Lenin in Exile


By Helen Rappaport

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Helen Rappaport’s Conspirator is a vivid account of Vladimir I. Lenin’s years of exile in Europe, showing that this often-overlooked period shaped the life of one of the 20th century’s most important figures. In the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, Lenin traveled between the capital cities of Europe, developing a complex network of collaborators and co-conspirators that would play a significant role in the struggle to come. Rappaport sheds a rare light onto Lenin’s early life, describing his relationship with his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and his extraordinary and unexpected love affair with beautiful activist Inessa Armand. In a riveting narrative, Conspirator describes the courage and the comedy, the setbacks, schisms and disappointments, the extreme persistence and the ruthless dedication that carried Lenin and his colleagues along the inexorable path to the Russian Revolution.


For Christina

POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.
Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Shlisselburg Fortress, 1887
FIVE OF THEM WERE TO BE TAKEN to Shlisselburg that night, May 5, 1887—the five leading conspirators in the latest foiled assassination attempt against a Russian czar. This time, only six years after revolutionaries had successfully blown up Alexander II, his son Alexander III, who had instituted a highly reactionary and oppressive government in the wake of his father’s murder, had been the target. They called themselves the “Terrorist Section” of The People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya). Even though this organization had effectively been driven out of existence by widespread arrests, the Terrorist Section had nevertheless dedicated themselves to carrying forward the aspirations of The People’s Will for the liberation of Russians from autocratic rule. They had no experience of terrorism, let alone of making bombs. As conspirators they were inept to say the least. It was only their youth—the youngest was only twenty—and their bungling incompetence that had saved St Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt from yet another outrage. A spot check on two of the conspirators by suspicious police agents had uncovered the crude bomb filled with bullets dipped in strychnine that one of them carried inside a copy of Grinberg’s Dictionary of Medical Terminology.
It might sound like the stuff of tragicomedy, but the plot’s perpetrators were in deadly earnest, even if their bomb was defective. But what had driven them to such violent action?
Russia had ever been a country of extremes, a place where the opulence and extravagance of the Imperial Court was matched by its indifference to the privation suffered by Russia’s silent and unseen masses. By European standards, nineteenth-century Russia was a backward country, its population largely illiterate and rural, its infrastructure—roads, railways, and industry—lagging far behind that of the West. In an empire covering one-fifth of the world’s surface the vast majority of Russia’s multinational population of 180 million (by World War I) had been enslaved by serfdom until 1861. But emancipation had done little to liberate the peasantry from illiteracy, poverty, and land hunger, or to assuage the social conscience of a growing intelligentsia that passionately sought to redress the imbalances of the old order.
Official corruption and repression in Russia drove young people to seek political answers to the questions that so tormented them about Russia’s position in the world. They wanted to work toward a better political and economic future, in which the peasantry and the urban proletariat would play key roles. For a while hopes were pinned on the model of the existing village communes providing a shortcut to socialism and the institution of a democratic system. But the populist To the People movement of 1873-1875—an ill judged propaganda drive by the intelligentsia among the peasants of rural Russia—had collapsed amid widespread peasant mistrust of these newcomers and had ended in thousands of arrests, and exile for many to Siberia.
The response to official repression was the establishment in 1876 of Land and Freedom (Zemlya i Volya), the first political party to openly advocate political change in Russia. But before long the party was divided. Some members embraced the peaceful path of agrarian reform and worked for local government in rural areas, while in 1879 a more extreme group formed The People’s Will faction, embracing terrorism as a political weapon. But such extreme methods were short-lived; by the time the would-be assassins were arrested in 1887 The People’s Will was a spent force. Arrested in March, the five men were held for two months in solitary confinement in the grim Trubetskoy Bastion of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. After their five-day trial in April, they were condemned to death.
