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. 😉

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….I became aware that our love was doomed; love had turned into a love affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour. When she left the house I couldn’t settle to work. I would reconstruct what we had said to each other; I would fan myself into anger or remorse. And all the time I knew I was forcing the pace. I was pushing, pushing the only thing I loved out of my life. As long as I could make believe that love lasted I was happy; I think I was even good to live with, and so love did last. But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death; I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.

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Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

….At first the Immortalisation Commission was told by Dr Abrikosov that Lenin’s body could be preserved ‘for many, many years’ by refrigeration, if it was kept in the crypt, in a specially designed sarcophagus, at a carefully controlled temperature. But despite the most expensive and sophisticated freezing equipment bought from Germany, within two months there were already dark spots on Lenin’s face and torso and his eye sockets were deformed. The magnates were worried their plan would not work out, particularly as the weather was becoming warmer.
….Towards the end of March 1924 two prominent chemists, Vladimir Vorobyov and Boris Zbarsky, suggested re-embalming the body with a chemical mixture that they said ‘could last hundreds of years’. They had studied the ancient Egyptian techniques of mummification but they could do a lot better ‘and keep Vladimir Ilyich’s body looking natural’. They worked day and night whitening Lenin’s skin and devising the correct embalming fluid, under intense pressure, reporting directly to Stalin and Zinoviev. They experimented on several cadavers of fifty-ish-year-old men brought to them from morgues and scientific institutes in Moscow. After four months they found the correct formula of glycerin, alcohol, potassium acetate, quinine chlorate and another ingredient still strictly secret at the time of writing.

(FF says: I bet it’s beetroot soup…)

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….It hadn’t taken the landlady very long to find out that her lodger had a queer kind of fear and dislike of women. When she was doing the staircase and landings she would often hear Mr Sleuth reading aloud to himself passages in the Bible that were very uncomplimentary to her sex. But Mrs. Bunting had no very great opinion of her sister woman, so that didn’t put her out. Besides, where one’s lodger is concerned, a dislike of women is better than – well, than the other thing.

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….Gordon and Dudorov belonged to a good professional circle. They spent their lives among good books, good thinkers, good composers, good, always, yesterday and today, good and only good music, and they did not know that the calamity of mediocre taste is worse than the calamity of tastelessness. . . .
….He could see clearly the springs of their pathos, the shakiness of their sympathy, the mechanism of their reasonings. However, he could not very well say to them: ‘Dear friends, oh, how hopelessly ordinary you and the circle you represent, and the brilliance and art of your favourite names and authorities, all are. The only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me.’ But how would it be if one could make such declarations to one’s friends! And so as not to distress them, Yuri Andreevich meekly listened to them.

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….When the client came out, I noticed the fake tan on her calves looked a bit streaky, which almost never happens. She either hadn’t noticed, or didn’t mind. She winked at Mum and said, ‘Enjoy tonight – look forward to hearing all about it.’
….Mum says everybody spills out all their news in the Powder Room. She thinks that it’s something to do with lying with a nice white towel under your head and a blanket over your legs and feet. She says everybody feels like a child tucked up safely in bed, mostly because when she raises them up their feet can’t touch the floor anymore and they are warm and safe and so they sing like canaries. They tell her all manner of very personal things. Her way to describe this is womb talk. Some nights she’ll pour herself a glass of wine and say, ‘oh my goodness I’ve had so much womb talk tonight if someone else says menopause or hysterectomy to me I’ll start mixing HRT with the Fakebake.’

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So…are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….‘My God!’ exclaimed the prince. From his standing position, he had a better view of the situation. I threw open my door, but before I could move, the man in saffron had stood up. He had wild eyes between dirty, matted hair, an unkempt beard and what looked like streaks of ash smeared vertically on his forehead. In his hand an object glinted and my insides turned to ice.
….‘Get down!’ I shouted to the prince while fumbling with the button on my holster, but he was like a rabbit hypnotised by a cobra. The attacker raised his revolver and fired. The first shot hit the car’s windscreen with a crack, shattering the glass. I turned to see Surrender-not desperately grabbing at the prince, trying to pull him down.
….All too late.
….As the next two shots rang out, I knew they would find their mark. Both hit the prince squarely in the chest. For a few seconds he just stood there, as though he really was divine and the bullets had passed straight through him. Then blotches of bright crimson blood began to soak through the silk of his tunic and he crumpled, like a paper cup in the monsoon.

