‘Lenin would be very successful in politics now, shine on Twitter’

British journalist and author Victor Sebestyen’s latest work, Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait, is an exhaustive biography of Lenin, and the first to come out in English in over two decades.

books Updated: Feb 16, 2018 13:29 IST
Indo Asian News Service
Indo Asian News Service
Indo Asian News Service
Lenin,Lenin the Dictator,New biography on Lenin
A meeting of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class in February 1897. Lenin is seated in the centre.(Wikimedia Commons)

He transformed a theory into a viable political programme, steered it to power through revolution, and laid the foundation of a mighty ideological state which played a key role throughout the 20th century. But does Lenin have any relevance now after the Soviet Union’s fall and communism’s “discrediting”?

Definitely yes, and “he would flourish now.” believes British journalist and author Victor Sebestyen.

Not only was Lenin the originator, or at least a pioneer, of the “post-truth politics” we see today – where the likes of Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon consider him an influence, he would have adapted well to contemporary forms of political outreach like Twitter, says Sebestyen.

Asked what would make Lenin suited for contemporary political millieu, the author, whose latest work, Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait, is an exhaustive biography of Lenin – the first in English in over two decades – listed several key traits.

On the system of repression that came to mark the Soviet Union, Sebastyen says Lenin does bear responsibility for ordering terror – and creating a system which was perfected by his successor Stalin – but wasn’t personally cruel like him, or like Hitler or Mao.

“He promised the people everything, lied without shame, and offered simple solutions to complex problems... He identified scapegoats and justified himself by political victory... he would have shone on Twitter,” Sebestyen argues.

Lenin was the “godfather of post-trust politics”, with adherents like Bannon, who identified himself as a Leninist with the same aim of destroying the state, he added.

“Lenin made a huge contribution to the end of imperialism and colonialism. He has had more impact in Asia, where his influence persists – in China, in North Korea – than in Europe. But his legacy also lives on a real way,” says Sebestyen.

“He would be very recognisable in politics now... in the ideologically-driven age of today. I see the present age as a revolutionary age where masses won’t accept present traditions and leaders... Lenin would have excelled in it,” Sebestyen, who was in India recently for a literature festival, told IANS in an interview.

On what inspired him to write Lenin the Dictator, Sebestyen says he had a fascination with the great Russian revolutionary even before he thought of writing the book. “I wanted to focus on Lenin the man, rather than the idea or propaganda,” he says, adding most Lenin biographies are one-sided, being either eulogistic or condemnatory.

Sebastyen said he was impressed with what he found about Lenin “who was entirely different from his reputation”, as he was not always being icy or logical but quite emotional, prone to flying into a rage, and quite ruthless. He was ideological only to a point, after which he was a pragmatic man of action.

The book contains many facts about Lenin that are not commonly known. For instance, everyone knows that he hated the Tsarist system after his elder brother’s execution, but why did he hate liberals? Also, that he loved nature, especially the mountains.

Another major fact that comes out is that all of Lenin’s important relations were with women – his mother, his sisters, his wife Nadezhda, his mother-in-law. He also had an affair with Bolshevik Inessa Armand, which his wife did not mind but it was censored by his Soviet successors.

“Lenin wasn’t a feminist in the modern sense, but he took women seriously,” said Sebastyen, contending that the Soviet leader always saw men as potential rivals or fell out with them over politics, thus ending up with no close male friends.

On the system of repression that came to mark the Soviet Union, he says Lenin does bear responsibility for ordering terror – and creating a system which was perfected by his successor Stalin – but wasn’t personally cruel like him, or like Hitler or Mao. “He saw the deaths as theoretical and never sought or relished in details.”

Sebastyen’s family fled Hungary when he was an infant in the wake of the 1956 revolt. He wrote about this in his book Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (2006), and covered communism’s fall in East Europe in another book, Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (2009).

The present political situation, says Sebastyen, is “profoundly depressing and disturbing”. “The regimes in Poland and Hungary – which initiated the change in 1989 – are deeply authoritarian with nasty roots... they are not fascist but seem to be on their way. Nationalism, racism are so appealing for lazy demagogues and people fall for it... in Lenin’s phrase, it is ‘false consciousness’,” he says.

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First Published: Feb 16, 2018 11:05 IST