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Lenin, Kruspskaya and Inessa Armand

Extracts from Lenin: A biography, Robert Service (2000)

p 197-200

Until then, apparently, Lenin resisted sexual temptation. This restraint, if indeed it had been holding since his marriage in Siberia, seems to have broken down in Paris when he became acquainted with Inessa Armand. Everyone knew her simply as Inessa. She was a widow. Her father had been French, her mother English. Inessa had lived in Russia as a child; on growing up, she married Alexander Armand, in whose parents' family she was training to become a domestic tutor. She had five children, but her marriage became a sham after she started sleeping with her brother-in-law Vladimir Armand. This liaison, however, was short-lived: Vladimir died of tuberculosis in 1909. Inessa then moved to Western Europe with three of her children (and her husband Alexander continued to support her there financially). She had already been involved in revolutionary activity and been exiled by the Ministry of the Interior to Archangel in the Russian far north, and in Paris she aligned herself with the Bolshevik faction in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. Her fluency in Russian, French and English ensured her a warm welcome.

Inessa Armand was a fine-looking woman in her mid-thirties with long, wavy auburn hair. The pictures in the archives show that she had a beautiful face. When reproduced in Soviet history books, they never did her justice — and the thought occurs that the authorities, wishing to downplay speculation about a relationship between her and Lenin, tried to make her seem visually less appealing than she was. She had high, well-defined cheekbones. Her nose was slightly curved and her nostrils were wonderfully flared; her upper lip was slightly protrusive. Her teeth were white and even. She had lustrous, dark eyebrows. And she had kept her figure after having her children. In pictures taken with them as adolescents she looks more like an elder sister than a mother; her appearance was such that the Okhrana agents underestimated her age by several years. Inessa was also vivacious. She liked to ride side-saddle when she could, and to play Beethoven on the piano. She adored her children, but did not let them get in the way of her wish to enjoy herself. In particular, she had an uninhibited attitude to extramarital relationships.

The relationship between Lenin and Inessa Armand began slowly, and the passion originated on her side. She later wrote eloquently about this to him:

    At that time I was terribly scared of you. The desire existed to see you, but it seemed better to drop dead on the spot than to come into your presence; and when for some reason you popped into N.K. [Krupskaya]'s room, I instantly lost control and behaved like a fool. Only in Longjumeau and in the following autumn in connection with translations and so on did I somewhat get used to you. I so much loved not only to listen to you but also to look at you as you spoke. Firstly, your face is so enlivened and, secondly, it was convenient to watch because you didn't notice at that time.

In the same letter she added: "At that time I definitely wasn't in love with you, but even then I loved you very much." Soon she fell in love with him. No letter survives to demonstrate that he in his turn fell equally for her, and this has led some writers to conclude that there was no affair. But Lenin's epistolary silence is not surprising. In mid-1914, when the relationship had waned, he asked her to return the correspondence he had sent her; it is difficult to imagine that his purpose was other than to destroy the evidence of what had taken place between them.

The associates and acquaintances of the Bolshevik leader took it for granted that the two were having an affair in 1910-12. When the French Marxist Charles Rappoport came upon them talking in a café on the Avenue d'Orléans, he reported that Lenin "could not take his Mongolian eyes off this little Frenchwoman". A hint was dropped also by Lidia Fotieva, one of Lenin's secretaries after the October Revolution, who recalled from her own visits to Lenin's apartment that Nadya no longer slept in the marital bedroom but in the bedroom of her mother. In September 1911, Inessa moved into the Rue Marie-Rose and lived next door to the Lenins at No. 2.

Admittedly, the evidence is circumstantial. But the intensity of the letters they subsequently sent each other makes it unlikely that Lenin was just flirting with Inessa; the probability is that they had had an extramarital affair. A reciprocal passion had obviously existed even if Lenin, unlike Inessa, did not explicitly refer to it in the correspondence. What, though, was the attraction between the two of them? For Lenin, it was probably crucial that Inessa was someone who, as she confided to her last diary, thought that life ought to be lived in the service of some great cause. The Bolshevik vision of revolutionary strategy was exactly such a cause for her. And, of course, she was lively, beautiful and "cultured" in the broadest sense. No wonder Lenin took to her. She in turn left a record as to why she was attracted by him. She adored his lively eyes, his self-belief and his intimidating presence. Even his initial unawareness of her intense interest in him had an appeal to her, but she found him irresistibly fascinating, and she absolutely had to have him.

For a time she surely succeeded. The victim of this process was Nadya, who had dedicated her life to Lenin's career since their marriage in 1898. She was an enduring soul. Yet she understandably drew the line at participating in a permanent ménage a trois. The detail of their disagreement was carried to their deaths with them, and rumours sprang up to fill the void. It is said that Nadya wanted to walk out and leave the lovers to their relationship. Lenin was aghast that his marriage might end. A sense of indebtedness to Nadya may have influenced him, and he perhaps also was sorry for her difficulties with Graves's disease. Possibly, too, his happiness depended on having Inessa without losing Nadya. In Nadya he had a personal secretary and household organiser. Inessa would never be as competent as Nadya at this dual role. She might not even agree to fulfil it at all. And so, according to the rumours, Lenin urged Nadya to change her mind: "Stay!" And Nadya did as requested, but only after being assured that his passion for Inessa did not exclude Nadezhda from his affections.

