Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

The man behind the cult…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new biography of Lenin concentrates on the personal, though with Lenin the personal can’t avoid being political. Sebestyen starts with a brief introduction in which he makes some comparisons between the events of 1917 and the rise of populist leaders today. He makes a direct comparison between the methods of Lenin and Trump, though he doesn’t name the latter – he doesn’t need to: he describes a man who lies for political gain, who makes simple and simplistic promises that appeal to a certain element of the people but which will never, can never, be kept, who rabble rouses by identifying individuals or groups as “enemies of the people”.*

Next up is a prologue in which Sebestyen tells of the night of the October revolution. This gives a flavour of the style of the book to come – it’s very readable but it’s written in a light kind of way that makes it seem almost farcical. The basic facts are the same as those in Trotsky’s and Figes’ accounts, but this prologue reads more like an Ealing comedy than a people’s tragedy. At this stage I was a little concerned the book may lack depth, but happily, although the book has a much lighter tone overall than those other tomes, as it progresses Sebestyen doesn’t shy away from or try to disguise the darker aspects of Lenin’s personality.

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 this country, 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.

Lenin is Proclaiming Soviet Power at the Second Congress of the Soviet by Vladimir Serov

(Spot the difference: the painting on the left is from 1947 when Stalin was in power and he is seen standing behind Lenin. The artist re-painted it in 1962, by which time Stalin was dead and out of favour, and he’s been painted over. How are the mighty fallen! I took this info from the fascinating Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia – review coming soon.)

In truth, I found the long sections about Lenin’s 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.

Victor Sebestyen

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* Though it’s a comparison that can’t be taken too far: Lenin was an intellectual, well informed and had a clearly defined political ideology – three things of which no-one could ever accuse Trump. Lenin also succeeded in achieving his aims. But, of course, both were also accused of being the puppet of a foreign power, though this was unlikely to have been true in Lenin’s case. 😉

38 thoughts on “Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

  1. Lenin looks ever so slightly like he could be the older, more sensible brother of Ming the Merciless. It’s the eyebrows. Good to see that the spirit of Photoshop was alive and well in revolutionary Russia! Not that I have a huge yearning for Stalin, but it’s disturbing that he can just be painted over like that without a second thought. This sounds like quite a jaunty account of a subject that is traditionally very heavy and laborious so I salute Sebestyne for that!

    • Hahaha! Yes he does! Though I’m not sure about the sensible bit. I think it was Stalin who started the idea of having people painted over when they became non-persons, so it seems like poetic justice, really – couldn’t happen to a nicer chap! Definitely a much easier read than some of the ones I’ve ploughed through recently…

      • Yes, you have been at the sharp end of Russian literature just recently, a little light relief must have been most welcome! I am okay with the ‘painting out’ of people because I can imagine that Stalin would have been furious!!

      • I studied art quite a bit in high school and some in college, and I’m surprised art is often painted over in the name of modesty, politics, and even frustration (one artist famously painted over his own work again and again, and it had to be taken from him).

        • There’s a great story in The Tsar of Love and Techno about a man who worked in the Soviet department responsible for painting over people who had become unnacceptable to the regime…

          • It also sounds like 1984 to me, in which the main character’s job was to rewrite news stories–even old ones, in case someone looked later–so they didn’t contain objectionable material.

            • Yes, I think Orwell based it on the same department. I guess they were peddling “fake news” even back then – no wonder they’re so good at it…

    • Aren’t they? I could be wrong but I think it was Stalin who really started the idea of having people painted out of pictures, so it seems only fair that it should have happened to him too. The first story in The Tsar of Love and Techno (which I’m going ot keep going on about till you read it) was about one of the people whose job was to remove non-persons from paintings and photos. Fascinating!

      • Well, you were in the end so very very right about that other book you went on and on about – American Pastoral – that maybe I shall surrender sooner rather than later. Mind you, I don’t feel the subsection of my book group who elected to ‘read American Gannish’ have quite forgiven me. I was raving, they were groaning. And now we are all groaning. I shall not, NOT NOT! Be urging a real of Pulitzer and Nobel winner Saul Bellow’s 1976 winner Humboldt’s Gift upon you. Not are you likely to find it reviewed by me. Unless, on a single phrase: Sour, misogynistic, self-obsessed, toss-pot writing, designed to please sour, misogynistic self-obsessed toss-pot denizens of academia. You’d have fun with a ripio though, should you read it…..