The other prisoners on the isolation wing of the Trubetskoy Bastion heard the cell doors being unlocked the night the men were taken away to their place of execution; even the thick stone walls could not muffle the resonant tread of footsteps matched by the ominous clank of the chains which bound the men hand and foot. The five men’s shadows flickered and fell as they passed along the dark prison walls by the light of dingy kerosene lamps and were led out across the cobbled courtyard to the iron gate. Here police vans—little more than cages on wheels—waited for them. This would be the last time they would see the city. Just out of sight, the River Neva lapped softly along its long, flat embankment, where a steamship waited on the dark and deserted quayside, its tiny cabin windows curtaining the outside world from view.
The men were on their way to Shlisselburg—a forbidding medieval fortress built on a small island looking out over Lake Ladoga, thirty-five miles from St. Petersburg along the Neva. Every Russian revolutionary knew about Shlisselburg; it was the Russian Bastille and few survived incarceration there. Built in the fourteenth century by the people of Novgorod, it was later captured by the Swedes and then recaptured by Peter the Great. It had gained notoriety when Ivan VI was held and murdered there in 1764. In the 1820s it became a staging post for conspirators in the Decembrist uprising on their way to exile in Siberia. But since 1884 it had served a much more specific purpose, when a special isolation prison was built within its ancient walls for the incarceration of forty of the country’s highest security political prisoners. Shlisselburg was a place, it was said, from which people were only carried out; they very rarely walked. If they took you there it was either to hang you or because your death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment. And life meant life. One way or another, you’d die at Shlisselburg.
After the steamship had traveled for five hours, the green, iridescent waters of the River Neva suddenly broadened out into the lagoons of Lake Ladoga. Here Shlisselburg with its white walls and limestone towers loomed into view in the early dawn. At the top of a tall spire shone the gilded key that had given the fortress its German name from the word Schlussel.
As the five men passed through the high white walls of the main entrance, the huge, two-headed imperial eagle looked down on them as though ready to swoop. Inside everything seemed white and quiet and orderly—like a tiny village with its own small white church at one end. But beyond this seemingly peaceful setting there stood a two-story red brick building with dirty windows and two tall chimneys—the special wing for political prisoners. Inside, the poorly lit first and second floors were divided by a net to prevent suicide attempts from the top floor; connecting the two levels from one side to the other, there was a narrow walkway—a Russian Bridge of Sighs.
Ranged around the circumference were forty black iron doors opening into forty isolation cells—set like a row of coffins standing on end, for incarceration here was a living death—with only the fuzzy outline of the far horizon beyond each cell’s opaque windowpane. Inside there was nothing but the overpowering stillness of solitary confinement—where the real becomes unreal and the imaginary can become so vivid that it takes on a life that confuses the senses and drives men mad. The only sound breaking the silence was the hissing of water in pipes somewhere far below, or, from the distance, a faint tubercular cough of another prisoner. Sometimes there was the soft tap-tap of prisoners communicating with each other by an improvised code. And sooner or later, the rattle at the door, as the gendarme slid open the peephole.
Three days later, on May 8, having been lulled into a false sense of security that their sentences would be commuted, the men were woken at 3:30 AM and informed that they were to be executed in half an hour. The prison officials had constructed the gallows in such secrecy that none of the prisoners in the isolation block had known. There was room for only three gallows, which had been built in sections outside the prison and silently assembled near the main entrance, without so much as a single blow of an axe being heard.
As the rest of the prisoners slept the heavy sleep of those with an eternity on their hands, the commandant, priest, and guards accompanied the five prisoners in single file to the place of execution. The condemned men were offered the consolation of a priest but refused. There being only three gallows, they had to hang them in two batches: Vasily Generalov, Pakhomiy Andreyushkin, and Vasily Osipanov embraced each other and cried out “Long Live the People’s Will” before the sack was thrown over their heads and the stools kicked from under them. The condemned in Russia were not yet accorded the merciful death of the trapdoor, but a slower one, by strangulation.
After their three corpses had been taken down, the other two men were brought forward. Petr Shevyrov, the ringleader of the conspiracy, pushed away the cross as the priest offered it to him, but the last man, with absolute composure, stopped and kissed it before they hanged him too.
His name was Aleksandr Ulyanov.
In provincial Simbirsk, 935 miles away, Ulyanov’s younger brother was studying hard that day for his final school examinations, unaware of what had taken place. That sixteen-year-old boy was the man who became Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
