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The Prince of Darkness

For Lenin, the End Always Justified the Means

LENIN A Biography By Robert Service Harvard University Press: 562 pp., $35

November 19, 2000|RICHARD PIPES | Richard Pipes is the author of "The Russian Revolution" and editor of "The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive."

Lenin is unquestionably one of the most prominent figures of the century just passed. He qualifies for this distinction not only because he founded the first totalitarian state in history, the kind of state destined to dominate international relations for most of that century, but also because he provided the original model of the revolutionary dictator. He was the first head of state to be designated "leader"--vozhd--a title adopted by the Italian duce, the German fuhrer, the Cuban lider maximo, and other modern dictators who would assert the right to guide--or drag, if necessary--their people to the terrestrial paradise to which they alone held the keys. His destructive fanaticism, directed primarily against Western liberalism, knew no bounds. Hence he would accept no restrictions on his authority, defining the "dictatorship of the proletariat" as "power that is limited by nothing, by no laws, that is restrained by absolutely no rules, that rests directly on coercion."

Such a man has naturally attracted many biographers. one of the earliest of them was the Menshevik David Shub, whose "Lenin" (1948), though in some respects outdated, benefited enormously from the fact that Shub had been able to observe the Soviet leader at first hand. Among important biographies published subsequently, there were Louis Fischer's "A Life of Lenin" (1964) and Adam Ulam's "The Bolsheviks" (1965).

In the 1990s, with the opening of Soviet archives, several thousand Lenin documents, previously locked in secret depositories, were made available to Russian as well as foreign scholars. The most important work based on these materials was the two-volume biography by Dmitrii Volkogonov, a Russian general turned historian, "Lenin: Politicheskii Portret" (1994) (it appeared the same year in a condensed English translation). As may have been expected, the secreted Lenin documents revealed the least savory aspects of his personal and public life, showing him to have been even more brutal and devious than previously known.

Now comes Robert Service of St. Antony's College at Oxford with a new biography of Lenin. The author is eminently qualified for the task, having spent the bulk of his professional life studying the Soviet leader: Among his published works is a three-volume inquiry into his protagonist's politics ("Lenin: A Political Life"). To write the present book, he carried out research in Moscow in what used to be known as the Central Party Archive, an institution that has a monopoly on Lenin manuscripts as well as those of most of the other leading figures of the Soviet era. His Lenin is thoroughly researched and well-informed. And yet it presents several puzzling features.

To begin with the distribution of the material. Lenin's claim to fame rests entirely on his role as founder and first leader of the Soviet state: His contribution to Marxist theory was negligible and had he fallen to his death out of the famous "sealed train" which, in the spring of 1917, carried him across Germany to Finland and thence to Russia, he would have merited no more than a footnote in histories of socialism. Nevertheless, in Service's biography a mere one-third of the space is devoted to the period from October 1917 until Lenin's death five years later. The bulk of the book deals with his childhood, youth and struggle for power. There are many new items culled from the archives of Lenin's immediate family, but the emphasis is surely misplaced. It means that critical facts bearing on his five-year dictatorship are either greatly compressed or altogether ignored.

No less curious is Service's virtual dismissal of previous Lenin biographies. In the 26 pages of end-notes, there are only a couple of references to Volkogonov's ground-breaking biography and none to Shub's, Fischer's or Ulam's; Ulam does not even rate mention in the bibliography. Scholarship, like science, is supposed to build on previous knowledge, and it is disconcerting to see a scholar give no recognition to his predecessors.

Such a procedure might perhaps be warranted for a historian who has gained access to critical documentary data unavailable to others or else comes up with an interpretation completely at variance with the prevailing one. But neither happens to be the case with Service's "Lenin." His biography adds some interesting details, but the picture that emerges from it is a familiar one. And as for the sources, they are the oddest feature of the book.

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