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Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait Paperback – February 9, 2017
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“Can first-rate history read like a thriller? With Lenin: The Man, the Dictator and the Master of Terror, the journalist Victor Sebestyen has pulled off this rarest of feats . . . How did he do it? Start with a Russian version of “House of Cards” and behold Vladimir Ilyich Lenin pre-empt Frank Underwood’s cynicism and murderous ambition by 100 years. Add meticulous research by digging into Soviet archives, including those locked away until recently. Plow through 9.5 million words of Lenin’s “Collected Works.” Finally, apply a scriptwriter’s knack for drama and suspense that needs no ludicrous cliffhangers to enthrall history buffs and professionals alike.”
—Josef Joffe, The New York Times Book Review
“An illuminating new biography of the cold, calculating ruler on whom the subsequent Soviet state modeled itself . . . Sebestyen ably captures the man, "the kind of demagogue familiar to us in Western democracies." A compelling, clear-eyed portrait of a dictator whose politics have unfortunate relevance for today.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Insightful . . . A compelling portrait of an epoch-making figure . . . Readers explore the complexities of [Lenin’s] personality: sophisticated intellectual and shameless demagogue, cerebral logician and emotional rageaholic, sensitive lover of music and callous murderer. But no complexities will fascinate readers more than those characterizing Lenin’s tangled relationships with the women who influenced him. Taking readers deep into a marriage that previous biographers have dismissed as merely functional, Sebestyen illuminates moments of real tenderness—and of painful tension—as Lenin succumbs to the charms of a beautiful émigré, whom he makes his mistress without abandoning his wife.”
—Booklist (starred review)
"[An] excellent, original and compelling portrait of Lenin as man and leader."
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of The Romanovs
“A fresh, powerful portrait of Lenin, and just at the right time: As Bolshevik ideas and tactics return to world politics, Victor Sebestyen focuses our attention on man who invented them.”
—Anne Applebaum, author of Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine
"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. Lenin's life has been told before, but Sebestyen brings to the task a gift for narrative and for describing his rich cast of characters."
—Margaret MacMillan, The Oldie (UK)
"An entertaining read . . . Sebestyen writes in a lively journalistic style and has an eye for memorable anecdotes and quotations . . . He brings Lenin the man to life and shows persuasively how 'he was driven by emotion as much as by ideology.'"
—Orlando Figes, The Sunday Times (UK)
“Richly readable . . . Sebestyen does full justice to the astonishing, thriller-like tale of [Lenin’s] return to Russia to organize the October uprising . . . Lenin saw enemies everywhere. Blaming peasant farmers for the shortage of food, he ordered provincial officials to round them up and hang them. Even Josef Stalin was rebuked for not being ‘merciless’ enough . . . An enthralling but appalling story.”
—The Mail on Sunday (UK)
"Sebestyen brings Lenin's complexities to life, balancing personality with politics in succinct and readable prose, [and] describes particularly keenly how this ruthless, domineering, often vicious man depended on women to sustain him. "
—David Reynolds, The New Statesman (UK)
“Sebestyen, whose family fled Hungary as refugees when he was a child, revives a style of history familiar to the Cold War, in which leading Bolsheviks appear as black sheep in an unhappy eastern bloc family history. Like the Polish-born historian Richard Pipes, his writing is full of caustic asides and asterisks and daggers leading down wormholes of communist lore. His well-sourced narrative feels as if it was honed around kitchen tables for decades before he sat down to write it.”
—Roland Elliott Brown, The Spectator (UK) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
VICTOR SEBESTYEN was born in Budapest. He has worked as a journalist on many British newspapers including The Times, the Daily Mail, and the London Evening Standard, where he was foreign editor and editorial writer. He has also written for many American publications, including The New York Times, and was an editor at Newsweek. He is author of Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, and 1946: The Making of the Modern World. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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The book follows the conventional linear structure of biographies, starting with Lenin's background and childhood and ending with the cult of Lenin which followed his death. We see him first as the son of a 'noble' – not quite the kind of aristocrat we would think of as a 'noble' in the UK, but more what would pass as upper middle or professional class. As a child and youth he was intelligent, a voracious reader and rather cold emotionally to people outwith his family. Sebestyen suggests that it was the execution of his brother, for attempting to assassinate the Tsar, that instilled in the young Lenin an interest in revolutionary politics and a deep hatred for the bourgeoisie who turned their backs on the family after this scandal.