ALEKSANDR ULYANOV’S CORPSE had already been consigned to a common grave with his fellow conspirators on the Shlisselburg grounds before his mother Mariya, who had been lobbying the authorities for weeks to commute his sentence, learned that her son had been executed—in an announcement in a broadsheet handed out on the streets of St. Petersburg. Mariya’s natural stoicism saw her through. Her emotional control and fortitude at a time when one of her daughters, Anna, was also in police custody in the city, implicated in the same plot, was extraordinary. It would enable her to endure many years of anxiety as, one by one, all of her children suffered arrest and exile. More importantly, it was a characteristic inherited by her younger son Vladimir.
In the weeks leading up to his execution, Aleksandr and his fellow conspirators were encouraged to appeal to the czar for mercy but refused. All he asked for in his final days was a volume of verse by his favorite poet, Heinrich Heine. He was in fact not one of those designated to throw the bomb (although as a student of natural science, he had manufactured the nitroglycerin) and would almost certainly have been reprieved had he petitioned for clemency. But he would not compromise his beliefs.
Aleksandr wanted to take on himself the burden of responsibility for the conspiracy, to be a martyr and die an exemplary death. Czar Alexander found his frankness “touching” but did not commute the death sentence. Shortly after the executions, students at Aleksandr’s university brought out their own statement on the heroism of the five hanged men who had died for the “common cause.” They had fulfilled their duty with absolute integrity and had “firmly upheld the banner of struggle for freedom and justice.”
Aleksandr Ulyanov was one of the last of a generation of romantic idealists devoted to the cause of the downtrodden masses, who espoused the Russian populist movement and found themselves drawn into desperate acts of terrorism. But despite scoring some spectacular murders of senior officials and the czar himself in 1881, The People’s Will had ultimately been ineffectual in forcing constitutional change in Russia through the use of terrorism. In later years, Lenin, in an extremely rare public allusion to his brother’s death, would state that such an act of martyrdom as Aleksandr’s had not and never could achieve the conspirators’ immediate and passionate aim: “awakening a popular revolution.” A year before his death, Aleksandr had won a gold medal for his dissertation entitled “The Segmentation and Sexual Organs of Freshwater Annula.” The young Vladimir had watched him at home, huddled over his microscope from the early hours of the morning examining slides. “No, my brother won’t make a revolutionary, I thought then,” he later told his wife Nadezhda. “A revolutionary cannot devote so much time to the study of worms.”
In the unequal struggle between a repressive autocracy that banned all political opposition and small groups of disaffected and disorganized intellectuals who shared no common doctrine, sporadic acts of selfimmolation made little difference. Even the five corpses on the gallows at Shlisselburg, and before them the six People’s Will leaders hanged in front of 100,000 people in St. Petersburg’s Semenovsky Square in April 1881, had succeeded only in provoking an entrenchment of official reaction. True, such events drew attention to the importance of the legal process and the responsibility of judges and lawyers. But the proliferation of committees, clubs, and secret and mutual aid societies, as well as the torrent of resolutions and exhortations that accompanied their inception, did not even dent the oppressive machinery of the state. For Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov there would have to be another way.
Like many of his peers Vladimir saw the answer in Marxism, as pioneered and interpreted by its Russian “father,” Georgy Plekhanov. Marxism provided a sound and scientific rationale for political change, as opposed to the emotional, anarchistic idealism of the populists. It defined history as class struggle: capitalism had replaced the old feudal system and with time would be the means of its own destruction, leading to the ideal, classless society. The working classes would be capitalism’s nemesis.
Plekhanov’s interpretation of Marx within the Russian context offered young radicals an objective philosophy based on economics and the belief that sooner or later a major clash between the capitalist bourgeoisie and the proletariat would bring about political change. But to arrive at this objective democratically—with the masses being sufficiently enlightened to accept change and willingly take part in it—knowledge, patience, and careful preparation would be needed. The key to Plekhanov’s Marxist vision—which inspired so many young Russians from the 1880s onward—was the need for tactics based not on sentiment but on scientific training and a widespread program of political education among the Russian population at large.
In the coming revolutionary struggle, therefore, heroism, self-sacrifice, the unshakeable power of belief—none of these would ever be sufficient to effect real change. As Plekhanov’s pupil, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov would soon so forcefully demonstrate, what was required was a unique kind of iron-clad, remorseless will.

