Review: Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait, by Victor Sebestyen

This is the first major biography of the Soviet leader to appear in two decades, and comes as the world marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

It is a tremendous achievement.

Sebestyen has dug deep into the archives, reading through family correspondence, diaries and more to get a sense of who Lenin really was. He points out, for example, that Lenin was very close to a number of women, including his wife Krupskaya and his mistress, Inessa Armand, as well as his sisters. He had few close, long-term male friends.

The book is unsparing in its criticism of Lenin as the leader of Soviet Russia. One story it recounts tells it all:

In October 1919 Lenin asks the leader of his secret police (the Cheka) how many “dangerous counter-revolutionaries are being held in its jails at that moment. He’s given a written reply, giving the number of about 1,500. Lenin marks the page with an “X” to indicate that he read it. The Cheka interprets that to mean they are to be killed and hundreds of unarmed, defenceless prisoners are killed that very night in Moscow. Oops.

There are still people on the Left, particularly in Britain, who have a soft spot for Lenin. I urge them to read this book now.