Much of the book is taken up with Lenin's long years in exile, his personal relationships with his wife and later his mistress, and with those other budding revolutionaries in exile who would later become political allies or enemies. As Lenin's life progresses, Sebestyen discusses his various writings, giving a good indication of the development of his own ideology and the methods he would employ when the revolution began. Lenin is shown as entirely dedicated to the cause, something of a loner, hardworking, and dismissive of many of the intelligentsia who talked a lot but did little to practically advance the revolutionary cause. However, he is also seen as ensuring he steered clear of personal danger, often writing furiously from his safety in exile to encourage those back in Russia to act in ways that would put them in extreme danger from the state.
In truth, I found the long sections about his period in exile began to drag, but I feel that's because I'm always more interested in the political than the personal. So I was glad to get back to Russia as the Revolution dawned. In this section, there's quite a diversity in the depth of information Sebestyen gives. For instance, the account of the reasons for Russia going to war in 1914 feels incredibly superficial, as do the days between February and October 1917 – in fact, Sebestyen more or less skips right over the October Revolution. On the other hand, he goes quite deeply into the matter of Lenin's return on the “sealed train” and the question of how suspicion of German support played out. Clearly Sebestyen has concentrated most on those events in which Lenin had a direct involvement, which makes sense since this is a personal biography of the man rather than a history of the period; and it's actually quite interesting to see how absent he was during some of the major points of the revolution – that personal safety issue again. Overall there's still enough information to allow the book to stand on its own, but a reader who wants to understand the ins and outs of the revolution will have to look elsewhere for a more detailed account.
The same unevenness is shown in the period following the revolution – some events are given more prominence than others. The murder of the Romanovs, for instance, is given in some detail and with a rather odd level of sympathy (terrible, perhaps, but no more so than the starving millions, the people driven to cannibalism, the widespread torture and the 7 million children left orphaned, surely). On the other hand, the account of the civil war is an unbelievably quick run through – it almost feels as if Sebestyen had rather run out of steam by the time he reached this stage. Sebestyen finishes with a description of the cult of Lenin and how his legacy (and earthly remains) were used by subsequent Soviet leaders to bolster their own regimes.
All-in-all, I found this an approachable and very readable account, lighter in both tone and political content than some of the massively detailed histories of the period, but giving enough background to set Lenin's life in its historical context. And it undoubtedly gives an intriguing picture of the contrasts in his personality – a man who seemed to love and engender love from those near to him, but whose friendship could easily turn to enmity when he felt betrayed, and who could show great cruelty in pursuance of his political aims. So despite my criticisms of the superficiality of the coverage of some of the historical events, I feel it achieves its aim of giving us a good deal of insight into Lenin the man. Recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
The book focuses on Lenin’s personal life, including his ménage à trois with his wife, Nadya and his mistress, Inessa. It is a long book, and there is perhaps too much information on Lenin's domestic life. He was too ruthless to be likable. He is described as: “Secretive, suspicious, intolerant, acetic, intemperate.” He had a terrible temper and humiliated people who disagreed with him. Lenin came from a prosperous family. His older brother was executed, while a university student, for attempting to assassinate the tsar. According to the book, Lenin became radicalized and wanted revenge. His family had been ostracized by local society afterward, and he grew to hate the bourgeoisie.
The book helps explain the flaws in communism and why it ultimately failed. Lenin did not believe in Western-style democracy or capitalism. He was an atheist who stole the property of the church and then killed the bishops and priests who objected. Lenin re-engineered Russian society and became a new type of despot. He created a new type of aristocracy, the Communist Party. He told his followers that they were the revolutionary vanguard, with greater insight and vision than ordinary people. His followers enjoyed the spoils of victory and the special treatment they felt entitled to after the revolution.
