The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Disconcerting dimensions of the man

Lenin: A biography By Robert Service, Harvard, $26.95

In the tumult of the 20th century, few figures stand out as Lenin did. By the time he died in 1924, in his brief life span of just 53 years, he had led the first successful revolution that claimed to run according to the Marxist script. More than that, the changes this triggered were to be central to global politics right till the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

There has been not one but at least two ways of seeing Lenin. Whether super hero or arch villain, in one version he stands almost outside the currents of time. In another, he is merely another exponent of Russia’s traditions of revolution and state-building.

Lenin sought to be a man for all places and times, but he was also a man of his own time and place. Robert Service manages to avoid both traps and provide us an engrossing picture both of the man and his times. It was a life that was extraordinary but the times were no less unique. Despite its standing in the concert of great powers, Tsarist Russia was a colossus with feet of clay. The rapid industrialization of the empire could not dampen the deep discontent among its peasantry or the nascent working class.

But it was the young scion of the Ulyanovs, Vladimir, who identified the key element in Russia’s social fabric that could rope together the diverse forces of change: the intelligentsia.

One of the illuminating features of this lucid biography is the way it sheds fresh light on even well-known facts. Lenin may have been a leading ideologue of Marxism, but he was a practical politician willing to sculpt the ideology and develop stray insights into major theses. Many proved flawed with the passage of time even if they once helped carry the day. The idea of the seizure of power rested on the dubious premise of a Europe-wide revolution that never came about. The highly disciplined party he forged drew much of its vitality from the cross currents of debate with other groups, a process he was to help kill by sealing off the formation of factions in the name of “discipline”. His view of the peasantry was grounded on the shifts in his political calculus. The advocacy of “land to the peasants” won his party much support in the early days of the revolution, then dissipated it with grain seizures. But he was adroit enough to retreat and propound the pro-farm New Economic Policy. Rather than a blueprint in his mind, he was often saved by the instincts of a hardheaded politician.

Among the elements of the mystique surrounding Lenin were aspects of his personal life that gave it a more human touch. He was “something of an oddball”; insistent on a clutch of sharpened pencils on his table, and absolute silence in the house while he worked. During his convalescence in Gorki, with death at the door, he still found time to play with the children of friends. The absence of any of their own was a source of sorrow for both him and Krupskaya. There is also another Lenin who emerges from the shadows, one deeply in love with Inessa Armand. Her relationship with him, though known earlier, appears far more intense than was earlier suspected. In the Soviet era, the cult of the late leader prevented open access to the letters between them: as the legend recedes into history, the man, warts, foibles and all, appears in a more human form.

Yet, there is a much more disconcerting dimension to Lenin. Right from the time of his elder brother’s execution, he had great respect for the revolutionary terrorist groups who were so significant a force in Russian history. Their cult of resolute resistance to the Tsar long before Marx or Marxism reached Russia’s shores held a deep appeal and attraction for the young Ilich. Nor did he ever quite get over the fascination for the idea that a small band of men and women could bend history to their will. This gave his ideology much deeper roots in Russian history than the textbook-like adherence to socialism that he so often berated.

But it also made him a celebrant, to a much greater extent than hitherto suspected, of violence as a means of social transformation. Lenin was the one who blessed the formation of the Cheka under Felix Dzerzinsky and called for relentless executions of enemies of the revolution. Some of his notations even prior to the Civil War were so inflammatory that they have seen the light of day only after the downfall of the Soviet Union. Only the demise of that state gave Service access to the archives where his words are preserved.

Another dimension of him may seem more redemptive to us. This is his deep and genuine commitment to opposing the Great Russian chauvinism. Brought up in a region much more plural than we often realize: his hometown, Ulyanovsk, was ten per cent Muslim. He had little time for ethnic sectarianism. Service shows how he was proud of the Jewish presence in Russia and not unaware of his part-Jewish ancestry. His ten long years in exile only made him more, not less, open to cosmopolitan influences. In his last days, the brusque and insensitive handling of the minority nationalities by Stalin drove him to try restricting the latter’s elbowroom.

There was never much chance of success in this last struggle. The new party-state he had forged was strong enough to resist its founder’s half-hearted moves towards reform. Its institutions were to leave a mark on more than one-third of the globe that till recently professed allegiance to Marxism. More than any other individual, Lenin was the architect of a new form of governance that had as many pitfalls as promises.

Though no liberal, he allowed more space for internal debate than would ever be possible under his successor. But the multiple threads of economy, polity, culture and society were all interwoven with the supremacy of the party. Once that began to unravel, his life’s work steadily came undone.

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