N. Krupskaya
Original publication: revolutionarycommunist.org

Ilyich’s Favourite Books (1933)

13 minutes | English | The Soviet Union

First published in Reminiscences of Lenin by His Relatives, Moscow, 1956, pp. 201-07. Transcribed for the Internet by the Workers’ Web project, 1998.

The comrade who first introduced me to Ilyich told me that he was a man of scientific bent, that he read scientific books exclusively, that he had never read a novel and never read poetry. This surprised me. I myself in my youth had read all the classics; I knew practically the whole of Lermontov by heart, and such writers as Chernyshevsky, Lev Tolstoy and Uspensky had, somehow, become part of my life. It seemed strange to me that here was a man not the least bit interested in all that.

Afterwards, when in the course of work I became better acquainted with Ilyich, got to know how he appraised people, and observed how closely he studied life and people, then the living Ilyich displaced the image of the man who had never read a book dealing with the life of the people.

It so happened that the complications of life prevented us from discussing this subject. It was only later, during our exile in Siberia, that I learned that Ilyich knew the classics as well as I did, and had not only read, but had re-read Turgenev, for instance. I brought with me to Siberia books by Pushkin, Lermontov and Nekrasov. Ilyich arranged them near his bed, alongside Hegel, and read them over and over again in the evenings. Pushkin was his favourite. But it was not only the style that he liked. For example, he was very fond of Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?, despite the fact that its style is somewhat naive. I was surprised when I saw how attentively he read this book and how he noticed its finest points. Incidentally, he was very fond of Chernyshevsky, and his Siberian album contained two photographs of this writer, on one of which he had written the dates of the writer’s birth and death. This album also contained a photograph of Emile Zola and of Russian writers, Herzen and Pisarev. At one time Ilyich was very fond of Pisarev and read many of his works. In Siberia we also had a copy of Goethe’s Faust, and a volume of Heine’s poems, both in German.

Upon returning to Moscow from exile Ilyich went to the theatre to see Der Kutscher Hänschel. He said afterwards that he had greatly enjoyed it.

Among the books he liked while in Munich I remember Gerhardt’s Bei Mama, and Büttnerbauer by Polenz.

Afterwards, during our second emigration in Paris, Ilyich found pleasure in reading Victor Hugo’s Châtiments, dealing with the 1848 revolution; Hugo wrote it while abroad, and copies were smuggled into France. Although there is a naive pomposity in this verse, one feels, nevertheless, the breath of revolution. Ilyich eagerly frequented the cafés and the suburban theatres in Paris to hear the revolutionary chansonniers, who, in the working-class districts, sang about everything — about how intoxicated peasants elected a travelling agitator to the Chamber of Deputies, about the bringing up of children, unemployment and so on. Ilyich was particularly fond of Montégus. The son of a Paris Communard, he was a great favourite in the working-class districts. True, in his improvised songs — richly garnished with the flavour of life — there was no definite ideology of any kind, but there was much in them that appealed. Ilyich often hummed his Greeting to the 17th Regiment, which had refused to fire on strikers: “Salut, salut vous, soldats du 17-me.” Once, at a Russian social evening, Ilyich conversed with Montégus and it was strange to see these two men who differed so vastly — when the war broke out Montégus sided with the chauvinists — dreaming of world revolution. But things like that happen — you meet someone in a railway carriage whom you have never known before, and to the accompaniment of the grinding wheels you talk in serious vein and say things that you would never say at another time, and then you part and never meet again. And so it was here. Moreover, the conversation was in French, and it is easier to dream aloud in a foreign language than in one’s own. We had the services of a French charwoman a couple of hours a day. Once Ilyich heard her singing a song about Alsace. He asked her to sing it over again and, afterwards, upon memorising the words, he often sang it himself. The song ended with the words:

Vous avez pris l'Alsace et la Lorraine You have seized Alsace and Lorraine,
Mais malgré vous nous resterons français, but in spite of you we shall remain French;
Vous avez pu germaniser nos plaines you have managed to Germanise our fields,
Mais notre coeur—vous ne l'aurez jamais! but never will you have our hearts!

That was in the year 1909, when reaction was rampant and the Party lay defeated. But its revolutionary spirit had not been broken. And the song suited Ilyich’s mood. One should have heard the feeling he put into the words:

Mais notre coeur — vous ne I’aurez jamais!

During those very hard years in emigration, concerning which Ilyich always spoke with a feeling of sadness (when we returned to Russia he repeated once more what he had often said before: “Why did we ever leave Geneva for Paris?”) — during those grim years he dreamed and dreamed, whether in conversation with Montégus, or fervently singing the song about Alsace, or during the sleepless nights when he read Verhaeren.

Still later, during the war, Ilyich was attracted by Barbusse’s Le Feu, which he regarded as an extremely important book — a book which was in tune with his own feelings.

