'There it is, my fate," Vladimir Lenin complained in December 1916. "One fighting campaign after another—against political stupidities, philistinism, opportunism and so forth." At the time a political exile, Lenin was riding out World War I in Zurich. Less than three months later came the collapse of the Romanov dynasty, setting Lenin and a group of his comrades in motion: They traveled through Germany, courtesy of the kaiser, and eventually arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in April 1917. Six months later the Bolsheviks stormed to power.
In "Conspirator," Helen Rappaport retraces Lenin's pre-revolutionary footsteps. As she shows, his path was influenced early on by the execution of his older brother for his role in a failed attempt to assassinate Czar Alexander III in 1887. Because of Lenin's own radical activities, he was arrested and exiled to Siberia a decade later. Released after three years, he left Russia in 1900 and lived among Russian émigrés in cities across Europe, including Paris and London—with a brief return to St. Petersburg in the wake of the 1905 revolution that almost toppled the autocracy. In Ms. Rappaport's narrative, we follow Lenin and his loyal comrade and wife, Nadya, as they occupy one cramped domicile after another.
The story is a familiar one of émigré squabbling and polemics, punctuated by socialist gatherings and ruptures, most famously the split of the Russian Marxists into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1903. That breach, we are reminded, grew out of Lenin's quest for control of the Marxist party organ, Iskra (The Spark), and Lenin's insistence on a centralized, tightly disciplined party of the kind he had advocated a year before in "What Is to Be Done?"
Ms. Rappaport claims that her book provides "an alternative view of Lenin the man during his long exile in Europe." What seems to interest her most—to put it bluntly—is Lenin's sex life, especially as revealed by his relationship with Inessa Armand, a widow born in France and raised in Russia, which she fled in 1909 as a radical exile. Lenin's relations with Armand have long tantalized Lenin biographers struggling to fill in the man behind the puritanical icon. She was a refined beauty, a superb pianist and a decent cook—none of which could be said of the dowdy Nadya, whose physical appearance declined on account of a thyroid condition. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Lenin had an affair with Armand in the years before his return to Russia.
This is old news, and Ms. Rappaport's book contributes almost nothing original to the story, notwithstanding her strenuous speculations as to how the sparks flew between Lenin and Inessa. "His sexuality, seemingly, had long been subordinated—along with his emotional needs—to the urgent and consuming life of politics," she explains. "Sex, like music, exposed the revolutionary's emotional vulnerabilities. And that was a dangerous thing. But in Paris, with Inessa, and perhaps with others, Lenin's sexuality was finally unlocked."
That there may have been "others" is another of Ms. Rappaport's preoccupations. "Where did Lenin really go during those many long bike rides around Paris?" she wonders. "Did he really spend his every waking moment in the library as the Soviet record and his loyal acolytes would have everyone believe?" There were rumors of visits to brothels—"the clues are there," she assures us. As an example she introduces "a tantalizing observation in [an American writer's] journal that overturns the sober, asexual image of the revolutionary leader." But the book's endnotes reveal that the journal entry was written in 1932, and the "further clues" in the next paragraph date from 1952.
Ms. Rappaport is so eager to expose this "unknown" Lenin that she seems to forget why we're here in the first place. To describe Lenin's ideas during this period she falls back on hackneyed phrases, such as Lenin's "militant Marxism." Readers come away with no clear sense of how and when Lenin became convinced that Russia could telescope Marx's epochal stages of history, making the bourgeois and socialist revolutions happen in quick succession.
Meanwhile, major events are barely sketched in. Ms. Rappaport's one-paragraph summary of the interactions among the European powers in July and August of 1914 is grossly misleading, not least her claim that Germany was "spoiling for a fight with Britain," when in fact it hoped to limit the war to the Continent. She says that, after Austro-Hungary's ultimatum to Serbia in late July, Russia "immediately declared war on Austria in Serbia's defense." But Russia never did declare war on Austro-Hungary, or even Germany. It mobilized its troops and then entered the war officially when Germany itself declared war a couple of days later. Other claims, elsewhere in the book, are no more reliable. "Being in the minority did not discourage Lenin," Mr. Rappaport observes; "adversity never did." Yet she often describes Lenin as "severely depressed" and "acutely dispirited" about his political prospects and uncompliant comrades, among other things.
As usual, Trotsky cuts a dashing figure, with his dramatic arrival at the Lenins' home in London in 1902. In August of the next year, according to Ms. Rappaport, Trotsky "perceptively noted" that the Bolshevik leader was "a man with every fibre of his being bent on one particular end. Lenin alone, and with finality, envisaged 'tomorrow,' with all its stern tasks, its cruel conflicts and countless victims." But the source for this quotation is Trotsky's memoir, "My Life," published in 1930. In August 1903, Trotsky had sided with the Mensheviks, and he and Lenin were at each other's throats.
Lenin died on Jan. 21, 1924, "supposedly," Ms. Rappaport remarks, "the victim of a series of seizures, but, as now seems likely, having succumbed to syphilis contracted sometime in the 1900s." Ms. Rappaport is not the first historian to speculate about the "real" cause of Lenin's death, but there is not enough evidence to suppose that syphilis was "likely"—certainly not in "Conspirator," a shallow, disappointing book.
Mr. Patenaude, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of "Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary."