Lenin: lying in state
‘I liked him an awful lot less than I did at the start.’ Victor Sebestyen shares his thoughts about Lenin
11 March, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
Lenin in Red Square photographed in 1919 by Grigori Petrovich Goldstein
QUOTE: A lie told often enough becomes the truth!
That sounds as if it came straight out of Donald Trump’s campaign hymn sheet or even Theresa May’s declaration on the steps of No 10 when she promised assistance for the oppressed, only to provide more austerity with the NHS, care support, the police, prisons and much else now reported in a state of collapse.
Politicians seeking power do have a way about them. And in this case it was the uninhibited view of the ruthless Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin, the creator of Communist Russia and no doubt the godfather of what is described today as post-truth politics.
Thousands died in the process, though not to the relentless excess of Stalin, Hitler and Mao, who followed him.
Yet Lenin, the son of a wealthy, middle-class family, considered himself an idealist, as Victor Sebestyen insists in his fascinating intimate portrait of the dictator. He wasn’t personally vicious or vain, neither a sadist nor even a monster, being invariably kind, something of a gentleman in fact.
Lenin in London
ONE critic of Sebestyen’s book has decried the 560-odd pages he has devoted to Lenin, declaring the Russian dictator has been not worth remembering. Yet, at least in London, we are surrounded by remarkable reminders of him. Lenin is on show in the Royal Academy’s current exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, on stage in the West End revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties, a tale in part of the rise of Lenin leading to the Bolshevik Revolution. And all round London are physical reminders of Lenin’s visits to the capital: blue plaques to him at 16 Percy Circus, Islington, and 36 Tavistock Place, Bloomsbury. A bust of him was erected in what was once Holford Gardens, Islington, by the Russian emigre architect Berthold Lubetkin, remains on show in the Islington Museum despite twice being vandalised with red paint. As Lenin once said: “It is true that liberty is precious – so precious that it must be carefully rationed.”
Lenin nevertheless claimed power by promising “people anything and everything,” he reveals. “He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly.”
Indeed, Sebestyen’s own life was directly affected by the outcome of Lenin’s Russian Revolution of October, 1917. He escaped with his family to England from Budapest “on his potty” in that other remarkable revolution of 1956 when thousands fled Soviet-dominated Hungary.
That too is a subject he has written about after returning to his native homeland and also visiting Moscow several times. There he queued up at the mausoleum Stalin created in Red Square – against the wishes of Lenin’s wife, Nadyia – and gazed on the embalmed body of the man into whose life he has now delved with admirable success.
He has done so with the help of research into old and new Communist papers, as well as those of the family of Lenin’s mistress Inessa Armand, which reveal the importance of Lenin in love, being part of a romantic ménage à trois at one stage.
Sebestyen’s own early days learning to become a reporter in Camden have also helped unravel the Lenin cult involving some 30 main characters. The more so too as Lenin’s visits to London, where he enjoyed walks on Primrose Hill, included paying homage at the grave in Highgate Cemetery of Karl Marx and, like him, doing his own research in the British Museum, all part of this compelling biography.
Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute by Isaak Brodsky
“I am much less personally involved than I used to be and a bit more dispassionate about Lenin,” Sebestyen says. “But of course I can’t help wondering sometimes how different my life might have been if there had been no Lenin, no Bolshevik Revolution, no Stalin. One would have to lack any imagination otherwise.
“While researching his life I became more and more astonished at how Lenin did what he did, but I liked him an awful lot less than I did at the start, his story having long fascinated me.
How does a man written off as a nutcase, who lived in boarding houses in Camden and elsewhere for years, with a handful of followers, take over one of the largest empires of the world? And I didn’t know when I started how well-timed my biography would be.
“Lenin would have undoubtedly regarded 2017 as a revolutionary moment in history with the election of President Trump. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has described himself as ‘a Leninist’ who wants to destroy everything before creating the world anew.”
Indeed, Sebestyen’s saga is a remarkable achievement given that his own family escaped the terror of Communism to settle in London.
At times too, with riveting detail, he relates the almost-farcical way Lenin grabbed power and turned the world upside down, history again virtually repeating itself a century later as “America first” dominates our uncertain future.
Lenin and his wife Nadya embarked at Charing Cross station after a two-day journey from Munich on April 14, 1902, to be engulfed in a typical London “pea-souper” fog, Lenin writing next day to a friend in Geneva: “My first impression of London – hideous.”
Not speaking the language, he had hated London and the English while staying in a pokey dirty bedsit in Sidmouth Street, in the St Pancras district of Somers Town.
“Both of them had particular difficulty understanding the ‘cockney’ spoken by the London working classes.” writes Sebestyen. “In time, Lenin learned to like London, admire the English and become fluent in the language.
“Neither got used to the food, though, which they both agreed was appalling. ‘We found that all this ox tails, skate fried in fat and indigestible cakes were not made for Russian stomachs,’ Nadya said.”
They were much happier when they took two small rooms on the first floor at 30 Holford Square, in Clerkenwell, under the alias of a German couple, Dr and Mrs Jakob Richter, lodgers at the home of newly widowed dressmaker Mrs Emma Louise Yeo.
“They had settled in comfortably when, after a fortnight, Mrs Yeo noticed that ‘Mrs Richter’ wore no wedding band and she threatened to turn them out,” observes Sebestyen. “But old friends who spoke decent English came to their rescue.”
And to that drama he adds that Mrs Yeo “softened to him when Lenin, who throughout his life loved cats, gave her spoilt pet a warm reception.”
After all, a cat may look at a tsar – and overthrow him.
• Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait. By Victor Sebestyen, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25