Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait
By Victor Sebestyen | Weidenfeld & Nicolson | $35
All the well-known features of the Russian revolutionary’s life are covered in this new biography of Vladimir Lenin: the radicalising effect of his brother’s execution, the long years in exile spent arguing over often obscure points of revolutionary theory, the German-facilitated return to Russia in 1917, the seizure of power later that year, and the early years of the new Soviet regime. But this biography is very different from those we are used to.
The difference is signalled in the second part of the title. Victor Sebestyen concentrates on Lenin the person, with much attention devoted to his relationship with the two leading women in his life and to his physical afflictions. Relying in part on material found in the Russian archives since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sebestyen seeks to create a picture of Lenin that focuses less on Lenin’s professional work as a revolutionary and more on his personal life.
Sebestyen argues that Lenin’s most important personal relationships were with those two women. His wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, is presented as much more than the secretary and revolutionary colleague we find in Soviet accounts, with Sebestyen arguing that she was both a significant revolutionary in her own right and also a crucial personal support to Lenin. This latter aspect, characterised by love, admiration and a continuing, unwavering devotion, adds a human dimension to our understanding of Lenin that has all too often been ignored.
Krupskaya’s devotion to Lenin is perhaps demonstrated no more clearly than in her acceptance of the second woman Sebestyen discusses, Lenin’s long-time mistress, Inessa Armand. For lengthy periods, both outside and inside Russia, the three more or less lived together, with Armand and Krupskaya becoming close friends. Armand seemed to share a spark with Lenin that was not evident in his relationship with Krupskaya, but both women appear to have been equally important for his wellbeing.
Krupskaya was particularly important in caring for Lenin’s health. Most biographers have pointed to the intense nature of Lenin’s work: how he threw himself totally into conflicts with others, how he was unrelenting (and vitriolic) in his criticism, and how he was totally absorbed in the quest for revolution. The intensity had clear physical effects.
A series of strokes beginning in 1922 has often been seen as evidence of this. But Sebestyen shows that throughout his career Lenin was prone to psychosomatic disorders. High levels of stress seem to have produced headaches and a sort of physical semi-collapse that could only be reversed by complete rest. Krupskaya was the key to dealing with this condition, seeing when it was coming on and being able to get Lenin to take time off from the revolution and spend it in the countryside, away from everything.
While the focus on the personal is the main strength of this book, it does come at a cost. Lenin’s professional work, his struggle to build the party, his browbeating of his colleagues to seize power in 1917, and his role in building the new Soviet state and guiding it through years when its survival sometimes seemed less certain than its collapse – all appear in this book seemingly as mere addenda to the personal life. It’s true that the public side of the story is well-known, but it is this aspect of Lenin’s life that makes the personal focus valuable. Would we be interested in Lenin if he had stuck with his early career as a lawyer? Probably not.
More attention to Lenin’s political life would have helped with the book’s claim that his most important relationships were with Krupskaya and Armand. Why was he apparently unable to sustain close friendships with men? Sebestyen hints that Lenin could not accept any challenge to his authority, and he perceived such challenges to come from his male colleagues. Unless there is a psychological explanation for this perception, and Sebestyen doesn’t offer one, the reason must lie at least partly in the nature of the group and the relationships within it. Lenin’s drive for control may have been his response to the conditions faced by the movement – always in danger of infiltration by the tsarist secret police, who were often supported by the police of the West European countries within which most of its members lived – but the book leaves the issue hanging.
Another aspect of the relationship between Lenin’s private and professional lives concerns his writings. In most biographies, the subject’s writings are treated as important source material. But Sebestyen pays little attention to what Lenin wrote, even though it amounts to more than fifty-five volumes in Russian. He never explains why he gives this trove so little attention, but the answer may lie in his view that Lenin would say anything for immediate political effect. In other words, Lenin’s writings don’t reflect his actual views, but were a tactical response to circumstances. This is not a new claim, but it can’t be sustained without the extended analysis of his thought that is absent from this book. And it does not accord with many studies of Lenin’s thought and actions that certainly show flexibility, but also find strong strands of logic and continuity.
This personal-professional dimension is also reflected in the paradox of the title: an intimate portrait of a dictator. In fact, the book gives very little attention to the “dictator” part of his life, with no discussion of what this means or of how he became one. In the rambling final third of the book, which deals with the early years of Soviet power, Sebestyen seeks to link Lenin with major events. This is a valuable exercise, but without the broader context – institutional development, the roles of other leading members of the regime, and the civil war – it would be very difficult for someone without knowledge of the period to understand what was going on.
Having said this, it’s also the case that Lenin the Dictator is a very good read, well-written and with some real insights. It is also relevant to today in at least two ways.
First, its picture of the Russian revolutionary movement in exile, although it is incomplete, shows how much has changed. In the early years of the twentieth century, revolutionaries met in cafes for prolonged discussions over coffee and cake, and debated points both in writing and face-to-face, usually right under the noses of the police and often with the connivance of those police. Communication by post was slow, and if they were arrested, the revolutionaries were usually sent into an exile that in many cases was anything but harsh. And if they planned armed action, this was usually to be focused on the servants of the old regime, not the populace.
Contrast that with the terrorists of today: electronic communication, indiscriminate use of terror, the creation of armies, popular broadcasts of their messages and, at least in the case of the current batch, adherence to a religious dogma. The earlier period seems somehow more gentle, although for those involved it probably was not. We have come a long way, and not in a positive direction.
Second, this year marks the centenary of the Russian revolution, an event that shaped the politics of the entire twentieth century. Yet the centenary is likely to pass with little recognition in the West. There will be scholarly conferences, and presumably what remains of the “left” will mark it in some fashion, but for the mainstream it will largely be a non-event.
The question is how it will be handled in Russia. The Putin regime has been somewhat ambivalent about the Soviet period, acknowledging that the great achievements came at a prohibitive cost, but also seeing it as a period that needs to be integrated into Russian history. They just can’t work out how. And this means that in Russian public life there is enormous ambiguity surrounding the revolution and its aftermath.
This is well reflected in the debate that bubbles up every so often, including this month, about what to do about Lenin’s body. Currently it lies in the mausoleum in Red Square, where it has been since 1924. Some believe it should be reburied and the mausoleum torn down; others believe it should remain. This question mirrors the uncertainties surrounding how to handle the revolution, and projects its leader into contemporary Russian political debate. In this context, Sebestyen’s contribution to our understanding of Lenin’s personal life is to be welcomed. •