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.

A painting of Lenin by Isaak Brodsky -  Lenin in front of Smolny .

A painting of Lenin by Isaak Brodsky - Lenin in front of Smolny.

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.


Find out more about Tanel’s book, History of Russia in 100 Minutes, here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


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.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Two of the focus areas of our blog are 20th century history and Communism. In this article, Brian Schmied looks at the struggles that the Church faced in the Soviet Union in the Communist period, and argues that it has become a powerful force in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.


The Russian Orthodox Church is an integral part of Russian society, and a powerful political force. Not long ago, that would have been unthinkable. The Russian Orthodox Church has moved out from under the heel of brutal suppression and near extinction, to political dominance within the lifetime of most people reading this.


The Soviet Era Church

Communism, with its state atheism, had an official policy of religious tolerance that permitted the existence, but not the propagation of religion. Its rise resulted in the confiscation of the vast lands and property of the Orthodox Church. It was illegal to criticize atheism and to proselytize, and there were massive government led efforts to end religion[1] through education and persecution.

Destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, 1931

Destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, 1931

It did not help that the Orthodox Church opposed the rise of Communism, encouraging believers to fight against the new regime. When Lenin abolished religious education and the privileges and legal status of the Church, the Patriarch excommunicated the government, which led to mass executions of clergy. 

Almost 600 convents and monasteries were liquidated and the inhabitants executed in those first few years, and it only got worse with time. In 1929, the USSR outlawed all distribution of religious materials and proselytization. Special taxes implemented for the clergy raised their total taxes to over 100% of their income. Debtors were carted off to Siberia. Then Stalin came to power.

He purged the Russian clergy in 1938, executing an estimated[2] 100,000 of them on the spot, and arresting the rest. Just as it looked like religious expression may be fully stamped out, World War II broke out and brought it back. The Nazi invaders reopened churches in conquered Russian territory. Stalin, fearing that this might make the still largely religious Russian populace sympathetic to the Germans, ended his campaign of persecution and reopened the churches.

The number of churches recovered to over 20,000 within a decade, but, like the war, it did not last. In the late 1950’s Nikita Khrushchev, resumed the persecution. All of the previous laws were enforced again, and a few new ones added. By 1963, it was illegal to bring a child to a church service, and to administer the Eucharist to a child over the age of four.

Time wore down the conflict, however. The Russian Orthodox Church ended its feud with the state, endorsing its various accomplishments and integrating with the KGB[3] to ensure their survival. The Russian state granted reprieve, weakening restrictions, allowing theological schools to open and train clergy, and allowing people to privately fund churches and hire priests for their communities.

It wasn’t until the Gorbachev’s glasnost policy, however, that ownership of some Russian churches was returned to the institution.


The Post-Soviet Renaissance

The Russian Orthodox Church has bounced back. While Russians are not overly religious, with only about 15-20% practicing Orthodoxy[4], far more Russians identify with the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian nationalism has become tied to the religion, driving many conservatives, neo fascists and anti-foreign elements, into the arms of the Church.

The inauguration of Vladimir Putin in 2012

The inauguration of Vladimir Putin in 2012

Perhaps because of his ties to the former KGB, Vladimir Putin has built a strong bond between the Orthodox Church and the Russian State. He has voiced support[5] of increasing the political influence of the Church, and the Church has voiced their support of him in turn. The Patriarch, rather than fearing execution, like his predecessors, now walks the halls[6] of the Kremlin in return for bringing the votes of the faithful.

The orthodox people of Russia no longer fear the desecration of their holy sites by their government, but rather call for support in protecting them. There are scientologists are facing possible legal action on behalf of the Orthodox Church against their worldwide expansion efforts[7]. Russians protesting these Scientology proselytization efforts claim[8], “…anyone who cares about the survival of Russia must join the body of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Mere decades ago the same statement would have brought the KGB to your door.

Already by 2006, Russia boasted an impressive 27,000 Orthodox parishes and over 700 monasteries. Religion is uncharacteristically popular with the youth[9], as it helps them establish a cultural identity and connects to the international Russian community. As of 2007, the Moscow Patriarchate has brought the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which split off when the Soviet Union cut Moscow off from the world, back into the fold[10].


Do you agree? Has the Church really become a major force in modern Russia? Let us know your thoughts below..

Brian Schmied loves to learn about the history of religion and politics. He has a B.A in political science, and enjoys writing because it pushes him to think analytically and objectively, and to learn new things.

If you enjoyed that article, and want to find out more about religion’s struggles in the Soviet Union, a great book is Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski, one of my favorite writers. Get the book - Amazon US | Amazon UK



[1] Kowaleski, David. Protest for Religious Rights in the USSR. Russian Review, 1980. Vol. 39, No. 4. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/128810?uid=3739648&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21102530492637

[2] Yakovlev, Alexander. Paul Hollander transl. A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press, 2004, Pg 165.

[3] Meek, James. Russian Patriarch ‘was KGB Spy’. Guardian News and Media Limited. 12 February 1999. http://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/feb/12/1

[4]The World Factbook: Russia. Central Intelligence Agency, 10 July 2013. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/rs.html

[5] Grove, Thomas. Church should have more Control Russian Life: Putin. Thomson Reuters, 1 February, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/01/us-russia-putin-church-idUSBRE91016F20130201

[6] Bennets, Marc. In Putin’s Russia, Little Separation Between Church and State. The Washington Times, LLC, 13 August 2012.http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/aug/13/putin-russia-little-separation-church-state/?page=all

[7] Creating an New Era of Expansion. Church of Scientology International, 2013. http://www.scientology.org/david-miscavige/creating_a_new_era_of_expansion.html

[8] Robinson, Robert. Orthodox Rally in Moscow condemns Scientologists. 1 July 2013. http://worldcultwatch.org/orthodox-rally-in-moscow-condemns-scientologists/

[9] Orthodoxy in Russia Today. The Mendeleyev Journal, 30 March 2012. http://russianreport.wordpress.com/religion-in-russia/orthodoxy-in-russia-today/

[10] Kishkovsky, Leonid. After 80-plus Years, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia Reconcil. The Orthodox Church News Magazine, 2007. Vol. 43. http://oca.org/holy-synod/statements/fr-kishkovsky/after-80-plus-years-the-moscow-patriarchate-and-the-russian-orthodox-church