Machiavelli invented the phrase “the ends justify the means.” This became the motto that Lenin lived by. However, it is not entirely clear where Lenin was trying to take Russia. We are told that Lenin was an intellectual with big ideas, but whatever he tried did not seem to work, apart from his use of terror. Propaganda turned Lenin into the first infallible communist leader. More were to follow: Stalin, Mao, the Kims, and Pol Pot. They all copied Lenin’s playbook. Lenin ruled using terror and lies. He censored the press. He abolished the legal system. Sebestyen writes that: “The structure of the police state had been established under Tsar Nicholas I in the 1820s.” Lenin, improved upon it. Lenin survived his time as a political prisoner in Siberia as a guest of the tsar. The Cheka, which was later renamed the KGB, would not have been so tolerant. Lenin murdered his opponents, including the Russian royal family.
Without WW1, Lenin would not have become the leader of Russia. The tsarist regime collapsed in February 1917, while Lenin was living in obscurity in Zurich. Few people knew his name. The Germans wanted to get Russia out of the war, so they could focus their attention on the Western front. The Provisional Government that took over in February 1917 made the mistake of trying to continue an unpopular war. The Germans helped Lenin become Russia’s leader. They gave him safe conduct to the Baltic, from where he could travel on to Russia. He was intercepted by British intelligence officers on the Russian border, but they let him proceed after an interrogation. That turned out to be a colossal mistake. The Germans gave Lenin funds to start a political organization and stage a coup.
In 1917 Lenin told the people that he offered “Peace, bread, land.” A great slogan, but he lied. Without Lenin’s ruthlessness, the Bolsheviks would not have achieved power. They did not have a lot of support. In the elections held for a Constituent Assembly in the autumn of 1917 – the last free ones until the 1990s – the Bolsheviks got 24% of the popular vote. Somehow, the Bolsheviks seized power and started eliminating their opponents.
Lenin had few ideas about what to do once his coup succeeded. He told Leon Trotsky, ‘First we must seize power. Then we decide what to do with it.’ He dismissed experts as unnecessary, but he did not know how to run an economy let alone a business. I toured factories in Eastern Europe after the demise of the Soviet Union. To me, the central problem with the Soviet approach to business was that they did not understand the role and purpose of markets. They believed that if they changed the ownership of the factory productivity would improve. I discovered that productivity was actually very low in Eastern Europe during the Soviet era. Another problem was that their factories made things that people did not want to buy. Technologically, their firms had no need to keep up. East Germany was the industrial jewel in the communist’s crown, but 70% of its industrial capacity quickly disappeared in the 1990s, mainly because it was out of date and uncompetitive. It quickly became obvious that East German cars were vastly inferior to West German cars.
Lenin and the Communists liked factory workers but despised the Russian peasants. The Communists also had problems applying their Marxist theories to what was primarily a peasant economy. When there were serious food shortages in 1918, caused mainly by the collapse of the economy, Lenin’s response was to scapegoat the farmers and declare war on them. When the forcible seizure of grain only worsened the crisis, Lenin increased the terror.
Lenin was a strongman in the Russian tradition. He wanted to hang, shoot and destroy anyone who stood in the Bolsheviks’ way. He believed that victory was not possible “without the very cruelest revolutionary terror.” The forced-labor camps, the one-party state, the prohibition of free and popular elections, the ban on internal party dissent. Lenin offered “simple solutions to complex problems.” He lied shamelessly and found scapegoats to transfer the blame for all problems. Once he had achieved control he would not relinquish it. ‘He desired the good but created evil.’ Sebestyen believes that the “worst of his evils was to have left a man like Stalin in a position to lead Russia after him. That was a historic crime.”
Lenin died in January 1924 at the age of 53. According to the latest polls, Russians now consider Lenin only the fourth most outstanding man of all time, behind Stalin, Pushkin, and Vladimir Putin.