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The Saviors: A Kabbalistic Tale


 The tale of Fanya Kaplan, that darkhaired, pale-faced, slender idealist, tells itself with grim brevity in keeping with her times. For just as tyrannicides spurn slow justice, so likewise with tyrants. Between exploit and recompense lay only four days, which in most histories would comprise but an ellipsis between words, a quartet of periods, thus: . . . .—but which, if through close reading we magnify them into spheres, prove to contain in each case a huddle of twenty-four grey subterranean hours like orphaned mice; and in the flesh of every hour a swarm of useless moments like ants whose queen has perished; and within each moment an uncountable multitude of instants resembling starpointed syllables shaken out of words—which at the close of this interval, Fanya Kaplan was carried beyond Tau, final letter of the magic alphabet. Her attempt took place on 30 August 1918. It is written that after Lenin fell, the young assassin hysterically fled, but then, remembering that the moral code of the Social Revolutionaries required her to give up her life in exchange for her victim’s, stopped running, turned back, and in trembling silence surrendered to our security forces. On 3 September, Fanya Kaplan, who happened to be noted for her “Jewish features,” was led into a narrow courtyard of the Lubyankaand there shot from behind by the commandant of the Kremlin himself, P. D. Malkov. (That luminary I. M. Sverdlov, who’d already played so indispensable a role in the liquidation of the Romanov family, instructed Malkov: Her remains are to be destroyed without a trace.) Thus the life and works of the blackhaired woman.

 The tale of Lenin’s bride, N. K. Krupskaya, makes for a happier parable. And doesn’t the parable possess greater integrity, greater righteousness we might almost say, than any other literary form? For its many conventions weave a holy covenant between the reader, who gets the mystification he craves in a bonbon-sized dose, and the writer, whose absence renders him divine. Granted, those very stringencies sometimes telescope events into dreamlike absurdity. In Krupskaya’s case, were it not for her nearly accidental marriage she’d surely have remained as hidden to history as the silent letter Aleph. What was she then in her maiden days? We don’t want to call her a cipher; we can’t deny that her parable, like ours, began with birth. But in this genre (as in the lyric poem) there can be no random causes. Every death must occur for good reason. Every word, right down to its gaping letters o and grinning letters e, must offer resonance with sentences before and beyond—not predictability, mind you, for that would be tedious, but after each comma the hindsighted reader needs to be in the position of saying: Why didn’t I see that coming? Fanya Kaplan, for example, was never notified that she’d been condemned to death. And yet when Malkov’s very first bullet exploded between her shoulderblades, she experienced coherence, and screamed not with surprise, but with desperate fear and outrage againstinevitability.—As for Krupskaya, call her the darling of parable-mongers; introduce her as the perfect personification of  convention. (This is why her collected works are so deadly dull.) Trotsky patronized her; Stalin by the end commanded her; Lenin himself merely used her. Historians regard her as a faithful mediocrity. I myself have always read in her a striving toward kindliness, for which I offer praise. Unutterably typical of her epoch—and thus perhaps curiously akin to Fanya Kaplan—she was agitated all her life by fervor. Just as the same letter may appear in two words of contrary meaning, so the lives of those two women write themselves in nearly identical characters. Who am I to find in Krupskaya’s enthusiasms anything alien to Fanya Kaplan’s? One loved the Revolution; the other hated it. What force transformed them into opposites, if they were opposites?


 We read that Krupskaya was first (that is, before her parable is supposed to begin) a pious little girl who prayed to the icon in her bedroom, then a rapturous Tolstoyan. In company with her friends she attacked awealthy factory owner with snowballs. We find her cutting hay to help hostile and uncomprehending peasants at age fifteen, then teaching night classes in literacy to factory workers at twenty-two. She was one of those souls who long more than anything to be of use in this world. Unknowingly she found herself drawn to the letter Cheth, which resembles the Greek letter pi and which, thus visually representing a gate, refers to ownership. She yearned to give herself, to be possessed, to know where she stood. 

