Nikolai Bukharin, "How it All Began"

A Book Review by Louis Proyect

February 3, 2003

Between the time of his arrest on February 27, 1937 and until his execution on March 15, 1938, Nikolai Bukharin wrote prodigiously and against the ticking clock from within the bowels of Lubyanka Prison. Some of it was what might be expected from a Communist leader, including a "Socialism and Its Culture" that viewed socialism as the only bulwark against fascism, and another manuscript titled "Philosophical Arabesques" that defended dialectical materialism.

But who could have expected the Marxist theoretician closely associated with the NEP to allocate precious time for a novel/memoir titled "How It All Began?" He began on November 7, 1937, writing mostly at night and in longhand -- often on the backs of sheets of already used paper and under constant surveillance and pressure from his inquisitors. Before the executioner's bullet interrupted him, Bukharin completed 22 chapters that are an unfinished masterpiece like Schubert's 8th symphony. Intended as the first in a series of novels that would tell the story of the birth and development of the revolutionary movement in Czarist Russia, Bukharin featured himself as the main character Nikolai Petrov, nicknamed Kolya.

The work can be appreciated on two levels. As a guide to understanding a leading Communist's personality, his early career and the milieu that transformed him into a fighter against injustice, it will certainly be of interest to radical scholars and activists trying to understand their roots. On another level, the work is outstanding as literature, despite the unpropitious circumstances of its creation and the author's lack of experience. Although "How It All Began" lacks the stylistic finesse of similarly placed works, it is a breathtakingly beautiful "coming of age" story. At its best, it combines Huck Finn type humor with loving recollections of childhood, like a Russian version of Dylan Thomas's "Child's Christmas in Wales." Moreover, it evokes some of the greatest literature of late Czarism, with their combination of wistfulness about the past, bitterness about the present and a yearning for a better future.

Bukharin's portrait of himself as a child is really the core of the book. He is inquisitive about the world and sensitive to its injustices. But he -- Kolya Petrov -- is also like any other child who lives to have fun. Indeed, at one point he confesses, "Huck was Kolya's hero, and he delved into the adventures of this naughty fellow with all possible enthusiasm."

That being said, it might be more accurate to describe the young Bukharin as more of a Tom Sawyer, who is led into temptation by a Bessarabian-Jewish version of Huck Finn:

A Jewish boy named Levka proved to be another good friend. He was thin, red-headed, and freckled, very lively and spry. The Petrov boys were drawn to him right away, and he enriched their store of knowledge with amazing tricks. He could turn his eyelids inside out. These turned-out eyelids were bright red, like blood; he would run around with them like that, frightening all the children. He knew how to make peculiar guttural founds, a skill he quickly taught Kolya and Volodya [Bukharin's oldest brother]. They mastered this art to perfection despite the protests of their mother, who called them "idi-atic noises" -- but her authority as a mother had nearly disappeared. Levka knew how to pass a string up his nose, then spit the end out of his mouth, and "saw" it back and forth. He also could swallow spent bullets, which he found near the town's military barracks. Like him, the Petrov boys would "saw" through their noses and swallow bullets. Then they would watch carefully to see when the bullets came out, checking their feces, and rejoiced when a bullet reappeared in the world, having completed its cycle as it was supposed to. In a word, Levka was an all-around expert.
In addition to Bukharin's self-portrait, you get sharply delineated portraits of his own family and various uncles, aunts and cousins. His father Ivan Petrov (Ivan Bukharin in real life) is a sometime schoolteacher and petty Czarist functionary who can barely keep his family afloat economically. With his keen intellect and high expectations for himself and his family, he finds himself frustrated over and over again. One is reminded of the failed heroes of Depression era literature from the United States, except in the case of Czarist Russia the sense of desperation for an Ivan Petrov was chronic.

As with the case of many of his contemporaries, Bukharin's father was cowed into submission by Czar Alexander the Third, who "kept tightening the fist of his gendarmerie." His only outlet was an occasional jibe at the Orthodox Church or unfocused complaints about the system:

But he did read a little, and sometimes liked to blurt out radical remarks. He didn't believe in God and treated the clergy with irony, though not with malice. In general, he was not capable of malice: he would flare up, then his anger would die away; he had to be "reheated" for angry feelings to stay alive. In his life he was not a systematic person, but he was kind. There was a saying about him, "Ivan Antonych goes out to buy sausage and comes home with a canary."
When Ivan Petrov takes a job as a civil servant in the poor hinterlands of Bessarabia (nowadays called Moldova and even more destitute with the collapse of the USSR), he refuses to take bribes or abuse the humble folk in his office trying to get a paper signed. Gentle by nature, he refused to conform to the old Russian precept: "If you live with wolves, then howl like a wolf." Many of the Bessarabians were Jewish, about whose degraded condition Bukharin writes with both candor and sympathy:

Periodically certain people came to see Ivan Antonych on business-so-called commercial intermediaries, advocates for the owners of stores or businesses that had been shut down, representatives of the commercial caste. They usually came in a group: Raful, a Jewish elder, wearing his Orthodox peisy [sidecurls] and a large, uncombed beard, gray and greasy; his red eyes, forever watering, were wasting away, and his eyelids, stricken by trachoma, were shot to pieces; swollen, dark-blue veins stood out on his skinny arms; his gaunt body, in a long, soiled gaberdine, always seemed to be trembling from the weakness and infirmity of age; his scratchy voice seemed to know how to hit only two notes: pathos and supplication. But to a large extent this was a pose developed over decades of subservience to the flock of carrion crows -- the chinovniks.
Although Bukharin tried to make sure that his manuscripts would not be interpreted as a challenge to Stalin, who could (and did) wreak vengeance against his family, there is little doubt that the contempt directed toward the chinovniks implied criticism of the bureaucratized socialist state as well.

