Novel Autobiography by a Leader of the Workers Revolution in Russia

Imprisoned by Stalin, Bukharin Sings of Childhood on the Eve of Revolution

Nikolai Bukharin, How It All Began, translated from the Russian by George Shriver. Introduction by Stephen F. Cohen. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 345 pp., $28.95.

Reviewed by Joe Auciello

 [Note: Another version of this essay-review appeared in the February 1999 issue of International Viewpoint, monthly publication of the Fourth International, a worldwide association of socialist and labor activists.]

Awaiting a show trial and certain death in Lubyanka Prison, Nikolai Bukharin was interrogated and then programmed by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs; the Soviet secret police) for thirteen months, broken down, and force-fed the debasing lies he would be required to repeat before the world when he performed his assigned role as an “enemy of the people.”

Yet Bukharin resisted as best he could, using the limited means available to him. Though he confessed in general to the charges at his trial, he sparred with the prosecutor and denied the specific accusations of planning sabotage, plotting assassinations, conspiring with fascism, etc. Throughout his months of imprisonment, Bukharin refuted lies and slander by speaking in his own words to posterity.

At night in his cell, Bukharin, former editor of Pravda and Izvestia, former Politburo member, former chief theoretician of the Soviet Communist Party, and former head of the Communist International, wrote four manuscripts, including this unfinished autobiographical novel of childhood and youth, now for the first time published in English.

How It All Began tells the story of Nikolai Ivanovich Petrov and his family from the child’s birth in Moscow in the late 1880s to approximately the time of the 1905 revolution. Petrov, nicknamed “Kolya,” is the alter ego of the author, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin. This barely fictional memoir is presented largely, though not exclusively, from Kolya’s perspective. In some later chapters, which add a historical framework, Kolya is not present. Generally, though, the novel is written from the point of view of the adult looking back on childhood; the reader witnesses not the re-creation of youth but the recollection of it. Bukharin evokes a richly layered portrait of childhood that is at once subtle, varied, and deep. His stories of Kolya’s boyhood experiences at play and in school, and his recounting of family life, are exceptionally sharp, vivid, and poetic. The novel is a tour de force of remembrance.

Bukharin draws a detailed portrait of Moscow at the close of the nineteenth century, showing its streets, neighborhoods, churches, schools, and its people, from the “lower depths” to the “white collar” working class to the gentry. Later, as family fortunes decline and the Petrovs are forced to relocate to the provinces, Kolya minutely, and without sentiment, describes the poor and prosperous peasants, the oppressed Jews, regional government officials, and, of course, the countryside.

Not surprisingly, a thread of revolutionary politics winds through the story. From the words of an angry, impoverished peasant, Kolya learns that the world is not only divided between adults and children, as he had learned, but also between rich and poor. It is the beginning of a political realization that will eventually lead him to Marxism. A chapter at the end of the manuscript features a debate among student followers of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Social Democrats, as the Marxists at that time called themselves. Bukharin forcefully and fairly presents the opinions of both sides and recreates the give-and-take atmosphere of youthful ideological adversaries jousting in smoke-filled rooms.

Yet, it would be misleading to suggest that the bulk of the novel is concerned with politics. Much of the story centers on the young boy’s relationships, especially his relationship with the vast world to be found out of doors. Kolya loves Nature so deeply that it almost becomes a separate character in the novel. The natural world for him is an endless source of delight and fascination, and he spends countless days in forest and field. His room contains collections of “treasures” — every variety of insect, bird, and small mammal that he can capture. The adult Bukharin acknowledged nature as “the passion of my childhood,” a statement amply demonstrated by the novel. In this characteristic, as in others, Kolya’s story confirms that “the child is father to the man.”

Kolya’s own father, Ivan Antonovich Petrov, is like a character out of Dickens, someone both brilliant and obtuse, a man whose great intelligence is not accompanied by insight or understanding of how to survive in the world, but whose spirit is buoyed by unfounded optimism. Life genuinely confuses Ivan Petrov. He simply cannot comprehend why his supervisor at work, with whom he’s been quarrelling in front of other employees about some minor matter, is not pleased to discover that Petrov was correct all along. In this way Petrov succeeds in winning his point but losing his livelihood, arguing himself out of a job and into poverty. Not a natural storyteller, Bukharin relates the struggles of Ivan Petrov just as he relates most of the novel’s events; he comments on the characters from the perspective of an outside observer. Rarely does he reveal the inner life of anyone but his alter ego, Kolya. This method limits Bukharin’s effectiveness as a story-teller. Frequently, a scene rendered from the outside would have had greater dramatic resonance if developed from the inner perspective of the characters.

