DMITRI VOLKOGONOV'S "Lenin" is not so much a "new biography" as an old polemic. The sermon is familiar, but it is preached with special fervor by a recent convert, and buttressed by a stunning barrage of new evidence from archives to which few besides Mr. Volkogonov have had, or are likely to have, access.
Dmitri Volkogonov is the former Soviet general turned military historian turned special assistant to Boris Yeltsin who advises the Russian President on management of the Soviet archives. Using secrets available to him because of his privileged position, he has previously published a biography of Stalin and an account of Trotsky's life and career. Now he has worked his way back to the Soviet founder himself.
Mr. Volkogonov was a believing Communist until quite recently. Even after he got the archival goods on Stalin, he continued to revere Lenin (1870-1924) and to maintain that Stalin betrayed the great promise of the Bolshevik Revolution. In sharp contrast, anti-Communists East and West have long contended that Stalin's crimes derived directly from Lenin himself. Mr. Volkogonov has now come around to this devastating view of his former idol.
His book is based primarily on some 3,700 unpublished Lenin documents that were hidden behind massive steel doors in a bomb-shelter-like basement party archive. Mr. Volkogonov doesn't so much narrate Lenin's life as rumble from document to document, dredging up secrets that the Soviet regime tried to bury forever.
It has long been rumored that Lenin's maternal grandfather was Jewish, and that Lenin had an affair with his fellow revolutionary Inessa Armand. Mr. Volkogonov says both claims are true, and he provides evidence that imperial Germany helped finance the Bolshevik Revolution as a way of getting Russia out of World War I, as many have suggested.
The civil war that Mr. Volkogonov says Lenin actively sought left countless Russians dead or starving. Yet instead of spending czarist gold on famine relief, Lenin shoveled millions westward in a vain effort to promote revolution in Germany and elsewhere.
According to the secret diaries of his doctors (some of whose extravagant fees for services Mr. Volkogonov also points out), the stroke Lenin suffered in May 1922 at age 52 left him in much worse shape than was ever revealed. He virtually had to relearn how to write, but that didn't prevent him from issuing a stream of orders to arrest, deport and execute his enemies.
Other historians, like Richard Pipes, have established that Lenin endorsed terror in general terms, but also that he tried to avoid associating his name with concrete acts of violence. Mr. Volkogonov seems to have found not just one smoking gun from Lenin's papers and reported comments, but a whole arsenal:
"If we can't shoot a White Guard saboteur, what sort of great revolution is it? . . . What sort of dictatorship is this? All talk and no action."
During a kulak uprising in 1918: "Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. . . . Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks."
To punish Latvia and Estonia for declaring their independence in 1918: "Cross the frontier somewhere, even if only to a depth of half a mile, and hang 100-1,000 of their civil servants and rich people."
SUCH discoveries lead Mr. Volkogonov to his main conclusions: It was Lenin who sowed "the seeds of the murderous collectivization . . . the appalling purges . . . and the postwar 'punishment' of entire nations." It was Lenin who was "the father of domestic Russian terrorism, merciless and totalitarian."
Not just Stalin's crimes, but "everything done in Soviet Russia after Lenin's death was done according to his blueprint, his precepts and his principles: the totalitarian state, the bureaucratic society, the dominance of a single ideology, militant atheism, the planned economy, the incredible exploitation of labor, the endless militarization of the country, the tireless search for new enemies."
Whoa! By making Lenin responsible for almost everything that ever happened in the Soviet Union, Mr. Volkogonov overstates his case. Granted, Lenin set the mold, but Stalin and his successors filled it. Whereas Lenin's last writings urgently counseled conciliating the peasants, Stalin slaughtered them en masse. Whereas Lenin purged thousands of his political opponents, Stalin exterminated millions, probably tens of millions, of real and imagined enemies.
To recognize such differences is not to defend Lenin, but rather to clarify what to indict him for. Despite the beginnings of totalitarianism under Lenin, his greatest sin was not that he anticipated the Stalin nightmare, but that he failed to do so. Disdaining institutional or legal restraints on power, Lenin built an all-powerful party machine and placed Stalin at the controls. Toward the end of his life he tried to remove Stalin, and probably would have done so had he not succumbed to a last devastating stroke in January 1924. But to say that is to see that the main obstacle Lenin erected to Stalinism was the continued existence of one sclerotic revolutionary, namely, Lenin himself.
Overstatement is not the only flaw in this book, which includes a juicy smattering of hitherto secret morsels on Lenin's successors from Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev. The efficient editor-translator, Harold Shukman, cut out much in the Russian original that would seem old news to Western readers, but a great deal (especially the relentless unmasking of Communist hypocrisy and cant) remains.
Scholars and others who wish to know more about the documents that are the heart of the book will be frustrated by maddeningly minimal footnotes frequently containing neither the title nor the date of the material, just index numbers for inaccessible sources like the presidential and K.G.B. archives.
Still, these and other shortcomings pale before Mr. Volkogonov's contribution. Despite the author's labors, Lenin will still have champions, but after this book their task will be much more daunting. Post-Communist hell hath no fury like a lapsed true believer let loose in the party archives.