Books Book Reviews

'Lenin' illuminates one of history's most destructive leaders

'The regime [Lenin] created was largely shaped by his personality,' writes Victor Sebestyen, 'secretive, suspicious, intolerant, ascetic, intemperate.' 

Lenin By Victor Sebestyen Knopf Doubleday 592 pp.
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  • Bob Blaisdell

Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror is the best biography I’ve read in years, despite its being about one of the most destructive leaders in history. It takes Victor Sebestyen less than five pages to perform the hardest of all literary tricks: making the person he’s writing about seem like a familiar human being. What makes that “Master of Terror” knowable is acknowledging his strengths – he certainly had them – his peculiarities (there were plenty), and his character. “What people could see straight away, from his first days as a revolutionary 'agitator,' was a single-minded man of iron discipline and unshakeable belief that he was right....” 

I had never understood Lenin’s power before. I had read his tracts, his speeches. I had read Solzhenitsyn’s dismissive fictional account, "Lenin in Zurich." I had read about his comrades and successors Stalin and Trotsky, who both exuded “personality,” but all the while, Lenin remained for me a zero. No charisma; no eloquence; no gift of writing. I had suffered way too many Soviet-era scholars who were required to quote Lenin’s blather about my 19th-century Russian literary idols; it was obvious they found nothing insightful in what he pronounced. He just had to be quoted. 

And when I got to Moscow, I didn’t want to see the Soviet demi-god’s pickled body in his Red Square tomb. It turns out his family and loved ones didn’t want to see him there, either, but his fellow terror-mongers thought his deification was a good idea, and so there he still is, stared at by Russian nationalists and the curious.

He was the only man in the world capable of doing what he did: carrying out the Russian Revolution. This is a negative achievement in Sebestyen’s considered opinion (I concur), and it’s all too plain that other dictators have learned from Lenin’s example: “His principle was simple: it is better that 100 innocent people are killed than that one person who is a danger to the Revolution remains free and a potential threat.… ‘The dictatorship means – take note of this once and for all – unrestrained power and the use of force, not of law.’”

Lenin would have loathed this biography. What does it matter, he would’ve wondered, that he and his wife never had a child, or that his longtime mistress could scarcely rouse him to the expression of a romantic sentiment? What does it matter that he was domestically fussy? “Every morning he would dust his desk and bookshelves before he settled down to work and ensure every pencil was sharpened to a fine point and in the right place. This was a routine that he adhered to strictly, whether he was in cheap lodgings … or in later years as the ruler of a vast empire from an office in the Kremlin.” But it does matter for making sense of a now damnably vivid man. We also learn that in the midst of the Russian Civil War, which he more than anyone fomented, he was the lone member of his household who remembered to feed the cat.

He never witnessed an execution and yet mocked anyone who suggested the Revolution could proceed without violence. He asked the new country’s commissar of justice, who was squawking at Lenin’s wanton orders to shoot, among others, troublemakers and protestors: “Do you really believe that we can be victorious without the very cruelest revolutionary terror?” He shied at the sight of blood and never served as a soldier or officer, but he was utterly shamelessly responsible for oceans of blood being poured onto the vast territory of the Soviet Union. He was a devout Marxist who rewrote Marxism to suit his dictatorial plans.

Lenin grew up in a well-off, educated family; he enjoyed their company his whole life and his mother helped support him financially into his forties. He was born Vladimir Ulyanov, the name he became famous for being just one of his many revolutionary pseudonyms. In 1887, when he was 17, his older brother was executed for attempting to assassinate the tsar. At university, Lenin, studying with a vengeance, became one of the country’s top-ranked law students. In the late 1890s, his revolutionary activities got him arrested and sentenced for three years to Siberia, where, to even to his surprise, he enjoyed himself reading, writing, and hunting. After the Revolution, he would make sure no one enjoyed the labor camps that became the Gulag.

He didn’t care about food or parties; he liked lively people and mistrusted bores who only spoke of radical plans. Creating an actual revolution from a tiny core of followers was his job, his life’s work.

Everyone who knew him had strong opinions about him. He was not lovable, but he was impressive. “Vladimir Ilyich was perhaps the most unemotional man I have ever met in politics. No hate, no compassion, not even irritation against his opponents. His ruthlessness in argument never stemmed from a personal grudge – each word, even each slanderous innuendo in his writings, was coldly calculating,” remembered a comrade. He was not physically attractive or dynamic. “Lenin kept everyone at arm’s length. I never saw him put his hand on anyone’s shoulder and nobody among his comrades would have dared, however deferentially, to do so to him,” recalled another acquaintance.

But he knew how to pitch his political points so that even people who despised him and his message understood their attraction. The writer Maxim Gorky was critical of the leader but also amazed: “I had never known anyone who could talk of the most intricate political questions so simply … no striving after eloquent phrases, but every word uttered distinctly and its meaning marvelously clear.” Lenin’s primary cause was the eradication of social inequality, and yet he couldn’t give a fig for individual people.

This isn’t a back-and-forth, on the one hand he was good, on the other he was bad biography. Sebestyen shows us what Lenin did and created was terrible. Who he was is and was, regrettably, fascinating: “The public Lenin adopted a highly populist style of politics that would be recognizable – and imitated by many a rabble-rouser – a hundred years later, even in long-established democracies. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly.”

"Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror" is terrific, the story of “the godfather” of “post-truth politics” and founding father of one of the world’s biggest man-made catastrophes. “Throughout its existence the Soviet Union identified itself with the founder of the State, alive or dead. The regime he created was largely shaped by his personality: secretive, suspicious, intolerant, ascetic, intemperate. Few of the more decent parts of his character found their way into the public sphere of his Soviet Union.”

Don’t look away. We can see the future in the past.

Bob Blaisdell has written a biography of Leo Tolstoy.

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