Here, for instance, Bukharin sums up the unhappy marriage of Kolya’s aunt and uncle: “Marya Ivanovna accepted all her torments and stayed with this husband, who on top of everything else was jealous of her — jealous in a crude and stupid way, as only thick-headed people lacking inner cultivation can be jealous, for despite all their malice they are aware of their own inadequacy.”

Chekhov or Babel would have created an entire story out of this. Turgenev or Tolstoy would have developed a scene or chapter by which readers would have inferred, or themselves learned, the insight that Bukharin announces. For an accomplished writer of fiction, the entire story would have led to some special moment of revelation, either Marya Ivanovna’s or her husband’s heightened understanding. In Bukharin’s hands this material becomes only background information, broad brush strokes to paint a character before moving on to another of Kolya’s adventures. (But that is because he is really writing autobiography, not a novel.)

Bukharin makes use of the loose form that is the novel, but he is no novelist. For him, the novel is a soft leather sack that can be filled with memoir, history, sociology, political science, and Marxism, all held together by the story of Kolya’s life. Since this is really autobiography, Bukharin employs the simplest of plots — a boy’s growth from childhood to maturity — and the simplest structure: chronology. Characters appear and are described at length with sardonic observation, with witty personal and social insight, but these figures do little to “further a plot.” Their appearance slows down the narrative drive. Nor are these numerous secondary characters integrated into the story as they would be in the hands of a seasoned novelist.

Bukharin’s characters appear in the story because, no doubt, they existed in real life and figure strongly, sharply, in his memory. He used the form of the novel to stimulate and contain his prodigious memory and clearly focused observations. Yet there is much to enjoy in Bukharin’s prose style and perspective. A forgiving reader who willingly accepts Bukharin’s limitations as a novelist, or simply accepts this as disguised autobiography, will find a great deal to admire in the work, which is finally a recollection and revelation of a past that straddled two eras, the decay of Tsardom and the rise of revolution.

Inadvertently, perhaps, Bukharin gives a superb description of the quality of his own writing: “Children, like grown-ups, have their superstitions, prejudices, heartfelt dreams, ideals, and unforgettable incidents in life, which are stored in the memory forever and which suddenly, at terrible or tragic moments in life, come swimming into consciousness, surprisingly vivid, in full detail, down to the wrinkles in somebody’s face or a spider’s web illuminated by the evening sun. The world of childhood is vast and multifarious.”

A unique manuscript

The translation by George Shriver successfully resolves the unusual difficulties posed by this manuscript. A characteristic of Bukharin’s writing style — his pleasure in word play — is rendered well and the necessary explanations are given unobtrusively. Clarification for the references to obscure birds, flowers, insects, etc., are seamlessly woven into the text. (A glossary is appended for Bukharin’s many literary and political allusions.)

The story flows so smoothly that a reader may wonder if the translator rounded off the rough edges and “improved” what was, after all, an unedited work composed under duress. Apparently not. In the “Introduction,” Stephen Cohen states that the manuscript was published as it was written — a tribute, then, to Bukharin’s literary skill and to the translation which brings it so clearly into English.

How can Bukharin’s literary accomplishment be fairly judged? The customary standards seem not to apply — criticisms of shortcomings in the work seem beside the point. After all, Bukharin was not some retired statesman spinning out his memoirs in the leisure of his golden years. Nor was he by temperament a writer of fiction, though he read widely and commented on literary trends.

Bukharin’s novel-as-memoir does not fit neatly into any ready-made literary convention  — and traditional standards are not sufficient to appreciate How It All Began. It is difficult to understand or situate this novel within Russian or world literature given the unique and terrible circumstances of its composition. The list of autobiographical novels written by men awaiting execution is not extensive. Dostoyevsky, of course, wrote about his experience in prison and a staged execution interrupted at the last moment by a royal act of mercy. But The House of the Dead was written after Dostoyevsky’s release from prison when he could enjoy his renewed opportunity for life. In the late 1930s other prominent Soviet writers and political figures were imprisoned and executed by Stalin, but it does not seem to be the case that they were able to write literary works in their jail cells.

