Sunday, December 16, 2018

Victor Sebestyen's Lenin

Victor Sebestyen's Lenin: The Man, The Dictator, and the Master of Terror (2017) is a highly readable and entertaining biography of Vladimir Lenin. The subtitle is a bit sensationalist but is in fact accurate.

You get a sense of him as a person, especially his relationships with his mother, wife, and mistress. He did not really develop close relationships with men, but he was very tender with those women and they were dedicated to him. He was exiled for many years and spent much of that time in libraries, writing books and cranking out countless articles (later he would write decrees specifying exactly how libraries should be run). Some derided him as a mere journalist rather than a revolutionary. If there is one thing missing, it is how he managed to generate so much support since at times Sebestyen notes how small and weak a group the Bolsheviks were prior to the revolution and how far he was from the action. But that is perhaps part of the mystery--how did this otherwise unremarkable though highly intelligent man create something so huge and destructive?

Then the dictator and the master of terror, two roles that go together. Lenin had no regard for human life and believed killing was part of the process, even in large numbers. The regime commonly used the word "terror" to describe what they were doing--it was not hidden. He openly disliked peasants and favored policies of intimidation and murder. He had no interest in democracy, and launched the October Revolution before the awaited constituent assembly could meet. A lot of people saw him for who he was, and there were assassination attempts, including a very serious one where he was shot in the neck. He responded with an "orgy of revenge violence throughout the major cities and towns of Russia" (417). Lenin never actually committed violence himself but he ordered it constantly and forcefully.

One point that Sebestyen repeats is that Lenin survived for many years in exile and then got back into Russia because rich people supported him and his cause financially. It's amazing. One could argue that Lenin never would have gotten anywhere without the rich people he hated. Meanwhile, the Germans intentionally let him back into Russia to sow chaos, not knowing they were creating a monster.


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