country: "It is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy, not stopping [short of] crushing any resistance." It is interesting to note that when the text of this document was smuggled out of the Soviet Union in the late sixties, its authenticity was widely doubted due to the grotesque and unbelievably cruel sentiments expressed. Overall, we can now see in sharper focus than ever before a Lenin who was in every way the model and the precursor of Stalin, a man who took to the self-created role of dictator with surprising ease and who carried out a tyrant's duties with unflinching rigor and a terrifying, all too natural, streak of cruelty.

Much of the material in this volume is of far more interest to the scholar than to the general reader. Pipes continues his academic slugfest with Orlando Figes by reprinting the full text of Lenin's September 1920 speech to the Central Committee, which he claims supports his view that the Polish offensive of the previous month was merely the beginning of a drive to Sovietize the whole of Europe.

However, in A People's Tragedy, Figes uses the same speech to prove Lenin intended to go no further than Warsaw. Now, having read the text, which is so prevaricating, meandering and verbose that it proves nothing at all, I proclaim the contest a draw.

In fact, most of the material in The Unknown Lenin is excruciatingly dull, and all the best bits are, in any case, reproduced in the introduction. Pipes has not helped by including documents whose previous omission can only have been due to their trivial nature: "Please send me," runs Document 97, offered as proof that foreign products were imported for Party dignitaries, "two to three pipettes (or boxes?) with the following pills: Somnacetin = tabletten, Veronal = tabletten, in Originaltabletten. Lenin."

But the real frustration of The Unknown Lenin is not of its own making. A number of letters here include unheeded directions for their own destruction, orders that were doubtlessly carried out in most cases. The volume leaves the reader with the inevitable feeling that, as the last of the clandestine material is exhausted, so many of the darkest mysteries of the Soviet Union will always remain unknown.

"The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive," edited by Richard Pipes, Yale University Press, 204 pp., ?18.50 ($11).