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on 5 March 2010
This biography is so focused on its subject that important events like the First World War, the Russian Civil War and the murder of the Romanovs barely feature. Some readers might feel that is how a biography should be but I believe a biography of a man who may well have single handedly toppled an Empire and imposed a political system that shattered the world consensus (and still reigns supreme in the world's up-and-coming superpower, China) needs to have a wide historical and social backdrop. Compare Service's narrow approach to Robert Massie's "Nicholas and Alexandra" or "Peter the Great" where you feel you are in the middle of Russia, a strange state which seems familiar and European on one hand yet strange and Asiatic on the other.

The book covers the basic facts - the names, dates and places - but uncovers little of the man himself. Perhaps this is because so much has been hidden or destroyed by the Communists who tried to turn Lenin into a secular saint or perhaps because a non-Russian simply does not have enough insight into Russian culture.

Lenin is portrayed as a bookworm steeped in Marx and Engels who is more concerned with scoring philosophical points at interminable meetings* than a man who became the dictator of Russia even though he had spent most of the previous 20 years in exile. Just how Lenin managed to achieve this prestige while he was wandering around France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and England, usually accompanied by his mother, sister and wife (believe it or not), is simply not explained.

The author blames most of Lenin's hatred for the Tsarist regime on the fact that his elder brother was hanged while a student for involvement in a plot to assassinate Emperor Alexander III. This might be true but he provides no proof. He also makes a lot of the ménage à trois Lenin seems to have had with his wife and another woman but, apart from a few notes and letters, does not provide any real proof that Lenin was passionate about the other woman.

Leading characters like Stalin and Trotsky make only minor appearances. For example, Trotsky's role in running the Red Guard, which defeated the wide variety of domestic and international forces which attacked the revolution, is skated over. Stalin's rise to power is virtually ignored. Nothing is made of the attempts to assassinate Lenin, one of which left two bullets in his body and hastened his death in his early 50s. We never learn who was behind these attempts or what happened to the would-be assassins. How something as important as this can be ignored is beyond me.

The conclusion of this work which is almost 500 pages long is feeble to say the least: "The future does not lie with Leninist Communism. But if the future lies anywhere, we do not know where exactly. Lenin was unexpected. At the very least, his extraordinary life and career prove the need for everyone to be vigilant. Not many historical personages have achieved this effect. Let thanks be given."

To sum up, this book is better as a rather plodding history text than a biography.

*My favorite is pure Monty Python: "...the Congress agreed to drop the slogan "All Power to the Soviets" After a lengthy debate about slogans, it was decided to replace it with "All Power to the Proletariat Supported by the Poorest Peasantry and the Revolutionary Democracy Organized into Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies"
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on 21 December 2011
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was extremely difficult to write anything meaningful about the founder of the world's first Communist state. The archives were closed; and there was a stupefying conformity about Communist historiography, not confined to that which emanated from Moscow. The message given by most writers on the Left was 'Stalin, lousy guy, Lenin, good guy', to which the Trotskyites wanted to add 'Trotsky good guy too.' In fact, as this book shows, Lenin was just as murderous and dictatorial as Stalin, it was just that he had a much shorter time in which to show his proclivities, and the circumstances he operated under were more difficult.

Robert Service had the inestimable advantage that he could access the files, almost for the first time; and in addition, he did not approach his task with a closed mind. He shows what people on the Right have always known or long suspected: that Lenin was an arrogant pedant, who always thought he was right but was usually wrong about everything other than how to gain power, and who unfortunately got the opportunity to inflict his dogmatic views on millions of people.

As a young man, I used to think that the Soviet Union was a noble experiment, which had somehow gone wrong. I now realise that it was a monstrous tyranny from the start; and this book helps to explain why.
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on 12 March 2015
I'm gonna defend Robert Service here as I know he's had his critics. I applaud him for his tryptich of Russian history. No mean feat given the subject matter. After reading this I was left with the impression that Lenin was a bastard and he groomed people like Stalin. He was at odds with Trotsky while Stalin looked on. It should come as no surprise that Stalin was the eventual victory in control for power rather than Trotsky. Unfortunately for him his dealings with Lenin did him no favours.
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on 14 November 2014
Excellently researched and excellently written book. This history of Lenin is a fascinating read and one that I felt I had to do after reading two thomes on Stalin. Sometimes a trifle dry when trying to assimilate the many twists and turns of the numerous groups and committees in the early days of The October Revolution, it is, nevertheless, a book well worth buying.
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on 12 December 2013
This was an excellent book not only about Lenin, but also about the environment that created him. I would have liked to learn more about some of his colleagues and competitors, such as Lunacharsky and Bogdanov, but I believe they merit equally exhaustive biographies of their own! All in all, a tremendously satisfying read that brings to life, warts and all, one of the most important and charismatic individuals of the 20th century.
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I found this immensely valuable. Passions still run high about Lenin and it's an achievement to produce such a lively but balanced account. Having heard that the release of Russian archives twenty years ago painted a dire picture of Lenin I was expecting a more condemnatory view than we get here. In fact Service clearly likes Lenin, whilst frequently clucking at his 'love of terror'.

