Red Giant

An Interview with Victor Sebestyen

OR: What does Lenin's own political experience look like amid all this?

Sebestyen: He started reading political books in the late 1880's, after his brother was executed. He got into university, but he wasn't allowed to go to any of the big universities — St. Petersburg or Moscow — because he was guilty by association, to some extent, with his brother. He went to a pretty good university, Kazan, but it wasn't one of the front ranks. And intellectually, Lenin was quite advanced. He was a fantastically gifted scholar, a seriously clever man. He was incredibly hard-working.

He was thrown out of the university after two terms for taking part in a peaceful demonstration. That's when he had two years in the country, just reading, reading, reading. That's when he started reading the more serious works of political philosophy and the Russian radical tradition. That's when he first started reading Marx. But it wasn't an instant conversion. The Soviet biographies of Lenin portray it as though it was a Pauline conversion on the road to Damascus, but it wasn't like that. It wasn't like that at all. It took quite a while.

He soon resumed studying and took a law degree. Got to St. Petersburg, and that's basically what his life was from then on: radical politics, lectures, lots of reading, and of course conspiratorial underground work. Anything that he had written could only be published underground. Even passing around other literature had to done underground. What a lot of conspiratorial life!

Some of the revolutionary groups were violent. Many of them did kill a lot of generals and governors. There were something like 20,000 civil servants and military people killed by socialist revolutionaries in the last 15 years of the empire.

Lenin didn't actually believe in individual assassinations of governors and minor civil servants. Or even of autocrats. Lenin regarded that as pointless. It wasn't really a moral qualm with him. He just didn't think that it was going to lead to any sort of success at all. So his group never committed acts of terrorism. Many of the other groups did. And at first Lenin wasn't a Marxist, at first he was called a Populist — interesting term, this, considering how we use the word now. But the Populists believed that the revolution was going to come from the peasantry.

He traveled for a few months in Europe to meet other revolutionary groups. That was his first sight into Europe. And then when he got back in 1890 he was arrested and jailed for 18 months. If you hadn’t been arrested, you had no status as a revolutionary at all in Russia.

Then he was sentenced to three years in Siberia, but he had it quite easy in Siberia compared to some of the others. He was in southern Siberia, not in the Arctic Circle. He was allowed a gun, so he could shoot and fish. He brought his fiancé to Russia, and they got married. He spent his honeymoon in exile translating Sidney and Beatrice Webb's History of British Trade Unionism with his wife — a very romantic text.

OR: What comes after Siberia for Lenin?

Sebestyen: When his term ended in 1900, he grew, because of other things he was writing, into one of the most important, significant revolutionaries. The Russian Social Democratic and Labor Party, which then morphed into the Communist Party, had been created, and he was one of the founders of it (along with Martov).

But what they realized, what he realized, is that there needed to be a newspaper. There needed to be some way of getting the message across to the wider populace. Especially in a country the size of Russia. But it couldn't be done inside Russia: the secret police were too efficient. So that was one of the main reasons why he and Martov and the others went into long years of exile in Europe in order to produce the first Russian Marxist newspaper — called Iskra. That's Russian for The Spark.

It was very well-produced, it had clever people writing for it. And then there's a whole underground network smuggling it into Russia through some extraordinary techniques. Literally dumping it into the sea in incredibly well-packed crates. Only about 15 percent of the copies printed actually managed to get into Russia, but Lenin thought, “Well, that's worth it.”

And at first that's what he did in exile: produce the newspaper, get it smuggled, start a clandestine group. Lenin's group didn't assassinate people. They helped start strikes. They robbed banks if they needed to raise money. They did kill people — but the attacks were not directly aimed at them, so to speak. Stalin, of course, was the great organizer of bank robberies, which was one of the reasons why Lenin was so keen on him. He was very efficient at raising money. The biggest robbery, in 1907, was in Tblisi. Some people did get killed, but the purpose of it was not to assassinate anyone. It's more than a semantic difference.

What Lenin did better than all the others was he was a fantastic organizer, which is again why he won out and why all the others didn't. His contribution was how to create a revolutionary party. One of the best things he wrote — it is also massively brief compared to lot of what Lenin wrote, being only 60,000 words or so — was a pamphlet called What Is to Be Done? It sets out exactly how you create a revolutionary party: what the party should be like, how it operates. He said, “Give me a group of one hundred revolutionaries and we can turn the world upside down.”

It was incredibly positive, hopeful. This again was part of Lenin's great appeal. He actually showed people how you could do it, how it was going to be successful. He carried people with him in a very convincing way. The way he created that party, and a lot of what he said, didn't only sound true to his followers. It's exactly the way things went, exactly how he won. He was true to his word. This was his great appeal — that he was not only plausible, he was successful, and his tactics seemed right. He still seemed like a nut job to almost everyone outside the movement. But he was to his own group very, very convincing.