V. I. Lenin and ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.

Posted: July 22, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Just today, I finished a biography of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to posterity as V. I. Lenin.  The biography was written by the historian of twentieth-century Russia, Robert Service. I enjoyed the book, but Ibooks2_stout thought it was a bit schizophrenic. The first half of the biography explored Lenin’s early life, early adulthood of revolutionary activity and exile. In these 250 pages, Service did a great job of balancing the story of the man, with the story of his politics. This first half was chocked full of the esoteric details of Lenin’s life that brings to light a true person. Unfortunately though, the second half of the book was not as enlightening. Service started to become a bit too enthralled by the minutiae of Lenin’s political decisions during the early days of the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War, and in so doing, lost sight of Lenin’s non-political experiences. This discordant nature of Service’s book illustrates why I often don’t read biographies.  I find that biographers usually have a hard time balancing character study, human interest stories, and the larger political or social events that shaped their subjects’ lives. On the other hand, when biography is at its best it has the rare ability to humanize mythologized figures. Biography can deconstruct the demonized or lionized historical statue, and transform him or her into a human being. Happily, there were moments when Service transfigured Lenin into a living, breathing man.

Lenin as a Child.  Notice, no goatee.

Lenin as a child. Notice, no goatee.

There was one fleeting portion in Service’s biography that provides a perfect example.  Evidently, when Lenin was an adolescent, he was obsessed with books, reading and literature.  No real big surprise there, right? Like me, you  probably imagine little V. I. Lenin (admit it, this makes you think of a bald headed, goateed boy of 12) picking up some heavy Russian literary tomes.  Sure enough, according to Service, Lenin did love Russian literature, even when that literature was at odds with his later political fanaticism.  He read Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol.  But, Lenin apparently had cosmopolitan tastes.  He loved non-Russian books and authors as much, if not more, than Russian ones.  He enjoyed Zola, Hugo, Machiavelli.  Though I can still imagine him reading such authors, some of his reading tastes seemed more out of the blue. Most notably, Lenin evidently loved an unexpected American classic: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


That was exactly what I said to myself, out-loud, as I read about this factoid.  I gave a little laugh, cocked my head, and kept reading.   But, I had to come back to that unforeseen UTCcover1853statement: “Lenin loved Uncle Tom’s Cabin“.  To me, that just seems strange. In my mind’s eye, I initially had a hard time picturing Lenin reading Stowe’s sentimental novel.  However, once I wrapped my head around it, Lenin was transformed, and Service’s biography was a success.  Before knowing about his love of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I imagined Lenin exclusively as the father of Bolshevism, the founder of the Russian Revolution, the advocate of state-terror against class enemies, and the mummified corpse in Red Square.  By simply providing his reader with Lenin’s unexpected literary tastes, Service made him into a person who was multidimensional; not quite so easily categorized or understood.

Now, let’s be clear.  After reading Service’s biography, I don’t really like the human Lenin.  He was obsessed with politics and power as much as any other twentieth-century dictator, and Service makes this blatantly clear.   That being said, Service’s description of a young provinicial Russian’s love of Harriet Beecher Stowe provides the complexity of a life story that Lenin himself, ironically enough, wanted to hide away for propagandist reasons. Service illuminated what was hidden, and I thank him.

Still, I can’t get completely past the mummified Lenin laying in Red Square.  Man, that was creepy.


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