Since the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and its client states, major biographies of Stalin have appeared, as well as books dealing with the Soviet Union during that brutal tyrant’s rule. Somehow, scholars have gravitated toward exploring the nature of the totalitarian state Stalin ran but have paid relatively less attention to the founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known by his adopted name of Lenin.
The absence of a post-Soviet Lenin biography has finally been corrected, with this brilliant and compelling portrait of the Soviet state’s founder by Victor Sebestyen, a Hungarian-born journalist and historian now living in Britain. It could not have arrived at a more appropriate time. As the author writes, Lenin was “the kind of demagogue familiar to us in Western democracies” — one who promised “anything and everything,” who offered “simple solutions to complex problems,” who “lied unashamedly,” and who called those he opposed “enemies of the people.” For Lenin, he writes, “winning meant everything; the ends justified the means.” He was, Sebestyen says, the godfather of “‘post-truth’ politics.”
Sebestyen’s book is a needed corrective to many who condemn Stalin but characterize Lenin as a humane revolutionary whose legacy Stalin betrayed. This, of course, was the argument made by Stalin’s exiled opponent, Leon Trotsky, whom Stalin had assassinated while he was living in Mexico. It was also the thesis of Trotsky’s prominent biographer, the Polish-born scholar Isaac Deutscher, who believed that if Trotsky had been in power, somehow the Soviet Union would have turned out differently.
Stephen Cohen, an American historian of Russia, made the case for Nikolai Bukharin as the only possible alternative leader of the revolution. Cohen believed that Bukharin would have built a democratic form of Communism, under which no reign of terror would have developed. But that was not to be: Stalin controlled the party machinery, and quickly isolated Bukharin and then had him executed after a show trial.
Gorbachev viewed his own project as taking the Soviet Union “back to Lenin.” He was suggesting that under Lenin, a humane Communist society had been in the process of being built, and that this project had been abandoned by Stalin. After reading Sebestyen’s book, it will be impossible for any serious person to make that argument. It was Lenin’s ideology, and the system Lenin created, that led to the birth of the totalitarian state.
Sebestyen covers Lenin as a private person as well as a thinker and revolutionary. He takes us through his prosperous youth as the son of a government employee “who enjoyed the pleasures of a country squire’s life” and whose family lived in a spacious, comfortable home. Lenin was not political until the death by hanging on May 8, 1887, of his beloved 21-year-old brother, Alexander Ilyich Ulyanov, who was part of a plot to assassinate the czar. From that moment on, the 17-year-old Vladimir became dedicated to waging revolutionary war.
Eventually forced to go into exile in London and Switzerland, Lenin came to represent both idealism and a coherent ideology, all for the purpose of creating a better future after a revolution took place. Lenin offered young Marxists he met the dream of a better Russia. “It is easy to forget,” Sebestyen writes, “the fervent idealism of some of the early Russian Marxists, along with the ruthlessly ambitious and power-hungry careerists the movement attracted at the same time.” Lenin helped recruit both types to the cause.
Lenin’s appeal, Sebestyen argues, owed much to the fact that he was “optimistic and uplifting.” No one could predict in the first decade of the 1900s that the ideology Lenin’s followers expounded would lead to a Mao, a Pol Pot, or a Ceausescu. The bible of the new movement was Lenin’s famous treatise “What Is to Be Done?” — a pamphlet that gave revolutionary dreamers a program and tactics. It demanded commitment to revolution as a profession, and understanding of the necessity of building a revolutionary party that would bring the working classes to the consciousness that was needed to make revolution possible. The future horrors of Communist rule were not explicit in this idea, but it was the very basis of Leninism, and it made the totalitarian state inevitable in Russia once Lenin and his devoted group of cadres took power.