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Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

….The public Lenin adopted a highly populist style of politics that would be recognisable – and imitated by many a rabble-rouser – a hundred years later, even in long-established, sophisticated democracies. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly. He was never a sparkling orator, as Kerensky and Trotsky were in their varying ways. But he was brilliant at presenting a case in direct, straightforward language that anyone could understand, and explaining how the world could be changed if only people would listen to him and his Bolsheviks… he argued that people had heard too much from experts. ‘Any worker will master any ministry in a few days, no special skill is needed…’

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….His eyes were lifted meaningly to his listener’s face, and in a flash Loreto understood.
….‘Good God!’ he cried. ‘You were a friend of Lilian Hope! You have not been threatened by…’
….‘Yes,’ said Sir George, grimly. ‘I am the next on the list.’
….He drew a fairly large envelope from his breast pocket and extracted some folded papers. They were dingy and faintly yellow; one edge of the paper was jagged where it had been torn from the book, and Loreto immediately recognised these sheets as pages from Lilian Hope’s fatal diary.
….‘Poor Lilian!’ murmured the old man. ‘She was a wonderful creature, and I loved her once, though she never treated me too well. I had her picture – kept it for years, but my wife grew jealous. Poor Lilian! To think that she was in such poverty, and that she died in such a frame of mind!’

From: The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland

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….She cooked or did laundry and then with the remaining soapy water washed the floors in the house. Or, calm and less flushed, she ironed and mended her own, his, and Katenka’s linen. Or, having finished with the cooking, laundry, and tidying up, she gave lessons to Katenka. Or, burying herself in textbooks, she occupied herself with her own polemical re-education, before going back to the newly reformed school as a teacher.
….The closer this woman and girl were to him, the less he dared to see them as family, the stricter was the prohibition imposed upon his way of thinking by his duty to his family and his pain at being unfaithful to them. In this limitation there was nothing offensive for Lara and Katenka. On the contrary, this non-family way of feeling contained a whole world of respect, excluding casualness and excessive familiarity.
….But this split was always tormenting and wounding, and Yuri Andreevich got used to it as one gets used to an unhealed, often reopening wound.

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….The others went upstairs, a slow unwilling procession. If this had been an old house, with creaking wood, and dark shadows, and heavily panelled walls, there might have been an eerie feeling. But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners – no possible sliding panels – it was flooded with electric light – everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it. Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all. They exchanged good-nights on the upper landing. Each of them went into his or her own room, and each of them automatically, almost without conscious thought, locked the door…

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So…are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….The Dean strides a little and pours himself another whisky. “Now, there is another thing, but I really shouldn’t be discussing it with the College servants.”
….“Alright then, Sir. I’ll be on my way.”
….“I intend to discuss it anyway. Sit down.”
….I obediently take a seat on the most humble looking pew I can find, an unsteady wicker affair placed near The Dean’s enormous fish tank. Quite why a man such as The Dean would keep tropical fish is a mystery. Whilst they are known for their calming properties, The Dean is a chap who is far happier being anything but calm. Maybe he shouts at them when there is no one else around.

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Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

….Lenin instantly understood the importance of the words Bolshevik [majority] and Menshevik [minority]. He never gave up the name for the group that followed him, or the psychological advantage it won. For long periods over the next few years the Mensheviks in fact far outnumbered the Bolsheviks, in Russia and among the revolutionaries in exile, and they were the majority in a series of future votes at various congresses and conferences. Yet they still accepted the name that Lenin had given them and they referred to themselves as Mensheviks. It was their ‘brand’ and Lenin knew how to exploit it. ‘A name he knew was a programme, a distilled essence, more powerful in its impact upon the untutored mind than dozens of articles in learned journals,’ one of his comrades said. It was foolish of the Mensheviks to allow themselves to keep that name permanently. It showed how tactically inept they were. Martov was a decent, erudite, highly clever man but a hopeless politician, no match for Lenin. If Lenin had been the minority he would have changed the name at once to something else – True Iskrists, Real Marxists, Orthodox Marxists, Revolutionary Wing of Social Democracy – anything but ‘the Minority’.

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….Julie had been wrong to get her hopes up. The Evil One had come back even more terrible than before. She didn’t know what he’d been up to while he was away but there was a row of badly done stitches over his ribs encrusted with blood. That couldn’t be healthy.
….Julie hoped it was some girl who fought back hard, did him some damage. If only she’d managed to kill him – but no woman could fight that brute and win. Perhaps someone’s boyfriend or father caught him in the act, ripped him off her, had a weapon.
….She was glad he was hurt, even if he’d taken it out on her this morning. Even if she had a busted lip and a bruised eye, and had to put her cheek against the floor, unable to move for what must have been two hours, it was worth it to savor his fresh wounds. She decided to imagine that whoever did that to him, did it for her. An act of revenge without even knowing it.

