A Sponger’s Ticket To The Finland Station

The irony of Lenin, Victor Sebestyan's biography reveals, is that he was profoundly bourgeois

Tibor Fischer

Not so long ago you could amble down the Charing Cross  Road, go into Collet’s and buy a copy of Lenin’s Speeches. I doubt it was a hot seller, but it was there on the shelf (along with Stalin’s collected works). Victor Sebestyen has a lengthy introduction to his 500-page biography of Vladimir Illich, Lenin The Dictator, in which he argues for the continuing importance of the top Bolshevik. I find he protesteth too much.

Marxism-Leninism is finished (with all due respect to Slavoj Žižek). Marxism of course lives on in the supportive environment of our universities, where it provides a comfy beanbag for intellects to recline upon, stimulatingly vague in its modern, general application. What’s important about Marxism is not what it says (who’s alive who has actually read Das Kapital from cover to cover?) but what it says about you: that you care and that you can see deeply. I thought the Morning Star had ceased publication until I started teaching at Goldsmiths a few months ago, when I was surprised to find a copy in the campus store, admittedly looking unsellable even there.

Granted, it’s different back home in Mother Russia. When I was in Tula, near the Tolstoy estate, a few years ago I was surprised to see a whopping statue of Lenin still in place. Was it there because no one could be bothered to shift it, or because of ideological sympathy? I was used to Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, where all the Bolshevik paraphernalia had been unceremoniously dumped by 1990. But most of the problem with Communism for the citizens of Central Europe had been that it had been Russian gulag Communism.

Lenin may have some fans left in Russia, but for the outside world he’s not cool. He’s simply not that interesting. Stalin still fascinates, but almost entirely on the body count basis, on the total evil ranking, along with Hitler, though arguably he was worse. A leading Hungarian Stalinist secret policeman once lamented to me that if you were a good Nazi, you were safe; if you were a model Stalinist, you weren’t.
Sebestyen argues that Lenin “was not a monster”. It’s true he wasn’t Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or the Emperor Bokassa, but that’s not a huge endorsement. I’d maintain he was a monster, but he didn’t have that much time to get on with the liquidating, and he had staff to do that for him (Dzerzhinsky and Trotsky). I suppose all biographers develop some warmth towards their subjects.

If Lenin has become passé, that doesn’t mean Sebestyen’s biography isn’t worth reading. The story of the Bolshevik revolution is fascinating in several ways, and Sebestyen does a good job of telling it. I would, however, like to propose a law that limits biographies to no more than 350 pages, so that we can skip the stuff about paternal grandfathers and school reports, or that it be relegated to an appendix. Sebestyen is disciplined compared to academics who feel obliged to include every scrap of information about their target, but there’s still a bit of drudgery and repetition. Lenin’s love of nature gets heavy rotation as well as the fact that he relied on women all his life, or poncing as it’s commonly called.

Yes. Mummy paid the bills for Vladimir Illich while he plotted the downfall of the Tsars. Lenin worked very briefly and unsuccessfully as a lawyer, before moving on to full-time sponging. The irony about Lenin, and one that Sebestyen dwells on again and again, is that he was profoundly bourgeois. Exile in Siberia? Lenin spent his time hunting, shooting and fishing, and working on his book. About to get in a sealed train to seize power in Russia? Lenin made sure his library books were returned.

With a century of distance, much of the history becomes hilarious: the incessant bickering and backstabbing of the Russian revolutionaries, the intellectuals of St Petersburg almost shagging themselves to death in the closing stages of the war, the pre-eminent thickness of the Russian aristocracy.

Lenin was long revered as the most professional of professional revolutionaries, but Sebestyen demonstrates it was practically a miracle that he came to power, and only because the body politic in Russia had been destroyed by war, not through any cunning Bolshevik plan. Lenin could very well have ended up gibbering in some run-down suburb, like another freeloader, the leader of the Brixton cult, Aravindan Balakrishnan.

Most of Lenin’s shortcomings were known at the time (as were Stalin’s and Mao’s) and were later exposed by figures such as Robert Conquest and Solzhenitsyn, but the fashionable world wasn’t paying attention. My favourite detail in Sebestyen’s entertaining book? The almost-dead Lenin begging Stalin for poison so he could commit euthanasia, and Stalin saying no.

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