- Hardcover: 400 pages
- Publisher: W&N; 1 edition (14 February 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9781474600446
- ISBN-13: 978-1474600446
- ASIN: 1474600441
- Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 5.3 x 16.4 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 898 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 140,610 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Lenin the Dictator Hardcover – 14 Feb 2017
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Richly readable ... enthralling but appalling (Francis Wheen MAIL ON SUNDAY)
Victor Sebestyen brings the man's complexities to life in Lenin the Dictator, balancing personality with politics in succinct and readable prose ... Sebestyen describes particularly keenly how this ruthless, domineering, often vicious man depended on three women to sustain him (David Reynolds NEW STATESMAN)
The attention to detail is flawless (Alex Larman THE OBSERVER)
The story of the Bolshevik revolution is fascinating in several ways, and Sebestyen does a good job of telling it ... entertaining (Tibor Fischer STANDPOINT)
Can first-rate history read like a thriller? With Lenin the Dictator 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 NEW YORK TIMES)
In this new biography, Victor Sebestyen gives a vivid and rounded picture of Lenin the man ... Sebestyen brings to the task a gift for narrative and for describing his rich cast of characters (Margaret MacMillan THE OLDIE)
Victor Sebestyen does an impressive job of telling Lenin's life story ... it is a highly readable overview (Evan Mawdsley BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE)
In his engagingly written biography the author ... captures all the drama of Lenin's leadership against
a background of imperial collapse, the ravages of war and the building of a dictatorship ... the Bolshevik leader emerges from these pages as a man unencumbered by critical self-awareness, by doubts or by any moral conflict over the extraordinary costs inflicted on others by the pursuit of his revolutionary goals
An enthralling portrait of one of the key figures of the 20th century (MAIL ON SUNDAY Summer Books)
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That was my reasoning in wanting to read Victor Sebestyen's biography, LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR. After reading the book, I am even more persuaded by that reasoning. LENIN is a quite readable and historically responsible biography of the man. It is much more in the vein of a popular biography than an academic one. True, there are end-notes, but only nineteen pages of them. There also are footnotes on about every third page of text, but those should not be skipped as most contain interesting nuggets of information.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (b. 1870, d. 1924) was born into an affluent middle-class family. The spark for the radicalization of Vladimir occurred when he was seventeen and his older brother was executed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate the Tsar. Once radicalized, Vladimir (who adopted the name "Lenin" in 1901) pursued a dictatorship of the proletariat with incredible single-mindedness. Even so, in his personal life, Lenin was a charming, relatively conservative, principled, bourgeois gentleman. In his political life, however, he was thoroughly unscrupulous.
Here is one of Sebestyen's summary characterizations of Lenin: "In many ways he was a thoroughly modern political phenomenon -- the kind of demagogue familiar to us in Western democracies, as well as in dictatorships. In his quest for power, he promised people anything and everything. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly. * * * He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything: the ends justified the means. * * * Lenin was the godfather of what commentators a century after his time call 'post-truth politics'. * * * He built a system based on the idea that political terror against opponents was justified for a greater end. It was perfected by Stalin, but the ideas were Lenin's."
In addition to being an excellent biography of its subject, the book also provides a good 30,000-feet historical overview of the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War. And along the way, Sebestyen sprinkles dozens of fascinating anecdotes and trivia. Here is a sampling:
* Vladimir Putin's grandfather, Spiridon, was the cook for Lenin at Gorki, the country estate where Lenin stayed when he wasn't in the Kremlin and where he died.
* Lenin's maternal grandfather was a Jew, and his paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk (a Mongolian people). The Soviets airbrushed out those two aspects of Lenin's "non-Russian" heritage.
* "The Sealed Train" refers to the arrangement by which, in March/April 1917, Germany whisked Lenin and fifty-nine other Bolsheviks from Switzerland to Russia (via Sweden and Finland) in order to further destabilize Russia and, Germany hoped, remove it from World War I. In Volume Two of "The World Crisis", Winston Churchill characterized the incident thusly: "The Germans turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed train like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia."
* "There is no doubt that Lenin gave the order" that the imprisoned Tsar Nicholas II, his family (wife, fourteen-year-old son, and four daughters), and household (family physician, maid, cook, and valet) be butchered in July 1918.
* Molotov, who served under both Lenin and Stalin (becoming for a time the second-most powerful man in the Soviet Union under the latter), said that both leaders "were hard men . . . harsh and stern. But without a doubt Lenin was harsher."
Not that Sebestyen's book deals primarily with the Communist Revolution in Russia. The vast part of it is actually devoted to Lenin's upbringing, his politicking with fellow revolutionaries during exile, his dealings with the Tsar's secret police while abroad, and also his peculiar triangular relationship with his wife and life-long mistress. Not until the final quarter of the book do we read about Lenin's return to the mother country in order to foment a revolution there that would shake the foundations of world history.
The image that emerges throughout the pages is a somewhat familiar one: As so many revolutionary powerhouses in history, most notably Karl Marx himself, Lenin was born into an upper middle class family. His father, who raised his kids in the Orthodox tradition, "was a thoroughly decent man of liberal views, who believed in gradual reform and evolutionary change through education." His son, though, while an excellent student in grade school, never made it through university. Already scarred by the traumas of his father's untimely death and his brother's execution for attempting to assassinate the Tsar, Lenin was booted out of Kazan University for participating in a student protest and sent into exile in Kokushkino, where he proceeded to "educate" himself. His brother's death, in particular, was a heavy and consequential blow: "A young boy who rarely thought about politics became radicalised almost overnight," Sebestyen writes.