However many reviewers have mentioned that while Service is good on Lenin the man he is brief about the politics. No doubt, having written a three volume political history of Lenin he felt he had done that bit. However it is frustrating at times, and Service does not introduce chapter and verse to show us exactly in what degree Lenin orchestrated terror. All we get is a few anecdotes and a lot of quotes from his speeches which to be fair could have been mere politicking.

No doubt I'm supposed to read the three volumes.

Other points - relatively early in his career Lenin splits with Martov and the Bolshevik party is born. Service doesn't really explain what the dispute was about, but actually it was crucial to Lenin's political thinking, that the party should be made up of committed activists only. Later Lenin splits with Bogdanov who believed that what was important was to develop working class culture and bring about revolution that way. However Service doesn't really explain this until about a hundred pages later. I found myself searching on the internet to learn more about Bogdanov whose ideas have been rescued in recent decades by postmodernists.

Other reviewers have complained that little is said about Stalin and Trotsky.

In a way all this is fair enough. Service has written biographies of these men as well as general histories of the period. And what we do get is a top class biography of Lenin as an intellectual, a family man, and a real picture of how he was driven to introduce the first Communist state.

We see in particular how his leadership skills enabled him to hold his Marxism in one hand whilst surveying and weighing up the political exigencies of the present in the other, and constantly revising and shifting his position according to what he saw as necessary.

'Marxism-Leninism' was reified by Stalin into a creed to suit his purposes, says Service, but to Lenin it was something fairly fluid. Something not far perhaps from what Sartre though Marxism should be in his later writings, and quite different from the popular image of a dogmatist.

The book is very readable although it took me about a hundred pages to get used to Service's ruminative style. If you look at one of his paragraphs the sentences don't exactly follow on from one another but the paragraphs rather consist of a series of statements relating to a particular situation, just piled up on each other one after the other. Reading the book is like getting a balcony seat to Service's brain, thinking out loud.

However this does work because Service has worked very hard to work out his own views from all the available data and agree with it or not you get a coherent picture.
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on 24 March 2015
This is an informative work that gets to the heart of it's subject without boring you or bogging you down with dry history, which isn't always easy to do with subjects like this so credit must go to Robert Service for keeping this account fresh and engaging enough that you stay with it to the end. I found it very interesting to learn just how disorganized and reliant on luck and other circumstances the revolution was and how close it came to failing.
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on 25 April 2004
A book that tells us a lot more about Robert Service than it does aboutLenin. Despite the extensive research, it is packed with irritatingspeculation and blunt assertions and the events it describes are too oftenburied under Service's indignation. What are we to make of sentences suchas: "Lenin was not feeling in the best of sorts either physically oremotionally. And it served him right."?
We have endless speculation about what Lenin may have thought at any giventime. Among my favourites were: "It cannot be proved that Lenin held thetotal physical liquidation of the middle classes as a party objective" and"If Lenin dreamed of heading a European socialist federal regime, herefrained from giving vent to the notion". The Economist was right when itdescribed the book as: "... far more than a comprehensive summary of theestablished facts..."
In his haste to represent Lenin as a monster Service repeatedly confusesdictatorship by a class with dictatorship by an individual. Why couldn'the argue, if he thought it was true, that Lenin advocated the former butparticipated in a government controlled by a political elite? Why muddlethis point - "It was a fine dictatorship when the supreme leader wastreated contemptuously by his underlings!" It's nonsense and it appearsintentional.
Robert Service does not share Lenin's class-based view of history, whythen should he expect Lenin to share his moral scruples? To learn thatLenin's conduct might not be acceptable at a posh dinner party is about assurprising as finding out that Mozart didn't play heavy metal.
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on 23 March 2012
One cannot understate the scholarly nature of Robert Service's Lenin. Here we have one of the most mythologized characters of the 20th century presented to us in entirely human form.
Service traces every aspect of Lenin's life, including some interesting background information on his father and grandfather, which can seem like a digression at times.
However, what we have is a complete portrait, including events that shaped his early life such as the execution of his elder brother Alexander and the early death of his father.
Around two thirds of the book takes place prior to the October Revolution, and Lenin's travels and correspondences shape who he was considerably.
There are no attempts by Service to airbrush out any of Lenin's faults. We learn that he believed zealously in the use of state terror on Bourgeoisie, Kulaks and other reactionaries, he sought Europe wide revolution, and believed wholeheartedly in the violent seizure of power. Lenin was very principled, but also very rigid and zealous in the prosecution of his ideology.
Service not only tracks the intimate details of Lenin's life, but he also chronicles Lenin's intellectual development. Therefore this book serves as more than just a biography, but an aide to anyone studying Marxism-Leninism.
In short a scholarly, and very compelling biography.
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on 17 December 2007
Lenin by Robert Service is a very interesting and well-written book which deals with the life of the great revolutionary. Although it is perhaps not as detailed as some people would like it is very enjoyable and gives an insight into the life of this middle-class intellectual who became a working-class leader.
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