- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2010

By Helen Rappaport
Basic Books, $27.95, 384 pages 

Allen Dulles, one of the architects and the longest-serving head of the Central Intelligence Agency, loved to tell a good yarn whether at a Georgetown dinner table or before a training class of young spy candidates.

One of his favorites was about the time when he was a young clerk-spy in the U.S. Legation in Bern, Switzerland, in 1917. It was a weekend afternoon and the legation offices were empty except for Dulles, who had drawn duty-officer chores. But he was about to sneak out early because he had a date for tennis doubles with a friend and a pair of pneumatic Swiss sisters when the phone rang. It was a brusque emigre demanding to speak to someone in authority.

The man said his name was Lenin and he had an urgent matter to negotiate with the American government; Dulles recognized the name as a prominent figure among the scruffy and argumentative band of Russian exiles, but no one to get too excited about. Dulles said he advised the Russian to call back on Monday and was told, “Pity, that will be too late.”

And so it was, Dulles would come to the punch line; Lenin boarded a sealed train and was ferried by the German government to St. Petersburg to start the Russian Revolution. The moral of the yarn was, “A good intelligence officer always takes time to listen to a walk-in source, however unpromising he may appear.” The implication being that had Dulles not had his mind on other things he might have changed the course of history.

The way British historian Helen Rappaport tells the story, the day was April 8, Easter Sunday, the very day that Lenin, in a mad, chaotic rush, spent the morning and early afternoon hours organizing and loading his few boxes of possessions and a small party of loyalists onto the special train waiting at the station in Zurich to take him away. She archly suggests that Lenin may have called the Americans in a last-minute attempt to hedge his bets if his revolutionary bid failed but when and how he would have found time to make a long-distance call to Bern without anyone else marking it, she does not say.

Setting aside the unlikelihood of anyone playing tennis in Switzerland in April, there are several things wrong with both yarns. Lenin is generally accepted to have left Zurich the previous week on April 3, a Tuesday, and Dulles, who was a clerk-spy in the American Embassy in Vienna, did not officially transfer to the Bern Legation until April 23, by which time Lenin had been in St. Petersburg for a week.

The yarn also gets in the way of an important point that Ms. Rappaport makes quite convincingly in this well-written and otherwise painstakingly researched story. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, by the age of 47, when he left for Russia was a self-created, self-sustaining revolutionary who would have seen no need to hedge his bets when his whole adult life to th-at point had been built to that moment of destiny.

As the train began to move, Lenin reached out a window to shake a friend’s hand in farewell, “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months or we shall be in power,” he predicted. Whatever happened, Lenin was ready to roll the dice.

What makes a rebel? The historical template is of someone who often has had the advantages of a society but does not fit in that culture. One thinks of seedy failures like Sam Adams, Tom Paine, Robespierre and that ultimate loser Adolf Hitler. Ms. Rappaport’s contribution is to focus on the formative years that lead up to Lenin’s dramatic journey.

Born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Lenin’s parents were of the middling bureaucratic class - a schoolmistress and a provincial school superintendent that underpinned a top-heavy and sclerotic Czarist society that had been ripe for revolution for 30 years before his birth. Yet the Ulyanovs were not of that society which may have given them place but still officially classed them as “ethnically mixed.” In their case, Ms. Rappaport notes, Vladimir’s father was of the Asian Tatar or Kalmyk descent, but there also were Slavic and German ancestors in the mix, and significantly for those times, some of them had been Jewish.

The Ulyanov children were not immune to the fervor of the times. Vladimir’s older brother was hanged for involvement in a plot to kill Czar Alexan-der II and a sister was sent into exile for her subversive activities. Bored after hurrying through law school, Vladimir soon followed suit and quickly drew that rite of passage, his own three-year sentence to Siberia, where he reveled in the isolation and ground out 30 tracts of theory about how to yank a feudal Russia into a modern socialist paradise.

What sets the man who adopted the nom de guerre Lenin apart from the thousands of other seedy, argumentative, vacillating Russians who sought refuge elsewhere in Europe prior to the 1917 Revolution was his iron-banded focus on discipline from his followers. He also insisted that the seizure of power could only come from a tightly controlled (by him) band of zealots and not from some loosely organized more democratic popular movement. Lenin was beyond ruthless in his political acts, totally self-absorbed in seizing power, exploitive in his relationships - especially with women and fatally convinced that he could spark a world revolution by first converting medieval Russia.

-Although he traveled and lived in most of Europe’s great cities - including London he never realized that as downtrodden the urban masses we

re, they still were nationalistic before they were the stuff of world revolutions.

In the end, Lenin learned the old lesson that a revolution is an easy horse to catch, but a hard one to ride. In the end, he had only five years of power as his reward. He died in January 1924, his last years spent enfeebled probably by a long-running case of syphilis, which in those days was treated with arsenic. The irony is that his legend grew larger after his death than his power had warranted in life; but then that is too often the reward of those who topple societies.

James Srodes is the author of “Allen Dulles, Master of Spies (2000).” His e-mail address is srodesnews msn.com.

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