Lenin: A Biography

Article excerpt

Lenin: A Biography

by Robert Service

Harvard University Press * 2000 * 592 pages * $37.50

Robert Service is University Lecturer in Modern Russian History at St. Anthony's College and a well-known specialist in twentieth-century Russian history. His most recent book, Lenin: A Biography, provides the reader with a comprehensive biography of a man who changed the course of events of the twentieth century. Lenin still affects our life today-his followers are numerous and fanatical in their beliefs; his shadow is behind terrorist attacks and the destruction of Afghanistan, Chinese pretenses to world hegemony, Castro's atrocities in Cuba, as well as the worldwide crusade against capitalism in the form of a rejection of globalization. While many books have tried to depict Lenin as a well-meaning reformer whose ideas were later perverted, Service gives us a more realistic portrait.

In the horror chambers of history Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (born as Ulyanov) has a special place. He initiated the spread of totalitarianism in the twentieth century and created the model killer state that was used and perfected by his successor Stalin, as well as by other socialist mass murderers of the past century-Hitler, Mao, Tito, Kim II Sung, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Pol Pot. "Both industrial, literate, Catholic Czechoslovakia and agrarian, illiterate, Buddhist North Vietnam succumbed," Service writes. "The methods of introduction varied from invasion to local communist political agitation. But the result in its essentials was the same."

The book begins with a thorough examination of Lenin's family roots, childhood, education, and upbringing. In 1887, 17-- year-old Vladimir entered one of the best educational institutions in Russia at the time-the University of Kazan. With an excellent school record and impressive recommendations, he was admitted to the law school despite the fact that he was a brother of an executed state criminal and himself highly critical of the government. (I spent my freshman year at the same university in the 1960s, but transferred to the Moscow State University because of the stale, semireligious atmosphere of Lenin's personality cult that remains in his alma mater.)

Service gives the reader an excellent account of Lenin's revolutionary career and rise to power. In a particularly telling passage, the author reveals that Lenin's vaunted economic program for the new Soviet nation was not the result of deep thought and planning but of improvisation: "One of the great malignancies of the twentieth century was created more by off-the-cuff measures than by grandiose planning," he writes.

Lenin's successor, Stalin, the most murderous dictator the world has seen, was portrayed by Khrushchev as an "aberration of true socialism," "a tyrant who perverted Lenin's democratic intentions. …