Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 23, 2017

Lenin the Dictator (2017), by Victor Sebestyen

Via the Twitterfeed @SovietVisuals 22/4/17

When The Spouse and I visited Russia in 2012 (well before anti-Russian sentiment reached its current peak) we were surprised to see that statues of Lenin were still intact and still in place.  And by coincidence, as I was drafting this review, the Twitterfeed of the often hilarious @SovietVisuals offered an example that shows that young people still hold Lenin in regard.  Since it goes some way towards explaining this persisting affection for the leader of the Soviet Revolution, this new biography, Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen is timely, and not just because of the 100th anniversary of the revolution.  As I said when reviewing Tony Kevin’s Return to Moscow, IMO in our messy interconnected world, it’s now more important than ever to understand countries like Russia.

Lenin the Dictator is also very good reading.  From the first chapters about Lenin’s childhood to the story of the revolution itself, this book kept my attention throughout.  Just occasionally I had some doubts about the author’s objectivity*, but by and large this biography seems to be a balanced account of the life, achievements and flaws of one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century.  Inevitably, the story of Lenin’s life is also the story of the Russian Revolution, and this book is also a clear and lucid explanation of how this remarkable event took place.

Because it was remarkable.  The Bolshevik revolution could have faltered at so many different moments in time, but Lenin as its leader was lucky that it happened at all and was then utterly ruthless in maintaining it in its early days.  And yet in some ways, revolution of some sort was inevitable: Russia in the early twentieth century was an economic basket case and there had been agitation for reform for decades.  Sebestyen makes it clear that the collapse of the Romanov dynasty was brought about by their own stupidity, incompetence, refusal to change and the epic, thoughtless scale of the bacchanal, the drinking and promiscuity, [which] went beyond decadence.  One after the other the Tsars had presided over a country that desperately needed political and economic reform, and they maintained their grip on power with ruthless repression that was a model for the Bolsheviks to subsequently follow.  Lenin’s own brother was hung at the age of twenty-one for agitating for political reform, and the entire family was one of thousands exiled to keep the activists out of Petrograd (Leningrad/St Petersburg).

By the time of the First World War, there was so much unrest that the army was barely functional, and with 17 million dead in the trenches, there was strong support for making peace with Germany (and the Germans were only too happy to fund the Bolsheviks whose policy was for an armistice).  There were riots, strikes and assassinations, which triggered violent repression in return.  For his own safety Lenin and his supporters were out of the country for long periods of time, and there were so many different groups with different political agendas that when the Tsar finally abdicated and a provisional government took over in March 1917, it was total chaos.  The actual business of the Bolsheviks storming the palace in October 1917 was more like an episode of the Keystone Cops than a revolution that would change the world.  (On my travel blog, I struggled to convey the sense of awe I felt on being in the room where the October Revolution began).

The biggest mistake that the Provisional Government made was to underestimate Lenin:

Ministers in the Provisional Government were congratulating themselves that they had been clever to allow Lenin back into the country, convinced that his extremism had made life easier for them.  The Socialist Revolutionary leader Victor Chernov, Minister of Agriculture, said Lenin’s ideas were so radical and ‘raving’ that the ‘Bolsheviks’ dangers will be limited and localised.’ Prince Lvov, the Prime Minister, told Vladimir Nabokov (father of the novelist), his closest aide and Chief Secretary to the Cabinet, ‘Don’t worry about Lenin.  The man is not dangerous – and besides, we can arrest him whenever we want.’  (p.293)

How wrong they were…

Biographies are at their best when they trace the influences on a person’s life and explore their personalities, and what makes this biography so interesting is the way that Sebestyen presents Lenin as a human being rather than a Cold War symbol.  Using resources not available until the post-Soviet era, he shows how Lenin was radicalised and how he formed his unshakeable belief that a socialist revolution was the best option for any society. Sebestyen says that Lenin genuinely believed that he would make lives better through his actions.