        • Oh, dear, dear, dear! I think it’s on my GAN list!! The GAN quest has gone into abeyance a bit due to all the other challenges this year, but it’s still happening in theory – I may accidentally delete that one though. I have the vaguest memory of attempting to read a Saul Bellow back in my twenties and failing miserably, but can’t remember which or why – but back in those days it took a lot to make me abandon a book, so it must have been bad, whatever it was… Thanks for the warning!

  2. Lucy and Lady Fancifull are right, Fiction Fan; that painting is fascinating! And, yes, I thought of Orwell, too.

    At any rate, on to the book…it sounds informative, and yet not too much ‘information dump,’ and that takes some skill. I know what you mean about a bit of unevenness here and there. I think it’s hard to balance telling the personal side of a story and the larger side and keep an even flow of writing. Still, taken as a package, it sounds well worth the read.

    • It’s a great example, isn’t it? And since I think it was Stalin who really started the whole idea of having people painted out of history, it seems like a nice little bit of poetic justice…

      Yes, he did a good job, though the bits he chose to emphasise weren’t necessarily the bits I’d have chosen in every case, But then I’m always more interested in the politcs and the events than the personal stuff really – somehow I can’t get excited about the mistresses of great men…

  3. Thank you for including those paintings! Revisionist history at its finest.

    The book sounds fascinating. Interesting comparison with–ahem–Trump.

    • It’s a fascinating example, isn’t it? And couldn’t happen to a more deserving chap…

      Haha! Couldn’t resist! I’m hoping one day he’ll be painted over too… 😉

  4. Sounds interesting. I must admit, I am constantly recognising history repeating itself at the moment – deeply worrying1

    • I know! And all this reading about the RR is making me even more conscious of it than I would usually be. However, I’m hoping general European horror at Trump might have lanced the boil a bit over here… fingers crossed!

  5. Oh, dear. I’m still not convinced Russian literature is for me. But you’ve done a great job explaining it, and now I feel no compulsion to wade through it for myself, hee hee!

  6. Well this sounds more accessible to me than the others you have read especially as for me the personal aspects are more interesting than the political – love that you chose to show us the two paintings – fascinating, as is the number of big events that Lenin was busy keeping himself out of harm’s way.

    • Definitely a lighter read – almost felt like a little holiday! 😉 The paintings are fascinating and the book they came from is great, and again much lighter. Yes, more than one of these books has mentioned Lenin’s habit of steering well clear of anything that could be dangerous, so it seems it must be true… can’t say he’ll be appearing in my heroes gallery any time soon…

      • I wondered if this lighter read still made a lot of sense because you’ve already read so much Russian lit. Do you think this would be a good first Russian book to get someone’s toes wet?

        • I think that’s quite possibe. If I was recommending to toe-dippers, I’d actually recommend one I haven’t got around to reviewing yet: Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myth. It gives the history very well but in a much shortened form and has all the propaganda artwork and so on which makes it a much easier and perhaps more interesting read. Review soonish!

          • Can’t wait! To me, both Russia and India are so huge that I’m almost too scared to engage with the history in a meaningful way. You would think I would include China on that list, but in the U.S. we pretty much only cover the Chairman Mao, and my brain has come to terms with that.

            • I know what you mean – when I started this I really knew no Russian history before the Second World War and despite all my reading I’ve still only scratched the surface. Arthur Herman’s Gandhi & Churchill is a good one for getting an overview of India up to the point of Independence. Although it concentrates on the two men, he also paints in all the background and he’s a very readable historian – my favourite, in fact. I know almost zero about China too – maybe next year…

    • Oh, then I think you’ll enjoy this! I never studied the Russian Revolution properly so I’ve been having a lot of fun reading about this year, both in fact and fiction.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

  7. Your Russian Revolution Challenge is most commendable! Such a fascinating history – I really should dip my toes in to some nonfiction about Russia. Perhaps this one since you mention it’s a bit lighter! Ha ha, I know my limits when it comes to reading history! 🙂

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