by Daniel Kalder, Oneworld, 400pp, £16.99
Daniel Kalder is a very funny writer who specialises in Russian history and literature and has an eye for dark humour, the latter probably a necessity for the former. His latest book is a work of literary criticism with an unusual twist: studying the output of Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao, as well as some of the lesser tyrants of the 20th century. All were awful people; most were also awful writers, and as Kalder puts it: “A deep study of dictators’ work might enable me to map devastating wastelands of the spirit while also exploring the terrible things that happen when you put writers in charge.”
Russian communists from the start had a great reverence for the written word, and among the most influential early works was Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is To Be Done? It advocated revolution but the tsarist censors let it through because they thought “the story’s wooden characters and tedious didacticism” were no threat.
It was a huge mistake, and among the impressionable young men who loved the book was one Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who read it five times over one summer and kept a picture of the author in his wallet.
Lenin is even less sympathetic than most of the monsters showcased here. He was certainly the most dreary of writers, yet “there was a strategy behind Lenin’s aggressively tedious prose. The tsarist censors had form when it came to underestimating the impact of very long, boring works on economics.” Lenin’s work teems with hatred and bitterness but, most of all, motivated stupidity: “the capacity of highly intelligent people to deceive themselves about the most fundamental things”.
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