Lenin: A Biography
by Robert Service
Release Date: 06 October, 2000
Service (history, St. Anthony's College, Oxford) endeavors to rehabilitate Lenin, whose fame in his own homeland since the collapse of the USSR has been badly bruised. Not only are there studies that portray Lenin as the architect of 20th-century violence, he is considered a failed state builder whose actions ultimately led to the 1991 debacle. On a conceptual level, the author will need to compete with the works of Martin Malia, Alexander Solzhenitsin, and Dmitri Volkoganov. Although Service contends that in Soviet hagiography Lenin's biographies were taboo, the author in some parts skirts the danger of falling into an overglorified Sovietlike portrait of the first Bolshevik. This is a full political biography that covers Lenin's life from birth in Simbirsk to the end at Gorki. Regardless of the pro-Leninist tilt, this is a good read, offering a great deal about a life that since the beginning of the USSR has been abused by partisans of both sides. Surprisingly there is no reference to Stefan Possony's biography (Lenin: The Compulsive Revolutionary, CH, Jul'64.) Well-footnoted and illustrated and containing a reasonably good bibliography and sufficient index, this book is recommended for all public and college libraries.
Service is a British historian of Soviet Russian history who has written this quite good narrative of the life of Lenin. While not definitive, it is nevertheless the best synthesis of the political and personal life of Lenin
One of the better reasons to read Service is that while he has no qualms about outlining the viciousness and brutality of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, he is also not a hard line ideologue. He is a historian and he takes history as he finds it. There is none of the strident cold-war dogmatism of Conquest or the russophobia of Pipes that often make their writings come uncomfortably close to political diatribes rather than analytical histories.
Service walks the fine line between personal and political biography fairly well. He also has the added bonus of being a good narrative historian which makes this an immensily readable book.
Lenin's early life is covered in good detail. What Service does well is to show how, after brother Alexander's excecution, the Ulyanovs were marginalized by the very class of society they had aspired to, and how this effected both Lenin and his sisters. Service goes on to show the interaction between Lenin and his female relatives and how this carried on throughout his life.
Being a total biography- personal and political- the political side gets a bit of a short shrift at times. Lenin as shown as the "bookish fanatic" and hypocondriact who is all revolution all the time with little time to spare in life for other diversions.
His single-mindedness is such that he dictates executions (never naming individuals just groups) to achieve his ends. What Service show best is how his temperament in childhood carried on to his political life- never brooking disagreement- throwing tantrums and denounciations- and rarely compromising.
And yet Lenin is at heart, a middle class bourgeois in his social manners. His personal relationships with women are not especially notorious save for a life-long relationship with Inessa Armand who may or may not have been his mistress.
Personal without being gossipy and showing Lenin's idiocincracies without being psychoanalytical, Service handles his biography well. All in all this is a highly readable, not perfect, but enjoyable biography of the life of one of the century's most notorious figures.