12:23:17 Lenin: The Man, The Dictator, and the Master of Terror, a book review

Reviewing Victor Sebestyen's Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, I noted one of that book's strengths was the journalist's riveting profiles of key players helping history unfold. Sebestyen now takes this gift back to the Empire's beginnings. His latest book is Lenin: The Man, The Dictator, and the Master of Terror.

[book cover]

A biography of more than 500 pages, Sebestyen's offers detailed scenes that brings Vladimir Ilyich Lenin alive for the reader on the page. For example:

"A dishevelled-looking--but still strikingly handsome--young man with a mass of tousled curly-brown hair, pince-nez and an air of jaunty arrogance stood at the doorstep. This was the first time that Lenin met Leon Trotsky."

What drove Lenin? Sebestyen points to a day in 1887 when seventeen-year-old Vladimir learned his older brother Alexander was hanged for taking part in an amateurish student plot to assassinate the Tsar. While revolution against the Romanov autocracy had been around since the Decembrists of the 1820s, Vladimir's loss apparently catalyzed his resolve as a dedicated Marxist revolutionary, even if illegal in the Tsar's day.

Lenin spent more than half his adult life in exile. And while one senses Lenin was content to study and write in the same reader's room in the British Library where Karl Marx once sat, Lenin also knew he was the Revolution's leader-in-waiting. Influential pamphlets and books followed, and, with a wealthy sponsor, the daily Russian paper Pravda [Truth] was launched--Lenin, chief editor in absentia.

When Lenin returns to Russia, the reader realizes the strategic acumen, the timing, and, yes, the luck. Tsar Nicholas II is finally overthrown in 1917, but neither Lenin's Bolsheviks [the Reds] nor the more numerous Whites [other radical revolutionaries] win the day. It was the masses--men and women in the street--who had enough of the Tsar's oppression. Plus the Tsar's general ineptitude presented opportunity.

Into chaos stepped Lenin and his disciplined Bolsheviks. Lenin, the pragmatist, knew this ripe moment called for absolute power, a “dictator for the people.” Perhaps without reflection, Lenin would create a totalitarian mirror-image of the Romanov autocracy, lasting seventy-four years.

While acknowledging brutal excess in Lenin's regime, Sebestyen argues that Lenin has relevance today. Have-Nots struggle against Haves. Income inequality and injustice persist. The questions Lenin asked in his populist appeals to Russia of 1917 have echoes one hundred years later.

Lenin: The Man, The Dictator, and the Master of Terror by Victor Sebestyen, Pantheon Books, 2017, 570 pp., ISBN: 978-1-101-87163-8.

Image credits: washingtontimes.com


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