Lenin never felt that he had to justify his actions.  To him, accepting help from the Germans – and as would become clear later, large amounts of their money too – would have seemed rational and reasonable.  Lenin by this time in his life had ceased thinking in conventional moral terms and would have felt it entirely acceptable to take help from anyone if it would bring forward the socialist revolution in Russia – and then throughout the world. (p.275)

Yet beside this indefatigable attitude was a man of contradictory personality.  He could be secretive, conspiratorial and perfectionist, berating his supporters and aides and threatening them with very harsh punishments, and his rages over petty matters were breathtaking.  Yet his private secretary Lidia Fotieva said that

…most of the time he was kind in personal matters and good-humoured: ‘I think it can be said he worked jovially … with a great deal of laughter.’  This was something often said about Lenin, which is not always easy to square with his demanding, difficult, domineering and ruthless persona.  His sense of irony was acute, often at the expense of someone else.  But some of his stern critics noted a broader sense of humour, even occasional silliness.  Gorky often remarked that ‘Lenin loved to laugh… and when he laughed it was with his whole body.  On occasions he was overcome with laughter and would laugh sometimes until he cried.’ (p.427)

There are many interesting snippets in this bio, including the fact that Putin’s grandfather was a cook at Lenin’s dacha.  I was especially interested in Lenin’s reading tastes, formed when he was a young man not allowed to continue his studies at Kazan University as punishment for his brother’s activism.

So he educated himself, quietly in the countryside.  ‘Never later in my life, not in prison in Petersburg or in Siberia, did I read so much as in the year after my exile to the countryside from Kazan, he said later.  ‘This was serious reading, from early morning to late at night.’  Leon Trotsky later described it ‘as the crucial time that forged him as a socialist… the years of stubborn work in which the future Lenin was formed.’ He pored over the socialist classics and works of philosophy, economics and history which his brother had read so avidly. (p.61)

Apparently he loved Turgenev, was opposed to the Tolstoyan world view, and hated Dostoyevsky even though he acknowledged his genius.  By coincidence when I was reading this biography I also stumbled across Tariq Ali’s article about Lenin’s literary interests and how they shaped his views, in The Guardian.

Despite the hardships delineated in this life story, this is not a biography to make anyone feel much sympathy for Lenin but the death of his lover Inessa aged 45 seems a cruel blow.  Commentary from the time shows that he was devastated by the loss.  His wife Nadya knew about Inessa, and was apparently accepting of their relationship… like Lenin, she was devoted to the ideals of the revolution but wholly pragmatic about achieving it, so she was apparently prepared to tolerate Inessa in its service. (In fact, she and Lenin subsequently adopted Inessa’s orphaned children).

When it came to Lenin’s own death after years of ill-health and overwork, Nadya was strongly opposed to the way his legacy was used by the ensuing regime, but her objections were ignored. In keeping with the simple lifestyle he had always had, Lenin had wished to be buried next to his mother and sister, and Nadya and the rest of the family had wanted a plain and simple headstone, but Stalin and Co overruled all that and for their own purposes embalmed the body and created the cult of Lenin.

There was genuine grief at Lenin’s death, though how spontaneous it was and how much was hijacked by the regime remains a matter of argument.  Hundreds of thousands of people – perhaps as many as a million – waited in the freezing cold and driving snow to catch a glimpse of his body.  For the entire four days he lay in state there was an honour guard attending him.  At first there were eight soldiers, replaced every ten minutes.  But so many people wanted to serve – Party workers, GPU officers as well as troops – that the guard was doubled to sixteen and later trebled to twenty-four and was changed every five minutes.

The death of Tsars was traditionally attended by large-scale public displays of mourning.  But none was as large as this.  (p.501)

The mausoleum was still open for viewing when we were in Moscow in 2012, but our guide was cracking jokes for his western audience about how the queues were there to make sure that Lenin was actually dead.  I bet he doesn’t do that with Russian tourists!

The study of power is always fascinating, and Lenin’s ascent to power was remarkable.  About half of the book covers Lenin’s childhood and activities before the October revolution, and the second half covers his period as leader until his death in 1924 aged only 53.  There is also a helpful summary of the principal characters at the back of the book in case the reader loses track of the names, there are detailed notes for every chapter, there is a comprehensive index and there are some startling photos.  It is an indication of Lenin’s continuing significance that the cover of this book is just an image of Lenin – no name is needed.

