35. Lenin finds a new flat in the Kremlin

Lenin and the Bolsheviks by Adam B. Ulam.

Few people in Russia in the spring of 1918 had the time and disposition to ponder the significance of the capital being shifted to Moscow. Two centuries before, Peter the Great left the ancient city that reminded him of the semi-Asiatic past and customs of the country and transferred the seat of government to the newly built capital which was to be Russia's window on Europe, both the symbol and the tangible proof of the new European ways he tried so despotically to impose on his subjects. Now a group of revolutionaries was fleeing back to the depths of Russia, to the old capital of the Grand Dukes and Tsars of Muscovy. Few would have seen in it an augury of how important Russian communism would become, how this movement conceived in the international spirit would in due time come to revere the awesome figures who also ruled Russia from the Kremlin: Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible, 'the gatherers of the Russian lands', who would bequeath the task to the son of a Georgian cobbler. Equally astounded in 1918 would be one told that this movement, heavily staffed at its highest positions by Jews, Poles, and Latvians, would become in its personnel and even more in its spirit fiercely nationalistic, that just as the patriarchs of the Orthodox Church used to thunder against foreign ways so from Communist Moscow, from the heirs of Marx and Lenin, would issue edicts and anathemas against the 'rootless cosmopolites', the 'innovators', the 'imitators of the rotten West'.

But no historic reflections could be afforded that spring, for the people had to pay full attention to the needs and miseries of the hour: a catastrophic defeat, the Civil War just beginning in the South, hunger and disorganization that were bound to grow worse with the loss by Russia of her most fertile and some of the most industrialized regions. The manner of the transfer of the capital was in itself significant. The government literally stole away from Petrograd. There had been fears that the Railwaymen's Union, still not fully friendly to the Bolsheviks, would block the move, or that the Germans by dispatching a few battalions would capture the fleeing commissars bag and baggage. Only from a nearby station was the Moscow soviet notified about the imminent arrival of the government of the Russian Federated Republic headed by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-Lenin. No guard of honour awaited him upon his arrival. As a matter of fact there were no official greeters at all. Another commentary on those times: the arrivals were appalled to discover that the Moscow Bolsheviks had just set up a 'government' of their own, the Moscow Council of the People's Commissars, headed by a Left Communist, historian M. Pokrovsky. Lenin was soon to put an end to 'that idiocy', as he called it.

The government (the right one) immediately faced the prosaic task of finding offices and living space. After a few days in a hotel the Chairman of the Council of the Commissars moved into the Kremlin. The huge walled enclosure, the ancient seat of the Tsars, was to become a rabbit warren of the Bolsheviks' apartments and agencies. The Kremlin was in a deplorable shape: wartime neglect and the recent fighting in Moscow had left once magnificent living quarters filthy and barely fit for occupation. But there was no alternative: even with the confiscation of the residences of the rich, space was at a premium. As a seat of government and residence of its leaders the Kremlin had another advantage in those tumultuous days: it was, in a manner of speaking, a fortress. Tomorrow, any day, the reaction, the Anarchists, or the Left Socialist Revolutionaries might raise a revolt, and as in the old times the new Tsars would have to fight from behind its walls until help came.

There was as a matter of fact a veritable battle of Moscow waged among various commissariats and agencies for the most desirable residences. Stalin's personal assistant recalls how his boss, dissatisfied with the house assigned for the Commissariat of Nationalities, occupied on his own a building assigned to the State Economic Council. Accompanied by his henchmen, the future dictator tore off the sign the Council had affixed and moved into this former residence of a rich merchant. His assistant hired some Lettish sharpshooters at two roubles a day (they were allegedly the elite guard of the Bolsheviks and one wonders how they reconciled their regular military duties with this 'private' employment) to guard his conquest against the economists. But the latter managed to dislodge them, a sign that the Soviet administration was settling down to more conventional ways.

Lenin's own apartment was modest enough. He and Krupskaya occupied five rooms, his one bedroom being in those hard times the legal norm for a state functionary. To the end of his days Lenin would resist the ideas of a more commodious apartment or of extensive repairs to the one he occupied. (They had to be done stealthily, while he was vacationing.) Nor would he accept valuable rugs and furniture from the Kremlin's store-room. At a time when some Bolshevik bigwigs were beginning to enjoy the tangible rewards of power Lenin insisted upon the simple unpretentious comfort reminiscent of the conditions under which he had lived in migration. With constant food-shortages admirers would insist upon sending him special packages, which he received with embarrassment, often ordering that they be distributed to hospitals or children. Thus the new ruler of Russia lived in the old residence of her Tsars, protected by a guard of Lettish sharpshooters and watched over by the Cheka, the Bolshevik political police, headed by a Pole.