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.

Oh look everybody it’s New Year’s Eve

I’m planning to spend it at home eating ice cream and watching TV. It honestly couldn’t feel more like a non-event, which is a shame in a way because back in Russia it was always one of the year’s most exciting events, with all the trimmings that are associated with Christmas here in Australia, the tree, presents, copious amounts of food, Santa Claus (or rather Grandfather Frost) etc. We tried to keep it up for a few years after arriving in Australia, but then it just petered out and these days my attitude is that of the many Aussies: ugh I’ve just had Christmas, do I have to make an effort for this thing too? And I like Christmas just fine, but without any childhood memories or sentimental attachments it’s just not the same; it’s like I’ve lost a holiday that used to mean a lot and gained one that, without any roots in childhood when you feel the magic of an event most intensely, is basically just an excuse for another big family gathering.

As it often happens, my most memorable New Year’s Eve in Russia was a disastrous one, where our entire neighbourhood lost the electricity and we had to burn candles and eat cold salads. Until miraculously, the lights went back on just in time for us to turn on the TV and watch the clock on Spasskaya Tower in Moscow ring in the new year and for Boris Yeltsin to give his presidential address. And right after he finished, the damn lights went out again.

Mind you, even these days, as the time gets closer to midnight, I do get an echo of the feeling that you’re about to cross some sort of threshold and something new is about to begin. So maybe I should work on some resolutions. Exercise more and eat sugary/fatty crap less, here’s a good one.


Leviathan_CannesI wanted to see this movie for a while but held out because, while things at work were super-stressful, I didn’t feel like watching a real downer. Mum and I watched it yesterday and yeah, it’s long, slow and depressing; things start out bad and then get worse, and worse. Then much worse. But it’s very well made. It’s set in a small town in north-western Russia, near the Barents Sea, and it features some of the most starkly beautiful and mesmerising landscapes I’ve seen onscreen. The story follows Kolya, a mechanic who lives by the sea with his wife and son from the first marriage, and his struggle against the local mayor who wants to confiscate his land for development. I’ve read that the film was meant to be something like a loose reworking of the Book of Job (and Job even gets a mention), except that instead of struggling against God Kolya fights against the Russian state. Guess who wins.

For my Mum, the movie was like a cure for nostalgia and brought back everything she disliked about Russia, whereas I’m a lot more detached where my country of birth is concerned, so I guess it didn’t affect me on the same personal level as much. But the film sure does paint a bleak, vodka-soaked picture of Russia, though it’s not without moments of levity and humour. Except for a portrait of Putin hanging in mayor’s office, the current government of Russia is not explicitly mentioned, but there’s an amusing aside in the scene involving guns and portraits of former leaders of Russia which leaves no doubt as to who it’s referring to. There’s also a fair bit of intense personal drama between Kolya, his quietly beautiful wife Lilya, his surly delinquent son and his old friend from Moscow who acts as Kolya’s lawyer. I found it interesting that many of the dramatic scenes that, in other movies, would have played out to the max, mostly happen offscreen or are cut short and we only see their consequences. Perhaps because the director didn’t want the personal drama to take too much of the centre stage, when the film aims to be about something bigger.

If something rubbed me a tad wrong, it was the character of the mayor, who is so cartoonishly eeeeevil he could have come from some political comedy sketch (or a Michael Bay movie for that matter). I understand that he was probably meant to be less a character and more like a personification of greed and corruption, but to me he just felt at odds with the rest of the characters, who are all portrayed with shades of grey and who are neither 100% bad or good, i.e. who are real people. Whereas the second the mayor appears onscreen, it’s clear that yep, there’s a bad guy. Also, one of the major characters disappears from the movie some time soon after half-way mark, which was a pity, as the character added a lot to the dynamic. Overall though, definitely worth seeing even if you might need some mood-lifters after.

Oh you’re Russian?

I get to have a variation on the following conversation once in a while, when people hear my accent. I’ve been living in Melbourne for almost 20 years now but my accent is as thick as ever – weirdly enough it’s actually stronger than my Mum’s. But then she worked harder on her English pronounciation, whereas I reckoned that as long as I managed to pronounce “th” (common stumbling block since “th” in “that” and “th” in “things” don’t exist in Russian language) I was okay.

So, where’s your accent from?

Are you from Moscow? (a.k.a. the only Russian city in existence apart from St Petersburg)
No, I lived in Siberia.

Oooh Siberia?? Cold eh? (I wish I had a dollar every time someone put these two together in a sentence)
Yeah winters can be cold but it can actually get warm/hot in summer too.

Are you a fan of Putin?
Erm no. (Sometimes I’m tempted to say yes in the most enthusiastic tone possible just to see the reaction)

Usually that’s as far as it goes, but sometimes I end up in a social situation where people want to have an involved discussion about Russia, with an assumption that I have a lot of feeling or things to say on the subject. Thing is, though I was born in Russia and left when I was 15, an age which left me with plenty of memories of my life there, I don’t feel much nostalgia or connection. That is, I do still feel a strong connection to the Russian literature, history and language, but the everyday, modern Russia? Not really. My immediate family is here in Melbourne, I never got to know most of my extended family all that well, I never liked the city we lived in, I’d lost connection with all of my old friends, I haven’t consistently followed any of the Russian media in ages. When I do get to read a Russian magazine or newspaper once in a blue moon, I’m often struck by the conservative and sometimes plain offensive sentiments and attitudes; not that the Australian media can’t be guilty of the same but it’s a whole different level.

If I miss anything it’s probably more to do with nature. There are beautiful places around Melbourne and the native Australian flora has its charm, but I do miss the lush green grass and trees and the fields of spring flowers. Also, while snowy winters can be a pain and the post-winter slush is not pretty, a sunny, crisp winter day is a beautiful thing. And you just don’t get the same sense of rebirth and renewal in spring here in Australia.

One thing that hasn’t changed in 20 years though is my sense of the seasons which is still stuck in the northern hemisphere and causes me to pause and readjust every time. January is still winter and July is still summer dammit!