biography

Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait by Victor Sebestyen

My history education back in Russia fell on the period where, in my primary school during the last years of the Soviet Union, we were fed the rosy idealised stories about “Grandfather Lenin”. There were school excursions to lay the flowers at the city’s Lenin monument, the red star-shaped pins with Lenin’s portrait in the middle that every kid had to wear at school, and so on. Once the USSR was no more, immediately after there came a weird transitional period where they couldn’t quite figure out what version of history to teach; as an example, my history book somehow managed to have one oblique mention of Stalin in the entire post-revolution part. My idea of Lenin therefore was always rather lopsided; I figured that the idealised version wasn’t true but had little to replace it with, especially after moving to Australia. I was then quite interested to read this biography by Hungarian-born, UK-raised Sebestyen; while complete objectivity is non-existent I thought that the book provided a fairly balanced view of Lenin’s undeniably remarkable life.

The prologue opens on Tuesday, 24 October 1917, the eve of the Revolution (not quite the impeccably organised operation it was later portrayed to be), then follows the more conventional structure, starting with Lenin’s family background and childhood, and finishing with his death and the embalmed rest inside the Red Square mausoleum. What made this biography more easily digestible than some heavier biographies I’ve read is its arrangement into relatively short and tightly focused chapters (54 in total), each covering a different aspect of Lenin’s life and the greater social and political events of the time. It’s pretty blunt in regards to Lenin’s darker aspects, among which cynicism and ruthlessness stand out the most, though it’s not out to paint him as a total monster either:

Lenin thought himself an idealist. He was not a monster, a sadist or vicious. In personal relationships he was invariably kind and behaved in the way he was brought up, like an upper-middle-class gentleman. He was not vain. He could laugh – even, occasionally, at himself. He was not cruel: unlike Stalin, Mao Zedong or Hitler he never asked about the details of his victims’ deaths, savouring the moment. To him, in any case, the deaths were theoretical, mere numbers. But during his years of feuding with other revolutionaries, and then maintaining his grip on power, he never showed generosity to a defeated opponent or performed a humanitarian act unless it was politically expedient.

Most people who met Lenin seemed to find him thoroughly unimpressive, but he was an astute leader and good at image-making. One example is Lenin’s appreciation of the fact that a rival socialist political party, Mensheviks, stuck with a name derived from a Russian word for minority, in contrast to Bolsheviks whose name suggested the majority. Hmm which one makes for the smarter brand-building I wonder?

The first chapter, devoted to Lenin’s parents, remarks that the most important relationships in Lenin’s life were with women, while close male friends were very few and inevitably lost to politics. Other than Lenin’s many political allies and enemies, the book covers his personal relationships with his wife Nadya and Inessa Armand, his mistress for many years and the most glamorous of the female revolutionaries, who his wife accepted in an unusually civil menage a trois. There are other details and trivia that flesh him out as a person, such as his deep lifelong love of nature, and strong dislike of most modern art and literature (I was amused to read that Lenin considered Mayakovsky’s poetry garbage, though the latter was at pains to glorify him).

The biography also paints the picture of the broader Russian society at the time, and outlines the causes that ultimately led first to the abolition of monarchy and then to the Bolshevik October Revolution that paved the way for the Soviet Union. They include a weak and incompetent Tsar presiding over a country in desperate need of reforms, yet unwilling to change and maintaining the grip on the autocracy, under the delusion that repression and censorship would preserve the Romanov dynasty. Lenin’s older brother Alexander, whose execution at the age of twenty-one for plotting an attack on the Tsar is cited by the author as the main reason for seventeen-year-old Vladimir Ulyanov’s own immersion in politics, was one of the many radicals eager for change. The author’s view is that Russia’s involvement in World War I was Tsar Nicholas’ most catastrophic decision which in the end cost him his throne and his life (though he’s not entirely without sympathy for the Tsar’s terrible final fate). While the pre-revolutionary period is well-covered, the civil war that erupted soon after the Bolsheviks took power is unfortunately sketched in rather thinly.

Overall, I found this a very accessible and readable account of one of the most important figures of the 20th century. While not as massively detailed as some other biographies I’ve read, it gives enough of the historical background and insight into Lenin as a person.

Books I’ve read lately

goldGold: The Final Science Fiction Collection by Isaac Asimov

I’ve only read one other short stories collection by Asimov before, so this bunch of previously uncollected stories probably wasn’t a great place to start for a relative Asimov beginner. The stories are rather hit-and-miss; there’s a couple which are more like sci-fi jokes culminating with rather unfunny puns; while others are really good, like the first story in the collection called Cal, about a domestic robot who wants to be a writer just like his master.

