Of all the political figures of the last century, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known in history books as Vladimir Lenin, casts the longest historical shadow.
One could argue (and many have) that without the revolution he personally set into motion, the chain of events leading from the First World War to the Second, followed by a 50-year nuclear stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union, would never have occurred. Likewise, the cast of characters that emerged—Stalin, Hitler and Mao, not to mention Churchill, Eisenhower, Nixon, Gorbachev and Reagan—could have never assumed their places on the world stage had it not been for this reordering of power.
The person behind the politics
Throughout this massive and exhaustive biography of Lenin, British historian Robert Service does not lose sight of his subject's stature as the father of the 20th century's feast of horrors.
What interests Service more, however, is an exploration of the person behind the political persona. While much has been published on Lenin's personal life, nothing has been written since the "unsealing" of the Soviet Party archives in 1991. Claiming to have had first access to this previously classified material, Service has diligently incorporated his archival findings into this work, which has enabled him to take issue with the many biographies that tend to portray Lenin as either a sociopath or savior.
Service, who is also the author of the three-volume Lenin: A Political Life, retains his disapproval of his subject's actions while remaining impartial to the point of avoiding judgments in favor of revealing more intimate facts, such as Lenin's regret over not being able to have children with his wife, what he read, ate and even how he liked to dress. Elsewhere in the biography we discover Lenin's natural playfulness with children and read that he carried his cat down the Kremlin hallways, stopping to turn off the lights in the offices of less conscientious comrades.
Lenin's record as a revolutionary
Interpersed among such interesting anecdotes is Lenin's record as a revolutionary. After taking Russia out of the First World War, he became locked in a life-or-death struggle to save the revolution that led to the extermination of entire classes of people. It is this "vicious relish in exemplary terror" that reduces the sensitive side of the man Service seems, at times, eager to emphasize.
The book's depiction of Lenin's actions once he is secure in his position as head of the Central Committee become less revelatory and confirm what other Western historians have maintained for some time. As a ruthless authoritarian, he exercised complete control over his associates, prohibiting the slightest debate among Central Committee members. More interesting were his unsentimental, and most often scathing, views of the common man whose interests he claimed to represent.
"A bookish fanatic"
In looking for explanations for these political traits in his subject's personal background, Service, like those before him, finds few answers. If anything, these new documents have left the author more beguiled than ever. The reader is presented with a picture of a personality rooted in paradox: a man driven by "an inner calling," yet outwardly governed by rigid self-control; a coldly calculating individual, nonetheless capable of deep emotion; a man who possessed little empathy, yet felt outraged at the slightest injustice.
Still trying to accommodate his original vision of Lenin as simply an ideologically driven zealot, while confronted with ample evidence of a man prone to "sadistic self-indulgence" in his use of terror to consolidate power, Service seems somewhat cavalier, summarizing his subject as "a bookish fanatic who felt no need to witness the violent activity of his revolution."
Although refutable on some points, this lucidly written, insightful biography will no doubt come to be regarded as a definitive interpretation of Lenin, at least until more documents surface in the Moscow archives or elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc.
Despite the ambiguities left in his wake, Service's final words say much about the man: "Let thanks be given" that there have been so few historical figures able to "turn the world upside down."
Rob Stout, 15 January 2001
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