Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen

Second paragraph of third chapter:

For the next three nights, unknown to the five prisoners who could hear no sound through the thick walls, carpenters were hard at work erecting gallows and gibbets in the fortress courtyard. At 3.30 a.m. on 8 May they were woken by prison guards, shackled and chained again, and told that in accordance with the sentences imposed on them at a Special Session of the State Senate held three weeks earlier they were now to be hanged. Their offence: an attempted assassination of the Tsar. Jailers said later that the five young men, all of them students at St Petersburg University, were unusually calm as they dressed and prepared themselves for death.

I got this book a couple of years ago because I was chasing a particular historical fact that had eluded me: precisely where in Brussels was the initial venue of the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903, which saw the original Bolshevik / Menshevik split? The Congress met for a few days in a rat-infested flour warehouse, somewhere fairly central, but had to relocate to London because of oppressive surveillance by the Belgian police. The details that we have are entirely from a single account written years later by Lenin’s wife. As with Karl Marx’s residences, I wanted to tie down the historic specificity.

Incidentally, for some reason the façade of the house in Brussels where Lenin lived some years earlier is blurred out in Google Streetview. I have never seen that before, for any other building.

Anyway, I emailed a couple of Lenin experts to see if anyone knew where the Second Congress was held, and the author of this biography replied recommending that I buy his book. I did, but it was not my top priority, and I have only now got around to reading it.

Lenin’s life is of course interesting because he changed the world. He created a revolutionary movement and took power in an empire. He inspired generations. He was responsible for the deaths of multitudes, in many cases personally. So we are entitled to ask how this came about.

Sebestyen is good on the basics. Russia was seething with revolutionary movements in the late nineteenth century. Lenin’s genius was to bind them together with a shared ideology and a centralised political direction. He was helped by literacy and by the organisation of printed party newspapers. As a succession of weak governments in Russia collapsed, starting with the Tsar, he was in the right place at the right time, because he had planned to be. And he ruled with terror for a couple of years, before he died.

He had also endured years of exile, along with his wife and his other long-term partner (they knew about each other perfectly well). He was already a celebrated figure; when he was shipped from Zürich to Russia in the famous sealed train, the likes of Stefan Zweig and James Joyce passed sardonic comment. By the time he took power, his health was failing, and his early death was accelerated by wounds from an assassination attempt. There is an interesting human story there.

Unfortunately I cannot really recommend this particular biography. For a start, it does not actually answer my question about the venue of the Second Congress, as the author had assured me it would. I caught several misspellings of names of minor figures, which looked orthographically suspect to me and where Google instantly confirmed my suspicions. A couple of memorably gory incidents of state violence were either not confirmed or flatly contradicted when I checked other sources. Many of the good bits are simply copied without comment from Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife (though I suspect that’s true of a lot of Leninology).

I will have to resign myself to the loss from historical memory of the location of the rat-infested flour warehouse where Lenin and the comrades argued in 1903. But this has scratched my itch to know more about the man. You can get it here.

This was the top unread non-fiction book on my shelves. Next on that pile is What If?, by Randall Munroe.