Leaving Shushenskoe
THE SKY IS BIG AT SHUSHENSKOE. No other place in the world is so far from the sea as this remote region in south central Siberia. On the right bank of the great Yenisey River this now forgotten village of exile once sprawled in a huddle of low wooden houses. Beyond the broad expanses of the river loom the dazzling, snow-capped Sayan Mountains. The wastes of Outer Mongolia lie unseen on the other side. In the old days Shusha, as the local peasants called it, seemed so remote that those great shimmering mountains seemed to them “the very edge of the world itself.”
For many centuries this remote region, unmapped by geographers, was inhabited only by fur traders and Cossacks. During the nineteenth century the czarist authorities found a new use for Shushenskoe as a suitably remote destination for political exiles. Closed to the outside world, the area was hundreds of miles from the railroad and accessible only to the intrepid few.
Siberian exile for political prisoners in those days did not have the ominous overtones it acquired under Stalin, when the prospect of Siberia and the Gulag became a virtual death sentence. For those lucky enough to be sent to Shushenskoe under the czars, however, life was not always unpleasant or arduous. The climate here was kinder than in the primeval, frozen east of Siberia, where prisoners endured appalling conditions. In comparison to the repressive prison system the Soviets would later institute, Shushenskoe was a virtual holiday camp. No wonder that part of the Minusinsk district where the village lay came to be called the Siberian Italy.
On January 31, 1900, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov prepared to leave Shushenskoe after spending three years there as a political exile. It was a timely moment in the new century and in the life of an extraordinary man whose political thinking would come to dominate most of the century.
In many ways Vladimir was sorry to leave. After ten years as an activist in the Russian revolutionary underground with all the uncertainties that such a life involved, he had found a degree of peace here and, paradoxically, freedom. Police surveillance had been lax and there were few restrictions on movement. Although short on money, he had recovered his often febrile health and had grown fit and well as he enjoyed vigorous outdoor pursuits such as hunting, shooting, ice skating, and swimming in the nearby River Shush during the short-lived Siberian summers. And he had benefited too from the comfort and companionship of his wife and political comrade Nadezhda Krupskaya, herself an exile.
THE PATH TO SHUSHENSKOE had been a long one. The man who became Lenin did not turn into a revolutionary overnight. On the day his brother was executed in 1887, he finished his math exam early and was the first to leave the examination hall. At school he remained an exemplary pupil; at home he was always the first to finish his homework. In June, only a month after his brother’s death, he was awarded the gold medal for academic excellence. Headmaster Fedor Kerensky noted in the citation that Vladimir was “diligent, prompt, and reliable” and that there was “no single instance on record either inside school or outside of it” of his behavior inviting adverse criticism. Perceptively, Kerensky noted that “rational discipline” seemed to be the young man’s guiding light, as well as a marked preference for solitude and “a certain unsociability.”
There was no reason for the robust and boisterous Volodya, as he was known in the family, to be other than ordinary, for he came from a loving, stable home that valued learning and respected intellectual enlightenment. His early life as one of six children—Anna, Aleksandr, Vladimir, Olga, Dmitri, and Mariya (two others had died young)—had been far from rebellious or controversial. However, after the revolution, and particularly after Lenin’s death in 1924, Soviet hagiography suppressed the true details of the great leader’s less than working-class ancestry.
Vladimir Ulyanov was not a full-blooded Russian; the narrow, Asiatic-looking eyes always gave him away. The man who became Lenin, like many other Russians, was of mixed race, his ancestors being Jewish, German, Swedish, Slav, and Kalmyk. On his father Ilya’s side, Vladimir’s grandfather, Nikolay Vasil’evich Ulyanov, was possibly of Tatar or Kalmyk descent. The son of a former serf, Nikolay Vasil’evich had worked as a tailor in Astrakhan and married a Kalmyk woman. Vladimir’s mother, whom Ilya had married in 1863, had more upwardly mobile antecedents. She was born Mariya Aleksandrovna Blank to a family of good Lutheran merchants from Germany and Sweden on one side and middle-class Jewish converts on the other. Vladimir’s Jewish grandfather, Aleksandr Blank, was a medical man with progressive if somewhat eccentric views on hydropathy who imposed his water cures on his children. Strict, authoritarian, and frugal, he bought an estate at Kokushkino near Kazan, complete with serfs. With its flower beds, fruit bushes, and graceful linden trees, it would become a happy holiday home for the Ulyanov children as they grew up, a place where the young Volodya reveled in the bucolic pleasures of the Russian country estate, as epitomized in the novels of his favorite writer, Ivan Turgenev.
Ilya Nikolaevich Ulyanov attained the status of minor nobleman, as did many others in Russia in the nineteenth century, by dutiful service to the state. He was in many ways that archetypal Chekhovian figure, a loyal chinovnik, one of a breed of czarist bureaucrats who ran the vast, antiquated machinery of state. After completing his studies at the University of Kazan, he had started out as a math and physics teacher. He went on to serve as a primary school inspector and then from 1874 as director of public schools in Simbirsk province. In later years he was promoted through the fourteen ranks of the Russian civil service to number four and was accorded the honorific of Actual State Counselor (the civilian equivalent of a major general) in later years. With the honorific came the right to be addressed as “Your Excellency.” One of the perks of the system was that the father’s entitlements extended to his sons, thus ensuring that Vladimir could later claim noble status to lessen the harshness of his exile in Siberia.
