Entertainment Book Reviews

Saturday 16 December 2017

Dishing the dirt on Lenin

Biography: Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait, Victor Sebestyen, W&N, hdbk, 592 pages, €35

Mural of Vladimir Lenin. Photo: Getty
Mural of Vladimir Lenin. Photo: Getty
Lenin

Catherine Merridale

A humanising biography of the Russian revolutionary sidelines his ideas in favour of sex and money.

Everybody knows Lenin. You only have to think of mass-produced fake marble busts, and then there are the statues and the paintings, mostly bad. For anyone who must have more, the man himself is still on view, and holds court on selected days - despite having been dead for 93 years. Even in Russia, which excels in the production of larger-than-life political leaders, Lenin is something of a giant. His greatest moment came in 1917, when he led his party to power in the Bolshevik revolution. Crucially, his government survived thereafter, creating the world's first-ever communist regime. Without Lenin, there would have been no Soviet Union, probably no Stalin, and no decades-long global Cold War.

The first biographers were working on his life before he died. From the scholarly to the hagiographical, there is a portrait somewhere to suit everyone. Almost all sketch the same set of facts. We read again that Lenin's real name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, that he was the son of a headmaster in a well-to-do provincial town, and that his eldest brother took part in an assassination plot for which, aged 21, he was hanged in a tsarist prison yard.

The gifted Vladimir, despite that shock, was still the most outstanding student of his year. He might have made a great schoolmaster. Instead, he read Karl Marx, joined an underground political cell and devoted his life to revolution. As a fellow socialist remembered: "Lenin is the only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation 24 hours a day, who has no thoughts but of revolution, and who even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution".

So far so good, but for biographers the problem has always been to find something more personal. The Lenin of the marble busts is just too coldly pure, too geometric, too austere. His successors in Moscow kept Lenin's archive locked away for more than 60 years, deliberately perpetuating the two-dimensional official view. When Soviet power collapsed in the early 1990s, a flood of declassified material drew writers like so many crows, descending on the archives by day and packing smoky bars by night to find out what their rivals had been shown. All in all, it was a golden age and failing some unexpected Lenin trove, it is unlikely that the works of Robert Service and RC Elwood will ever be bettered for sheer thoroughness.

That said, each generation has to find a Lenin for itself, and 2017 marks a centenary not to be missed. There will be many other books, but Victor Sebestyen promises "an intimate portrait". His publishers could scarcely ask for more, for this is exactly the right tone for a readership that likes its politicians hot. In the age of Russian hackers and alternative facts, Karl Marx feels passé, out of step with Twitter feeds and oligarchs whose votes were bought with wads of bloodstained cash. All power is corrupt - it's all we know - so a political biography is lost without its share of sex, lies and videotape. The least we ask for is a photograph with cats.

The sex, in Lenin's case, is easy. Try as they might, Lenin's biographers have never managed to turn him into a secret stud. The future leader met his wife when he was 24, perhaps on the rebound from one of her friends, and remained with her (more or less) until he died. Rightly, Sebestyen is gracious to this woman, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who was not only better looking than most other writers allow but also more talented; a genuine partner for her gifted, difficult husband.

That leaves Inessa Armand, Lenin's other love, a mother of four from a prosperous household. Though Sebestyen makes the most of the dramatic possibilities, the outcome was in fact a dull ménage à trois. Nadezhda and Inessa became good friends, helped each other with their vital revolutionary work, and spent their summers on long walks or sitting close together mending clothes.

The wads of cash look promising, but no one claims that Lenin was corrupt. He lived simply, ate with neither greed nor discernment and his clothes had visible mends. His main indulgence was health care. Sebestyen dismisses the suggestion the leader suffered from syphilis, but there were always nagging problems - headaches, mainly, and exhausting digestive complaints - while Nadezhda suffered the torments of Graves' disease, which affects the thyroid. The doctors she needed - Swiss by preference - were an expensive luxury. Lenin paid them from Bolshevik Party funds, confident that his wife's health was a justifiable expense.

More shady were the wartime dealings with his country's enemy, Germany, which swelled his party's campaign chest in 1917. The trouble is that there is still no documentary proof, which thwarts even the best attempt to give juicy details. Once in power, Lenin was neither flamboyant nor stylish. He could be arrogant, obstinate and ruthless, but he was not a narcissist. As Sebestyen writes, he was not even personally cruel. He never witnessed an execution, never wore a military uniform. In all, he was unglamorous, which is a problem for the portraitist. The point, however, is that portraits should not look like mirrors of ourselves. What mattered about Lenin's life was not his sex drive or his tastes for Beethoven and mountain hikes.

Lenin was a man possessed, and what consumed him was not lust - for power, sex or fame - but a philosophical imperative. It was not sexy or satirical, but he believed enlightened humans could create a fairer world. The notion owed a lot to a scientific idea of progress that the current age rejects. It was outmoded even in his lifetime, though mere doubt never bothered him. He was convinced a world revolution was imminent, and he set out to work for it with every sinew and synapse. What he hated above all was capitalism, and his analysis of that was caustic, brilliant and relentless. The fact that time has proved him wrong on almost every point is not a reason for discounting the centrality of ideas in his life.

His writings are not an easy read. They are repetitive, corrosive, and most are peppered with forgotten names. But it is only by understanding the core of Lenin's intellectual world that a biographer can hope to make him real. Sebestyen fails us here, not least because he has relied so much on secondary works. Like a magpie with a heap of coloured scraps, he uses anecdote and mockery to catch and keep our interest. His opening set-piece passes Lenin off as a bungler, jamming a wig down on his head and stumbling past a line of government guards to make his way across the Neva on the eve of his own coup.

Reading on, it is difficult to see how such a man could ever seize power, still less hold on to it. This is a pity, for in discounting his subject's brilliance - a small revenge - Sebestyen has robbed us of telling insights.

Lenin's was an age of shocking, seismic change, upheaval that the men in pinstriped suits passed off as insolence or discontent. While every establishment politician from Paris to Petrograd hoped to see the pre-war order restored to suit his pre-war tastes, our dynamic misfit understood there could be no way back. The tide that engulfed Russia by the late summer of 1917 was one that he did not create, but he was bold enough to ride it. His support came from millions who were weary of grudging compromise, from people who believed he talked the toughest, simplest, most effective line. He did; and the costs would be paid for decades to come.

Sebestyen's book is approachable, presented in crisp chapters with diverting, colourful vignettes. But the whole remains disappointing. A cerebral character like Lenin was always going to be hard to market, especially without new archival material, but there is a persistent sense in this book that the portrait has been drawn from photographs and not real life. On one point, however, Lenin might yet score a few likes on his Facebook page. It turns out that the man was very fond of cats.

Catherine Merridale's latest book is Lenin on the Train (Allen Lane)

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