The collapse of the Soviet Union was sudden and complete, and it will take years to pick over the ruins. Communism itself may not be an appealing topic any more, but the secret world of Soviet leaders remains a source of fascination and always makes good copy. Especially intriguing are the decisions by masters of an autocratic superpower: they mapped the course of the cold war, operated in an alien world and appeared to enjoy boundless power. As Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Communist leader, puts it, the Soviet political elite "generally relied on Father. His word was final... Everything depended on the top person."
The Soviet Union treated most details of its leaders' lives as official secrets. The state created propaganda, presenting to the world a tireless Lenin, a caring Stalin, and a war hero called Leonid Brezhnev. Anything that hinted at flesh and blood was filed away in a safe in Moscow's grandest archives. These archives now admit selected western scholars. If you can get your papers stamped, you too can sit under a giant bust of Karl Marx and read about the gulag, the arms race, spies, friendships, illnesses and bile. It is still thrilling, after years of secrecy, even to order from the list. But there are thousands of cardboard folders with the heading "Absolutely Secret" - the crucial skill is knowing how to make this material work.
Robert Service was unwaveringly sensitive in his selection in his celebrated three-volume biography of Lenin. The trilogy explored the career of Lenin the politician and thinker without losing sight of Lenin as a person. The leader was portrayed with all his flaws, emerging neither as a revolutionary hero nor as an evil ideologue. But in his single-volume biography, Service relegates the politics and emphasises the man. The result can be delightfully readable. But without the grand political story, the figure who emerges from the text is unattractive, bullying and sometimes dull. The revolutionary struggle was all that really counted for Lenin. The details of his human relations, to say nothing of the workings of his psyche, remain a matter for speculation.
We learn that Lenin was a cruel child and that his mother worried that he might be psychologically disturbed. Service confirms that he was unusually intelligent and industrious, also that he was intolerant, selfish and prone to fits of violent rage. Readers will discover that his favourite book as a child was Uncle Tom's Cabin , that he could not cook, that he had a malicious sense of humour, a taste for cycling and mountain air and was exceptionally mean with money. But other aspects of his life, including his relationship with the beautiful Inessa Armand, remain guesswork. Service often leads us to think about what "might" or "must" have been.
How much of this do we need to know? Many of Service's questions derive from a lifetime of debating with historians from the old Soviet Empire. But issues that used to be secret, or even controversial, may no longer retain their interest. Lenin has more important claims to eminence than an extramarital affair. The Inessa story is a phantom, a morsel hoarded through the years of censorship. More disturbing is the question of Lenin's ethnicity. His mother's ancestors included a Kalmyk (or perhaps a Kyrgyz) and also, controversially, a Jew called Moshko Blank. The Soviet government, with its twisted mix of anti-Semitism and Russophilia, turned Moshko's ethnic origins into a secret. Service rightly exposes the deception. But the story of Lenin's genes would not rate half a chapter if it had not been falsified earlier.
Sergei Khrushchev solves the problem of selectivity by including absolutely everything. His is not so much a biography as the raw material for one. Stories and perceptions tumble out like confidences. The Berlin Wall, for instance, gets built because "Father... thought that once the door to the West was closed, people would stop rushing around and begin working". He also liked to make his friends secure. The missiles he dispatched to Cuba were intended "only to defend its revolution". Sergei Khrushchev admits that this was a miscalculation. His account of the Cuban missile crisis then unfolds with horrifying logic. But he cannot resist the surreal story of Khrushchev's final declaration, the letter to Kennedy that brought the crisis to an end. Instead of sending this, the leadership decided to have it read out on Moscow radio for the Americans to hear. After hours of tense debate, they sealed the final document and sent it to the radio station by courier. But neither this man nor his driver could remember the address. They had almost missed the deadline for the broadcast by the time they found the radio building. The courier rushed inside, jumped into a lift and got stuck. The doors would not open, the lift would not move. He tried to push the envelope through a tiny crack in the lift door. But this proved impossible because of the heavy wax seals. In the end, the precious declaration was ripped open and handed to the waiting assistants page by page.
Khrushchev's book is full of tales such as this. An engineer himself, he is especially interested in space technology, and he gives vivid accounts of the Soviet rocket programme, the abortive mission to Mars and of the struggle to turn out enough warheads to frighten the Americans. But though he understands the science and the sense of technological hubris, Sergei Khrushchev is less clear about his father's faith in ideology. "Father argued that the Soviet Union would soon leave the United States far behind and the capitalists would beg to be admitted to socialism," he writes. "I tried to get Father to shed light on the nature of communism, but did not get any intelligible answer." This is the Khrushchev that his son will never fully comprehend. As a result, his portrait remains unconvincing. The optimistic, bumbling, kindly hero of his book seems far too nice to be a zealot.
Other opinions are needed ("I have come to the conclusion that Comrade Khrushchev is arrogant" - an associate from Ukraine) and are amply supplied in an edited collection from Yale. William Taubman et al shed light on aspects of the leader, and especially his early career, that his son overlooks -the encounters that brought Khrushchev senior to power and his struggle with the long shadow of Stalinism. Khrushchev remains a contradictory figure, regarded by some as a courageous reformer, the patron of the first cultural thaw, by others as the political survivor whose work preserved a corrupt regime for two decades.
What look like contradictions seem simpler with a different perspective. Our desire to compare Khrushchev to Mikhail Gorbachev, to assign credit points for each progressive act, does not help. Khrushchev came from an earlier generation. The tensions in his political record were the same as those that shaped his life. He was a revolutionary, a man whose youth was spent on projects, campaigns and fervent self-improvement. He was also an agile politician, one of the few who managed to stay alive at Stalin's court. A faithful, if unquestioning, communist, who survived, maybe, because theory and dissension bored him. But his belief, which seemed so righteous, led him into the whirlwind of Stalinist terror, to censorship, shootings, mass arrests, complicity and toadyism. At the end of his life, the story haunted him. "He was... infected by Stalin," his son writes. "He tried to rid himself of that poison, but could not."
It takes effort to imagine the secret world of Moscow's leaders. It is difficult to take seriously some of its claims, and it is easy to forget its context and immediate history. Service, at his best when he returns to politics, reminds us of forgotten ideology. His Lenin thinks that revolution will usher in the world-wide brotherhood of man. The idea seems absurd, as does Khrushchev's dream of Soviet economic primacy, the end of competition, inequality and need. But these ideas were the context for everything the leaders did - the revolution shaped the landscape of their work. Unless we try to understand this, we will search in vain for history in all those cardboard files.
Catherine Merridale is senior lecturer in history, University of Bristol.
Editor - William Taubman, Sergei Khrushchev and Abbott Gleason
ISBN - 0 300 07635 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 391