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Book Fails to Present the Big Picture
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"