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Lenin's Brother: An Interview with Philip Pomper

Alexander Ulyanov, was V.I. Lenin’s older brother. Like his brother he was a revolutionary committed to the overthrow of the Russian autocracy. Unlike his brother, who went on to head the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (later the Communist Party), “Sasha” became a part of the “The Terrorist Faction of the People’s Will,” a small group who conspired unsuccessfully to assassinate then Tsar Alexander the III. Named after the “People’s Will” who had successfully assassinated the Tsar’s father Alexander II on March 1, 1881. “The Second March 1” group (as they were known) were amateurish to such a degree that police surveillance preempted their efforts, the group was rounded up as they prepared to carry out the assassination. Five of the conspirators were later hanged for the attempt. Alexander Ulyalnov, despite the imploring to the Tsar on the part of his mother, was one of those. I recently sat down with Professor Pomper in a cafe in Greenwich Village to talk about his new book.

Who was Alexander Ulyanov?

He was the second child in the Ulyanov family, born in 1866.  He had an older sister named Anna who was born in 1864.  The three important figures in the story, the three important children, are the three eldest children.  Vladimir Ilyich comes along in 1870, four years behind the older brother.  Alexander [Sasha,] as the eldest male in the family is an important figure -- it’s a patriarchal culture.  Anna, who was an interesting person, was sort of shoved aside.  Alexander was the dominant male in a way.  Very quickly he was the family’s hope for the future. He followed his father’s path in science.

Sasha is part of a family history that’s sort of the holy family of Russian Marxism.  As Lenin’s brother, as the link in the chain that lead Lenin to revolution, he’s a very important figure.

How did you become interested in this?

In 1990 my book on Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin came out.  It was a study of the psycho-dynamics, the psychological triangle, of three really important figures in the Party.  I wanted to understand their interactions and psychologies.  In order to do that I needed to understand their family histories.  I was pretty satisfied when I finished the book that I had figured them out to my satisfaction.  But very shortly after that the Soviet Union collapsed.  Now all of the archives were open, including the Ulyanov family archives and I realized that at least the Lenin part of the story probably needed to be revisited.

Among other things I found myself studying the intellectual foundation of Alexander Ulyanov’s terrorism.  The history of the Russian revolutionary movement requires you to study terrorism.  If you start back in the 1860s one of the most profound socialist thinkers was Peter Lavrov.  He was an artillery officer and he taught in a military school; a middle age man a kind of a scholar of the cabinet as they used to say -- somebody who was ... very myopic, suffered from night blindness -- helpless outside of his study.  But he got involved with the student movement and because of the autocratic system and fear of any kind of challenge he was arrested and sent into external exile.  He escaped and went abroad and he became one of the emigre theoreticians of the movement.

Studying him I got involved with the study of terrorism because he evolved with the movement and accepted terrorism as a tactic.  In his work he provided Sasha with a lot of the scientific thought behind his terrorist commitment.

It was clear to me, after reading Sasha’s writing, that it was Lavrov’s thinking at the foundation of his own.  Certainly there were others who fed into it. There was also the Russian thinking about Darwin -- a form of Darwinism that is now accepted; this idea of group selection and altruism and the value of altruism for groups.  So there was a Russian school of Darwinian thought that intersected with the Russian revolutionary movement.

In Lenin’s work, “What Is To Be Done?,” he says, “The spontaneous striving of the workers to defend the students who are being assaulted by the police and the Cossacks surpasses the conscious activity of the Social-Democratic organization!”  I thought of this when I read your description of the Tsar’s police containing a demonstration that Sasha was part of.  How much of an influence was Sasha experience on his younger brother?

I think it was really very important.

I think the remark in “What Is To Be Done?” had something to do with Lenin’s experiences.  He was in exile already when the news of the student demonstrations of 1901 when the workers joined them.  There was a lot of violence at that moment, 1901.  I don’t think he was going back to November 1886 and the demonstration in which Sasha (and Anna as well) participated.  At that moment there was a fair amount of restraint.  The only incident of the Cossacks being anybody that I encountered in the memoirs was the Raisa Shmidova story [a friend of Sasha’s] where a Cossack had hit her in the shoulder with his rifle butt.  There wasn’t widespread violence in 1886.

I’m trying to remember the scene of the demonstration at the graveyard to commemorate Nicholas Dobrolyubov’s [the Russian nihilist] death.  It seemed it was a bit more contentious...

