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.
In December, 1991, the unthinkable happened as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) dissolved into fifteen separate countries. Known informally as the Soviet Union, the USSR seemed at times indestructible to those viewing the union from abroad. But within dissension had been brewing for many years in the wake of the tyrannical reign of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). His successors embarked on a period of de-Stalinization that thrived under the administration of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (1894-1971). The Soviet Union remained a superpower and in direct competition with arch-rival the United States. It dissolution shocked the world and left the future of the former Soviet republics in limbo. In the aftermath of the monumental and historic collapse, the individual republics established their own rights to self-governance and in some cases, completely rejected Russian rule. Tensions between many of the nations continues to this day. Currently, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin serves as the President of Russia, and is as much of a controversial figure as many of his predecessors. His appointment by late President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007) gave many Russians hope that a new direction was in store for the beloved country. Today, as we look back at the time that has passed since he was chosen to lead Russia, we can see a tortured nation still suffering from systematic oppression and what is rightly described in this book as totalitarianism.
In 2017, Gessen was hired by The New Yorker magazine as a stiff writer and she continues to be a leading voice for LGBT causes in her homeland of Russia. She hails from Moscow and is acutely aware of the persecution that she and many others face because of their sexual orientation. In Russia, the government embarked on a crusade against the LGBT community that began to flourish in the 1990s with the passing legislation against “homosexual propaganda”. The change in society which gave license to open discrimination of LGBT citizens is nothing short of barbaric. The murder of Vladislav Tornovoy marked a point of no return and although outrage at the crime was widespread, homophobia continued to increase. There are many ugly truths to be told and this phenomenal book that reveals the dark side behind the Iron Curtain, we can see first hand how Russia missed its opportunity to move away from the iron grip of Leninism and embrace democratic ideas. Some Russians undoubtedly wish to return to the Soviet days while younger Russians wish to move forward and transform Russia into a country of which they can be proud. To understand life in the Soviet Union and in new Russian society, Gessen interviewed several individuals, each with their own story to tell that will prove to be riveting to readers. Their names are Lyosha, Masha, Seryozha, and Zhanna and they each devoted a year of their time to tell Gessen about the Russia they know and in some cases, have left. Zhanna may be familiar to some readers as the daughter of Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov (1959-2015) who served as the First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin.
Gessen takes up deep inside their lives in post-Cold War Russia as Perestroika becomes of the official policy of Moscow. It is cited as one of the reasons of the fall of the USSR and a major factor in the resurgence of totalitarianism. The debate will continue for years but what is clearly apparent is that life in the Soviet Union was one of hardship, poverty and the loss of hope. These stories should remove any illusions readers may have of a high quality of life for the average Russian citizen. This is a sobering look at the daily struggles Russians face and the relentless abolition of individual liberties. Homosexuals became easy scapegoats and in the book, we follow Lyosha and his struggle to maintain a stable life in the midst of fierce homophobia supported and encouraged by official government policy. Masha and Zhanna would later become voices for the opposition while Seryozha would come to learn about the privileges attached to his family’s residence in “Czar Village”. Each faced their own struggles and their anecdotes reveal the dark transformation of Russian society as the departing Boris Yeltsin hands over the reigns to the former director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Putin wasted no time as President of Russia and has placed the country in a vice grip, showing no signs of relinquishing his hold on power.
Where this book truly excels, is the author’s clarity in explaining the failures of Moscow post-Stalin and the importance of neighboring Crimea and Ukraine. Both territories have become hotbed issues during Putin’s presidency and increased tensions between Moscow and Washington, with the latter establishing punishing sanctions. The promise of hope, which existed for a brief time in Russia, seems to be receding on a regular basis as the Kremlin extends its totalitarian grip as far as it possibly can. Many have fled Russia, making a home in other parts of Europe and Brighton Beach, a small enclave in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. As the author points out, Seryozha stopped responding to her messages in 2015, but the others have each made the tough decision to leave the places they called home in search of a better life, free from the grip of Putin’s regime. Slander, political oppression and even assassination, are hallmarks of Putin’s tactics to stifle the voices of perceived enemies of the state. Large numbers of expats will not return to Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains determined to keep the men and women of their homeland held firmly in subjugation. Gessen has dared to speak out, risking persecution that has plagued other brave voices that have done their best to expose the facade created to cover the realities of Russian society. Opposition of any kind is not tolerated and the descriptions in the book of the actions towards those who dared to speak out have the markings of the classic police state.
