The centenary of the Russian Revolution has arrived right on time, just as the liberal democratic world is getting a taste of what it’s like to feel political gravity give way. In 2017, Lenin lives. ‘In many ways he was a thoroughly modern phenomenon,’ writes Victor Sebestyen in Lenin the Dictator,
the kind of demagogue familiar to us in western democracies, as well as in dictatorships. In his quest for power, he promised people anything and everything. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly. He identified a scapegoat he could later 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’.
Sebestyen, whose family fled Hungary as refugees when he was a child, revives a style of history familiar to the Cold War, in which leading Bolsheviks appear as black sheep in an unhappy eastern bloc family history. Like the Polish-born historian Richard Pipes, his writing is full of caustic asides and asterisks and daggers leading down wormholes of communist lore. His well-sourced narrative feels as if it was honed around kitchen tables for decades before he sat down to write it. ‘If anything disproves the Marxist idea that it is not individuals who make history but broad social and economic forces,’ he writes, ‘it is Lenin’s revolution.’
Parts of the story are familiar. In 1887, when Lenin was a teenager, the tsarist regime hanged his older brother Alexander for plotting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. His family’s subsequent ostracism by the Simbirsk bourgeoisie fired his contempt for his social peers. That same year, he was expelled from Kazan university for participating in a demonstration. He delved instead into a resentful if disciplined self-education in socialist classics and discovered Marx — a writer tsarist censors thought no one would read.
Less often emphasised are Lenin’s relationships with women, which proved so much more enduring than those with men. His mother Maria fought for his education and provided him with financial assistance for much of his life. He was close to his sisters. A classic socialist love triangle defined his private life. In 1897, fellow socialist Nadezhda Krupskaya married him and followed him into Siberian exile, European exile, and eventually into the Kremlin. In 1909, he met Inessa Armand, a feminist émigrée in Paris who had abandoned the Tolstoyan movement over the novelist’s views on prostitution. She had read Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia on her way into Marxism, and Lenin made her head of the Bolsheviks’ International Bureau. The two women kept cordial relations.
Such was the revolutionary milieu. Variations on that biography would not be hard to find. But the personality that shaped the humanitarian inferno after 1917 is more inscrutable. Sebestyen presents unsettling evidence of a man whose objectives seemed to possess him, rather than the other way around. When famine and disease swept his native Volga region in 1891, killing hundreds of thousands of peasants, Lenin propagandised against charitable relief efforts because the spectacle of death might prove a ‘progressive factor’ in weakening the Romanovs. When tsarist forces shelled to death hundreds of Moscow workers and their families in 1905, he practically celebrated: ‘The one who has been whipped is worth two who have not.’
Russia was about due a socialist revolution in 1917 — the old order was rotten and socialist groups enjoyed broad support — but Lenin’s trajectory suggests he thought the revolution was all about him. Sebestyen doesn’t quite make this explicit, but the Bolshevik who arrived from exile in war-weary Petrograd that year was already in blood stepp’d so far. He was in a race not only against liberals, reactionaries and rival socialists, but also with his own mortality and sense of self-worth. Past middle age, childless, short of money and with a life invested in quarrel and conspiracy, his mission to capture the revolution and contain it within his Marxist innovations seems to have been an existential concern for him. His careless planning for his succession suggests as much.
Portraying the man in power, Sebestyen demonstrates with memorable examples his cold cynicism and easy recourse to terror and his seemingly pathological reliance on censorship and disinformation. The impression is less of an idealist trying to implement a lofty plan than of a half-conscious charlatan trying to run out the clock before he discovers himself.
Yet not all of Lenin’s traits, Sebestyen observes, were dictator clichés. He didn’t care for riches, and disdained the personality cult that surrounded him. Sebestyen suggests that Lenin’s legacy was to provide Russia with a ‘modern’ strongman archetype, although he slightly overstates Lenin’s standing in the Putin era. Queues for Lenin’s tomb aren’t as long these days, and Putinists don’t like revolutionaries.
S.A. Smith’s Russia in Revolution belongs to the opposite genre of history. ‘Revolutions,’ he writes,
are not created by revolutionaries, who at most help to erode the legitimacy of the existing regime by suggesting that a better world is possible…As Lenin himself well knew, it is only when the existing order is in deep crisis that revolutionaries can break out of political isolation and seek to mobilise popular forces to bring the old order to its knees.
Weighing his research against the views of other leading historians, Smith offers a well-proportioned and skilfully condensed panorama of the revolutionary situation in the Russian empire and its aftermath, covering nearly 40 years.
The central tension in his account is between idealism and tyranny. He begins with an epigraph from the dewy-eyed Pierre Bezukhov arguing for the ideals of the French Revolution in War and Peace. Against the backdrop of a disintegrating empire, he encapsulates the ambitions of nascent voluntary societies, an expanding press, women’s groups, recently emancipated serfs and emerging revolutionary factions (about 20 of which sought, like the Bolsheviks, to overthrow the Provisional Government in 1917). On the other side of the Bolshevik curtain, he presents subtly argued accounts of the bloody collapse of political pluralism, the toll of civil war and the inculcation of Soviet culture.
Smith contends that the passage of 100 years has made utopian illusions easier to perceive than the attraction of ideals, although his account highlights plenty of illusions. While his Lenin is recognisable from Sebestyen’s account, Smith also cautions that Bolshevism was broader than Lenin’s line. Even if Lenin thought himself synonymous with the party, he points out, the many thousands of workers, soldiers and sailors who joined the Bolsheviks between February and October 1917 — numbers shot from as few as 10,000 to as many as 350,000 — probably had little acquaintance with Marxism, and simply embraced the Bolsheviks as ‘implacable defenders of the common people’.
Such ambiguities are magnificently evidenced in 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, which is one of the real gems among the centenary books. Half poetry and half prose, the anthology presents Russian writers’ reactions to the early years of revolution, from February 1917 until the ascendency of the Red Army over the Whites in late 1919. Arranging the works thematically and detailing the revolution’s impact on the authors’ lives, Boris Dralyuk assembles a potent blend of novelty, utopianism and eschatology.
On the verse side, Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam were mesmerised by the spectacle of expensive wine flowing into gutters and rivers in urgent displays of revolutionary temperance. The long-time Bolshevik Vladimir Mayakovsky welcomed a cleansing flood ‘even greater than Noah’s’. Such religious imagery abounded in the nascent atheist state: the most uncanny example is Alexander Blok’s long poem ‘The Twelve’, which imagines violent young Bolsheviks as apostles.
Most memorable among the prose pieces are the morbid satires like Teffi’s ‘The Guillotine’, in which the people of Petrograd display all their old petty gripes and prejudices while reporting for beheading, and Yefim Zozulya’s ‘The Dictator’, in which a Lenin surrogate, having raised the question of every citizen’s right to life, vacillates weightily over the science of extermination and then does a runner. Mikhail Zoshchenko’s early essay ‘A Wonderful Audacity’ contrasts Russians’ resentment of the ‘feeble politics’ of their Provisional Government with the raw appeal of the Bolsheviks. That, too, feels modern:
They were weak; and you cried, ‘Stronger!’
And now your wish is granted. Kiss the whip
that is raised above you.
It’s cruel, you say? Yes, but, on the other hand,
it is powerful.