It was contentious because the students were humiliated.  They didn’t have to be beaten to be humiliated.  Being beaten by the police, being flogged was such an extreme humiliation that it might lead to suicide.  It actually did in some Siberian exiles -- there were suicide protests.  These were kids from gentry families, for them to be beaten was a major humiliation.  They responded to it in a way that you can only understand by understanding their culture.

There were other ways to humiliate them, making them stand in the rain for hours, surrounding them with Cossacks, making them feel penned in, denying them their freedom to move, that was enough to cause a lot of rage.  So the demonstration at the graveyard was a psychological turning point for Sasha.  There’s no question about it.

One of the more striking actions during the Bolshevik revolution was the decision to execute the Tsar and his family.  On one level this was in the midst of the Civil War and the justification was to deny the Whites a ‘flag to rally around.”  That said, do you think that what happened to Alexander Ulyanov 31 years earlier -- and Tsar Alexander III’s refusal to commute his sentence despite the imploring of Sasha’s mother -- impacted that decision?

It could have fed into it very easily.  I think when psychology is involved, when revenge is involved it is a very deep and complicated thing.  A lot of rivulets feed this great torrent of revenge that people feel in 1917-18.

Lenin’s writing during the summer of 1917 hold many references to the Jacobins.  That meant summary executions.  He was of a mind to do that.  He and Yakov Sverdelov, his close associate at that time, were the people who decided [to execute the Tsar].  They were the ones who had the main control over it.  Some people think it was the local Soviet, which was very radical in the Urals, but nobody would decide anything without Lenin.  So it was Lenin and Sverdlov who decided it.  And I think that the motivation goes all the way back to what the Tsarist regime had done to his family, but also is fed by these other rivulets that I think reinforced his convictions about that.  Or his feelings were reinforced with convictions is a better way to put it.

Lenin had also spoken approvingly of [Sergei] Nechaev’s approach to the problem of what to do with the Tsar....

Who was Nechaev?

He was a revolutionary who headed an organization called the People’s Revenge.  Nechaev, along with Bakunin, co-authored the Catechism of a Revolutionary, which is a famous document.  For example, it is cited by Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice.  It’s a document that has carried on well into the 20th century.

Nechaev was a revolutionary of the late 1860s.  He was the one who executed one of his own followers, in 1869.  That was a terrible scandal in the revolutionary movement and it inspired Dostoevsky to write “The Possessed,” which in English should really be translated “The Demons.”  The point is that Nechaev had become a negative lesson of the ‘70s but they still ended up terrorists.

Who were some of the characters in the plot to assassinate the Tsar who made the biggest impression on you?

The story of Peter Shevyrev is interesting.  He was the head of the conspiracy and had a kind of Nechaevist mentality; bloody-minded, kill as many as possible.  The nature of the bomb [they planned to use against Alexander III] suggests how bloody minded a couple of the leaders were.  That is the bombs with strychnine and shrapnel -- that would have been a lot of collateral damage.

In Nechaev’s case, I could see [how he became who he was].  He was a gifted kid, growing up in a tough situation.  In a city that was bit like Manchester, England -- Ivanovo-Voznesensk was called a Russian Manchester -- his father was a bartender and caterer.  He had taken his knocks as a kid.  You could see him changing and getting angry.  I could understand that.  Even though what he turned into was an ugly character.

I don’t know how Shevyrev got that way, but he was an ugly character too, bent on murder and if necessary mass murder.  He was willing to kill members of his own organization, just like Nechaev.  So Shevyrev was one of the important fascinating characters.  He was the one who got the thing off the ground and got it past the point of no return.  In organizations like that you need people like that.  They all knew he was nasty, but they all more or less recognized his value.

Joesef Luchashevich is another fascinating character.  Even though he was one of the central organizers of the conspiracy and the real master bomb maker.  He managed to get out of a death sentence.  How he did it was fascinating.  How they all conspired to get him off.

The three throwers, some were a little opaque to me.  All you could be sure about was that they wanted to die for the cause.  Vasilli Osipanov [one of the throwers who was hanged].  He was nicknamed “the Cat” [because of his solitary ways] who started it all, was probably the inspiration behind the poison lead cubes.  The other two, Vasillii Generalov and Pakhomii Andreyushkin, seemed to have had blighted adolescence.  I don’t know enough about them to know why they were quite the way they were.

You quote a Russian friend toward the end of your book, “In Soviet times Sasha was a revolutionary martyr; now he’s just a fanatic and suicidal terrorist.”  On one level it points to the great shifts in Russia in the past 20 years -- on another it captures something about the flow of history -- things are not linear, they’re also not tidy.  I think of the current world order of capitalism, it took many hundreds of years to consolidate, with unlikely heroes who are constantly being reevaluated -- think of John Brown in this country.  In that respect to what degree is the legacy of Lenin and Alexander still vital?  Were there things they saw or attempted to see, in spite of the wrong turns, that remain relevant?