  By the time she was twenty-six, she was receiving, materializing and carrying to underground printers the invisible-inked manifestoes which Lenin sent from prison. The legend says that one of her greatest joys was to watch the magic letters appear in the boiling water, as if they comprised a secret message written expressly for her, instead of being merely another metallically impersonal appeal to the workers. (After all, reader, don’t you prefer to believe that this story which you’re taking the trouble to read has something to say to you?) But for just the same reason that she shunned fashionable clothes, chocolates and other frivolous pleasures, Krupskaya strove to persuade herself that in the self-abnegation of transcription lay her destiny.

  When she reached the age of twenty-seven, N. K. Krupskaya was arrested for the first time. After two months in preliminary detention, they released her, thinking her to be a shy nobody who’d gotten mixed up in illegal activity only by mistake, but so brazen and exalted were her actions on behalf of the Kostroma strikers that she was arrested again after only eighteen days.

  Here again I seem to see that pallid, protuberant-featured Social Revolutionary woman who sought to kill Lenin. It’s said that Fanya Kaplan had already become a committed anarcho-terrorist by the time she was sixteen. When the gendarmes burst in, she and her comrades were arrayed around the bed, carefully assembling the components of a bomb, like those Kabbalists who in their circle-beset diagrams arrange into bristling molecules the various emanations and manifestations of God. It’s even said that the police themselves were moved by the perfection of the urchin-spined grey spheres laid out upon the young girl’s white sheets. Fearing for the Tsar’s safety, the court at first condemned her to death, but in view of her youth and sex the sentence was commuted to hard labor for life in Siberia. There she dwelled between the river-ice and the celestial alphabets of constellations until the October Revolution amnestied her. By then Fanya Kaplan was more determined than ever to redeem all Russia from centralist abomination.

 Krupskaya, who proved equally unrepentant, they kept her in the blankness of the cells for five months, until a convict named M. F. Vetrova burned herself to death to protest her own fate. So in garments of flame this woman (otherwise almost unknown) dictated her tale of righteousness. Who says that tales are only words? Embarrassed by Vetrova’s propaganda triumph, the authorities felt compelled to exercise upon their remaining female prisoners the same leniency which they would grant Fanya Kaplan. In March of 1897, not long after her twenty-eighth birthday, they freed Krupskaya on grounds of failing health. (Fanya Kaplan for her part was also twenty-eight when she was freed forever by Malkov’s bullets.)

  A photograph from this period reveals Krupskaya’s pale, stern beauty. Her smooth forehead glows like winter sunshine on a snowy field, her clenched lips cannot entirely deny their own sensuousness, and her eyes gaze with painful sincerity into the ideal—dark eyes these, longing eyes from which a craving for meaning steadfastly bleeds. Her high and proper collar hides her almost to the chin, so she’s but a face, closed but promising something, like a flower-bud. She’s combed her hair severely back, and cropped it short; she’s a recruit, a fighter, a militant.


 Knowing that Lenin needed a copyist in his Siberian exile, and learning that she too would be exiled (the police themselves being not entirely illiterate readers of dangerousness), she accepted her leader’s proposal for a marriage of convenience, replying in those famous words, meant to show her imperviousness to bourgeois institutions: Well, so what. If as a wife, then as a wife.—In fact there is every reason to believe that beneath this bravado lived an idolatrous passion.—Upon her arrival the following year, when Fanya Kaplan was celebrating her tenth birthday, the reunited atheists submitted to a full church wedding in Shushenskoe, which is wistfully called “the Siberian Italy.” 

 The law required an exchange of rings; and devotees of that most Kabbalistic genre, the parable-within-a-parable, might well concentrate on this most pathetic episode of the ceremony, unable to resist dissecting the ironic symbolism of those two copper wedding bands lying side by side on the black velvet cushion. * It’s said that when the eternally virginal Krupskaya first saw them, she blushed. Freshly worked copper has a peculiar brightness, like bloody gold. We need not detain ourselves here with mystic correlations and analogies, God being ineffable anyway; it seems that the raw luminosity of the rings exposed her unacknowledged feelings in their revelatory glare. They’d been fashioned by a Finnish comrade who was still learning the jeweler’s craft—indeed, he was indebted to Krupskaya for his tools, so he’d taken special pains, inscribing them with the names of thebride and groom in characters which in their squat angularity might well have graced some seventeenth-century diagram of astrology’s nested spheres. In their shape the rings are said to have resembled the letter Samekh—a sort of o which tapers as it rejoins its starting point, and which sports a tiny bud on top, imagined by dreamy brides to be a precious stone. Need I add that this character of the mystical alphabet symbolizes both help and sleep? (Recall Marx’s ambiguous proverb: Religion is the opium of the masses.)

