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A woman of the revolution

Review by Cissie Lodge

The story of Inessa Armand could not have been invented, even by the most imaginative of writers. It’s not by chance that Michael Pearson decided to make his account into a biography rather than a novel*.

The full story – especially her relations with Lenin – could only begin to be told after the Soviet archives were opened in the 1990s. Pearson has also drawn on a biography by the French author Georges Bardawil published in 1993 and Armand family sources. These are pieced together with her own correspondence and the many surviving letters written by Lenin to Inessa.

Inessa Armand
Inessa Armand and her husband Alexander
soon after their marriage, 1893

Born in Paris in 1874, she was the illegitimate daughter of a French woman and a Parisian opera singer. Brought up near Moscow by her aunt, she married Alexander Armand, in 1893. The wealthy Armand family had an idyllic estate in Pushkino. After bearing Alexander four children, she fell in love with his brother Vladimir. She was increasingly drawn to Marxism and the revolutionary politics, in which Vladimir, 11 years younger than her, was well versed.

Vladimir used the family apartment in Moscow to hold meetings of radical students, leading to raids by the Czarist police.

Inessa, her husband and his brother, now her lover, amazingly, found a way of continuing life without breaking up their family. An old family servant recalled that after she fell in love with Vladimir “the three of them were sitting on a couch for hours, with Inessa between them, and all of them were crying…. And all the servants in the house were crying too”.

Instead of leaving her to her own devices, her husband continued to maintain her, Pearson writes, “supporting her various causes, paying her bail when she was jailed, as she often would be, and despite her requests for no favours, using what influence he could to gain her release. He aided her escapes when she had to cross borders illegally. He brought up the children when she was away in exile or prison and made sure that the Pushkino home was always available to her as a haven. He became a stalwart friend as she recognised with gratitude repeatedly”.

Pregnant, accompanied by her children but not her new lover, she spent a year in the Swiss Alps. She used the opportunity to change direction in her life. She broke with the liberal outlook she was born into, and began educating herself in Marxist ideas, reading Lenin’s book The Development of Capitalism in Russia.

InessaThe holiday atmosphere in Switzerland was soon broken by the events of 1905 in Russia to which Inessa had returned. She was arrested in front of her children in a police raid and held in jail for four months. On release she continued to organise illegal meetings and was rearrested.

She was banished to a town called Mezen near Archangel in the far north, within one degree of the Arctic Circle for two years. Here she suffered harsh conditions, malaria and witnessed violent beatings of prisoners by the Cossacks.

Inessa Armand finally managed to escape to Poland, but remained a wanted outlaw in Russia. Her lover Vladimir was in France being treated for tuberculosis. He took a sudden turn for the worse and died in her arms, after a desperate journey by Inessa to reach him.

She overcame her desolation at his death and studied in Brussels, travelling to Copenhagen and Paris. It was in Paris that she began to work closely with Lenin, organising the Bolshevik party schools at Longjumeau. Relations between them grew increasingly intense.

She joined Lenin on the famous “sealed train” which took them back to Russia in April 1917 and played a leading role in the struggle to hold on to Soviet power immediately after the revolution. Overwork and the harsh conditions of the Civil War period took their toll on her health. Despite Lenin’s constant efforts to help her regain her strength, she succumbed to cholera and died in 1920 aged only 46. Her loss was a huge blow which some believe contributed to Lenin’s own death just over two years later.

Inessa’s relationship with Lenin is documented closely in this book. When Pearson draws on Inessa’s letters to Lenin and her family, the flesh and blood woman appears before us, in all her predicaments and heroism. There were great twists and turns in her life. Some were dictated by historic events outside her control.

But at key moments, it is she who makes the decisions about what she will do with herself. She followed her heart as well as her political conscience, and did not see a conflict between the two. She refused to be intimidated or trapped, whether by the “morality” of bourgeois marriage or the Czar’s prisons.

We can learn not only about Inessa, but the circles in which she moved, especially about the women in the leadership of the Bolshevik party, even though Pearson tends to see things in terms of personal rivalries. He is astonished and fascinated by Inessa’s personality and dedication to her principles. He views her as a heroic, but tragically misguided idealist. Unfortunately, his understanding of Russian revolutionary history is drawn from “liberal” and anti-Bolshevik historians such as Robert Service, Richard Pipes and Orlando Figes.

Despite the author’s frequent speculation about people’s motives and his false accusations against Lenin, the selfless and free-spirited nature of the revolutionaries comes across again and again. The support and love Inessa received from her sister-in-law, Anna Konstaninovich, Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, from Lenin himself – and which she reciprocated – shines through the lines of this book.

Pearson depicts the poignancy and depth of her relationships with a sympathetic novelist’s mind. He reveals her courage and intelligence even though he is at odds with the philosophy and politics that lay behind these qualities.

* Inessa – Lenin’s Mistress, by Michael Pearson, is published by Duckworth at £20

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