There are something that are perennial, it’s not just Russia, it’s a universal sense that justice should be done.  It is striking to me in studying revolutionary history over decades and world history, ideas come around in different shapes.

One notices the resemblance of the revolutionary ideas of the twentieth century with religious formulations; the last shall be first, a rich man will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  That’s not a new idea. The question always is, is this a kind of cultural background to Marxism?  Or was it just a parallel phenomenon at a different time?  An idea that was evoked by similar circumstances.  A response to social injustice and exploitation in a given historical context.  This is a formulation that arises now and again in which it’s recognized you are exploiting the many, and causing the misery of they many and there should be a way out.  There should be justice.  There should be a repair of the situation.

You find again and again in texts about justice, social justice, you find the victimizer/victim narrative.  Marx put it in dialectical terms.  He made it a story of history working its way through.  The thing about Marxism that was very appealing -- and Narodism -- an earlier form of Russian socialism that was supplanted by Marxism.  The thing that makes it all work in a way, and appealing, is we all can identify with victims.  It’s there in all of us.  So the victims may change over time but that narrative has universal appeal and perennial appeal.  So sure it’s still relevant because its there imbedded in all of us.  Most of us I think respond to it.  Those that don’t are....sort of mean.

You may not agree with any of the remedies that are put forward.  You may not agree with the master narrative that is designed to explain who when where and why -- you don’t have to agree with all that to appreciate the enduring quality of those narratives.

One of the things I took away from this book, or at least something I started thinking about more is that once you set aside this whole master narrative, for example early Marxism had this whole tendency toward determinism -- things go through exact phases, etc.  Once you set that aside, it’s actually possible to appreciate some of the farsightedness of some of these characters, though even though they were so contradictory.  That some even held ideas that were atrocious, or whatever adjective you want, doesn’t negate that other ideas had a positive effect -- the effect of putting something into the historical realm of possibility that wasn’t there before.  That’s not to endorse every element of what they were about -- which is where I think a lot of people fall down, they feel they have to justify the whole package....

To me the Russian thinkers of the 1870s were the most admirable in that sense.  These were the thinkers that Sasha admired.  They created something called subjective sociology.  I wrote a book about Peter Lavrov, who was one of the founders along with Nicholas Mikhailovsky.  Subjective sociology was frankly elitist.  So was Sasha by the way -- his Darwinism said the elite have an obligation to sacrifice itself for its own position.  Some people called it the mentality of the repentant gentry, that they had gotten to their position and looked back and said, “how did we get here, look at all the generations of serfs that have been exploited!,” and so it’s our job to repent and even sacrifice themselves.  That was lurking behind their Darwinism.

Lavrov had said in effect in every generation there are the lucky people who have the opportunity for higher education and deep reflection about the human condition.  Those privileged people are the ones who are obliged to come up with the formulations of progress.  How do we get to the next step?  How do we remedy social injustice?  We are the ones who carry that burden.  And not just to formulate the master narrative, because that’s what he wanted -- he wanted them to be the formulators of theories of progress that are consonant with their historical context.  He believed that they had to adapt to every new historical context.  So he called them the critically thinking minority.  They had the burden of theorizing.  They had the burden of carrying their theorizing forward into the future as their context changed.

Instead of the objective sociology of the sort Marx created, he had an ever-changing subjective sociology.  When Marx came along Lavrov said, “Here’s something new.”  So we have to accept a lot of his ideas.  But they didn’t accept it altogether.  What Lavrov said in a letter to one of his woman admirers in St. Petersburg -- he was already in exile -- he wrote her a letter in which he said, “someday, our socialism may be to thinkers of the 20th Century, what Aristotle’s physics is to contemporary physics.”  And he said, someday the women question may be more important than the workers question.  That’s a farsighted thinker.  And he was right.

I suspect were Marx and Engels alive today they would be interesting as well, as opposed to the ossified thinkers they are made out to be ...

They were animated by an instinct to rebel against injustice.  They just had that, and they were going to find the ideas.  I think it takes a certain kind of emotional core -- which is why I’m interested in psychology -- were not just thinking machines.

About Philip Pomper

Philip Pomper is the William F. Armstrong Professor of History at Wesleyan University. He has written and edited nine books, including The Russian Intelligentsia. He lives in Middletown, Connecticut.