Lenin the Dictator is also reviewed at Inside Story.

*There was, for example,  a sarcastic remark about Churchill on page 448 – admittedly a man with plenty of flaws as the historical record shows, but sarcasm is a bad look in a bio, IMO.   And I was just a little bit doubtful about Sebestyen’s certainty in attributing the order to kill the Tsar to Lenin, when he  himself says:

There is no paper trail proving that Lenin gave the orders to kill the tsar.  It is unlikely that he would ever have signed such a warrant, and even if he had, he would surely have covered his tracks most carefully.  Even if any evidence had existed, the Soviet magnates who succeeded him would have destroyed it.  But there is no doubt that Lenin gave the order – almost certainly verbally to his then second-in-command, Sverdlov, and probably at a meeting in the Kremlin on 12 July 1918.  The timing and details were left to others – Sverdlov and his henchmen – but the decision to kill all the Romanovs and to do so in secret was Lenin’s.  It is likely that apart from Lenin and Sverdlov, most of the Red magnates did not know the murders had taken place until two days after they had happened. (p.401-2)

Sebestyen goes on to record a meeting at which the execution of Nicholas Romanov was announced by Sverdlov, and Lenin’s equanimity at the announcement.  This doesn’t prove anything since we all know that contentious issues are often thrashed out behind closed doors, and it beggars belief that – whether acting on Lenin’s orders or not – Sverdlov would have announced it without briefing Lenin in private first.

In later paragraphs Sebestyen says that in previous discussions about the fate of the Romanovs, Lenin had played along with the idea of a show trial but prevaricated. 

All the time he and Sverdlov had known the fate they envisaged for the Emperor; it was a question of how and when his execution would take place and whether Nicholas alone would die.  Lenin had no conscience about regicide. To him, the Tsar was a ‘very particular class enemy’ and the Romanovs were a ‘300-year-old disgrace’.  His dilemma was fear of what the Germans and Kaiser Wilhelm would do if the Bolsheviks murdered his cousins. He wasn’t at all worried about popular opinion inside Russia.  He was sure that few people cared what happened to the Tsar and his family (p.403-4)

Well, maybe, but the endnote seems to suggest that this certainty about Lenin’s responsibility for the executions depends mostly on a conversation that Trotsky subsequently had with Sverdlov and recorded in his diary.  (Though there are two other sources referenced and of course I haven’t read them.  They are both recent post-Soviet era books so they are secondary sources not primary sources like the diary).  Given that the Trotsky-Lenin relationship was hostile at different times, and that this information comes third hand, the evidence looks a bit flimsy to me.  It’s also quite possible that Sverdlov or the bunch of drunks who actually did the deed acted without authority and that Lenin may have had no option but to sanction it afterwards because he would have looked a complete fool if he didn’t.

However, my slight doubts about Sebestyen’s interpretation of events on this matter doesn’t detract from my opinion that this is an excellent biography, and well worth reading!

Author: Victor Sebestyen
Title: Lenin the Dictator, an intimate portrait
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2017, 569 pages
ISBN: 9781474600453
Source: review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait


  1. Does indeed sound fascinating. And interested in your comments about the objectivity – I get so sick of reading heavily biased history and biogs.


    • Me too, it’s not a black-and-white world, it’s complex and messy and the books we read should reflect that IMO.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  3. It certainly sounds worth reading.


  4. A very comprehensive review! And good if it’s ‘unbiased’, I assume the author is Russian. If I could add a little, which I’m sure you know, but you don’t say: The October Revolution was not against the Romanov monarchy but against Parliament, the Romanovs abdicated after the February Revolution. Lenin instituted a dictatorship as per Marxist doctrine and Stalin demonstrated the error in taking that course when he seized power after Lenin’s death.


    • No, he was born in Hungary and came with his parents to the UK as a refugee.
      True, I couldn’t possibly say all I wanted to, this post is 2000+ words already. Quite a bit about how Lenin did not want Stalin to succeed him, which is interesting.


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