In For You, Madam Lenin, Kat Meads has done something truly remarkable: She has reduced over fifty years of the world's most violent political and social history into 281 pages of character-driven prose. Though the external voice of this novel isn't necessarily supportive of these great figures of the Russian Revolution, her uses of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin are remarkable for their clarity of insight in the ways in which Meads has managed to humanize them. If the details of Vladimir Lenin's life have been washed over by Soviet-era propaganda, for instance, the novel implicitly claims that fiction becomes necessary to restore a sense of historical truth.
The narration through much of this novel comes from the voice of Yelizaveta Vasilievna Krupskaya, Lenin's noble-born mother-in-law, who claimed in life once that she thought Lenin was a lousy partner for her Nadya. Yelizaveta Vasilievna follows the couple through their courtship: their time in prison, exile and abroad; the success of the October Revolution and the tumult that followed; the assassination attempt on Lenin's life; and Nadya's widowhood. Through her, Meads confronts the realities of modernist theoretical discourse and puts forth a figure of the modern woman as bold, defiant, and immortal.
It is this figure, the work shows, that is too often missing from the historical account of the Revolution, and For You, Madam Lenin attempts to correct the record by restoring the role women played in Russian revolutionary history. It demonstrates that in a patriarchal retelling of world events, the importance of Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya—Lenin's partner in marriage and in Revolution—is ignored. She is not the spine to Lenin's brain, the way many of her contemporaries remembered her. The book celebrates her as Lenin's equal and wonders why the popular depiction of a revolutionary man, then and now, is of a sophisticated dandy—and why a revolutionary woman has always been a washerwoman.
Voices largely forgotten by posterity (but not by this novel) include those from figures like Sofiya Perovskaya, assassin of Tsar Alexander II, whose story, if it were not part of history would be a Russian fairytale; figures like Alexandra Kollotai, who was once known as a heroic revolutionary theorist, who was the first woman in modern times to serve as a foreign ambassador, but has since been reduced to an advocate for non-marital sex; figures like Inessa Armand who is marginalized as Vladimir Lenin's mistress, but who formed such a strong bond with Nadya that the later decided to raise the former's children as her own; figures like Laura and Tussy, the doomed daughters of Karl Marx who failed to escape their father's legacy; figures like the impossible Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna; like the domineering sister of Lenin, Maria Ulyanova, who betrayed Nadya after her brother's death; figures like "the other Nadya," the self-loathing second wife of Joseph Stalin who took her own life out of spite; and like Fanya Kaplan, the young and pitiable would-be assassin of Vladimir Lenin, who may have taken the bullet for a larger network of conspirators and who Nadya lamented as a revolutionary woman executed in a revolutionary state. These voices are clear and remarkable in For You, Madam Lenin, as they seldom are in history.
It is said that, following his death in 1924, Lenin would have been absolutely disgusted with the way his likeness had been used by Stalin to subvert his revolutionary principles—the statues, the murals in public spaces, the mausoleum with his embalmed body on display. This novel offers a new monument, a better, alternative monument, to remember the human Lenin—and a monument to Nadya, who never had a monument at all. [End Page 20]
Derek Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent work can be found in the Southeast Review, Saranac Review, and Artifice Magazine.