So there is nothing really comparable; this work of Bukharin’s has no clear precedent, although at first glance it might be likened to Albert Camus’s recently published novel, The First Man. Decades after his death in an automobile accident, Camus’s unfinished, unedited autobiographical novel of childhood was published by his family. There are definitely similarities to How It All Began, but there is one insurmountable difference: Bukharin wrote in prison, awaiting certain death. Camus expected to live and complete his work. A comparison would be more revealing if Camus’s character Meursault from The Stranger had actually existed and had written a novel before his execution. But, even then, the difference would predominate. Meursault, unlike Bukharin, had (in the world of the story) committed a real crime

Bolsheviks and authors

Russian literature is rich in autobiography, memoir, and autobiographical fiction, and classic works have been written by men like Aksakov and Herzen. The twenty-four-year-old Leo Tolstoy entered Russian literature with his Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (semi-fictional accounts of his early life). Leon Trotsky’s dismissal of the idealized accounts of childhood, with which he begins his autobiography, My Life, most likely refers to this tradition, if not these specific works. Maxim Gorky also wrote three memorable volumes of memoir of a life far less privileged than that of Tolstoy.Yet, the work of Tolstoy, Gorky, et. al. does not help readers understand Bukharin’s novel.

How It All Began, as far as is known, constitutes its own unique and terrible genre. With the notable exception of Trotsky, when exiled in Turkey, the major Bolshevik leaders were little given to autobiographical reminiscence, or produced little of value in this form. Personal revelation conflicted with Lenin’s temperament. The work by his wife, Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin, has documentary value, but even her accounts are guarded, written as Stalin began to strangle the intellectual life of the USSR. Stalin of course could hardly afford to tell the truth about any aspect of his life. Alexandra Kollantai’s memoirs are uninformative and flat, written after she had succumbed to Stalinism.

None of these writings — with the exception of Trotsky’s My Life — can compare for insight, liveliness, and honesty with Victor Serge’s irreplaceable Memoirs of a Revolutionary, but Serge occupied a lesser position within Bolshevism.

How It All Began, then, is an exceptional achievement, one of the few literary works by a Communist Party leader that deserves to stand alongside the autobiographies of Serge and Trotsky. (The Communist Party in the 1920s asked its leading members to provide brief autobiographical sketches, and Bukharin obliged with a short “Avtobiografiia” when he was 37. Excerpts can be found in the first chapter of Stephen F. Cohen’s biography, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution. The full text was published in English in Makers of the Russian Revolution, but that book has been out of print for many years.)

The condemned man

It may seem an odd choice for a man in prison, awaiting certain execution, to compose a literary work. Why did Bukharin write a novel at all, much less a reminiscence of his childhood? One possible answer is suggested in the part of Bukharin’s courtroom testimony describing his imprisonment. “For three months I refused to say anything. Then I began to testify. Why? Because while in prison I made a re-evaluation of my entire past. For when you asked yourself: ‘If you must die, what are you dying for?’ — an absolute black vacuity suddenly rises before you with startling vividness” (quoted in Roy Medvedev, Nikolai Bukharin: The Last Years, p.160).

An examination of one’s life, the “entire past,” would obviously begin with childhood. Initial thoughts and recollections may have led Bukharin to realize that he had a great deal to say about his early life, the people close to him, and the Russia of those years. Of course, had Bukharin been allowed to live longer, the story – if it had been written at all — may well have advanced into Kolya’s adolescence, or beyond. Perhaps, too, a man anticipating his extermination, staring at “an absolute black vacuity,” would need to push back the void by writing.

Understandably, the psychology of death produced a book about life. The very act of writing would have been a necessary relief from unbearable tension. Bukharin’s widow, Anna Larina, described him as a man whose “nervous temperament was surprisingly delicate – pathologically taut. I would say his nature, exceptionally sensitive and alive, could not bear nervous overloads, for its tolerance was unbelievably slight, and the emotional strings would snap. These very traits would plunge him at times into a state of hysteria. And intense experiences could physically incapacitate Nikolai Ivanovich.” (This I Cannot Forget, pp.126–7.)

Larina’s impressions, it should be emphasized, are based on observations of Bukharin before he was imprisoned for a year, awaiting trial and execution. Later in her memoir, after Larina herself had been forced to endure prison and interrogation, she explained why she needed to find solace in writing: “The only way to distract myself was the old recourse of composing verses. Writing poetry, however talentless, was my salvation” (p. 224).

