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.
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.
Of course, the other thing about Lenin was the intolerance of his character, that he kept splitting groups. He didn’t mind how small it was. As long as he had quite a few people following him who totally loved him, it didn’t really matter how small the group was. So he keeps splitting — hence the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, which continued through socialism and communism all the way to late in Stalin’s reign. It was all to do with Lenin’s very intolerant view of politics.
Then came the Revolution of 1905, which Lenin’s group took virtually no part in. That was a spontaneous eruption of anger. If that hadn’t happened, it might have been ages before there would have been a revolution. If anyone, apart from Lenin, made a contribution to the revolution, it was Czar Nicholas. The original Communist joke was that the Czar got the first Order of Lenin for his great contribution to the Socialist Revolution. Because he was so helpless.
Lenin had always predicted there would be a revolt against the Czar that probably wouldn’t work the first time. But when it happened he was as surprised as anyone. That revolt radicalized large groups of people in Russia. It shouldn’t be forgotten just how brutal the repression of the rebels was — and the nationalities. Whole villages in Latvia, Lithuania, the Bolshevik Republic, Ukraine, and Georgia were wiped out completely and burned. Scores of thousands of people were executed.
There was a kind of parliament, the Duma. There was some relaxation of censorship for a while, but the czar didn’t actually mean any of it. He said, “At any point, I’ll just get rid of all this, because I don’t accept any of it. It was done under duress.” He had no compunction about suspending the Dumas whenever they got too awkward.
One of the other main reasons for the 1905 Revolution was the war that Russia had lost against the Japanese. Being defeated by Oriental people was an utter humiliation, in Russia’s eyes. So the autocracy was weakened yet further.
OR: How much of Lenin’s ascension was due to Kerensky’s weakness?
Sebestyen: Very much. I think Kerensky made terrible, terrible mistakes. The provisional government made quite a few mistakes. I don’t think any government that continued the war could have survived. The only thing that could have saved a government would have been if they had tried to make a separate peace with the Germans. But the French and the British and the Americans wouldn’t permit them to even start making a separate peace.
So no government that continued the war would probably have stayed in power in Russia. Kerensky made bad misjudgments. But once he decided he wasn’t going to make a separate peace there wasn’t really much that he could have done. He could have held earlier elections. If they’d had elections much earlier that might have made a bit of a difference. But I think unless they tackled the food issue and the land issue and the war issue, no government would have survived.
OR: After the swift and surprising victory of the Bolsheviks in October, what does Lenin’s Russia look like? What is Lenin like when he’s actually in power?
Sebestyen: When journalists take over, the rest of the world should look out. I’m not entirely kidding. Soviet Russia looked very much like Lenin’s personality. Secretive, grossly intolerant, paranoid. Once he got into power, the only thing that really mattered to him the rest of his life was keeping it. That’s what it was about. He was incredibly intolerant from the start. He knew, from the first hours of the Revolution, that there would have to be state terrorism and violence. He dragged a lot of the others along with him on that point. They hadn’t really wanted a revolution. They wanted to talk about revolution. They actually didn’t think it could happen, and they didn’t know what to do with power. Lenin dragged them into power. This is a great contribution to world politics. He drove them into mounting that insurrection and that coup then, against the wishes of many of them. And there they were: in power.
He told them, “Well, we’ve got it now, the only way we’re going to keep it is by using violence, by terror.” So from the very, very first day they started. Lenin instituted systems of terror against opponents. It was no accident. He understood that the only way he was going to keep power was to do this.
After the revolution, Lenin hadn’t slept for two days. He went back and slept for a few hours, and in those hours his deputy Lev Kamenev issued a decree stopping the death penalty on the front. When Lenin woke up and heard what had happened, he lost his temper and said, “Do you really think you can make a revolution without using firing squads?”
This was within hours of the revolution that was supposed to change the world in an idealistic fashion. He knew immediately how he was going to rule, and it was going to be through terror.
OR: To what degree are Stalin’s politics an outgrowth of — or a perversion of — Lenin’s?
Sebestyen: This has been an argument on the Left for nearly 100 years now: Lenin was the great idealist and it would have all been different if Lenin had lived longer.
No. It was Lenin who created Stalin. It was Lenin who built all the institutions of repression and state terror from the very beginning. It was Lenin who created the Cheka, which then morphed into the NKVD and the KGB. It was Lenin who created the Gulag. It was Lenin who was always saying that anything is justified for the greater good. This incredibly secretive, intolerant, paranoid state was created by Lenin. Stalin perfected it. Stalin made it more effective and was probably more personally violent. But all the institutions of terror were created by Lenin.
Indeed, the laws that Stalin used most effectively in the Great Purges — the law forbidding factions within the Communist Party and the laws against deviation — were all Lenin’s laws. Stalin used them to purge the Party. Probably Lenin would have done.
OR: On the question of Russia’s ethnic or national minorities — how does an internationalist revolution deal with nationalist aspirations?
Sebestyen: With a deal of hypocrisy. The Communists and the Marxists are supposed to be internationalists. When the great world revolution comes, states wither away, nations wither away — there’s supposed to be no nationalism. The packaged Marxist formulation would be against any forms of nationalism. But in the real world that they were left with a vast empire.
Stalin and Lenin disagreed to some extent about this question. Lenin created a Soviet constitution which would have been a loose federation. Stalin wanted completely tight control. The Soviet Union was a highly centralized state. That’s the way Stalin wanted it. Lenin, I think, would try to operate slightly like a federation, but again, if it had come to it and any of them wanted to secede he wouldn’t have allowed it. In Ukraine, for example, when there were rebellions in in the early days, Lenin used all methods to keep Ukraine in his power.
I think Lenin would have tried to finesse it a little bit more, he wouldn’t have used necessarily the same brutal tactics — but I think the end would have probably been the same.
OR: To what extent do you see Lenin’s ideological DNA in Putin?
Sebestyen: I see quite a lot of it. Yes, there are nationalists around Putin. They revere Stalin. Lenin’s a little bit more problematic in their presentation. You can write the story of Stalin almost without mentioning the Communists — almost! Which pretty much is what Putin is trying to do.
You can’t do that with Lenin. It’s much more difficult. Putin, I think, dislikes a lot of the ideology around Lenin, but would have admired him in the continuum of strong Russian leaders. Stalin, on the other hand, is very important in the Putin view of the world as being one a great, strong leader — and it doesn’t matter too much about the appalling crimes he committed.
Modern history in Russia starts in 1945. Not 1917. It starts with the victory in the Great Patriotic War, with the expansion of the borders towards Europe. Lenin’s internationalism looks like weakness in the present landscape. But Lenin is still out there as being this strong leader of a unified, powerful empire.
OR: If there’s one popular misconception about Lenin that you want to explode, what would it be?
Sebestyen: The main thing that I would want to get across is that Lenin wasn’t an idealist. Lenin was the creator of the Soviet Union. It was Lenin’s vision that guided the Soviet Union.
There is also, once again, his ambition. Lenin’s ambition was epic in its scale. He didn’t want to just create a different country, to rework the economy or expand social rights. He believed that socialism and communism were going to create a different kind of human being — were almost going to perfect mankind. That’s almost spiritual. Then, when mankind has this incredibly annoying habit of refusing to be perfected, they have to resort early on to terror in order to impose their rule. It was the epic scale of his ambition that leads to the epic scale of his failure. It explains why it’s been this most disastrous experiment. It was not that the ideal is right but the practice is wrong. A lot of the ideal is wrong and a lot of the practice was actually pretty well-implemented. They kept power for quite a long time and he created the state he wanted to create.