The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror
By Victor Sebestyen
Illustrated. 569 pp. Pantheon Books. $35.
Can first-rate history read like a thriller? With “Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror,” the journalist Victor Sebestyen has pulled off this rarest of feats — down to the last of its 569 pages. How did he do it? Start with a Russian version of “House of Cards” and behold Vladimir Ilyich Lenin pre-empt Frank Underwood’s cynicism and murderous ambition by 100 years. Add meticulous research by digging into Soviet archives, including those locked away until recently. Plow through 9.5 million words of Lenin’s “Collected Works.” Finally, apply a scriptwriter’s knack for drama and suspense that needs no ludicrous cliffhangers to enthrall history buffs and professionals alike.
It is surprising that a man who showed no sign of greatness in his youth and wasn’t even interested in politics should have become the leader of a revolution. Back in the U.S.S.R., a perplexed party hack mused: “I have always wondered how he could have done such extraordinary things.” Lenin ruled for less than seven years, and his Soviet empire crashed on Christmas Day 1991. Its 74-year career was a mere episode compared with Rome, Hapsburg or Britain. Communism, Soviet Russia’s ersatz religion, has ended up as a gory failure, claiming tens of millions of dead from Moscow to Mao’s China.
“How could this obstinate little man … Lenin have become so important?” the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig asked in 1927. Yet 90 years later, Russians queue daily at Lenin’s tomb to gaze reverently at an embalmed corpse. The mausoleum was refurbished by Vladimir Putin at vast expense in 2011 to make an obvious point — that Russia needs a “dominant, ruthless, autocratic leader.” Lenin, the Robespierre of
All of Leninism may be reduced to two famous words uttered by the Founder in 1921 and repeated by Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin: “Kto kovo?” “Who, whom?” That is, who will do in whom? A comrade-turned-foe gave Lenin something of a pass by invoking tragedy. Lenin “desired the good … but created evil.” Sebestyen seems to agree: The “worst of his evils was to have left a man like Stalin in a position to lead Russia after him. That was a historic crime.”
Lenin used his chance well. “From his first few hours as leader of Russia, he laid the ground for rule by terror,” Sebestyen writes. On the second day, he began to censor the press. On Dec. 7, 1917, he set up the Cheka to combat “counterrevolution, speculation and sabotage.” He abolished the legal system in favor of “revolutionary justice,” which legitimized every perversion of the law. “To us,” Lenin pontificated, “all is permitted. … Blood? Let there be blood.” For victory was not possible “without the very cruelest revolutionary terror.”
The scholar Robert Service puts it all in a nutshell in his acclaimed book “A History of Modern Russia”: “The forced-labor camps, the one-party state … the prohibition of free and popular elections, the ban on internal party dissent: not one of them had to be invented by Stalin. … Not for nothing did Stalin call himself Lenin’s disciple.” But why blame only Lenin and Stalin? As Sebestyen emphasizes: “The structure of the police state had been established under Nicholas I in the 1820s.”
The difference between czarism and Leninism is the one between absolutism and totalitarianism. It is one-man rule in both systems, but the critical ingredient is the total state — what the Nazis imposed as Gleichschaltung — the liquidation of civil society top to bottom: parties, unions, media, churches, guilds and associations.
Lenin’s most brilliant invention was a secular religion: Communism. If you believe in me, you will gain salvation — not in the Great Beyond, but in the Here and Now. And if you don’t believe, the revolutionary faith pronounced, we will kill you. With this brand-new choice — paradise on earth or speedy demise — the “obstinate little man” made a revolution that shook the world and inspired tyrants round the globe.
Though dead for more than 90 years, Lenin lives on in his mausoleum and in the minds of millions of Russians who have stood in line to commune with a corpse. Today, as Sebestyen writes in his concluding words, Lenin is being “used by a new breed of autocrats, extreme nationalists who may have dispensed with Communism but nevertheless respect Lenin as a strongman in the Russian tradition.”