Photographs of Ilya Nikolaevich sitting in his high-buttoned uniform reveal that Vladimir inherited his high cheekbones, domed Socratic forehead, and patrician look, as well as a strong work ethic, and with it the stern mentality of the pedagogue and the moral puritan. Both parents were well educated and politically enlightened. They supported the liberal reforms of Alexander II, who had emancipated the peasants in 1861. Ilya Nikolaevich was a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church, a staunch patriot, and a conscientious public servant loyal to his czar. Mariya Ulyanova was less religiously observant but thrifty and long-suffering. The Ulyanov family believed in self-education and the liberating power of scientific progress. The Ulyanov children were encouraged to be curious about the world.
From both parents Vladimir learned to be frugal and unostentatious, to work hard and persevere, despite a propensity to be loud and clumsy, with a habit of breaking things. From his cultured mother he learned to appreciate music. She taught him languages—French, German, and English; his sisters Anna, Mariya, and Olga played the piano and sang. There was much joy and laughter and shared amusement in their young lives.
A humane and conscientious man with a mission to modernize the czarist school system, Vladimir’s father drove himself relentlessly at the expense of his health. His work involved long periods away from home. Yet the reward for his diligence in trying to raise education standards throughout Simbirsk province was to be forced into early retirement in 1885, as a result of the political retreat that occurred after Alexander II was murdered. Ilya Ulyanov’s dedicated, progressive work was suddenly cut short. His premature death in 1886 spared him the agony and humiliation of his son Aleksandr’s involvement in a plot against the czar. Years of overwork and stress culminated in a cerebral hemorrhage that carried him off at fifty-three.
Vladimir Ulyanov’s early life in Simbirsk, a regional trading port of 30,000 inhabitants stretched out along the slopes of the River Volga, was uneventful. Life in the Russian provinces in the nineteenth century was legendary for its hidebound tradition and lethargy. But being stuck in a provincial backwater did not seem to worry Vladimir, nor did the fact that his family was not rich enough to live on the leafier, more salubrious side of town where nightingales sang in the apple and cherry orchards. His attachment to the broad flowing waters of the Volga dominated his early years and would stay with him throughout his life, as would a love of the outdoors. Being out in the natural world became for the adult Lenin an essential release from stress and anxiety, as well as the setting for vigorous and regular exercise. But such moments became increasingly few and far between as he grew older. His mind, his time, and his prodigious energy were, from young adulthood, focused entirely on his work and the demands of an exacting classical curriculum.
Quiet, studious, and solitary, he absorbed himself in his books and had few friends. He gave up his favorite subject, Latin, because it got in the way of his more important political and economic studies. He even abandoned ice skating until he rediscovered it in Siberia. Such interests were “dangerous addictions.” As he grew older, with his highly rational and logical mind he developed his great passion for statistics.
At school he garnered the respect of his peers and teachers, if not their affection, for his diligence. His family losses—Aleksandr’s execution, his father’s death, and the tragic death in 1888 of his favorite and extremely gifted sister Olga from typhoid—crushed his natural joviality and drew down the shutters on all discussions of his personal life, creating a lifelong reticence in him. He became, as his younger brother Dmitri later observed, “grimly restrained, strict, closed up in himself, highly focussed.” He was crippled by remorse about the strained relationship he had with his older brother, whom he had tried to emulate. The truth was that Vladimir and the dreamy, ascetic Aleksandr had been rivals. Aleksandr was revered in the family for his quiet intelligence, modesty, and moral integrity, and finding his brother too disruptive, had been offended by Volodya’s arrogance and his rudeness toward their mother.
Despite this, Vladimir took his brother’s death in pursuit of political change very hard and became bitter when his loyal mother and siblings were subsequently ostracized in Simbirsk. The situation prompted the family to move to the Blank estate at Kokushkino near Kazan. Here Vladimir enjoyed the rural pleasures of hunting, swimming, sailing, and walking, combined, as always, with extensive reading, shut away in his sparsely furnished room. In August 1887 he moved into the city of Kazan to study law. Four months later his involvement in relatively low-key student demonstrations against a university inspector ensured his prompt expulsion from the university and banishment by the Ministry of Internal Affairs back to Kokushkino, where his elder sister Anna had already been confined for political activities. As the brother of a would-be regicide, Vladimir would remain under close police surveillance.


On Sale
Feb 23, 2010
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Helen Rappaport

About the Author

Helen Rappaport is a fluent Russian speaker and a specialist in Russian history. In 2002 she was Russian consultant to the National Theater’s Tom Stoppard trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, and translated many plays by Chekhov. She is most recently the author of The Last Days of the Romanovs. She lives in Oxford, England.

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