This book from Helen Rapport is not the biography of one of the founders of the Soviet Union. It rather traces every step that Vladimir Ulyanov, later known as Lenin, took since coming of political age until his return to Russia in 1917. From his exile within Russia to his banishment in Europe, Rapport carefully records every minor detail that helped shape the life and thinking of the Soviet-leader-to-be.
Lenin's political activism started in Switzerland where, together with other Russian exiles, he created a "revolutionary" periodical called the Spark. Around his editorial board, Lenin created a political group, which joined other like-minded Marxist factions. With time, however, the other Marxist groups started leaning more toward "change from within" and liberal social democracy, whereas Lenin - a man with an "exceptional sense of purpose" - insisted on a full-fledged revolution that would topple the Russian tsar and replace him with a people's government.
Lenin's job was not easy. The production of his newspaper stumbled due to lack of funds. Its circulation lurched.
Through this book, readers will be introduced to Lenin's daily life. Lenin spent most of his time researching Marxism and economic indicators of countries. He rejected life luxuries and lived - with his wife Nadya and her mother - in austerity. More often than not, Lenin's mother would send him money.
Yet, despite the failure of his indoctrination of the Russian masses through the Spark, and him being outnumbered in the political party he helped found, and despite his impoverished life and his not-very promising political career suffering under the watchful eye of the tsar's secret police, the Okrahna, Lenin rarely despaired, and always dominated over his peers.
By WWI and the abduction of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, Lenin - still in Europe - decided to take a big risk by inviting the Germans to transport him back to Russia, through German-controlled territories. Lenin had reportedly said that he and his group would be either hanged, or they would eventually rule Russia.
Immediately upon his return to Russia - coming from Finland - the interim Russian government gave the exile a hero's welcome. To their dismay, Lenin attacked the government and insisted that his vision of a revolution must rule.
The downfall of the tsar had taken Lenin by surprise. Russia was not ready to be transformed into an industrial nation. Lenin, according to Rapport, decided instead to circumvent such surprise by merging the two steps of his imagined revolution into one. Eventually, the views of an ideologue like Lenin, detached from Russian reality, resulted in a civil war and the emergence of a dictatorship, rather than a utopian communist state.
Rapport's prose is entertaining and her facts well-researched. While the book touches on the evolution of Lenin's thought and his ideological battles with his peers and rivals, it stays away from getting into the details of ideology. Rapport presents enough information for the reader to understand Lenin's stances.
Other than his political activism, his mundane daily routine, his family and financial issues, Rapport makes sure to highlight Lenin's entertainment, which was focused on hiking and biking. She also records Lenin's romances, his relationship with his lieutenant and lover Inessa, his probable trips to London's red district. She mentions that he eventually died from syphilis.
Rapport also highlights the parts of Lenin's life in exile, during which he was irrelevant to events in Russia and was disconnected from its affairs. Soviet hagiographers tried to hide this part.
Overall, the book is worth the money.