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….The night was filled with soft, mysterious sounds. Close by in the corridor, water was dripping from a washstand, measuredly, with pauses. There was whispering somewhere behind a window. Somewhere, where the kitchen garden began, beds of cucumber were being watered, water was being poured from one bucket into another, with a clink of the chain drawing it from the well.
….It smelled of all the flowers in the world at once, as if the earth had lain unconscious during the day and was now coming to consciousness through all these scents. And from the countess’s centuries-old garden, so littered with windfallen twigs and branches that it had become impassable, there drifted, as tall as the trees, enormous as the wall of a big house, the dusty, thickety fragrance of an old linden coming into bloom.
….Shouts came from the street beyond the fence to the right. A soldier on leave was acting up there, doors slammed, snippets of some song beat their wings.

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From the archives…

….I have never understood how any woman can want positive discrimination. In the 1970s the attitude was robust: give us equal opportunities and we will show that we are as good as the men. In the 1990s that became: we can’t manage without special measures to smooth our paths and we want advantages over the men in order to compete…The culture of whingeing grievance is silly and sad. It lets down women and is hardly worthy of the heirs to the suffragettes.

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 119…

Episode 119…

I was so excited about the TBR falling last week that I celebrated with a tiny spree. Oops!  So an overall increase of 1 this week – to 195. But review copies remain stable at 33, so that’s good. If I ever finish Lorna Doone and A People’s Tragedy, I’ll start racing through them, you’ll see!

Here are a few that should topple off the pile soon…

Factual

Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen, courtesy of the publisher, W&N. When I started the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge, I said I hoped a new biography of Lenin might come out for the centenary, and right on schedule this one turned up. The blurb implies it might be a bit light on the politics though, which from my perspective would be deeply disappointing. I don’t think I much care about his love for flowers or mistresses. But we shall see…

The Blurb says: Victor Sebestyen’s intimate biography is the first major work in English for nearly two decades on one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century. In Russia to this day Lenin inspires adulation. Everywhere, he continues to fascinate as a man who made history, and who created a new kind of state that would later be imitated by nearly half the countries in the world.

Lenin believed that the ‘the political is the personal’, and while in no way ignoring his political life, Sebestyen focuses on Lenin the man – a man who loved nature almost as much as he loved making revolution, and whose closest ties and friendships were with women. The long-suppressed story of his ménage a trois with his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and his mistress and comrade, Inessa Armand, reveals a different character to the coldly one-dimensional figure of legend.

Told through the prism of Lenin’s key relationships, Sebestyen’s lively biography casts a new light on the Russian Revolution, one of the great turning points of modern history.

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Fiction

Also for the RRR Challenge. I’ve never been an enthusiast for Russian fiction, but perhaps my current obsession will help me to appreciate this classic more. I certainly enjoyed reading The Zhivago Affair, a history of the publication of the book…

 The Blurb says: This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. [FF says – well, not officially, perhaps, but The Zhivago Affair tells the story of how the CIA smuggled copies into the USSR long before then, thus making life very difficult for Pasternak.] One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it. The book quickly became an international best-seller.

Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing in the novel.

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Crime

Not only does the book sound fascinating, but it provided the story for one of Hitchcock’s early films, so I’m looking forward to reading first, then watching…

The Blurb says: In 1888, a series of prostitutes was brutally murdered in the East End of London. These gruesome crimes filled the press and shook England with fear and intrigue. Marie Belloc Lowndes established her considerable reputation as a crime writer through her fictional account of these murders.

Dealing with not only the psychology of “The Avenger”–her version of Jack the Ripper–but also with that of his landlady, Mrs. Bunting, who never gives away his secret, Lowndes creates an atmosphere of suspense, fear, and horror.

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Fiction on Audio

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima. Yokohama is one of the locations on my Around the World list, so I’m hoping this classic from 1963 will fill that slot. It’s narrated by Brian Nishii.

The Blurb says: A band of savage thirteen-year-old boys reject the adult world as illusory, hypocritical, and sentimental, and train themselves in a brutal callousness they call ‘objectivity’. When the mother of one of them begins an affair with a ship’s officer, he and his friends idealise the man at first; but it is not long before they conclude that he is in fact soft and romantic. They regard this disillusionment as an act of betrayal on his part – and the retribution is deliberate and horrifying.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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