Although the term chinovnik means bureaucrat, in Czarist Russia it was not a neutral term. It connoted arbitrariness and oppression. When Bukharin began to resist Stalin, he used the term in order to convey the new system's failure to transcend Russian backwardness. Stephen Cohen points out in "Bukharin and the Russian Revolution:"

For Bukharin, as for Russia's pre-Marxist radicals, the political quintessence of czarism had been its "chinovnik state" ruling despotically over a hapless people through official lawlessness or "arbitrariness." Revolution promised a break with this tradition -- the advent of a non-chinovnik state of and for the people, what Lenin had called a "commune state" and what was for Bukharin the hopeful antithesis of contemporary history's drift toward a "New Leviathan." Throughout the early and mid-twenties, having rejected his own brief enthusiasm for "statization," Bukharin had worried aloud about the possibility of "a new state of chinovniki" and a new "official lawlessness" in Soviet conditions. He had seen this danger in the Left's "monopolistic philosophy" and "willful impulses;" but he had looked above all to the party to guard against the natural chinovnik habits and abuses of state officialdom, and to be the paladin of the people.
Alongside Bukharin's vivid recollections of his family and the society they interacted with at all levels, there is an almost constant engagement with nature. The forests and lakes of late 19th century Russia become in effect a major character in this memoir.

Partly this is a function of young Bukharin's flora and fauna collecting hobby. It also reflects the influence of his father who took the family on nature outings no matter their circumstances. This combines to produce passages of stunning lyricism, no doubt partly written to satisfy the author's longing for a kind of deliverance from his cramped cell:

After the repast everyone went for a walk in the depths of the forest, which lured them with its breathing air of freshness. The handsome beech trees, with trunks it would take several people to reach around, trunks as smooth as the body of an immense caryatid, marked only here and there with blotches of dark brown moss, lifted their crowns up toward the sky, but those crowns were lost in the overall green chaos. The sprawling oaks with their wrinkled, wizened bark, like the skin of centenarians, spread their branches in all directions, like gnarled and knotty arms, and their carved and fretted leaves enframed their solid torsos with a scattering of green. Hiding in deep shadow were the tender little white bells of Solomon's seal, hanging in rows beneath the dark green leaves. Stubby little branches of wintergreen rose from the earth, giving off a gentle, barely perceptible aroma. Jutting up among the ferns were light green horsetails, remote descendants of colossal species long extinct. And stalks of willow herb, with their tender pink flowers, were sticking up high . . . The subtle aromas of fresh grass and rotting leaves were carried in the air, which was filled with primordial delights. Somewhere above, a woodpecker tapped. Titmice chirped. Onto the half rotten trunk of a large fallen tree there hopped, out of some thicket, a teensy little wren; it began to chatter, flicked its tail, and darted like a baby mouse into a heap of fallen branches. "Papa! The wild pear tree! How big it is!"
While it is possible to appreciate such passages on their own terms, one cannot but be tempted to read them once again as a subtle critique of Stalin's policies. For at the very time when they were being written, the wilderness of the USSR was being 'tamed' by a modernizing bureaucracy.

These lovely forests of Bukharin's youth were lovely to Lenin as well. Despite the atrocious record we are all too familiar with, the early USSR was as committed to wildlife preservation as any Green organization today. The Communist Party issued a decree "On Land" in 1918 that declared all forests, waters, and minerals to be the property of the state, a prerequisite to rational use. When the journal "Forests of the Republic" complained that trees were being chopped down wantonly, the Soviet government issued a stern decree ("On Forests") at a May 1918 meeting chaired by Lenin. From then on, forests would be divided into an exploitable sector and a protected one. The purpose of the protected zones would specifically be to control erosion, protect water basins and the "preservation of monuments of nature."

Although radical historiography of the Soviet Union tends to revolve around the personalities and careers of Stalin and Trotsky, Stephen Cohen is correct to point out that Bukharin had much more of an influence than Trotsky ever did within the USSR. Many of the issues Bukharin raised then are just as urgent today. Can socialist development be accomplished without sacrificing human beings and nature in the process? With Cuba's tentative steps toward a NEP-like economy and its explorations in ecological farming practices, one might say that the spirit of Bukharin lingers on.

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[Ed. note: See also the excellent 1999 review of How it All Began, by Joe Auciello.]


Louis Proyect is a computer programmer at Columbia University and a long-time peace activist and socialist. He is also the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at www.marxmail.org. This is Proyect's first contribution to Swans.

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Published February 3, 2003
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