- - Monday, October 30, 2017


By Victor Sebestyen

Pantheon Books, $25, 569 pages

Let not October pass by without proper notice of the 100th anniversary of one of the greater calamities of modern history: the seizure of control of Russia on Oct. 25, 1917, by what became the Communist Party.

As biographer Victor Sebestyen writes in his horrifying biography of Vladimir Lenin, under communism “millions of people were killed, jailed or sent into the great maw of the gulag.” The estimated body count, in Russia and the rest of the world, is in multi-digit territory.

Should we fret about communism now that the Soviet Union and its subsidiaries are defunct? Think again. Recent public opinions show that some 80 percent of Russians look with favor upon Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s successor as dictator. President Vladimir Putin recently spent millions restoring Lenin’s tomb in Moscow — an artifice that Mr. Sebestyen labels as “part shrine, part tourist trap.” Mr. Putin’s goal of “restoring Russia’s rightful grandeur” is frequently stated.

The Hungarian-born Mr. Sebestyen, a foreign correspondent for several London dailies, including the Times, the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard, traces Lenin’s origins as a member of the comfortable minor nobility. Born Vladimir Ulyanov, he was radicalized when an older brother was hanged for working against Czar Nicholas II.

Appalled, the young man took the revolutionary name of “Lenin” (one of more than 100 pseudonyms he used over the years) and launched his career as a revolutionist. Arrested, he defended himself with an assertion oft repeated over the years: “Terror is the only form of defense, the only road individuals can take when their discontent becomes extreme.”

Sentenced to Siberia, on release he fled to Europe, spending most of 17 years in Switzerland. Here he published newspapers supporting revolutionaries in Russia.

In 1913 the czar permitted a semblance of elective government, headed by Alexander Kerensky. But the opposition became a noisy melange of competing factions. With World War I casualties well over a million by 1917, and inflation out of control, the inept Nicholas II lost control of the then-capital of Petrograd — essentially dethroned.

Along with other exiles, Lenin tried to meld the opposition into a unified party. After a hot debate over Marxist teachings, the faction that Lenin headed became known as the “Bolsheviks,” or majority; the remainder were the “Mensheviks.” The schism would haunt the Communist Party for decades.

As war continued, Lenin saw an opportunity. At risk of being branded as a traitor, he obtained German support to return to Russia. (Considerable money apparently went to him as well, although the exact amount is unknown.) A “sealed train” carried him through Germany and Finland to Petrograd, where he plunged into the revolution with an oratorical fervor, leading what he termed “soviets.”

He was not universally popular. Debate foes termed him “dominating, abrasive, combative and often downright vicious.” He disdained cooperation with Kerensky. “All power must go to the Soviets,” he declared. But, as Mr. Sebestyen writes, “he had developed a voice that would revolutionize workers.”

With Kerensky’s mandate due to expire on Oct. 27, Lenin saw the chance to install his own government. By a vote of 10 to 2, the governing board of the Bolsheviks anointed him as leader, and he emerged as the dominant figure.

Generalities were his only promise. As he told future rival Leon Trotsky, “First, we must seize power. Then we decide what to do with it.”

Revolutionary betrayals began immediately. Despite his calls for “freedom for all,” he detested peasants as a class. Hence, vows of “land reform” under which farmers would gain possession their own land became collective agriculture.

When farmers in the grain-rich Ukraine did not deliver the desired amounts of food stuffs, Lenin ordered their farms seized. Thousands of families were displaced; many were killed. The resultant famine brought death to uncounted millions of persons.

Lenin detested the working class, deriding them for their “trade union consciousness.” What was needed, he declared, was a “tribune of the people.” So a “legislative assembly” was convened. It lasted only a few hours until Lenin lost a key supporter and let it collapse.

Even more deadly, he pushed the theory that “dissent” was equivalent to treason. As Trotsky astutely observed, “When Lenin talks about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ he means the dictatorship over the proletariat.”

A free press? Censorship was imposed the second day of Lenin’s rule “to stop the torrent of filth and slander against the new order.”

Such was arguably the most evil legacy of communism — a rule that gave Lenin and subsequent dictators the authority to murder dissidents at will. As he put it, “How can you make a revolution without firing squads?”

Lenin did not anoint a successor, although his initial choice, later withdrawn, was Stalin. Nonetheless, as Victor Sebestyen writes, “Lenin created the monster, and it was his greatest crime that he was now leaving Stalin with good prospects of becoming the Soviet dictator.”

Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

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