Obvious question: why a novel about Nadya Krupskaya, Nadya’s mother and Nadya’s husband (Vladimir Lenin)?
A perplexed friend asked the same question back when I started the project. The justification that popped out of my mouth at the time was: “I admire their work ethic.” Whatever else might be said of them, Krupskaya the younger and Lenin worked like dogs on behalf of their cause.
And you appreciate working like a dog?
I’m a farmer’s daughter, raised on a farm in eastern North Carolina. For a big chunk of my life I thought ceaseless work was the standard operating mode.
Partially inspired by the work habits of revolutionaries, okay. What else got you going?
Robert Payne’s biography of Lenin strongly hinted that Lenin’s mother-in-law, Yelizaveta Vasilevna Krupskaya, wasn’t all that impressed by her son-in-law. Granted, a mother less than impressed with her daughter’s choice of husbands isn’t unusual. But the mother-in-law of the future founder of the Communist Party being sniffy about her daughter’s mate seemed like promising fictional territory. Add to that: Yelizaveta lived with the couple for many years of exile in very close quarters. In practical terms, that meant as a married fellow Lenin not only gained a comrade/wife, he gained a sharp-tongued, in-house critic. I thought I could do something with that domestic situation.
And within that domestic triangle, Madam Lenin/Nadya Krupskaya is…
A woman of conflicted loyalties. Who is she going to side with, mother or husband, and how often? Given the exalted importance of loyalty in revolutionary circles, conflicted loyalties on the home front seemed a good storytelling angle.
The novel begins before Nadya meets Lenin and ends during the Stalin era. Why not focus on a few turbulent years—say, from the successful 1917 revolution to Lenin’s death in 1924?
Definitely a question worth asking. I debated and debated where to start and stop the novel. But I was always keen on beginning and ending with the two Krupskayas alone—so that was a deciding factor, as was Stalin. Once Stalin was in power, Nadya was extremely vulnerable, despite being Lenin’s widow. I wanted to cover her dealing with a demotion in terms of Communist Party influence and also with Stalin’s abuse.
Stalin’s abuse of her or Russians in general?
So another case of conflicting loyalties: Nadya having to support a Communist Party controlled by Stalin.
Although I don’t believe she felt “conflicted” regarding Comrade Stalin. I’m pretty sure she loathed the man.
In terms of background details, you stole quite a bit from Nadya’s Memories of Lenin.
It’s a fascinating book. You can feel her doing all she can to humanize Lenin, save the man from the cult that Stalin had, for his own purposes, concocted.
I’m assuming you went to Russia?
I made a brief, crazy trip. I wanted to at least stand on St. Petersburg pavement, sniff the air and stare at the Neva.
Was that trip useful in terms of writing about the Krupskayas?
As it happened, I got a bit diverted. Turns out it’s possible to tour the palace on the Moika Canal where Rasputin was poisoned and shot but not quite killed. Wax figures recreate the “poison scene.” Couldn’t pass that up.
In the novel, History is an interviewer—and a tough one. What are you getting at in those “Interview with History” chapters?
First: homage. Oriana Fallaci’s Interview with History wowed me when I first read it and still wows me. Henry Kissinger et al. didn’t have a clue who’d they’d let through the door. I wanted to emulate that kind of antagonistic sparring. I also wanted to spotlight Russian female radicals who typically take a backseat to the Trotsky/Lenin/Stalin trio in terms of ink. Tough, fierce women such as Sophia Perovskaya of The People’s Will, the group responsible for assassinating Tsar Alexander II.
History only interviews women?
Correct. The Daughters Marx rate an Interview with History but not daddy Karl.
Meaning: Karl Marx has also had enough written about him?
Who’s to say what’s enough? But whereas most readers know Karl Marx to be the author of The Communist Manifesto, how many of us know much, if anything, about his devoted, political daughters, Laura and Eleanor? I didn’t. Not before I started doing research for the novel.
Not an altogether new preoccupation of yours, though: women radicals. In the speculative novel Sleep, you elevated women radicals to sainthood: Saint Rosa (Luxemburg), Saint Charlotte (Corday).
The saints in Sleep are mythic—removed from the action. In Madam Lenin, the radical femmes argue and dispute and aggressively defend their place in the historical record. They’re characters of a very different temperature. But as far as working the women radicals’ angle, Sleep does count as the beginning, Madam Lenin the extension.
Yelizaveta’s chapters are in first-person point of view, Nadya’s in third. Why?
Yelizaveta is telling the story of what happened to the Krupskayas (and Russia) and Nadya is living it. The older, less idealistic Yelizaveta gets to rant and rave and snipe and confide her doubts about all and sundry. Her daughter, on the other hand, is constantly striving to hold her emotions in check, be a good soldier. So those different POVs seemed another way to reflect their personalities. Also I liked the back and forth between the subjective first-person and “objective” third, the clash of the two. In a novel built around revolutions, why not add another layer of clash?
In Madam Lenin, what secrets about Vladimir Lenin does his mother-in-law spill?
I wouldn’t call them secrets exactly—since Lenin’s every burp seems to have been recorded—but stuff that doesn’t make it into his Wikipedia entry. He had a big head as a kid. He required absolute silence when he worked. He played chess in his dreams. He loved to wash dishes. He adored gossip. He was a lousy shot. All supposedly true. I make the assumption that he envied Trotsky’s hair. (Who didn’t?) But that’s just my assumption.
And Nadya’s secrets?
I’m on shakier ground there, but in the novel I take the position that, despite their Siberian marriage being billed as one of revolutionary convenience, she loved Vladimir Ulyanov, the man. And continued to love him, despite his dalliance with Inessa Armand.
Ah, yes, the lovely Inessa, expert linguist and revolutionary firebrand. And what did Yelizaveta think of her daughter’s rival?
My fictionalized Yelizaveta is grateful for the help. She resents that her daughter not only slaves night and day for the revolution but is constantly having to bolster Lenin’s depressed spirits. Taking care of Vladimir Lenin took a lot of work. Yelizaveta sees Inessa as someone who can ease the workload for both her daughter and herself.
Your UNC Russian History professor vetted the manuscript. Which change did he suggest that you ignored?
Willis Brooks, to whom the book is dedicated, thought the title “Madam Lenin” far too bourgeois. He suggested “Commissariat Lenin.” However historically accurate, I just couldn’t see my way to Commissariat Lenin. It didn’t roll off my tongue. (And I practiced.) “Commissariat Lenin” also seemed to promise a book that was much more about Communism per se than the book I wrote. Madam Lenin is about a group of people who, after a string of other labels, eventually settled on calling themselves Communists.
And now for the question no author should answer but you’re going to: what’s your favorite part of the book.
The chapters about Fanya/Fanny Kaplan, the Socialist Revolutionary who shot Lenin in 1918.
Pick a quote. For a message tee.
- “I do not look forward to Siberia.”—Yelizaveta Krupskaya
- “They needed to be shot, and we shot them.”—Nadya Krupskaya
- “What about a failed revolution bears reporting?”—Yelizaveta Krupskaya
KAT MEADS is the author of For You, Madam Lenin and other books of prose and poetry, including The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan and Little Pockets of Alarm. Along with Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza and Stacy Bierlein, she edited Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience (OV Books). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Drunken Boat, American Letters & Commentary, Gargoyle, Crazyhorse and Chicago Quarterly Review. She has received an NEA, writing residencies at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and Yaddo, Chelsea magazine’s fiction prize and the Dorothy Churchill Cappon Essay Award from New Letters. Her short plays have been produced in New York and Los Angeles. She teaches in Oklahoma City University’s low-residency Red Earth MFA program.