(Vladimir I. Lenin)
For many years historians have laid the blame for the oppressive and authoritarian regime that took root in Russia following its revolution on Joseph Stalin. Names like NKVD, GPU or banishment to Siberia, political purges were all associated with the Russian dictator. However, the credit for the darkness that pervaded the former Soviet Union first must rest at the feet of Vladimir I. Lenin. In 1973 Alexsandr S. Solzhenitsyn published the first volume of his GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, and the famous Russian dissident argued that the origin of Soviet terror and the police state belong to Lenin. This argument has been accepted by historians and in the latest biography of Lenin since Robert Service’s excellent monograph, Victor Sebestyen’s LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR has taken that argument to a new level. According to Sebestyen, in his quest for power, Lenin “promised people anything and everything. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly. He identified a scapegoat he could label ‘enemies of the people.’ He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything…..Lenin was the godfather of what commentators a century after his time call post truth politics.” Anyone who has paid attention to our current political climate can easily recognize practitioners of this authoritarian approach.
(Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky)
Lenin’s greatest crime aside from creating the precursor of the NKVD, the Cheka or the Soviet secret police, is leaving a man like Stalin to assume the leadership of the Soviet Union upon his passing in 1924. Lenin built a system that rested on the concept that political terror against any opposition was justified for the greater good. It was perfected by Stalin, but the ideas were Lenin’s. Sebestyen’s approach to his subject is a very personal one and he explores a number of issues in greater depth than previous books. He delves deep into the relationship between Nadezhda K. Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife who was vital to her husband and the revolution. She was in charge of regulating his explosive temper and at times erratic behavior. Her role was to maintain his health and be a sounding board for his ideas and writing. Next, the author explores Lenin’s relationship with his long time mistress, Inessa Armand. For ten years before Lenin died they had an on-off love affair. She was central to his emotional life, one of his closest aides, and was one of the best-known female socialists of her era. The three, Lenin, Nadya, and Inessa formed a ménage etois that was accepted by the women involved who had their own strong relationship.
Further, what separates Sebestyen’s approach from others is how he constantly reaffirms that the tactics and system developed by Lenin dominated Soviet rule until 1989, and has reasserted itself in the last decade. Lenin’s leadership traits seemed to have been handed down in succession from Stalin, in particular to Vladimir Putin. Lenin set up the Cheka and over the decades be it the GPU, NKVD, KGB or currently the FSB its purpose did not change; “protect the Party and its leadership from any perceived threat of subversion and to dispense revolutionary justice.”
(The Romanov royal family)
Not long ago Steve Bannon stated that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.” The concept of deconstructing government that forms the core of Bannon’s political agenda rings very closely to that of Lenin. The parallels are clear and in Lenin’s case, underneath the superficial sophistication and personal charm he periodically put on display, he was capable of acts of appalling evil. Whether his approval of the use of firing squads to eliminate the opposition soon after coming to power the winter of 1917-1918, or his attitude toward the death of Russian soldiers against the Germans, his refusal to distribute land to peasants as promised and the creation of the Kulak class of land owners who he destroyed, the mass starvation that took place, and Lenin’s response to this terror, were all sacrifices that were acceptable in order to achieve the larger goals of gaining and maintaining power.
Sebestyen effectively reviews the spreading of revolutionary fervor in Russia among the bourgeoisie dating back to the Decembrist uprisings of 1825, the assassination of Alexander II, and the arrival of Marxism. The Marxist ideology did not really apply to Russia because of its peasant economy and majority. Lenin, brilliantly argued that Russia did not need to have an Industrial Revolution based on the working class as Marx argued, but could redefine Russian needs and developed through many books and pamphlets the justification of a revolution based on the peasantry. It is interesting to note that Lenin had no great respect for the working classes who he proposed to make the revolution before turning to the peasants.
Early on Lenin was radicalized by the Tsarist police’s murder of his brother Alexander (Sasha). From that point on he would work to overthrow the Tsarist monarchy. Though he was brought up in a bourgeois family and periodically lived on estates Lenin had nothing but disdain for the Romanov dynasty. Sebestyen’s analysis of Lenin’s personality, the courtship of Nadya, life in exile, be it Siberia, London, Paris, Geneva, the creation of the Bolshevik party, the role of Germany, the revolution itself and the years following may be well known, but the author’s insights, sources, and analysis separate his monograph from others.