 Who knows the fate of those shining circlets? The ring which Krupskaya slipped upon Lenin’s finger was never seen again. As for the one he slid onto hers, she removed it immediately, for the sake of revolutionary convention. Then the ceremony was over, and they walked home by separate ways.

 So she became both drudge and disciple, the good soldier, the bedfellow (or occasional bedfellow as I should say, for in their Kremlin suite each spouse had a private room and a single-width metal-framed bed *), the harmless mediocrity, the liquidator of pessimism, the amateur who transcribed Lenin’s essays and sewed his nightshirts. (That German Communist Clara Zetkin, more glamorous than Krupskaya by far, visited the happy couple before and after the Revolution; her memoirs indulgently commend the wife’s “frankness, simplicity and rather puritanic modesty.”)

 He called her Nadya. She called him Volodya.


 On that August day two decades later, when the darkhaired, pale-faced, slender woman approached Lenin’s Rolls-Royce, then took shaky aim with her little Browning as a line of hysterical determination sank from each corner of her tight-compressed lips, the supreme deity of the Soviet Union ought to have been gathered in, rising to the heart of heaven just as letters of the Hebrew alphabet are said to take wing during the course of certain Kabbalistic raptures. Certainly Fanya Kaplan (alias Dora) was banking on that when she gave herself up in observance of the covenant a life for a life. But the blackhaired woman, member in good standing of the Social Revolutionary Combat Organization though she was (which is to say, self-spendthrift), lacked competence. One cannot forbear to recall the half-built bomb on her girlhood’s bed. Was the premature ending of that story mere bad luck, or had she and her accomplices forgotten to post sentries? (In this connection we’d do well to invoke the letter Daleth, whose shape—the upper righthand angle of a square—implies both knowledge and unenlightenment, being a door which can open and close. The young anarchists had faith * that the door would stay closed until they’d completed their preparations to murder the Minister of the Interior. The police forced it open. Either way, the tale would have gone on, and the door remained.) What else should we expect? So many revolutionaries are intellectuals, a class of people whose aspirations tend to run ahead of their capabilities. Just think of that Paris Communard of the previous century who used to sit in cafés, constructing such beautiful little barricades out of breadcrumbs that everyone admired him; come the uprising, he built a perfect barricade out of stones—and the troops marched around it. (Shall we interject here that Krupskaya was perfectly useless with a gun, and that her attempts at cryptography brought smiles to the lips of Tsarist police spies?)

 With typically hysterical exoticism, Fanya Kaplan had incised her bullets with dum-dum crosses so that they represented magic atoms, then dipped them in a substance which she believed to be curare poison, but which would prove to exert no effect whatsoever. Then she set out to try her luck. As soon as Lenin had completed his Friday address to the workers, she fired three shots which hummed like the letter Mem. One pierced a woman who was complaining about the confiscation of bread at railroad stations. The second shot struck Lenin in the upper arm, injuring his shoulder. The third soared upward through his lung into his neck, coming to rest in a fortuitous spot (if any bullet wound can be considered such). Lenin’s face paled, and he sank to the running board, bleeding, unconscious.


 The Cheka sent a car for Krupskaya without telling her anything. She was in terror; that day the leading Chekist Uritsky had already been assassinated. At such moments, when we find ourselves in danger of losing the protagonist we love, the tale of our marriage begins to glow, and the letters tremble on the page as once did our own souls when we realized the inevitability of the first kiss. Later, if he lives, those same words will go dry and stale. But for now the beloved Name trembles in every constituent, and we feel weak and sick. Krupskaya had already begun to suffer from the heart condition which would underline the remaining chapters of her life. She felt half suffocated. Her vision doubled; the streets of Moscow shimmered with tears. When, penetrating the magic circle of Latvian Riflemen, she found her husband apparently dying,* she composed herself and gripped his hand in silence. (Years later, she’d be dry-eyed at his funeral.) He was lying on his right side. They said he’d opened his eyes when the car pulled up; he’d wanted to ascend the stairs himself. In the secret pocket of her dress, her fingers clasped the copper ring he’d given her in Shushenskoe.

