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Book review: The Spark that Lit the Revolution—Lenin in London and the Politics that Changed the World

Jack Robertson reviews The Spark that Lit the Revolution—Lenin in London and the Politics that Changed the World

This book is a curious concoction. Look at the title with its Rodchenko-esque photo-montage and you might think that, for once, a mainstream publisher had sanctioned a sympathetic portrait of Lenin. That misconception is dispelled early on. We find that the “spark that lit the revolution” is not, all that much to do with Lenin’s newspaper Iskra (The Spark) which he produced in an upstairs room on north London’s Clerkenwell Green between 1902 and 1903. 

Lenin arrived in London only a year after his return from the term of imprisonment he had served in Siberia along with his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya. The name of his newspaper, and its motto “From a spark, a flame will be lit” was taken from a poem by Alexander Odoevsky. He had been sentenced to hard labour and likewise deported to Siberia a century earlier for his part as a commander during the Decembrist Revolt of 1825.

When it was first published in Munich, in 1905, Iskra rapidly became one of the most successful of the underground newspapers smuggled back to Russia—its 21 issues had print runs of up to 10,000. This achievement came at a price—they were obliged to move operations elsewhere under pressure from the German police. 

Exactly why Lenin opted for London is not clear—others favoured Switzerland. Or was there another reason, one that – according to Robert Henderson—has almost entirely missed the attentions of previous historians? “Was there”, he asks, “perhaps in London another spark which Lenin hoped could be rekindled into a flame?”.

This, we find, is a reference to Polly Yakubova one of the active members of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London. Unknown to the rest of us, her “secret love affair with Lenin had been hinted at for several decades”. 

Lenin’s supposed interest is Yakubova had previously been hinted at once in a 1964 biography written by the US journalist, Louis Fischer, on the 40th anniversary of Lenin’s death. And, certainly in the West, up till now it was mostly dismissed subsequently either as utter tosh, or entirely forgotten. Fischer was a former communist and apostate who, in 1938, Trotsky had described as a “merchant of lies” and a “direct literary agent of Stalin”. 

Nevertheless, this lurch into Mills and Boon territory occupies much of the author’s attention in the first half of this book with constant references to Yakubova’s “rare beauty” and “unconquerable spirit”. This bigging-up of Yakubova is in complete contrast to the treatment meted out to the revolutionary Nadia Krupskaya, who was married to Lenin. She is variously described as a bit of a drudge, shabbily dressed, a hopeless cook, messy and rude. 

This was not the impression gained by Trotsky when he worked with the couple on Iskra at much the same time. “She was at the very centre of all the organisation work,” he said. “She received comrades when they arrived, instructed them when they left, established connections, supplied secret addresses, wrote letters, and coded and decoded correspondence. In her room, there was always a smell of burned paper from the secret letters she heated over the fire to read.” 

Ultimately, the apparently pressing issue of whether or not Lenin ever got with Yakubova in London is sadly never answered. We are finally advised to accept that “such matters cannot be documented” and that it’s probably best if we all “move on”.

The least convincing aspect of all of this is that both Yokubova and her eventual husband, Konstantin Takhtarev, were well-known as supporters of the “economist” wing of the party. And the final break with Lenin and Krupskaya took place when they both openly sided with its arch-exponent and their arch-enemy Eduard Bernstein.

It’s a shame that such an inordinate amount of time and effort has clearly gone into this fruitless goose chase. The only possible explanation for including it might be to “sex-up” what might have been regarded as an otherwise tedious chronicle of long-dead anarchists, Narodniks and ne-er-do-wells, or to cast a few more aspersions on Lenin himself—as though we don’t have enough of those already.

It’s also disappointing because most of the rest of the book is not boring at all. It’s actually quite fascinating and covers a period, between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in Russia, when, in the words of the US Marxist, George Lichtheim, “Lenin brought off something like a nuclear explosion in politics…the thunders we hear around us today are the echoes of what at one time seemed to be no more than a modest laboratory experiment conducted by a handful of quarrelling emigrants.” 

For more than 20 years, Robert Henderson was curator of the Russian Archive at the British Library—an institution that Lenin both admired and relied upon during his half-dozen visits to London. Making use of this unique access is much more interesting than the tittle-tattle for the microcosmic detail it provides on who many of these emigrants were, where they socialised, the predominantly East End eco-sphere they inhabited and where these debates took place. It’s worth it for that alone, forget Bridgerton. 

The Spark that Lit the Revolution: Lenin in London and the Politics that Changed the World. Robert Henderson. Bloomsbury. £18.00

Jack Robertson is author of The Man Who Shook Hist Fist at the Tsar and has translated selected writings of Larissa Reisner in, The Hammer & The Anvil. 

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