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Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait by Victor Sebestyen

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Reviewed by Margaret MacMillan

Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25

In February 1917, when the tsarist regime collapsed, Vladimir Lenin and his devoted wife, Nadya Krupskaya, were living in a single small and smelly room in Zurich. He had long been exiled from Russia and his tiny party back home had some 3,000 members. Outside Left-wing revolutionary circles and the secret police, few people knew his name. By that October, he was master of Russia.

Yet he might well have lived and died in obscurity had it not been for the First World War. Under its pressures, the old regime fell to pieces and the Provisional Government that took over in 1917 made the fatal mistake of keeping Russia in the war. Lenin longed to get back to seize the moment and the German High Command obliged. Seeing him as the revolutionary virus which would destroy the Russian body politic and end the war in the east, the German military offered him a generous subsidy and safe conduct to the Baltic, from where he could travel on to St Petersburg. It seemed a clever idea at the time, but was to have disastrous and unforeseen consequences.
Without Lenin, his iron will and ruthless determination, the Bolsheviks would never have achieved power. They never had significant support in Russia. In the elections held for a Constituent Assembly in the autumn of 1917 – the last free ones until the 1990s – the Bolsheviks got less than 25 per cent of the popular vote. They were fortunate in being up against weak and divided opponents and in gaining support from the St Petersburg Soviet, one of the key workers’ and soldiers’ councils that had sprung up. In a disorganised and at times farcical coup, the Bolsheviks seized power. Most Russians except Lenin himself were surprised. He never doubted that he was destined to lead Russia and the world towards the socialist paradise.
The Bolsheviks moved with ruthless dispatch to seize the key institutions in Russian society and eliminate all opposition. In this, they reflected the leader who for so many years had been bending them to his will; they were more unscrupulous and readier than their opponents to use any means, from lies
to murder.
In this new biography, Victor Sebestyen gives a vivid and rounded picture of Lenin the man. Serious and deeply reserved, the great revolutionary had few friends but loved at least two women deeply, and at the same time. He had a deep appreciation of nature and was perhaps happiest when walking in the mountains. Music moved him but, so he told the writer Maxim Gorky, he worried that it made him soft. He never seems to have doubted himself.
Sebestyen argues that, without Lenin, there would have been no second revolution in 1917, no Soviet Russia, no Civil War and no Stalin as its eventual leader. A century later, many Russians would agree with him. And perhaps there need not have been such complete upheaval. Before 1914, Russia’s economy and society were developing fast; the tsar had agreed, reluctantly, to political reforms. But the regime remained brutal and repressive and many young idealistic Russians, Lenin among them, came to the conclusion that it could be ended only by violence. The crucial moment for him was the execution in 1887 of his adored older brother, who was hanged, at the age of 21, for plotting to assassinate the tsar. Lenin sacrificed a promising university career to throw himself into revolutionary politics. He was sent to Siberia and then chose to leave Russia.
He had by this time acquired Nadya Krupskaya, who devoted her life to him, cleaning their modest lodgings, cooking bad meals and acting as his secretary. She even accepted the presence of the vivacious and charming Inessa Armand who became his mistress. But Lenin’s unwavering passion was the revolution. As he told his fellow revolutionary Angelica Balabanova, ‘Everything that is done in the interests of the proletarian cause is honest.’
He created the Bolshevik Party and imposed a rigid discipline on its members. He was always its undisputed leader and he would not tolerate dissent. One of the legacies he left the Communist Party, as it eventually became, was its vicious treatment of opponents: they were vermin, lice, whores, scum, or traitors. It was a convenient way to dehumanise them and justify their elimination. He also instilled in his followers the conviction that they were the revolutionary vanguard, with greater insight and vision than ordinary people.
In 1917 with the simple and brilliant slogan ‘Peace, bread, land’ he promised to give the Russian people what they so badly needed and wanted. Yet he had few ideas about what he would do once his coup succeeded. As he said to Leon Trotsky, ‘First we must seize power.   Then we decide what to do with it.’ He dismissed experts as overrated but his own ideas about how to manage Russia were primitive. Building socialism, he famously said, was just a matter of Soviet power plus electrification. His special talent was for terror and here he improved markedly on the old regime. When there were serious food shortages in 1918, caused mainly by the collapse of the economy and transportation network, Lenin’s immediate response was to blame the farmers and declare war on them. When the forcible seizure of grain only worsened the crisis, Lenin called for random reprisals. If necessary, find tougher people to do the work, he ordered. They shouldn’t worry about ‘idiotic red tape’.
‘He desired the good’, said Balabanova, ‘but created evil.’ And Russia paid a terrible price. Although he worried about his successors, including Stalin, there is no evidence that he had regrets about the regime he had created before he died in 1924. Even before his death, his cult had begun and it continues today, at least in Russia. Vladmir Putin, whose grandfather was once Lenin’s cook, has spent a fortune on maintaining the mausoleum in Moscow and the embalmed body inside.
Lenin’s life has been well told before by Robert Service among others but Sebestyen brings to the task a gift for narrative and for describing his rich cast of characters. Where he falls short is in dealing with Lenin’s ideas. To take only one example, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, one of Lenin’s key works, gets only the most cursory of mentions, though it influenced generations of revolutionaries around the world. The founding of the Communist International, the Comintern, which Lenin believed would speed the revolution world-wide, is barely touched upon. So we are left with the life but not its chilling goals.

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This story was from April 2017 issue. Subscribe Now