How It All Began

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Nikolai Bukharin was born in 1888 in Moscow and became one of the leading Bolshevik revolutionaries, a theorist who was close to Vladimir Lenin. After Lenin’s death, Bukharin earned Joseph Stalin’s enmity, largely because Bukharin opposed Stalin’s plan of squeezing the peasants to support the proletarian industrial workers and their factories. After a show trial found Bukharin guilty on trumped-up charges of treason, he was executed in 1938. HOW IT ALL BEGAN: THE PRISON NOVEL is one of four manuscripts Bukharin wrote during his incarceration, and Professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton was able to get these manuscripts from the Presidential Archives with Boris Yeltsin’s permission. George Shriver’s translation of HOW IT ALL BEGAN is excellent.

Bukharin was a precocious child, devoted to natural history, art, and literature. When his father lost his teaching job in Moscow, they moved to Bessarabia (modern day Moldavia), where his father worked as tax assessor until he was fired because he did not participate in the vicious anti-Semitism of the local merchants and petty officials. From then on, the Bukharins lived with one or the other of Nikolai’s generous but ineffectual father’s brothers.

The poverty that Nikolai observed among the village peasants— and his own family’s circumstances were often not much better— stimulated the future revolutionary’s social conscience, especially when he compared it with the luxury of the great families. Despite his grandmother’s horrified protests, Nikolai became such a confirmed atheist that one of his amused uncles called him “Voltairean.” His depression over the deaths of his younger brother and of one of his close friends further shaped his adult sensibility.

This work would be a fine account of a boy’s coming of age whatever its origin, but considering the circumstances of its composition it becomes extraordinarily moving.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, May 15, 1998, p. 1587.

Choice. XXV, November, 1998, p. 529.

Library Journal. CXXIII, June 1, 1998, p. 132.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 7, 1998, p. 12.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, June 14, 1998, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, May 11, 1998, p. 58.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, July 5, 1998, p. 9.