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Radek: a novel

This historical novel begins just before the outbreak of World War I with Karl Radek waiting to hear if he has been expelled from the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP).


Sean Sheehan


The matter is controversial and Lenin does not support his expulsion. Radek suspects, all too correctly as it turns out, that if war engulfs Europe the SDP will succumb to jingoism and abandon its socialist principles.

Radek: A Novel”, written by Stefan Heym in the 1990s and now available in an English translation for the first time, is closely based on the life of a charismatic Marxist activist.

His role in the history of Bolshevism and what came after the death of Lenin makes it compulsively interesting. Most readers will at some stage have to shuffle through Wikipedia entries to fill out their knowledge of the historical background and that is part of its value.

Radek is too often reduced to a parenthesis in accounts of this turbulent and exciting period in European history but he was a heavyweight revolutionary despite his less-than-glorious submission to Stalinist rule.

He was on the platform in Zurich and boarded the train with Lenin and others when they headed for St Petersburg a couple of months after the February revolution of 1917.

The drama of the journey is told well by Heym, with details culled from various first-hand accounts and, as throughout the novel, the narrative becomes, as historical fiction, an uncommonly reliable guide to the course of events.

Lenin, busy at work in the Smolny Institute in St Petersburg, appoints him to work with Trotsky. What is plain is the enormity of the political and economic problems facing the Bolsheviks.

Concluding the chess-game negotiations with the German military, to bring Russia’s participation in World War 1 to an end, is an urgent task. When Germany loses the war, hope of another revolution blossoms and Radek smuggles himself into the country at the end of 1919.  Rosa Luxemburg is captured in Berlin and murdered by the authorities and Radek is also arrested and fears for his life.

He manages to return to Russia and to a Lenin who has been struck down by a stroke but still able to communicate his worries about Stalin.

Trotsky is removed from power and Radek is expelled from the Party and later banished to Siberia.

He ruefully accommodates himself to the new situation and, brought back into the fold, is given official missions and writing assignments.

He witnesses the show trials of  Kamanev and Zinoviev in 1935 and his own fate hangs in the balance. In the final chapters, the reader shares Radek’s doubts and fears as his precarious hold on life draws to its inevitable conclusion.

Radek: A Novel” is a compelling read because of the way it brings a hugely dramatic period of revolution to life and the book’s introduction is a fascinating account of how the life of its author drew him to write about someone with whom he shared personal and political similarities.

Radek: A Novel”, by Stefan Heym, is published by Monthly Review Press.

(Photos Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

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