Larina’s husband may have felt an even greater need for some kind of personal “salvation.” Bukharin may have found that the very act of writing his novel served as a kind of oblique political statement defying the NKVD and Stalin, a balance to the obsequious script that Bukharin’s interrogators demanded he rehearse for his show trial.

Another Marxist imprisoned by Stalin for his oppositional views, Victor Serge, gave the following account of his personal and political struggle: “I write, I write. I must create, work in order not to go mad, in order to fulfill my task here on earth; to be useful, to leave behind me a little emotion and thought. To work is to resist. For there is a soul in all work.” (From Lenin to Stalin, pp. 75–76.)

Bukharin must have discovered for himself the truth of these words. Writing may have offered only existential resistance, psychological affirmation of life against death, but it was resistance, nonetheless.

Stalin never replied

Certainly, Bukharin could have maintained little hope for life or freedom for himself, though in numerous letters he tried to show how he might be useful to Stalin, explaining why it would be in Stalin’s interest to allow him to live. There is no indication that the General Secretary ever responded to his former ally. Bukharin also bargained for the safety of his family, unaware that his wife had already been arrested and sent to a detention camp and his infant son placed in an orphanage. He had little choice but to believe in NKVD promises on their behalf.

Anna Larina thought her husband “overly trusting” and even “gullible” in regard to Stalin (pp. 289–290). Naturally, Bukharin may have wished for a reprieve or hoped to suffer only some lesser penalty, but in reality nothing in Stalin’s character was unknown to Bukharin. In notes of a secret dialogue in July 1928 with Lev Kamenev, a leader of the Left Opposition, Bukharin reportedly said that “Stalin is an unprincipled intriguer who subordinates everything to preservation of his own power. He has made concessions now, so that later he can cut our throats. The result of this will be a police state.” In this conversation Bukharin characterized Stalin as “a Genghis Khan.” Kamenev’s notes also described Bukharin as “extremely upset. At times his lips twitch from nervousness. Sometimes he gives the impression of a man who knows he is doomed.” (The full text of these notes can be found in the appendix to Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1928–1929.)

Bukharin surely knew he would not be allowed to survive the latest of the Moscow Trials. Bukharin may not have fully understood Stalinism, but he understood Stalin.


How It All Began deserves a wide readership, especially among socialists and students of history. While the work is fiction, at least in form, the story of the Petrov family can be read as a study of the conditions that created the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The novel also contributes details and impressions about Bukharin, a memorable figure by any reckoning. It complements the political biography by Stephen F. Cohen and the personal memoir by Anna Larina.

More importantly, perhaps, this book yields the pleasures that readers seek in the best fiction and autobiography: the opportunity to view a life intimately from the inside and so come to know it well, thereby enlarging the reader’s own knowledge and experience of the world. Bukharin’s detailed personal recollections, his portraits of family, friends, and acquaintances, stimulate a reader’s own memories, if only by way of comparison. It is difficult to observe Bukharin’s account of his childhood without starting to recollect and reconstruct one’s own. The result is that Bukharin’s example invites his readers, while learning about him, to reflect upon their own lives, to prod their memories into discovery of dimly remembered or forgotten events. How It All Began encourages the self-understanding that readers can obtain from literature.

 “Revolution is a great devourer of men and character,” said Trotsky. “It leads the brave to their destruction and destroys the souls of those who are less hardy.” When Trotsky wrote these words, he was recalling both the civil war period and the Left Opposition’s defeat in the inner party struggle of the 1920s, bringing with it the ignominious capitulation of former comrades. The Moscow Trials were still some years away, unimagined by anyone. Even then, ten years before his execution, Bukharin spoke in prophetic metaphors, telling Lev Kamenev that Stalin lived for revenge and would “cut the throat” of his political opponents.

The final decade of Bukharin’s life can be seen as a desperate attempt, sometimes heroic, sometimes compromised, to resist the terrible fate that Trotsky predicted.

Notwithstanding the above-mentioned qualities, How It All Began above all testifies to Bukharin’s struggle to salvage his soul, to score a personal triumph in the face of personal and political catastrophe, and to demonstrate that, as Hemingway would one day write, “A man can be defeated but not destroyed.”

Bukharin was executed in 1938. But with the publication of this work he has won a partial, posthumous victory.