Following the Russian Revolution of 1905, a minor participant in that inconclusive upheaval, Vladimir Ulyanov, was on the run from Finland (then in the Tsar’s empire) to Sweden. It was December 1907, and his route lay over the Gulf of Bothnia separating the two countries. As it turned out, the local comrades guiding him to a remote ferry landing were the worse for drink, and on the last leg to the pier he barely made it over breaking ice. “What a stupid way to die,” he later recalled his thought at the time—for he was a man with a mission. And that was “to overturn all Russia” with “a party of a new type”—a goal proclaimed in 1902 in What Is to Be Done?, the work that made his name in every sense, since it was the first he signed “Lenin.”
This incident is often cited to emphasize his presumed indispensability to the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. Indeed, no less a person than Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, makes the un-Marxist admission that without Lenin October would have been impossible. But can we really say “no Lenin, no communism”—that is, no twentieth century as we know it? Reputable historians have argued “no Hitler, no Holocaust”—which would make another defining feature of the century “accidental.” Yet how far does history depend on “great men”?
This is only one of the big questions Lenin’s career poses. Even more basic, and contentious, is whether the October Revolution he led was genuinely Marxist. And similarly central is whether Stalin was his true heir. The best place to begin assessing Bolshevism’s founder is the work of the British historian Robert Service. The present volume, Lenin: A Biography, is the fourth the author has devoted to his lifelong subject, its three predecessors, published between 1985 and 1995, being a meticulous chronicle of Lenin’s political life. Yet the past decade has produced sufficient archival material to make possible a biography of Lenin the man, and this is the new volume’s task. It may also serve as a summary of the preceding trilogy, to which readers can refer back for fuller details at any point. That procedure will be followed here. For the completed tetralogy is now the indispensable reference work on Lenin. Even in Russia, historians prefer Service’s nuanced and judicious account to the more sensational work of the late Dmitri Volkogonov, as well as to the standard Western treatments.
Indeed, Service is consciously writing against the predominant Lenin canon in both East and West. In the former Soviet Union, Lenin was presented as a genius with the “correct” solution to every problem in achieving and consolidating Soviet power. In the West, he has also generally been portrayed as a single-minded figure, though what his mind concentrated on has been diversely interpreted. Thus, at one extreme, the British historian Neil Harding casts him as a Marxist consistently basing his decisions on ideology …