Sebestyen’s examination of the role of newspapers in the revolution is important as he explains how the creation of Pravda and other outlets allowed Lenin to write editorials, and articles, and through a wide circulation was able to disseminate his ideas. Lenin had the ability to correct others and have them adopt his views as if they were his own, and the ability to inspire optimism and these traits enabled him to disarm the opposition and rally support among the masses. The use of newspapers, apart from Tsarist incompetence was major factor in creating the conditions for revolution.
The author pays a great deal of attention to fighting within the parties and the development of a between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The arguments between the factions were intense and brutal as Lenin did not suffer fools gladly when people disagreed with him. Sebestyen also does a good job describing Nicholas II’s personality and reign. The Tsar was a weak individual who was not cut out to sit on the Romanov throne. “It is no exaggeration to say that every major decision Nicholas II took was wrong – from the choice of a wife, Alexandra, who compounded his own misjudgments, to his disastrous decisions on war and peace.” It is fair to say that the Tsar did the most service in the cause of revolution!
Lenin believed from 1900 on that a war between the capitalist countries was inevitable. When it finally came Russia was totally unprepared for a war of attrition. Within two months 1.2 million men were killed, wounded, or missing. This is a small sample of the disaster that would follow and led to the February abdication of the Tsar in favor of the Kerensky government and the final elevation of Lenin to power in October, 1917. Sebestyen drills down deeply in presenting Lenin’s strategy and ability to overcome many obstacles as the revolution approached. Once it did his willingness to work with the Germans to travel to Russia is brilliant as is his ability to overcome the opposition of Party members. The chapters entitled; “The Sealed Train,” and “To Finland Station” are emblematic of Sebestyen’s assiduous research and master of historical detail as he describes the negotiations, reactions to the agreement with the Kaiser’s government, and its reception in Russia. Sebestyen’s ability to integrate analysis into the flow of the narrative is an important aspect of his writing. Another important component of Sebestyen’s style is the use of notes at the bottom of each page which are also a fountain of historical information and analysis.
(Workers demonstrating during Russian Revolution)
It is clear that once the revolution took place Lenin laid the groundwork to rule by terror. He was under no allusions when it came to the exercising of power to remain in control of the state. Lenin’s arguments and promises to the masses and his political opposition immediately went by the wayside as he closed down press outlets, purged those who disagreed, set up the Cheka, and justified his actions to prevent counter-revolution. At the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921, Lenin argued that “We do not promise any freedom, or any democracy,” he did not disappoint and neither did his successor, Joseph Stalin.
The major figures of this period of Russian history are all presented, examined, and placed in their historical context. Whether Sebestyen is writing about Leon Trotsky, Georgy Plekhanov, Yuli Martov, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Yakov Sverdlov, Maxim Gorky, Nicholas II, Alexander Helphand (Parvus), a number of foreign diplomats and journalists, Joseph Stalin, and of course his wife and mistress we have a balanced account that lends to a greater understanding of the material presented. Lenin is the key figure as he created the basis for a one man tyranny. The terror that evolved was systematic and was not Stalin’s creation.
A key to authoritarian rule was the creation of a “cult of personality.” Stalin was an expert, Mao took it to even greater heights, but Lenin was the first. After an assassination attempt where he was wounded three times, a “cult of Lenin” would emerge as he had survived. This cult was used to rally support and further the Leninist agenda.
“The scholar Robert Service writes that “the forced labor camps, the one-party state…the prohibition of free and popular elections, the ban on internal party dissent; not one of them was to be invented by Stalin…Not for nothing did Stalin call himself Lenin’s disciple.” But why blame Lenin and Stalin, the foundation and structure of the Russian police state had been established by Nicholas I in the 1820s.”* This is the theme of Sebestyen’s new biography of Lenin which is sure to become one of the standard works of one of the most important figures of the 20th century.
*Joffe, Joseph, “The First Totalitarian,” New York Times, October 19, 2017.
(Vladimir I. Lenin)