BOOK REVIEW / Hard left and women's rights: 'Kremlin Wives' - Larissa Vasilieva, trs Cathy Porter: Weidenfeld, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE dream of the Bolshevik revolution turned sour in many different ways, but perhaps never more so than for the women who teamed up with the early Bolshevik leaders: the forgotten lives of these (largely) forgotten wives make grisly reading. Lenin's saintly wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who always suspected Stalin of having poisoned Lenin, herself died of food poisoning after her 70th birthday party, to which Stalin had sweetly sent a cake. Stalin's own young, independent- minded wife killed herself in a way that was both gory and surprisingly convenient to her husband. Other wives spent years in exile or labour camps.

At first, it all seemed so shiny. Many of the 'new women' touched by revolutionary fervour were from bitterly poor families in distant provinces, the brightest and most spirited, given their chance by the Party organisations: most touching, in this book, is the sense of youthful idealism that brought these talented people together, and to power.

But then the revolutionary coterie hardened into a ruling elite. As the Bolshevik bigwigs moved in behind the Kremlin walls, it is as if they inherited with their quarters all the vengeful history of those dark passages. They lived nose to nose (often two families to an apartment), and the new tsarinas, many of whom had responsible work, not to mention liberated notions of the family and sexuality, were suddenly required to conform to a new puritanism. And if they did not, they paid with their lives: 'While Stalin tended to spare self-effacing family women,' writes Vasilieva, 'he bore a special grudge against the more emancipated women of the Kremlin - possibly because they reminded him of his Nadezhda.'

Even the wives of Stalin's most senior colleagues became his victims: it was his way of keeping their menfolk in line. The wife of Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, granddaddy of the Party and President of the Soviet Republic from 1919 until his death in 1946, spent many years in labour camps. Molotov's wife, Paulina Zhemchuzhina, spent no less than 17 years incarcerated - both on charges so flimsy as to be almost, horribly, comic.

Larissa Vasilieva provides a chapter for each mini-history, with biographical notes; against this solid context her fascinating detail (some of it from KGB files) springs into life. The outrageous corruption of the Brezhnev years comes as light relief; especially the capers of his daughter Galina, built like a musk-ox and strongly reminiscent of her father in drag, with her unbridled passion for old diamonds and young men.

But when we get to 'The Raisa Phenomenon', Vasilieva goes all coy on us. She mentions Raisa's 'greater' role in Russian politics, but does not tell us what it was; of the putsch of 1991 she says only that 'her fear spoke in gentle, female words . . . and she fell ill.' This is a pathetic response to the challenge of writing about a new, if short- lived, phenomenon in Russian life. Vasilieva ends with a semi-mystical plea for the power of the feminine principle, in disgust at men who 'forced their people to go hungry, as food rotted in freight trains and those capable of unloading them sat in committees and fought for power'. This is a patchy book - by turns enthralling, infuriating, fey and tragic - but it has its deeper purpose: it could be subtitled 'Power: A User's Guide'.