Sebestyen takes us through Lenin’s dramatic return to Russia in a sealed railroad train provided by Germany. Taking command of the various Bolshevik groups, he inspired them to carry out actual revolution rather than wait until all factions of the Russian Left would back his program. Sebestyen also shows that Lenin had already formed his idea of rule by terror, which he believed a successful revolution necessitated. As early as 1900, writing Georgy Plekhanov, the founder of Marxism in Russia, Lenin complained about “liberals” who thought “revolutions can be made by people who wear kid gloves.” Plekhanov admonished him, writing, “There is no call for abusing liberals. . . . Liberalism in itself deserves respect.” It was a lesson from the master that Lenin conspicuously ignored.
Lenin’s first unleashing of the Bolsheviks’ mass terror came in the suppression of sailors at Kronstadt, who had greeted him with an honor guard when he arrived at the now famous Finland Station in Petrograd and who had shelled the czar’s Winter Palace when the revolution broke out. Now, in February 1921, these sailors demanded free elections, independent trade unions, a free press, and the abolition of the hated Soviet secret police, the Cheka. “This is a rebellion and they must be shown no mercy,” Lenin proclaimed. “They must be destroyed. There will be no compromise.” On March 4, Leon Trotsky arrived in Petrograd with 20,000 Red Army troops, preparing to attack the Kronstadt sailors on their ships. The result was what Sebestyen calls a “massacre,” in which thousands of the Bolsheviks’ opponents were slaughtered. It was the seminal event that produced the first mass disillusion among Bolshevik supporters. For decades after, when the Soviet state took measures that were even more repressive, the ex-Bolsheviks asked the newly disillusioned: “When was your Kronstadt?”
It was Lenin who, immediately upon taking power, ended a free press, formed the Cheka (a power with its own rules and beholden only to its own leader and Lenin), and ended the very concept of an independent judiciary and rule by law. If the need was for what Lenin called “revolutionary terror,” he did not hesitate to use it.
Lenin, like Robespierre, was an ascetic. He lived modestly, eschewed the perks others got from being leaders, and did not even eat at the fancy Kremlin restaurant other apparatchiks frequented. “He loathed,” Sebestyen writes, “the big, boozy seven-course dinners with endless vodka toasts and macho storytelling that became the norm among Communist chieftains.”
He also knew that many Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd, where people were going hungry, sold food to black-marketeers at huge prices. Lenin, Sebestyen notes, “was always concerned that corruption — and bureaucracy — might eat into the soul of the Party.” Yet he did nothing about it. Indeed, an old Party comrade wrote to him that the old Party spirit had been “replaced by a new one-man rule in which the [local] Party boss runs everything,” and that bribe-taking had “become universal.” Lenin ignored the warning, but he acknowledged that the Bolshevik Party “consist[ed] of ten percent . . . convinced idealists, ready to die for the cause, but incapable of living for it, and ninety percent . . . unscrupulous time-servers who have simply joined the Party to get jobs.”
Instead of dealing with the corrupt bureaucracy he had helped to create, Lenin waged war against the Church, urging confiscation of all Church valuables and demanding that raids on Church property be carried out “with merciless determination.” To clergy who would try to stop the attacks from Chekists, Lenin had a simple answer: The “greater the number of clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing for this reason,” Lenin instructed the Cheka, “the better.”
Lenin, readers are told at the start of the book, “had not always been a bad man, but he did terrible things.” “The worst of his evils,” Sebestyen informs us, “was to have left a man like Stalin in a position to lead Russia after him. That was a historic crime.” It also is clear that Stalin, in claiming he was only carrying out the path laid out by Lenin, was telling the truth. The horrors of the Stalin years were but an extension of the terror begun by Lenin, although carried out to a length at which Lenin might have recoiled.
Lenin, however, had provided thousands of followers throughout the world, who saw that an actual Communist state had been created, with an ideology and tactics they sought to emulate. The horrors they in turn created in their own nations, from China to Eastern European client states to Cuba and North Korea, were their versions of Lenin and Stalin’s Gulag. For that, it was Lenin who must get the blame.
Victor Sebestyen’s superb biography is a commentary on how, with even the best of intentions, adoption of a revolutionary ideology can lead to a living hell.