The dissolution of the United Soviet Social Republics (USSR) remains one of the most important and world changing moments in history. The lowering of the hammer and sickle on December 26, 1991, was the end of seventy-four years of Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe. But the remnants of the Soviet Union can still be found today and the ghost of its founder, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), continues to haunt Russia. In Red Square, Moscow, Lenin’s corpse remains on permanent display and is maintained by a full-time staff of technicians. To believers in the old-guard and Marxism, Lenin is the eternal leader of the Bolshevik revolution. To his detractors, he was madman who unleashed a wave of terror and was outdone only by his successor Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Undoubtedly, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron grip built upon fear, intimidation and murder. But those tactics were not new methods of operation, having been in use long before he took power. During the reign of the Soviet Union, information regarding Lenin’s private life was kept secret and only the most privileged of researchers were able to see any official records. The passage of time and change in attitudes had resulted in the disclosure of Soviet records that many thought would never be revealed. The thaw which began with Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) has allowed the world to learn the truth behind the Iron Curtain. Author Victor Sebestyen has taken another look at Lenin’s life in this well-researched and revealing biography of the iconic and infamous Soviet leader.
It is not a requirement but I do believe that basic knowledge of the former Soviet Union will make the book even more enjoyable to the reader. There are many figures in the story, some of whom became pivotal figures in Soviet and world history. From the start, the book is intriguing and the author’s writing style sets the perfect tone for the book. Furthermore, at the end of each chapter are the footnotes which help aid the reader in following the narrative and developing a mental picture of the tense political climate that existed in Russia at the beginning of the 1900s.
Prior to reading the book, I had learned a significant amount of information regarding Lenin’s life but the story told here is simply astounding. Sebestyen leaves no stone unearthed, fully disclosing the sensitive parts of Lenin’s life including his marriage to Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1969-1939) and relationship with Inessa Armand (1874-1920). And as the author points out, Nadezhda or “Nadya”, was a supportive and valued voice in Lenin’s circle. Her comments throughout the book shed light on Lenin’s very private side and her commitment to the revolution and Lenin’s ideology made her a celebrated figure in her own right. She remained committed to Lenin after his death and up until her own in 1939.
Lenin’s early life is examined in through detail and reveals an interesting figure but highly unorthodox and complex. Ideology becomes a major focus of his life and his series of odd jobs come to an end when he finds his true calling as the man destined to lead the Bolshevik Revolution. But his path to get there had many obstacles along the way and it is his time away from Russia that is just as interesting as his time in Russia. As would be expected, his service as chairman is the crux of the book and Sebestyen delivers the goods. Sensitive readers should be aware that there are very disturbing events that take place and in their graphic detail here, they may prove to be too upsetting for some. But the author reveals them so that we may learn the truth about Lenin. In the title of the book, the author refers to him as a “Master of Terror”. I believe the title was earned and this book is proof of it. His deeds have been overshadowed by those of his successor but Lenin was a master in his own right and I have no doubts that Stalin took many notes. Death, deception, lies and even pilferage are part of the Soviet story, serving as pillars in the foundation upon which Lenin and his party established their system of brutality. Their acts were so surprising in some instances, that even after having finished the book, I am still shaking my head in disbelief. And to say that anarchy ruled, might be an understatement.
Sebestyen carefully follows Lenin’s rise and the formation of the Soviet Government. From the start, all was not well and cracks in the facade immediately began to form. The fragility of the coalition is on full display, allowing readers to grasp the unstable nature of Soviet politics and how quickly friends could turn into enemies. Jealousy, egos and diverging interpretations of true Marxism severed friendships, raised suspicion and helped create an atmosphere of distrust that remained with the Soviet Union for the next seventy years. And even today, Russia and the independent republics, sometimes struggle to to stand completely removed from the dark legacy of the USSR.
One subject which has always been up for debate is Lenin’s untimely demise at the age of fifty-four. His condition at the time was somewhat puzzling to doctors but all agreed that it deteriorated quickly. Sebestyen clears up a few rumors surrounding Lenin’s death but there is a slight chance that some details regarding Lenin’s death still remain hidden. However, I do believe the author presents a solid analysis of what contributed to his death based on facts and not mere speculation. Readers who are expecting to find any evidence of a conspiracy will disappointed. No such theories are presented or even acknowledged, keeping the book on track all the way until the end.
The existence of Lenin’s tomb is both a testament to his influence over Russia and his inability to envision a future without himself. He could have never imagined the heights that the Soviet Union would reach over time nor could he have pictured its downfall. I think he may have mixed feelings to know that today in 2019, people are still interested in his life, one that he was willing to devote to the success of the Soviet empire. In death, he became eternally etched into the Soviet experience and he remains one of history’s most polarizing figures. This biography is nothing short of excellent.