Red Giant

An Interview with Victor Sebestyen

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was a modest, middle-class boy from the sticks who grew up to become a violent revolutionary and ultimately the dictator of a totalitarian state. The story of how Lenin became Lenin is a fascinating one, and it forms a major theme in the essential new biography of the man from noted author Victor Sebestyen. We spoke to Sebestyen about Lenin’s own history and its connection to the fate of his country.

Octavian Report: What first inspired you to write a biography of Lenin?

Victor Sebestyen: There had not been a big biography of him in English in nearly 20 years — that was one of the main reasons. And there's been quite a lot of new material that has emerged even since that last one. New material from Russia, new archive material, new memoirs from people who had known Lenin.

There's been some very good biographies in the past. I'm not knocking any of them. But most of them were on one side or the other of the Cold War, the ideological struggle, and years later one could be a little bit more dispassionate.

The other thing is that these big characters who have changed history need to be assessed by each generation. Biographies of Napoleon come out very regularly; Stalin regularly. But Lenin hadn't been done for quite a while. It struck me that it was about time.

OR: What personal qualities of his did you find the most interesting?

Sebestyen: What got to me as a storyteller was the fact that this man, who for most of his life was in exile with a handful of followers, took over one of the largest empires in the world. For a storyteller, that is fantastically interesting. How did this happen?

There were lots of people who believed in the same ideology as Lenin. There were so many Russian revolutionary groups vying with the Bolsheviks, and many of them were just as rigorously Marxist as Lenin was. In fact, our view of the Mensheviks — whom we suggest now because they were wiped out by the Bolsheviks were a species of liberal democrat — is a complete illusion. Julius Martov, who was the great challenger to Lenin, was an absolutely rigorous Marxist. They were not nice, cuddly democrats, the Mensheviks.

So it was very much to do with his personality. Why did he win? He won because he was absolutely furious and dedicated and completely one-dimensional about taking power. He wanted power. The others would've been quite happy to sit in cafés talking about it, but he really wanted it.

His personality, if anything, disproves the Marxist idea of history as being driven by great waves of economic forces or social forces. Lenin's revolution wouldn't have happened without Lenin. There wouldn't have been a revolution in October 1917 without Lenin. Even with Trotsky, who was just as much a Marxist, it is clear from what happened that it would not have happened that way had it not been for Lenin.

OR: Can you talk about Lenin’s background and the process of his radicalization?

Sebestyen: Nothing in his upbringing would have led anyone to think he would turn into one of history's great rebels. He had a very comfortable upbringing. His father was minor nobility with a rank in the civil service. He had a very loving childhood, a very happy childhood, in a very close family — until he was 16, when his father Ilya Ulyanov died, there were no shocks at all in his family. He wasn't at all interested in politics until his older brother Aleksandr was executed. He read; he was devoted to his schoolwork; he was loved chess and country walks and exercise. He read novels. And it was only after his brother was executed that he turned to politics.

What radicalized him wasn't just the fact that his brother was only 21 when he was executed. It was how his family was then spurned and completely shunned by polite bourgeois society in Simbirsk. Lenin's loathing and hatred for do-gooding bourgeois liberals was visceral basically from that moment on. That hatred of the bourgeois drove him and converted him as much as anything later that he read from Marx or any of the other radical thinkers.

One particular aspect of it rankled perhaps above all others. He was extremely close and devoted to his mother. Lots of ruthless and cynical men throughout history have been sentimental about their mothers, but Lenin had that to a really great degree. After his brother was arrested, his mother rushed from provincial Simbirsk to St. Petersburg to plead on her son's behalf. And Lenin was deputized to try and find someone from nice, liberal Simbirsk who would escort her to St. Petersburg — quite a journey, at 1000 kilometers or so. He went throughout Simbirsk for the next couple of days, and he could not find anyone to take his mother. And that — the way his whole family was spurned — drove Lenin very much into the arms of radical politics.

Lenin is often presented as a cold, rather logical figure, but he was absolutely driven by emotion as much as by anything else. Which, again, fascinated me quite a lot. Because until I really started looking at Lenin, I didn't quite grasp that.

OR: What is going on in Russia as Lenin becomes increasingly radicalized?

Sebestyen: Russia then was not moving towards a liberal democracy, towards political reform. It was in an extremely authoritarian part of its history. The last two czars made no effort whatsoever to liberalize the regime. There were still hundreds of thousands of people being sent into exile or condemned to hard labor simply for reading the wrong books. Russia was not a nice, liberal place. The autocracy of the czars was a rough thing. Politics as such were not really allowed. There were no political parties allowed through the 1870's, 1880's, and 1890's.

This was the backdrop. What the Romanov autocracy had done was force anyone with any kind of reformist tendencies to the radical Left, so there was no space in the middle for any activity at all. There was no middle class, there was no rising bourgeoisie at all. No middle-class politics were allowed. And this has to be remembered in looking at what happened in Russia in the first part of the 20th century — there were no politics permitted.

Almost all students would have been thrown into some form of illegal action, which was why — every five or six years or so — they closed the universities down under Alexander III and Nicholas II. It happened three times between the late 1880's and 1905.