Nadya and Inessa felt no hostility for each other, and worked together in the party school a dozen miles to the south of Paris at Longjumeau in late 1911 where the Ulyanovs rented an apartment at 140 La Grande Rue. Furthermore, it was a lasting sadness to both Lenin and Nadya that their marriage had produced no children. The presence of Inessa's offspring in the neighbouring house on Rue Marie-Rose brought delight to the Ulyanov couple, who acted like uncle and aunt to the youngsters not only in Paris but years later in Moscow.

pp 414-416

While all this was happening, a terrible event occurred in Lenin's personal life. Inessa Armand had returned from her Red Cross mission to France and had fallen ill. Lenin wrote her a note:

    Dear Friend,

    Please write a note to say what's up with you. These are foul times: typhoid, influenza, Spanish 'flu, cholera. I've only just got out of bed and am not going out. Nadya has a temperature of 39o and she's asked to see you. What's your temperature? Don't you need something to make yourself better? I really ask you to write frankly. Get better!

    Yours, Lenin

Despite the chatty style, he preserved an emotional distance by addressing her with the polite Russian sy rather than the familiar iy and he can hardly have been trying to conduct a secret affair with her because he mentioned that his wife Nadya wanted Inessa to visit her. The ties between Lenin and Inessa were close, but they were not of the same nature as in Paris in 1912. Nadya by contrast seemed to have gained in influence over him. Alexandra Kollontai, whose novel The Love of Worker Bees was an allegory of the Lenin-Nadya-Inessa triangle in Paris in 1911-12, noted in her 1920 diary how "he takes great notice of her".

As for Lenin, he was bossy towards Inessa but there was an endearing ineffectuality about his efforts. When he wrote again to her, he tried to stop her venturing outside in the cold. He knew that she would ignore his instructions and directed her to tell her children to command her not to go outside in the freezing cold. It was Lenin's habit to supervise the medical treatment of his associates, but there is no parallel to his detailed intervention in the case of Inessa. She recovered from this bout of ill health and agreed to act as interpreter at the Second Comintern Congress in July.

This was very intensive work and — coming on top of disputes with colleagues such as Alexandra Kollontai — induced a relapse. In truth Inessa was exhausted, and Lenin advised her to go to a sanatorium. He suggested that, if she insisted on going abroad, she should avoid France for fear she might be arrested. In Lenin's opinion it would be better if she made for Norway or Holland. Better still, he suggested, she might try the Caucasus, and he promised to make dispositions for a pleasant period of care for her there. To cheer her up he mentioned that he had been hunting in the woods near the old Armand estate outside Moscow, and that the peasants had talked nostalgically about the days before 1917 when there had been real "order".

Inessa agreed to go to the spa town Kislovodsk in the mountains of the north Caucasus. Lenin gave orders that she and her son Andrei — then a lad of sixteen — should be well looked after. But the area was affected by a cholera epidemic; it also had not yet been pacified by the Red Army. Inadvertently Lenin had sent his former lover into mortal danger. First she caught cholera. Then the order was given for people to be evacuated to Nalchik. Inessa's health was finally broken, and she perished on 24 September 1920.

Knowing she was dying, she had put down her last thoughts in a presentational notebook given to her at the Comintern Congress. They make for poignant reading. Inessa wrote on 1 September:

    Will this feeling of inner death ever pass away? I've reached the point where I find it strange that other people laugh so easily and that they obviously get pleasure from talking. I now laugh and smile almost never because an inner joy induces this in me but because it's sometimes necessary to smile. I'm also struck by my present indifference to nature. And yet it used to make me tremble so strongly. And how little I've now begun to love people. Previously I would approach each person with warm feelings. Now I'm indifferent to everyone. But the main thing is that I'm bored with almost everyone. Hot feelings have remained only for my children and for V.I.

There was only one person she could have referred to as V.I., and that was Vladimir Ilich Lenin. Inessa continued:

    It's as if my heart has died in all other respects. As if, having devoted all my strength and all my passion to V.I. and to the cause of our [political] work, all sources of love and sympathy for people — to whom it once was so rich — have been exhausted. With the exception of V.I. and my children I no longer have any personal relationships with people except purely practical relationships.

Inessa called herself a "living corpse"; it was not only cholera but also a broken heart that did for her. Ten days later she contemplated the meaning of her life:

    For romantics, love holds the first place in a person's life. It's higher than anything else. And until recently I was far nearer to such a notion than I am now. True, for me love was never the only thing. Alongside love there was public activity. And both in my life and in the past there have been not a few instances where I've sacrificed my happiness and my love for the good of the cause. But previously it used to seem that love had a significance equal to that of public activity. Now it's not like that. The significance of love in comparison with public activity becomes quite small and cannot bear comparison with public activity.


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