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11 Works 999 Members 18 Reviews

About the Author

Includes the name: Victor Sebestyen

Works by Victor Sebestyen


Common Knowledge

Budapest, Hungary
Places of residence
London, England, UK
Evening Standard
The Times (London)
Daily Mail
New York Times
Georgina Capel
Short biography
His parents left Hungary after the 1956 uprising and he was raised in England.



The Russian Revolution by Victor Sebestyen is an excellent look at the causes and events of the revolution as well as some perspectives that are often glossed over if not ignored in other accounts.

The author admits his stance early so the reader can take that into account. There is no such thing as a truly objective history, to think so is nuts. Some historians might try for objectivity but at the very least, by deciding which facts to include, which to leave out, and how they are tied together, they are offering an opinion. It happens to be disguised and, more often than not, falls into line with the status quo for that topic. A book of just facts is not a history book since it doesn't present a narrative, so yes, it is weird to prefer lists rather than a narrative history. An author who lets their readers know their approach to the topic is both more honest and has a higher opinion of their readers, since they assume readers can read ideas and then form their own. Not all readers can form their own opinions apparently, but that speaks to our education system more than likely, they want to be spoon-fed "facts" that fit the status quo, then pretend they are deciding for themselves.

Sebestyen, even in a less detailed volume like this, makes a good case for why he supports some views over others. He mentions the others and, again thinking his readers capable, counters with why he disagrees. In historical scholarship that isn't called "dismissing," it is acknowledging the presence of multiple viewpoints and arguing for one in particular. There are a couple of points I want to go back to old notes and readings and see if, with these new perspectives, I agree with him. That said, I didn't find any opinions to be unsupported with most relying on how you understand the culture of the place and time.

This is well-written and can be read either as a straight through overview in a couple sittings or as a slower read where you might want to pause and look some things up. I was somewhere in between on this read since I wanted to finish to write this, but as is my norm I found using it as a springboard into some additional research made it more enjoyable.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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pomo58 | Aug 8, 2023 |

I got this book a couple of years ago because I was chasing a particular historical fact that had eluded me: precisely where in Brussels was the initial venue of the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903, which saw the original Bolshevik / Menshevik split? The Congress met for a few days in a rat-infested flour warehouse, somewhere fairly central, but had to relocate to London because of oppressive surveillance by the Belgian police. The details that we have are entirely from a single account written years later by Lenin’s wife. As with Karl Marx’s residences, I wanted to tie down the historic specificity.

Incidentally, for some reason the façade of the house in Brussels where Lenin lived some years earlier is blurred out in Google Streetview. I have never seen that before, for any other building.

Anyway, I emailed a couple of Lenin experts to see if anyone knew where the Second Congress was held, and the author of this biography replied recommending that I buy his book. I did, but it was not my top priority, and I have only now got around to reading it.

Lenin’s life is of course interesting because he changed the world. He created a revolutionary movement and took power in an empire. He inspired generations. He was responsible for the deaths of multitudes, in many cases personally. So we are entitled to ask how this came about.

Sebestyen is good on the basics. Russia was seething with revolutionary movements in the late nineteenth century. Lenin’s genius was to bind them together with a shared ideology and a centralised political direction. He was helped by literacy and by the organisation of printed party newspapers. As a succession of weak governments in Russia collapsed, starting with the Tsar, he was in the right place at the right time, because he had planned to be. And he ruled with terror for a couple of years, before he died.

He had also endured years of exile, along with his wife and his other long-term partner (they knew about each other perfectly well). He was already a celebrated figure; when he was shipped from Zürich to Russia in the famous sealed train, the likes of Stefan Zweig and James Joyce passed sardonic comment. By the time he took power, his health was failing, and his early death was accelerated by wounds from an assassination attempt. There is an interesting human story there.

Unfortunately I cannot really recommend this particular biography. For a start, it does not actually answer my question about the venue of the Second Congress, as the author had assured me it would. I caught several misspellings of names of minor figures, which looked orthographically suspect to me and where Google instantly confirmed my suspicions. A couple of memorably gory incidents of state violence were either not confirmed or flatly contradicted when I checked other sources. Many of the good bits are simply copied without comment from Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife (though I suspect that’s true of a lot of Leninology).

I will have to resign myself to the loss from historical memory of the location of the rat-infested flour warehouse where Lenin and the comrades argued in 1903. But this has scratched my itch to know more about the man.
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nwhyte | 5 other reviews | Aug 22, 2022 |
A very reputable biography; Sebestyen's book, as opposed to the book's publicity, is perfectly fair. I was, frankly, surprised by the lack of post-Cold War triumphalism or score settling. Lenin, it turns out, was a person. He was an odd one, and, in sum, a deeply harmful one, but also one who can pretty much be understood like all other human beings. He's marked by his history and the society of his time. His ideas aren't pretty, but they're perfectly comprehensible as reactions to events guided by a reasonable wish to make life better for people. Was he right? No. Was he Satan? No. Of course, if you yourself are full of post-Cold War triumphalist score-settling mania, you'll still get something out of this book, because nothing in it precludes you from drawing your own conclusions.

The book is also enjoyable; it's well written, and just flat-out fun. Also, great cover.
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stillatim | 5 other reviews | Oct 23, 2020 |
Faradaydon | 4 other reviews | Mar 12, 2019 |



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