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  • Helen Rappaport

    Wed, 23 Sep 2009 03:21

    Born in Bromley, England, Helen Rappaport studied Russian at Leeds University, but ill-advisedly rejected suggestions of a career in the Foreign Office and opted for the acting profession. After appearing on British TV and in films until the early 1990s she abandoned acting and embraced her second love -- history -- and with it the insecurities of a writer's life. Between 1999 and 2003 she wrote three books back-to-back for a leading US reference publisher: Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion, the award-winning An Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers and Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion. In 2007, Helen wrote No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. She followed this with Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs and her latest book is Conspirator: Lenin in Exile.

    The Book Depository: Why were you as an ordinary person interested in a figure such as Lenin? In Russia there is still much variance in how people regard him, though of course, in the main the assessment of him there is as a leader, and not as a man.

    Helen Rappaport: Lenin interested me as a subject because I wanted, as a woman, to get behind the political facade and try to see him as he really was, as an ordinary human being. There are many political biographies of Lenin available -- some good, some incredibly boring and impenetrable. There is also of course a huge amount of Soviet-produced hagiography that is now totally worthless because it doesn't tell us the truth about him.

    I wanted to tell the human story of how Lenin lived with Nadya in exile on a daily basis. It seemed to me that the only place I might find honest answers about him was in Europe, before the revolution and in the memoirs and reminiscences of people in exile, who were free to say what they thought and not forced to write laudatory material about Lenin under the constraints of Soviet Realism.

    It is nevertheless still very hard to get at the truth about him -- so much was hidden from the record in order to preserve his highly sanitised public image as a Great Leader. But by searching for material about his life in exile I did get a picture of him; how he lived; where he lived; how he and Nadya coped financially; how they existed on a day-to-day basis, and how Lenin interacted with the people around him. It struck me very forcibly that it was the women who remained the loyal constants in his life, while Lenin quarrelled, one by one, with all his male political colleagues. Nadya, her mother Elizaveta Vasilievna, Lenin's mother Mariya Alexandrovna, and his sisters Mariya and Anna, as well as his lover Inessa Armand -- all these women provided an essential back up team to Lenin in his years in exile and I wanted to say something about their contribution.

    The Book Depository: How long did you spend collecting information for your book; what sources did you use: archives, documents, memoirs?

    Helen Rappaport: I spent 15 months researching and writing the book. I decided not to visit the Russian archives, as all the material there is to see about Lenin has now been found, since the fall of communism, by historians such as Dmitri Volkogonov and Robert Service. My book was about Lenin mainly outside Russia and so I concentrated on searching for material about him during 1900-1917 in France, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Poland, England, Italy, etc. This meant I had to cover a wide range of sources in several languages: Russian, French, Italian, and English are languages I know; but I needed help with sources in Finnish, Polish and Swedish. I decided as part of my research to visit the two countries that Lenin spent time in, about little has been written in English in the West -- Finland and Poland. I visited Poland with a friend who is a Polish speaker and we travelled south from Krakow to the Podhale -- visiting the places connected with Lenin's story at Nowy Targ, Bialy Dunajec, Poronin and Zakopane as well as walking in the Tatra mountains.

    In Finland I was given wonderful help by the Lenin Library in Tampere, the last library devoted to Lenin that is still open full time. They were very helpful and drove me down the south-west peninsula of Finland, following Lenin's trail from Turku to Prostvik when he escaped out of Finland after Christmas 1907.

    The Book Depository: What interested you as a woman about Lenin? What struck you about him most forcefully and aroused your distaste about his behaviour as a man? What was, for you, new about what you discovered and why? How demanding was Lenin about how he lived -- where and in what kind of accommodation? How did he dress, how did he spend his time? Did he go to the theatre or concerts, what books did he read, who was he friendly with? So many questions!

    Helen Rappaport: I cannot say that I discovered anything startlingly new about Lenin, that I didn't have an inkling about before I started. It was rather that I got confirmation of some the things I had thought about him. He was incredibly self-disciplined and very driven -- he drove himself to physical and mental collapse on numerous occasions in his relentless quest for political supremacy over his rivals. I suppose I admired his determination, his iron will but I hated his cruelty and ruthlessness. He didn't care what damage he did to other people along the way. His one obsession was the Revolution -- at any price -- and he would not tolerate any disagreement with his particular vision. If his political colleagues ventured to suggest a different point of view he would never compromise and always fell out with them. It always had to be his way and nobody else's.

    I suppose like other great dictators in history he was a monomaniac. If you put him on a psychiatrist's couch today he'd probably be diagnosed as a compulsive-obsessive. He was very modest in his personal needs -- never ever wanted much for himself. He hated extravagance, ate very simple food, his clothes were shabby, he lived in very small, cramped flats with only the most basic furniture. Some people think Lenin and Nadya lived comfortably in exile, but that is not true. They were both very frugal and their only occasional indulgence was a trip to the theatre or the opera. For most of the time Lenin worked obsessively on his political writings and his journalism. The one thing he and Nadya both did enjoy and took time out for was walking -- particularly in Switzerland. Lenin also loved the Tatra mountains of southern Poland. Fresh and air exercise were a great obsession with him -- he believed in keeping himself fit and well so that when the time came he could lead the revolution.

    Having said all this I am not convinced that the public image of Lenin as a moral puritan -- who did not drink, did not smoke and did not have much of a sex life if any -- is the correct one. There is, I am sure, a darker, sexual side to Lenin that has been totally suppressed in the Russian record. I do believe that whilst he was in Paris he went to prostitutes -- there are clues in French sources about this, but it is very hard to prove. We do at least know now that he did have an affair with Inessa Armand, which left her very wounded and bitter. I do so wish we could get to the truth about Lenin's relationship with her -- and possibly other women -- but I suspect that no Russian ever wrote it down because it would have been immediately censored. The only place where I did find evidence of a different life is in French sources. The answer may yet lie there.

    The Book Depository: When you had all your research and began to write the book what was your primary objective? What did you want to convey to the reader? Will the book come out in Russia?

    Helen Rappaport: My main objective in the writing the book was to say something new about the real man -- not the leader of the Soviet Union during the years in power, but during the crucial period of his exile when he was working towards revolution and the political domination of the Bolsheviks. But I also felt very strongly that it was time to offer a woman's perspective on Lenin. Till now, all the big books about the Soviet leaders -- Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin -- have all been written by men. I felt a woman's perspective might bring something new to the story. I felt particularly passionate about foregrounding the role of Nadezhda Krupskaya who is so consistently marginalized in Lenin's story and who deserves more credit for the crucial role she played in keeping him sane and healthy during those long years in exile.

    People also underrate the tremendous practical help and moral support of his mother and sisters -- who sent money, books and food parcels from Russia. Lenin's mother in law Elizaveta Vasilievna followed him and her daughter around in exile for most of those 17 years, sharing their cramped living conditions and working for the party, and yet her contribution is hardly mentioned. Lenin's sisters in Russia took enormous risks in supporting his work and suffered repeated arrest and imprisonment for the cause.

    Finally, I wanted to say something about the many unnamed and unsung women in Russia, especially during the revolution of 1905, who took enormous risks working the Russian underground as couriers of illegal literature and bomb carriers. Their names are hardly ever mentioned in Russian sources, but in my book I have tried very hard to say something about them too.

    Posted by Mark Mark

    Categories: interviews, Helen Rappaport

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