Far more interesting was the second half of the book, which is a collection of Asimov’s essays, taken from various anthologies he edited or introductions to his own work. In them he muses on all sorts of things to do with writing and/or science fiction: his own creative process, the women in science fiction, the relationship between sci-fi and real-life science, the possibilities of space travel, his opinion of the book reviews, his view of dystopian genre (apparently he found George Orwell’s Animal Farm an abominably bad book, because in his view dystopian stories which do nothing but repeat how awful everything is are just as dull as utopian stories in which everything is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful), among others. I was also interested to read that he was a big fan of P. G. Wodehouse, because to me the story-within-the-story in Cal definitely seemed to channel Wodehouse a bit. Again, some essays were more interesting than others, but what really endeared me to them was Asimov’s down-to-earth, familial style of writing, personal charm and (often self-deprecating) humour that really shine through.

napoleonNapoleon: His Wives and Women

This historical biography was in a way a polar opposite to the recent one I’ve read; if Caesar’s biography was all politics and military achievements and very little on the personal side, this one was all personal. It still gives you a general outline of Napoleon’s rise and fall, but you won’t find detailed analysis of the crucial battles or descriptions of Napoleon’s political life. Instead, as the title suggests, this biography concentrates on Napoleon’s relationships with the women in his life: his strong-willed mother, who outlived him and many of his siblings, his sisters, his many mistresses, and his two wives: Marie-Josephe-Rose who he was to call Josephine, and Marie-Louise of Austria.

The book then is rather gossipy by nature, but wonderfully entertaining to read, with tons of personal anecdotes, details and descriptions of Napoleon’s family life, and his own habits and character quirks. His portrayal here as a private man is often far from flattering; he was capable of great personal charm and acts of love and devotion, but he could also be selfish, domineering, cruel, petty and crude. He had a nasty habit of pinching the members of his family and servants, sometimes so hard as to leave bruises. Naturally one must take into account the times Napoleon lived in, but all the same it’s hard not to wince when you read of him referring to women as ‘mere machines for making children’. Despite all of this, he really seemed to inspire devotion on the part of both of his wives, even though neither of them married him for love initially, which depending on your view is either romantic or depressing. Still, it was hard not to be moved by the scenes of Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce, which by all accounts was harsh on both of them and was mostly motivated by Napoleon’s desire for an heir that Josephine could not give him. Very late in the biography, it also briefly touches on Napoleon’s possible homosexual tendencies, which I kinda wondered about since the earlier episode in the book, where he remarked that, had Tsar Alexander of Russia been a woman, he would have made him his mistress, he was so pretty.

Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman

cvr9780743289542_9780743289542_hrI love me a good historical biography and I really enjoyed this account of one of the greatest figures in history. As with any serious historical non-fiction, you can’t just skim over it casually and it requires your full concentration, but it was so absorbing I finished it in a space of three days, abandoning the usual distractions of TV and internet. It also helped that it was written in a very straightforward, accessible language.

In the preface, the author states that his aim was not to praise Caesar nor to bury him, but simply to tell his story as it happened. While it’s true that overall the biography keeps a neutral tone and doesn’t gloss over Caesar’s mistakes and the less-than-admirable episodes, I still got an impression that the author had quite a bit of liking for his subject. It’s not hard to see why though. Caesar was a truly great man, a skilled politician, a brilliant orator and a general. He was capable of both careful, cautious planning, and acting boldly when he needed to (there are so many occasions in the book when Caesar sprung surprises on his enemies by doing something completely unexpected that no one tried before). His psychological hold over his loyal armies was exceptional, with numerous occasions when he was able to bring his men back from the edge of mutiny by, paradoxically, not giving in an inch. He also had a policy of clemency and forgiveness towards his enemies that was unusual by the standards of the day, even if it was calculated and politically motivated most of the times (on the other hand, he rarely if ever showed mercy to the same person twice, and never had a problem destroying an entire city if he felt it was necessary). Plus he just had style. There’s an anecdote early on about the time when young Caesar got captured by the pirates on his way to Rhodes, and raised his own ransom by more than half because he found the initial sum insulting. It is fair to say that his ambitions and military exploits brought a huge amount of death and suffering, but on the other hand, you can’t really separate his actions from the world he lived in, in which war and conquest was a normal part of life. Romans were just much better at it than most.

The biography can be said to be roughly split into three sections: Caesar’s early life, his campaigns in Gaul (modern France), and the civil war which ended with his rise to the ultimate power (which in turn ended with one of the most famous assassinations in history). Unfortunately, the only good source on the childhood of Caesar available to the modern historians begins with his sixteenth year, but the author does a great job evoking the time and place in which Caesar grew up, and making educated guesses as to what his childhood might have been. This section of the book also has the most interesting details about the society of ancient Rome: politics, education, structure of the Roman households and family life, the ancient view of homosexuality, religion etc. The middle chapters on Gaul were probably the least compelling (though still interesting) partly because they shift much of the focus away from Rome and its political life, but then it comes back with the vengeance in the last third. As an aside, it was interesting to see how many details the TV show Rome (one of my all-time favourites) got wrong and right about that period. Pompey’s death, for instance, was pretty much spot-on in the series. I wish the book gave more details of personal nature, such as Caesar’s relationships with the people closest to him, but I guess these details could be hard to come by when the person in question lived more than 2,000 years ago. It was rather amusing to read though that, just like many men throughout the ages, Caesar was quite self-conscious about his baldness and tried to hide it by combing his hair over. Some things never change, haha.

The only thing that really annoyed me was the amount of grammatical errors in my edition of the book, just really stupid stuff like saying “really” instead of “rally”. I found at least five and that’s absolutely unforgivable in a professional publication. Grrrrr.