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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Revolution Devoured Its Own

One of the more noteworthy of the many documents that have poured out of the opened archives of the former Soviet Union is How It All Began, an autobiography in the form of a novel by Nikolai Bukharin, generally regarded as the most prominent of the Bolshevik leaders killed in the Stalinist purges of 1937 and 1938.

During his months in prison, Bukharin, who had fallen afoul of Stalin in 1929 and was stripped of his power then, wrote four books, including a philosophical work and "How It All Began,'' a portrait of a sensitive young son of the lower middle class and his acquisition of a political conscience. The truth is that "How It All Began,'' newly translated from the Russian by George Shriver, is more important for its historical than its literary value. That does not mean that it has no literary value. Bukharin, writing in his cell at night after all-day interrogations by the Stalinist police, produced a rich portrait of Russian life at the end of the 19th century. It is etched in nostalgia for youthful days in the countryside but also replete with terse descriptions of the tawdriness, the poverty, the brutishness of life under the tsars.

Bukharin's book was published in Moscow in 1994, 56 years after his death. It is half essay, half novel, and had it been written by an unknown, it would certainly not figure very prominently as literature today. It is important for the glimpse it gives into the mind of a central figure of the Russian Revolution, the youngest of the circle around Lenin, who called Bukharin "the golden boy of the revolution.''

And the book is important because of the circumstances of its composition, since Bukharin was aware as he wrote that his days were numbered. What does one say in such a condition? What does one remember? In his informative introduction, Stephen Cohen argues that Bukharin wanted to demonstrate that the revolution gone mad had originated in the best impulses of human nature and among the best and most moral people of old Russia.

"He wanted to leave behind a personal testimony of how it had really been,'' Cohen writes, "a testament to the idealism that had led them as young students to become Marxist radicals in tsarist Russia -- and how, he still hoped, it might be.''

The "them'' in Cohen's explanation, some pictured fictionally in Bukharin's book, are his many contemporaries who were imprisoned, tortured, forced to give false testimony against one another and then murdered in Stalin's camps. Bukharin himself was one of 21 defendants in the most spectacular of the Moscow show trials to take place in 1938, an 11-day affair that presented the confounding spectacle of several old Bolsheviks readily confessing to transparently false charges.

Cohen, who published a biography of Bukharin in 1973, maintains in his introduction that, if you read between the lines, Bukharin, using "double talk, code words, evasion and digressions,'' actually strove to show that "the criminal accusations were really political falsifications.''

Bukharin's novel is not easy to interpret. Certainly Cohen is correct to see it as an attempt to remember the idealism of the early revolutionaries. But it was written by a man who, while eventually an opponent of Stalin, was his political ally for several years in the 1920s. Bukharin also served the revolution faithfully after Lenin had turned it into a police state.

Bukharin's status as one of Stalin's victims has given him a martyr's aura, but his novel provides no apology or regret at having taken the politically radical course, no rueful reflection on the waywardness of youthful idealism. Then again, Bukharin was writing under the eyes of Stalin's guards, and he was sending letters to the dictator asking him to let his book be published. Perhaps under other circumstances, his book would have struck a more disillusioned, more tragic tone, but this we will never know.

The novel tells the story of Nikolai Ivanovich Petrov, nicknamed Kolya and quite clearly a stand-in for Bukharin himself, following him from his early childhood in the late 1880s to his adolescence in 1902. The earlier chapters especially are a reminiscence of a family of minor intellectuals who run into hard times. Bukharin describes the upper-class Moscow neighborhood of Bolshaya Ordynka and the Ordynka Street School where his father taught. Quickly, he describes contrasting neighborhoods "where things were dirty, loud, drunken and poor,'' the first of numerous descriptions of the desperate and harsh side of Russia.

Kolya's father, forced to leave the school, takes a job as a civil servant in a provincial town in Bessarabia, where Kolya witnesses both rural poverty and ferocious anti-Semitism. He portrays the small-town Jews as "unfortunate paupers, with eyes hollowed out by trachoma, with bodies devoured by fleas,'' who "lived on whatever sorry crusts they could get.''

The "chinovniks," the government officials, "were all Russians, and usually Russians of a rather specific kind: thick-headed, arrogant, and "patriotic," the kind who threw the word Yid around contemptuously and scorned the Moldavians too.'' (Bessarabia had a large Moldavian minority.)

Kolya, a precocious atheist, develops "a love for the people of the 'lower orders' of society as well as a kind of nihilism regarding all the conventions of the life of the upper echelons.'' Kolya and his friends, who read voluminously and talk ceaselessly, hear about what Bukharin calls "the gleaming weapons of Marxism, that highest product of the revolutionary side of Western European development.'' Eventually, in the final chapters, they are reading Lenin and engaging in heated Marxist ideological debates.

Did Bukharin write that politically correct line about "the gleaming weapons of Marxism'' in the hopes that his book would be published? That is possible.

But more likely, he remained a believer in revolutionary Marxism even inside a Marxist prison and about to be executed by Marxist executioners. His novel is poignant and heart-rending precisely because it shows the terrible power of the idea that dominated the mind of a brilliant and idealistic generation that perished in its service.

"How It All Began" by Nikolai Bukharin. Columbia University Press. 345 pages, $28.95.