Just who was Vladimir Lenin? While we know that he came to power after the Russian Revolution, much of his life is shrouded in myths and lies. Author Tanel Vahisalu explains all.
PS - you can find out about Tanel’s latest project on Russian history here.
Ninety-three years after his death, Vladimir Lenin continues to make headlines. During 2017’s commemoration of the Russian Revolution, a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center demonstrated that 56 per cent of Russians believe Lenin played a positive role in history. What’s more, many of the remaining 44 per cent of Russians fail to see that Lenin was actually a supreme master of using fake news and mass manipulation.
The question becomes: How much do we actually know about Vladimir Lenin?
Despite a massive collection of history books, we still know surprisingly little about the man lining the pages. Perhaps that is because each of the 653 million volumes of Lenin’s published works – dated through to 1990 – contain fake biographies.
According to Russian historian, Dmitry Volkogonov, during Soviet times, there were at least 3,725 documents that were carefully collected and sealed within the cellars of Party archives that nobody was permitted to see. Many of these documents were said to be classified because they reveal the actual cause of Lenin’s death. Furthermore, many of the documents contain information about the true Ulyanov family tree, which was kept secret within the Soviet Union.
Bearing that in mind, let’s now turn to the most prevalent “alternative facts” of Vladimir Lenin.
Contrary to his official biography, Lenin was neither a Russian by ethnicity nor was he a peasant by descent.
Lenin’s mother, Maria Alexandrovna, had Jewish-Swedish roots. His great-grandfather, Moshe Blank, was known as a “mad Jewish merchant,” who had once set fire to 23 houses in his home village. Lenin’s grandfather, Alexander Blank, was a highly respected doctor and wealthy landowner, who bought an entire village near Simbirsk (today’s Ulyanovsk, Russia), along with 39 peasants and their farms.
The Ulyanov family was relatively affluent in local Simbirsk. Lenin’s father, Ilya was a high state official in the field of education. When he unexpectedly died, while Vladimir was 16, the family had sufficient income to easily support themselves. In fact, they even had servants.
Lenin was neither a kind-hearted, modest child nor was he a devoted revolutionary from a young age.
Already as a baby, Volodya – as he was called – stood out from his siblings. He began speaking at three and had trouble standing up on his weak feet. His head was larger than normal and he used to bang it against the floor in fits of rage. Lenin’s mother was sincerely worried about his cognitive development.
Lenin’s sister recalled - when their parents gave him a toy horse for his birthday – that he creeped away to a solitary space to tear its legs off, one by one. Volodya was a troublesome child, always fighting with his little brother, Dmitry, and purposely frightening his sister, Maria. It was documented that his parents found his behavior very disturbing.
Although Volodya grew up to be an extremely bright child, and was awarded a gold medal upon graduation, there is no evidence that he took any particular interest in revolutionary ideas prior to moving to Saint Petersburg in 1893.
In 1887, Lenin was neither expelled from university, nor was he detained in a Siberian prison camp.
A good example of “alternative facts” in Lenin’s official biography is the story about how the young revolutionary was expelled from Kazan University to a remote village of Kokushkino because of his revolutionary activity.
Truth be told, Volodya had only taken part in a peaceful student meeting and, when confronted about this, he wrote a voluntary resignation letter to the university. It is also worth mentioning that the village of Kokushkino was the same village that Lenin’s grandfather had bought. The Ulyanov family used it as their summer estate. So technically, he was “deported” to a nice vacation at his grandfather’s place.
While in Switzerland, Lenin was neither struggling to make ends meet nor did he have a happy marriage.
Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya lived as refugees in Western Europe for seventeen years, though neither of them had to work. They had several bank accounts in Zürich, and Lenin’s family regularly sent them money and packages of goods.
“In Zürich I messed around quite a bit an ended up in a … Swiss health resort”, Lenin joked in a letter he had written.
History has also revealed that Lenin had many relationships prior to Krupskaya, and he continued to have them during their marriage. The most famous of which was his affair with Inessa Armand, a political activist and family friend.
The cause of Lenin’s death was not cerebral atherosclerosis.
During his final years, Lenin suffered from loss of consciousness, paralysis, hallucinations, and epileptic seizures. His official death certificate stated his cause of death was cerebral atherosclerosis, yet two of his closest personal doctors refused to sign it.
No doubt that is because he likely died of syphilis, contracted at an early age and left untreated. In 1922, a number of doctors prescribed him salvarsan, which is a medication used only for treating syphilis. Additionally, a German physician who specialized in syphilis was summoned and commented: “Everyone knows for which brain disorder I am called”.
Taken together, if we look at Lenin’s life story, there is not too much that can be viewed as factual. Many of these “alternative facts” were perpetuated by Lenin during his lifetime, and were bolstered, posthumously, by Joseph Stalin and his successors to create a god-like cult figure for the Soviet Union.
Quite simply, Vladimir Lenin is the sad embodiment of the very problems that we face today – “post-truth politics” and manipulation based on “alternative facts”.
Learning from history, we would do well to question what we are told, and hold our political leaders accountable by calling truth to power.
Volkogonov, Dmitry. Lenin: A New Biography. The Free Press, 1994.
Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Harvard University Press, 2002.
Kolata, Gina. Lenin’s Stroke: Doctor Has a Theory (and a Suspect). The New York Times, 2012.
Roig-Franzia, Manuel. Medical Sleuths Discuss the Forensics of Death. The Washington Post, 2012.