We seldom visited the theatre. On the rare occasions that we did, the insipidness of the play and the bad acting got on Ilyich’s nerves. Usually we left the theatre after the first act. The other comrades laughed at us and asked why we wasted our money.

On one occasion, however, Ilyich sat through a play; this I think was at the end of 1915 in Berne, and the play was Tolstoy’s The Living Corpse. Although it was acted in German, the man who took the role of the prince was a Russian, and he succeeded in putting over Tolstoy’s idea. Tense and excited, Ilyich followed every detail of the play.

And lastly, in Russia. To Ilyich the new art seemed somehow to be alien and incomprehensible. Once we were asked to a concert in the Kremlin for Red Army men. Ilyich was given a seat in the front row. The actress Gzovskaya, declaiming something by Mayakovsky — “Speed is our body and the drum our heart” — was gesturing right in front of Ilyich, who was taken aback by the suddenness of it all; he grasped very little of the recitation and heaved a sigh of relief when Gzovskaya was replaced by another actor who began to read Chekhov’s Evil-doer.

One evening Ilyich wanted to see for himself how the young people were getting on in the communes. We decided to visit our young friend Varya Armand who lived in a commune for art school students. I think that we made the visit on the day Kropotkin was buried, in 1921. It was a hungry year, but the young people were filled with enthusiasm. The people in the commune slept practically on bare boards, they had neither bread nor salt. “But we do have cereals,” said a radiant-faced member of the commune. With this cereal they boiled a good porridge for Ilyich. Ilyich looked at the young people, at the radiant faces of the boys and girls who crowded around him, and their joy was reflected in his face. They showed him their naive drawings, explained their meaning, and bombarded him with questions. And he, smiling, evaded answering and parried by asking questions of his own: “What do you read? Do you read Pushkin?” — “Oh, no,” said someone, “after all he was a bourgeois; we read Mayakovsky.” Ilyich smiled. “I think,” he said, “that Pushkin is better.” After this Ilyich took a more favourable view of Mayakovsky. Whenever the poet’s name was mentioned he recalled the young art students who, full of life and gladness, and ready to die for the Soviet system, were unable to find words in the contemporary language with which to express themselves, and sought the answer in the obscure verse of Mayakovsky. Later, however, Ilyich once praised Mayakovsky for the verse in which he ridiculed Soviet red tape. Of the books of the day, I remember that Ilyich was enthusiastic about Ehrenburg’s war novel. “You know,” he said triumphantly, “that book by Ilya the Shaggy (Ehrenburg’s nickname) is a fine piece of work.”

We went to the Art Theatre several times. On one occasion we saw The Deluge, which Ilyich liked very much. The next day we saw Gorky’s The Lower Depths.

Ilyich liked Gorky the man, with whom he had become closely acquainted at the London Congress of the Party, and he liked Gorky the artist; he said that Gorky the artist was capable of grasping things instantly. With Gorky he always spoke very frankly. And so it goes without saying that he set high standards for a Gorky production. The over-acting irritated him. After seeing The Lower Depths he avoided the theatre for a long time. Once the two of us went to see Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which he liked very much. And finally, the last time we went to the theatre, in 1922 — we saw a stage version of Dickens’s Cricket on the Hearth. After the first act Ilyich found it dull; the saccharine sentimentality got on his nerves, and during the conversation between the old toy-maker and his blind daughter he could stand it no longer and left in the middle of the act.

During the last months of his life I used to read him fiction at his request, usually in the evenings. I read him Shchedrin, and Gorky’s My Universities. He also liked to hear poetry, especially Demyan Bedny, preferring his heroic verse to his satirical. Sometimes, when listening to poetry, he would gaze thoughtfully out of the window at the setting sun. I remember the poem which ended with the words: “Never, never shall the Communists be slaves.”

As I read, I seemed to be repeating a vow to Ilyich. “Never, never shall we surrender a single gain of the Revolution…”

Two days before he died I read him a story by Jack London — the book is lying now on the table in his room — Love of Life. This is a powerful story. Over a snowy waste where a human being had never set foot, a man, sick and dying from hunger, makes his way towards a pier on a river. His strength is giving out, he no longer walks, but crawls, and close behind him, also crawling, is a famished and dying wolf; in the ensuing struggle between man and wolf, the man wins; half-dead, and half-crazed, he reaches his goal. Ilyich was carried away by this story. Next day he asked me to read another London story. However, with Jack London the powerful is mixed with the exceedingly weak. The second story was altogether different — one that preached a bourgeois moral: the captain of a ship promises the owner that he will sell the cargo of grain at a good price; he sacrifices his life in order to keep his word. Ilyich laughed and waved his hand.

That was the last time I read to him.