 The doctors had already cut his suit off. Lenin’s eyes would not open. He breathed with the desperate, shallow gasps of a lover nearing orgasm; and, as if to reinforce this impression, a curl of blood had dried upon his paper-white chest in the shape of the letter Lamed, whose snaky shape has Kabbalistic associations with sexual intercourse.

 At dawn his breaths deepened, and then he looked at her. Krupskaya whispered: We have no one but you. Stay with us; save us . . .

 To comfort her, one of the nurses (who herself was weeping) said: He needs you, Nadezhda Konstantinovna.

 Then they all began to heal him, giving him injections with a squat glass syringe whose shape was reminiscent of the letter Qoph, emblem of inner sight.

 As soon as he came back into his mind, he became impatient. He had many things to do to insure that his Revolution would be irreversible. Krupskaya rarely found herself alone with him. First it was the doctors, then Trotsky, Stalin and the rest, come to congratulate him on his survival. He gazed at her half-humorously, rolling his eyes. She knew he longed to be at work by himself, preparing new commandments and testimonies. What could she do to aid him? How could she prevent him from tiring himself into a relapse? Shyly clearing her throat, she said: Pretend this convalescence is only another term in prison, Volodya. You know you can deal with that!—He laughed delightedly.

 On 14 September she took him to somebody’s confiscated estate in the pleasant village of Gorki. He recovered secretly behind those walls. Krupskaya remained at his side as often as he would let her. While he slept, she sat in her room, repeating his name with such whispered fervor that the nurses said: It’s almost as if she believes he’ll fade away if she closes her eyes for one minute!—They tried to get her to rest, but she burst into tears.

 In another week Volodya’s bandages came off. Before October he began to walk again without her help, although he’d lost much blood and there were circles under his eyes. She brought him home to the Kremlin just before the end of that month, sleeping with her door open in case he should call for her. He’d already reverted to his habit of pacing his office on tiptoe throughout the night hours, muttering, searching for clear policies; these well-known sounds soothed her. By November he was almost entirely restored. And in celebration, the Bolsheviks everywhere replicated his graven images.


 Fanya Kaplan was executed on the same day that the Commissar of the Interior released the infamous “Order Concerning Hostages,” which decreed that all Right Social Revolutionaries be arrested at once and reserved for mass liquidation as needed. In Perm alone they shot thirty-six captives to avenge Lenin and Uritsky. Thus the terrorists were requited to their faces. Less than twenty-four hours later, the Red Terror was born. The birth announcement went hissing across telegraph lines like the letter Shin, whose three vertical arms culminate in poppy-heads of flame. Meanwhile the press kept calling for more blood, more blood. In the ever timely words of Comrade N. V. Krylenko (whose own destiny would be death by shooting): We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more. 


* Exegesis easily uncovers other ironies: The purple-cloaked priest, it is written, was as exasperated as his victims, because this marriage prevented him from renting the extra room of Lenin’s house which the bride and her mother would now occupy. (Had she remained unmarried, Krupskaya would have been remanded to the locality of Ufa.) And perhaps he scented the godlessness of the convict spouses. What must he have made of Krupskaya’s abashedness, Lenin’s sarcastic smiles? How might he have proceeded, had he understood that this church of his, by sealing the union of these two helpmeets, was hastening its own destruction, and his?


*Upon his own escape from Siberia to England in 1902, Trotsky had likewise found them working in separate quarters. “Nadyezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya . . . was at the very centre of all the organization work,” he writes in his memoirs. “In her room there was always a smell of burned paper from the secret letters she heated over the fire to read.” 


*Blind faith, one might say. In Siberia she went literally and mysteriously blind for three years, but upon her blindness was engraved the secret alphabet of her cause. Under the influence of the terrorist Spiridovna, she swore to be patient, and someday to execute justice. And then, as if by magic, the world revealed itself once more to her sight.


*Arguably Fanya Kaplan had, as exegetes like to say, “wrought better than she knew,” since the bullet remaining in Volodya’s neck proved to be a time bomb. Nearly three years later, the doctors finally decided to remove it, and although the operation was a success, scarcely two days later he suffered the first of the cerebral hemorrhages which were to carry him off.