May 20th 2017

  Buy Issue 2996

Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Morrison's budget jive lacks inherent harmony

CANBERRA OBSERVED Does budget do heavy lifting or is it "Labor lite"?

NEW ZEALAND Porn poll shows strong majority supports default opt-out policy to protect kids online

FRANCE Emmanuel Macron: a president without a political base

YOUNG POLITICAL ACTIVIST TRAINING (YPAT) Seven-day intensive course without equal in Australia

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Taiwan to go full steam ahead with submarines

RURAL AFFAIRS Murray Goulburn closures an omen of an industry in crisis

CLIMATE SCIENCE Temperature hasn't risen in 20 years: latest data

QUEENSLAND ENERGY 50 per cent renewables target: Is it credible?

LITERATURE Inexplicable: the ongoing appeal of H.P. Lovecraft

LITERATURE The gentle giant: Samuel Johnson

MUSIC Promissory notes: the public funding siphon

CINEMA Going in Style: Old dogs turned rookie robbers


BOOK REVIEW An abstemious revolutionary

BOOK REVIEW Soviet-era thriller revels in details

Books promotion page

An abstemious revolutionary

News Weekly, May 20, 2017

An Intimate Portrait

by Victor Sebestyen

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London
Paperback: 400 pages
Price: AUD$35

Reviewed by Bill James


This reviewer recalls that in 1970, the centenary of the birth of Lenin, Melbourne University’s union building was plastered with his image, and the “odour of sanctity” at a symposium dedicated to his memory was dispelled singlehandedly by the iconoclastic Frank Knopfelmacher.

In 2024, similar obsequies will no doubt attend the centenary of his death. This year, however, is the centenary of the successful coup, or putsch (Sebestyen uses both terms) by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, and this biography will be one of many books marking the anniversary of the late USSR’s foundation.

Another connection of Lenin with 2017, Sebestyen reminds us, is that “[Lenin] lied unashamedly … [he] was the godfather of what commentators a century after his time call ‘post-truth politics’”.

Private life

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (the origins of the later Lenin are uncertain) came from a comfortable and cultured bourgeois background. His father was an administrator in the school system. Great Russian chauvinism, which dominated the Soviet regime, tried to hide the facts, which have emerged since 1991, that he had both Jewish and Central Asian ancestry.

The book’s title encapsulates the bifurcation of its subject. Historically, Lenin was indeed a thoroughly unpleasant “Dictator”, whose difference from his even more murderous successor, Stalin, for whom he prepared the way, was one of degree rather than category.

The “Intimate”, however, points to the personal as opposed to the political Lenin.

This Lenin “nearly always behaved with impeccable manners and decency” in relationships, displayed a sense of humour, loved nature, enjoyed hiking and cycling, could be moved by music (“I know of nothing greater than the Appassionata”) and was fond of cats and children.

His tastes were conventional, eschewing the avant-garde in both art and literature; his clothes were neat and clean; and his work habits were orderly – he abhorred the bohemianism of many of his fellow leftists.

In 1917, in the midst of their frantic haste to leave Zurich on hearing about the February Revolution, and return to Russia, he and his wife were careful to return their outstanding library books before making their way to the famous “sealed train” that would transport him into history.

Furthermore, unlike figures such as Mao, Hitler and Stalin, Lenin was not interested in the opportunities afforded by dictatorship to indulge in lust, luxury or sadism. Apart from one mistress (Inessa Armand, whom the Soviets subsequently airbrushed from their hagiographies of him) he remained faithful to his wife, and his lifestyle was abstemious.

And while he was responsible for countless victims, he “never witnessed an execution and had no interest in hearing about one … deaths were theoretical, mere numbers”. Lenin’s passion was power, as summed up in his famous aphorism, “Who whom?”

The “end” by whatever means

And yet, even that is not the whole truth. At an even more basic level, his driving vision was of a workers’ paradise, an end which could only be actualised by the means of indiscriminate manipulation of power, and an accompanying indifference to suffering.

In other words, Lenin embodied Paul Johnson’s famous definition of the secular intellectual as someone characterised by “a preference for ideas over people”. But while intellectually Lenin was driven by a worldview (Marxism), a goal (communism) and a means (power), his dogmatism was repeatedly modified by pragmatism, in both doctrinal and practical matters: “When ideology clashed with opportunism, he invariably chose the tactical path above doctrinal purity.”

Examples include his What Is To Be Done? which asserted, against Marxist orthodoxy, the imperative for a small, disciplined party to lead the ignorant working class; his 1917 appeals to the peasantry promising private land ownership; his April Theses of the same year assuring the tiny proletariat that Russia could leapfrog the bourgeois phase straight into socialist revolution; and his 1921 New Economic Policy which replaced War Communism with grassroots capitalism.

This pragmatism, though it might sometimes have appeared as compromise or even weakness, was actually just another expression of his underlying ruthlessness.

Anything, including bank robberies to finance his Bolsheviks, such as the one carried out by Stalin in 1907 in which 50 innocent bystanders died, “was acceptable in pursuit of the socialist dream”, and his “cynicism was mind-boggling”.