At this point we get a first glimpse of what is to come. Lenin would read revolutionary writings from early morning until late at night, as he would work obsessively, indeed fanatically, later in life towards his single goal of revolution in Russia. "Increasingly over the years," Sebestyen explains, "he would suffer from nervous exhaustion, raging headaches, insomnia and attacks of intemperate anger – the 'rages', as his wife called them." These were the result of too much time spent filling low-circulation Communist newspapers, too little sleep, and probably too little social contact (Lenin was never much of a socialite anyway). Living, essentially, on his mother's dole for the better part of his years – if he ever held a real job, we don't learn about it in the book presently under review – Lenin was able to spend all of his time and energy on fomenting revolution. In fact, he had the focus and obsession of a professional triathlete.
This picture of a fanatic working tirelessly day and night and becoming ever more radical in the process continues throughout his time in exile and after his return to Russia in 1917. In the interest of revolution, Lenin could be blatantly pragmatic, especially on ideological issues. It was, after all, Lenin who threw overboard Marx's theory that revolution would come at the hands of the workers in capitalist society and was an historical inevitability; Lenin's own Russia would have to skip the capitalism, of which it had little at the turn of the century, and move straight to the revolution, forced onto the nation by Lenin himself, of course. In his dealings with others, though, Lenin was less pragmatic. He was almost always the most radical, the least willing to compromise, and the most willing to resort to violent solutions. Ad hominem and sheer rhetorical force were his primary tools in political debate. And he personally forced the schism of the Communist Party into a Menshevik and Bolshevik faction, which led to a bloody civil war once the latter had seized power.
For all his inner radicalism, Lenin never found satisfaction in killing or hearing the gory details on the torture of some enemy or other. And, unlike so many tyrants before and after him, he "wasn't interested in the trappings of power and didn’t enjoy them." While many of his fellow revolutionaries were able to rake in the big bucks after 1917, Lenin resided in a modest Kremlin apartment right up to his death.
Yet the single most important subject of his studies, according to Sebestyen, was "the nature of power, how it is grasped and used, how it changes those who possess it and those who don’t." Once in possession of it himself, he became ever more ruthless in his efforts to hold it and kickstarted the "Red Terror" to eliminate his many enemies (real or perceived). "Hang (and I mean hang, so the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers," read part of his infamous August 1918 cable to fellow Communists. The Tsarist family, too, died a grisly midnight death in a dark basement at the hands of a group of Bolshevik thugs, who were almost certainly directed by Lenin. In true Platonian fashion, Sebestyen remarks: "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." Needless to say, it is the final part of the book that makes for the most blood-curdling reading.
The biographical account is brilliantly intertwined with its historical backdrop, so expect to read about the Tsars, about the factional infighting within the Communist Party, and of course a vivid account of the Revolution itself. The refreshing element in this book, in an age of gratuitous adoration of socialist tyrants, is that Sebestyen pulls no punches in his moral judgement of Lenin. He stays miles away from the pseudo-history, originated on the Left, that portrays Stalin as the bad cop and his predecessor as the good one. The author lays bare the evil instincts and fanatical character traits lurking within his subject for everybody to see.
Sebestyen deviates from this line just once, in a peculiar chapter about the underlying currents in Russia feeding the revolutionaries. The train of thought goes more or less like this: After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, his politically inept son Alexander III as well as the next successor Nicholas II tightened the reigns and became ever more oppressive in their dealings with the opposition. In doing this, "They guaranteed the growth of a violent opposition, which they were too weak and incompetent to destroy," writes Sebestyen. "Much moderate opinion did not blame the 'terrorists', but the government" when "20,000 ministers, provincial governors, senior civil servants and top army officers were assassinated by revolutionary groups in the last twenty-five years of Tsarist rule."
This is a somewhat odd line of argument. It wasn't just "provincial governors, senior civil servants and top army officers" who were assassinated by revolutionaries, but Alexander II himself too, who by Sebestyen's own account was a relatively modern leader: He "emancipated the serfs in 1861," "launched a series of other modest measures to modernise the Romanov autocracy," "initiated a series of reforms, and "oversaw the expansion of Russia’s schools."
Perhaps Alexander's successors share some of the blame for the societal catastrophe that was to follow in the twentieth century, but surely the revolutionaries were the murderers who started it all. They fell for the siren song of a radical ideology which was not only wholly alien to their nation's history, but cherished a blatant disregard for human nature. Moreover, the French Revolution and its horrendous bloodshed were still within living memory in 1881, yet Lenin himself, writes Sebestyen, "often saw the Jacobins as an inspiration for the Bolsheviks." Whether he and his radical friends were ignorant and kumbaya about the nature of their future state is certainly up for debate. In any case, with the benefit of hindsight it's clear that Russia would have been far better off had Alexander died a peaceful death in his bed at old age.
This is the only blemish on an otherwise superb book about a thoroughly fascinating subject. Victor Sebestyen has done history buffs such as myself a huge favor here. 'Lenin' is wonderfully written, engaging and informative. Though he seems to lean heavily on secondary literature, the book is obviously very well researched and packed with illustrative details. Even the notes at the end of each chapter are worth glossing over. This is history as it's meant to be. Highly recommended.