On the centenary of the birth of Lenin (April 22, 1970), the distinguished Italian writer Ignazio Silone granted an interview to the Corriere della Sera of Milan in which he reminisced about his relationship with the leader of the October Revolution. The interview is here reprinted with the permission of Ignazio Silone.
Q: You knew him, knew the men who surrounded him and who rose to power beside him. Who was Lenin, really? What was the secret of his fascination, of his success? What exactly did he represent in the history of Communism?
SILONE: The first time I saw him—in 1921, in Moscow—his apotheosis had already begun. Even then Lenin was living somewhere between reality and myth. The Congress of the Third International was in session at the time, and Lenin only took part in some of the meetings, rather like the Pope in relation to the Vatican Council. But whenever he came into the hall, the atmosphere changed, became electric. It was a physical, almost a palpable phenomenon. He generated contagious enthusiasm, the way the faithful in St. Peter’s, when they crowd around the Sedia, emanate a fervor that spreads like a wave throughout the basilica. But to see him, to speak with him face-to-face—to observe his cutting, disdainful judgments, his ability to synthesize, the peremptory tone of his decisions—created impressions of a very different kind that overrode any suggestion of mysticism. I remember how some of his terse remarks which I happened to hear during that 1921 Moscow visit struck me with the force of a physical blow. During one session of a Congress committee, he was speaking of Bela Kun, the leader of the Hungarian revolution. “When I hear some nonsense going the rounds,” he said, “my first reaction is to think, ah, Bela Kun’s been talking.”
How could he “liquidate” a major figure of European Communism like that? The fact is that whether he lived abroad—as he did for the larger part of his life—or lived in his own country, Lenin focused always on Russia, on her problems, her secrets, her psychology. And to the degree that he was attentive to and intuitively understanding of realities in his homeland, he exhibited inattention and misunderstanding with regard to other nations. This is true for Hungary, but is true also for Germany and Italy. Not that he failed to follow international political events, especially those in Italy. He used to read several French papers and the Corriere della Sera daily—or rather, he read them when they arrived, for there was no air delivery then. I remember that he used to decipher the Italian news by depending on any assonances that Italian shares with the French or German.