Boris Savinkov is not a name I’d readily link with W. Somerset Maugham, but I came across a chapter about these two vastly different men in the marvellous book A Traveller in Romance: Uncollected Writings 1901-1964– W. Somerset Maugham (edited by John Whitehead). In the chapter The Terrorist: Boris Savinkov, Maugham recalls meeting Savinkov years before. Here’s how the chapter begins with Maugham on a ship:
I suppose it was something in the air. No one in the ship could sleep. One went to bed tired, but no sooner had one laid one’s head on the pillow than all one’s senses grew alert and one was wide awake. This was not the case only with a few bad sleepers, but with the passengers in general, and as night followed night, knowing there would be no rest in our rooms, we stayed up later and later.
One evening, having played bridge till our eyes ached and our brains were dizzy, we sat in the smoking-room, half a dozen of us, weary but unwilling to face a sleepless bed. We drank and smoked. We talked of one thing and another and presently one of those present threw out a question.
‘Who is the most remarkable man you’ve ever met?’ he asked.
As the conversation continues into the night, Maugham listens:
I sat silent, for no one spoke to me, and within myself considered whether really the most extraordinary men were to be found among those who have made a splash in the world; I had a notion that perhaps they were to be found rather among the obscure, living secret lives in a great and populous city, solitary on some island in the South Seas.
As I read this passage, I thought how typical it was of Maugham to include the South Seas into the equation. Here’s an observation made by Maugham as the discussion continues:
But I noticed that no one had said what he meant by extraordinary. Had it any reference to goodness? Had it to do with force of character or was it the sense of power that is manifest in certain men, which had led the speaker to claim for one or other of the persons mentioned that he was the most extraordinary man whom he had ever met? Or was it just strangeness?
Not the best discussion for the insomniac, and later Maugham returns to his cabin, tries to sleep, and instead goes onto the ship’s deck and recalls his meeting with Boris Savinkov in 1917 in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg):
I suppose few remember his name now, but [it] is a name that might have well been as familiar to us all as that of Lenin, and if it had, Lenin’s would have remained obscure. Boris Savinkov might easily have become a man of tremendous authority in Russia; I do not know whether he failed owing to some defect in his character or because the circumstances of the time were such that no man could have altered the course of events. There is no more sometimes than a trembling of a leaf between success and failure.
Maugham gives no hint as to why he was in Petrograd in 1917–hardly a tourist destination at that time in history. He just states that he’d “been sent there on business.” What sort of business, I wondered, and why did he contact Savinkov? There is no explanation. At that time Maugham had read two of Savinkov’s novels and knew of his reputation as a terrorist. When he meets the Russian, Maugham reports that Savinkov “had the prosperous, respectable look of the manager of a bank.”
Maugham meets Savinkov in order to conduct this mysterious business more than once, and the chapter discusses the various topics of conversation that took place between the two men. At one point, the conversation turns to the Bolsheviks:
Savinkov hated the Bolsheviks. When he spoke of them, though his voice remained soft, his eyes grew steely. The last words he ever spoke to me were these:
‘Between me and Lenin, it’s war to the death. One of these days, perhaps next week, he will put me with my back to the wall and shoot me, or I shall put him with his back to another wall and shoot him. One thing I can tell you is that I shall never run away.’
Savinkov spoke those words to Maugham in 1917. Shaplen, the translator of Savinkov’s memoirs, states that Savinkov provided Socialist-Revolutionary Dora Kaplan with a gun with which to shoot Lenin in 1918. Considering the quote from Maugham, well, it all falls into place. While the wounds were not lethal, Lenin never fully recovered, and later suffered a series of strokes before his death in 1924. Dora Kaplan was executed.
Savinkov lived in exile for a few years before being lured back to Russia in 1924 through the encouraging letters of a friend. He was arrested immediately in Minsk. Then came the trial, news of his ‘repentance,’ and a ten-year prison sentence. Then came the suicide. (I’m injecting here that suicide by ‘falling out of a window’ is a a popular but highly suspicious end–I’m thinking Giuseppe Pinelli as one example).
Shaplen appears to struggle with this final phase of Savinkov’s life. He takes the trial and the suicide at face value while speculating exactly what was going on in Savinkov’s mind when he ‘repented.’ Shaplen asks whether Savinkov returned to Russia thinking that his moment had come to seize his place in Russian history:
Lenin had been dead eight months and the Communist Party was beginning to be torn by the internal strife which, being in large part a struggle of the epigones for the succession to Lenin’s power, resulted ultimately in the elimination one after another of most of the Bolshevik old guard, the exile of Trotsky and the enthronement of Stalin. Did Savinkov believe that the moment was propitious for his reappearance on the stage? Did he see in the schism which was beginning to rend the Bolshevik Party an opportunity to impose himself upon the situation?
Maugham’s thoughts gel well with Shaplen’s speculations. Here’s Maugham on the subject of Savinkov living in exile and waiting for what he considered the perfect moment:
He went into hiding till the fitting opportunity to strike presented itself. For all his passion there was a certain coldness in his temperament; he was not a man to allow his emotions to interfere with his judgement. He had that great gift, the capacity to wait till the moment was ripe.
Maugham’s memories of Savinkov occupy just a few pages in the book, and yet the recalled acquaintance underscores Maugham’s power as a story-teller. It’s a haunting tale of a disturbing moment in Maugham’s life and also in the history of Russia. Although the story is told, there’s no sense of closure. It’s only fitting that remembering the episode leaves Maugham on the ship’s deck unable to sleep, in a deck chair and staring “at the starry night.”