Even as a young lawyer he had refused to support relief efforts during the 1891–92 famine that killed 400,000 peasants, arguing that “the famine would weaken the autocracy and might further the cause of the Revolution”.

As an example of his micro-management as dictator after 1917, he “suggested” (the secret police were directly answerable to him) that Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka agents carry out arrests at night, a dread precedent that the OGPU/NKVD/KGB followed in the decades to come.

He told the Red Guards that he unleashed on the recalcitrant peasantry: “Do you really believe that we can be victorious without the very cruellest revolutionary terror?”

During World War II, the Nazis perpetrated reprisal massacres against 340 victims at Lidice, and 642 at Ourador-sur-Glane, making the names of the villages bywords for savagery. By comparison, after the 1918 assassination attempt against Lenin by the tragic Fanny Kaplan, over 6,000 “bourgeois hostages” were liquidated.


By 1921 his anti-religion campaign had seen more than 30 bishops and 1,200 priests also murdered, and in that same year thousands of pro-Bolshevik sailors from the Kronstadt base were slaughtered by Trotsky’s Red Army on Lenin’s orders (“They must be destroyed”).

The sailors’ crime had been to demand liberal reforms.

Lenin’s ruthlessness was ideological as well as physical, as evidenced by his Orwellian assault on the concepts of freedom and democracy, which engaged his proclivities for mendacity, cynicism and authoritarianism. He described the dictatorship of the proletariat (that is, himself) as “a higher form of democracy”.

Leonid Trotsky (who despite his later aura of romantic failure was no better than Lenin) remarked during his Menshevik days: “When Lenin talks about the dictatorship of the proletariat … he means the dictatorship over the proletariat.”

When Bolshevik candidates received fewer than a quarter of the votes for the Constituent Assembly promised before the October coup, he summarily dismissed it as soon as it convened in early 1918. Sebestyen writes: “The revolutionary state he created was less the socialist Utopia he dreamed of than a mirror-image of the Romanov autocracy.”

The February Revolution had seen an efflorescence of liberty that Lenin quickly stifled: “Overnight the Revolution had brought political freedoms never before known in Russia – and hardly ever since. People could say, write and read what they wanted, something they could not do a year later – nor their great-grandchildren a hundred years later.”

Under Bolshevism, opposition media, and other political parties, were almost immediately silenced, with Lenin describing freedom of speech (in terms that can again be heard in the West in 2017) as “a bourgeois prejudice”. Libraries were purged of “dangerous” writers such as Kant and Descartes. Open trials were replaced by closed hearings.

Lenin’s worst crime? Stalin!

For Sebestyen, however, the “worst of his evils was to have left a man like Stalin in a position to lead Russia after him. That was an historic crime.”

Far from betraying the legacy of a putatively – or at least relatively! – humane Lenin, Stalin’s tyranny after 1928 was built on the very foundation of Leninist callousness.

Historian the late Robert Conquest, who heroically exposed communism when it was deeply unfashionable to do so, quoted George Orwell’s aperçu that Lenin “is one of those politicians who win an undeserved reputation by dying prematurely [at only fifty-four]”.

Sebestyen cites not only a 1918 exhortation from Lenin to Stalin to “be merciless” in suppressing soi-disant counter-revolution, but also the opinion of Vyacheslav Molotov, sycophantic toady to both Lenin and Stalin, that “without a doubt Lenin was harsher”.

Lenin, probably sincerely, disclaimed the cult of personality that emerged during his lifetime, culminated in the public display of his embalmed body, and was lavished on later communist leaders from Stalin and Mao, to Pol Pot and Kim Il-sung.

In notoriously describing Lenin as “Christ like”, Manning Clark was only following Grigory Zinoviev, Stalin’s later co-triumvir and victim, who similarly deified Lenin in 1918.

Although the personal and the political Lenin can be separated to some extent, a rigid dichotomy would be dishonest. For example, as Sebestyen says about the 1887 death of 21-year-old Alexander Ulyanov: “His thirst for revenge after his elder brother was executed for an assassination plot against the Tsar motivated Lenin as powerfully as did his belief in Marx’s theory of surplus value.”

Sebestyen’s interweaving of the personal Lenin, the political Lenin, and the integration of the two, is masterly. His biography is consistently clear and engaging, avoiding the rebarbative ideological esotericism (ie, descriptions of groupuscules and individuals distinguished by hair-splitting differences over Marxist theology) which so often mars the history of communism.

If you have time to read only one book this year about the Russian Revolutions of 1917, make this the one.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

Join email list

Join e-newsletter list

Your cart has 0 items

Subscribe to NewsWeekly

Research Papers

Trending articles

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal to go to High Court

COVER STORY Extinction Rebellion: So, it's goodnight to us and a big welcome to mega-bucks

South Park Calls Out Transgender Takeover of Women's Sports

EDITORIAL A second chance to secure Australia's future

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal to go to the High Court

EDITORIAL Bushfires: One step forwards, one step backwards

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong voters reject Beijing and its proxies

© Copyright 2017
Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm