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The Last Communard: Adrien Lejeune, the Unexpected Life of a Revolutionary

The story of an unexpected hero
The Last Communard offers a brilliant, striking portrait of revolutionary Europe through a remarkable personal story.

In 1871, Adrien Lejeune fought on the barricades of the Paris Commune. He was imprisoned for treason when the Commune fell and narrowly avoided execution for his role in the struggle for a new future. In later life, he immigrated to Soviet Russia, finding fame as a revolutionary icon. In his native country, he was vaunted as a hero, a touchstone of revolutions past during France’s interwar dramas.

Abandoned by the Soviet regime, he languished, fortunes foundering, in Russia. Having led a long and extraordinary life, he died in Siberia in 1942 while fleeing Moscow as the Nazi armies swept across western Russia. It was another thirty years before he returned to Paris, his ashes coming to rest in the Communards’ plot of the Père Lachaise cemetery, on the centennial of the uprising, a symbol of France’s undying radical tradition.

Gavin Bowd’s stunning narrative shows how an individual can be swept up in the fierce tides of history, and at the same time be defined by his own efforts to force those tides into a different, and better, course. Lejeune’s life captures war and revolution in a tumultuous period of European history.

Reviews

  • “Adrien Lejeune is among those men whose lives embrace history, allowing us to meditate on a century of insurrections and revolutions, victories and defeats. Gavin Bowd not only details Lejeune’s life, but also the constitution of his legend, and the inevitable gap between them. In this way, Bowd reminds us of the importance stories have in the fight for emancipation, stories that, despite the decline of the ‘communist hypothesis,’ still haunt us.”
  • “A life spanning the Commune, the French Communist party and honoured exile in the USSR made Lejeune an exemplar of the official story of the Commune sustained by the communist movement across the 20th century, as the great precursor of the Soviet socialist state. Bowd’s book explodes this myth with great ruthlessness...it firmly slams shut one story of the Commune – one where it served as little more than a failed rehearsal for the USSR – and in doing so, makes others possible.”
  • “A fascinating story”
  • “Lejeune, a herbalist, was an unenthusiastic participant in the Paris Commune of 1871; it nevertheless changed his life. After a harsh spell of imprisonment, he moved into the fringes of left-wing politics and eventually, in his seventies, into the twentieth-century Communist Party. With other elderly militants, he retired to the workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union. An accident of longevity made him finally the sole survivor of the Commune, carefully looked after even amid the horrors of the German invasion, from which he took refuge in Siberia, dying in 1942 at the ripe old age of ninety-five. Gavin Bowd tells this strange story well, casting a clear light into many previously obscure corners. He shows the lasting importance of the Paris Commune in the Marxist–Leninist historical narrative, in which Lejeune became the last tangible link between the nineteenth-century French revolutionary tradition and the Soviet Union.”
  • “This story of a man who fought in the Paris Commune in 1871 and died in Siberia in 1942, sounds as if it should be stranger than fact.”
  • “Bowd's book is...a fascinating example of historical legend-making.”

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