Many misconceptions about Russia exist, mainly due to incorrect reporting and propaganda released by the Kremlin. But as we can see through Gessen’s work, life in Russia is quite different from the image the has been projected by officials. Persecution, oppression and famine are just some of the daily factors that make life in Russia a hard one to live. Deception and mistrust have become widespread and are eerily similar to the climate of suspicion created the Third Reich. The Soviet Union is long gone and in spite of Putin’s agenda, it will never again rise to the heights that it reached during the Cold War. And as the younger generation of Russians continue to find ways to make their voices heard, Russia will be faced again with a moment of monumental change. But in order for it to move forward, the people will have to ask what kind of Russia do they want for future generations? Do they want a true democracy or do they wish to endure several decades of rule by Vladimir Putin? The voices in the book have made their positions clear. It remains to be seen if anyone truly listens. They know the Russia that you and I have only read about. The Russia they know is a cold place, mostly closed off from the outside world and a nation that can never shake the ghost of Joseph Stalin and his mentor Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), known to the world as Vladimir Lenin. But if Russia chooses to listen, the message is loud and clear that the future is history.
Today, sixty-four years after his death in, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) remains one of the most polarizing and studied figures of the 20th century. As the leader of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, he enforced the legendary Red Army as it fought off a German onslaught and helped the Allies put an end to Germany’s Third Reich. Following the war, tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated giving birth to the Cold War. In 1991, the USSR collapsed and today Russia is under the control of Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly one of the world’s most controversial figures. Stalin’s reign may seem to be in Russia’s distant past but it was less than one hundred years ago that Stalin ruled with an iron fist, striking fear into the hearts of not only his enemies but those closest to him. Rumors have surfaced over the years regarding everything including his love life, health, mental state and bungled policies. But who was the real Joseph Stalin? Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia on December 18, 1878 to Besarion “Beso” Jughashvili (1850-1909) and Ketevan “Keke” Geladze (1858-1937), few could have imagined that the young child would grow up to rule an entire nation. His life in later years became mysterious to those inside and outside of Russia. Misconceptions and falsehoods have spread, causing even more confusion about the truth. Stephen Kotkin has takes on the late leader’s life in a multi-part definitive biography that is simply outstanding.
Kotkin’s compendium is extensive, totaling over seven hundred pages of text. And from what I have seen, the second volume, due to be released in November, 2017 will be slightly larger. But contained within the pages of this book, is the incredible story of the life of Joseph Stalin from his birth until the year 1928. The book was exhaustively researched and at times, is heavy on historical figures, places and dates. At first it may seem challenging to keep track but as the book goes on the, the figures reappear to remind us of their importance. The beauty in the book is that Kotkin deeply examines all situations that require explanation. And in his writing, he is neither for or against Stalin. He simply shows us his life and who he was, based on his own statements, transcripts of Party Congresses and documents that have survived from the era. For history lovers, this is nearly heaven on earth. History textbooks tell some of the story of the Russian Revolution, but here we have an inside look into the movement that catapulted Stalin, Vladimir Lenin (1877-1924) and Leon “Lev” Trotsky (1879-1940) to eternal fame and later condemnation. The subsequent Russian Polish War and escalation of tensions between Russian and it’s allies Germany and Britain following Lenin’s death, highlight the fractured foreign policy enacted employed by the Bolshevik party.
As Kotkin showcases, Stalin’s rise to power was based on fear, intimidation and deception. Even those closest to him, never truly knew what he was thinking or how to approach him at times. His first wife Yekaterina “Kato” Svanidze (1885-1907) died only a year into their marriage but his second wife Nadya Alliluyeva (1901-1932) witnessed first hand his unpredictable nature and abrasive moods. And for those that were enemies, they often face exile in Siberia, where Stalin himself was once confined to during the First World War. Trotsky, Grigory Zionviev (1883-1936) and Lev Kamenev (1883-1936) would find this out firsthand. His NEP or “New Economic Policy” was supposed to be the plan that saved Russian but instead propelled it towards disorganized collectivization intended to balance the economy as Stalin moved further to the left. But as we see in the book, the Bolsheviks had steep learning curves in many areas. The results of their shortcomings are tragic having resulted in the deaths of over seven million people. Famine spread like a virus forcing many to eat things unmentionable and unimaginable. And throughout the crisis that arise, Stalin comes off as a cold machine unaffected by anything and driven by ideology. As we re-live the past through Kotkin’s words, we see the deep level of seriousness and vindictiveness that composed the former Soviet dictator.
Stalin took with him to the grave, answers to many questions that have puzzled researchers for years. And although we have documents that have been graciously preserved, some parts of his life are lost for good. Perhaps some day in the future, more information about him may be discovered but with Kotkin’s work, we have the first part of what could be the best biography of Stalin to date. It is one of history greatest stories and filled with historical figures such as Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), Fanya Kaplan (1890-1918), Gavilro Princip (1894-1918) and Nicholas II (1868-1918) among others. Students of Russian history have been presented with a gift in this book and I am sure it will find its way to the bookshelves of many.
Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas” – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin