CONVERSATIONS: Historical Consequences of Sibling Rivalry

In Lenin’s Brother: The Origins of the October Revolution (W. W. Norton, 2010), Philip Pomper, William Armstrong Professor of History emeritus, tells the tragic story of Alexander Ulyanov, a brilliant young scientist who joins a small group of student terrorists who plan to assassinate Russia’s Tsar, Alexander III in 1887. Alexander’s younger brother, Vladimir, would also become a revolutionary and lead the October Revolution of 1917 under his assumed name, Lenin.

DAVID LOW: What prompted you to write a book about Lenin’s older brother?

PHILIP POMPER: I had already written a short chapter about Alexander Ulyanov in an earlier book, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin: The Intelligentsia and Power (Columbia University Press, 1990), and wondered if I could expand the story of his life. Most historians recognized Alexander’s importance for his younger brother’s career. I’d also written a couple of articles about the family dynamics, but the opening of the archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union gave me hope that I might do something more ambitious than writing another article or two. As my research progressed it seemed to me that a book might dramatize aspects of the Ulyanov family that had not been fully probed and also allow me to write a close study of the terrorist group that Alexander joined.

DL: Alexander Ulyanov originally planned to become a scientist. What led him to become a student radical?

PP: This question can only be answered by telling a story of a young man’s development—his internalization of his family’s ideals, how they encouraged both scientific endeavor and a sense of duty to society, and how these values might be taken in a radical direction in the context of Alexander III’s counter–reforms. The leading writers of the most popular journals generally promoted the redirection of a sense of duty from service to the Tsarist regime to service to the victims of Russia’s political, social, and economic system. Students found exemplars for a life of science and revolutionary commitment in the work of writers like Ivan Turgenev and Nicholas Chernyshevsky.

More important, Russia’s literary critics functioned as social critics and their book reviews and other writings promoted socialism and revolution. The critical essays of Dmitry Pisarev and Nicholas Dobrolyubov on important novels inspired Alexander Ulyanov to become a species of nihilist—someone committed to a life of science and duty to society. Increasingly this meant a life of service to the people (most centrally, the communal peasants) and to socialism. Some nihilists believed that the regime’s unwillingness to grant a constitution allowing full civil liberties and the spread of socialist ideas could only be overcome by revolutionary violence. Some of them chose terrorism as an appropriate tactic—a fuse for a vast popular revolution. Students at universities, technical schools, and even military academies created a variety of organizations that were fronts for political recruiting and fund–raising. Ulyanov joined some of the student organizations and clubs and came into contact with radicals. His profile differed from that of the other key figures in the organization in that his quest for scientific certainty delayed full commitment until his senior year. Once committed, however, he took a leading role in the plot to assassinate Alexander III.

DL: What were the psychodynamics of Alexander’s terrorist group, the Terrorist Faction of the People’s Will? How did its tactics and philosophy compare to terrorist groups today?

PP: This, too, is a complex matter and is best told as a story, but there are some salient features. Groups like this that start virtually from scratch generally require an entrepreneur—an activist who knows how and where to spot potential recruits, raise funds, deploy personnel, organize them, and maintain cells according to conspiratorial rules. It takes risk–taking, deception, non–stop activity, and the ability to attract others. The latter trait gave Peter Shevyrev, the prime organizer of the Terrorist Faction of the People’s Will, a modicum of charisma, but Shevyrev also had some very unattractive features that led some to compare him to Sergei Nechaev, notorious for murdering a member of his own cell more than a decade earlier. Ill with tuberculosis, and somewhat paranoid in his behavior, Shevyrev nonetheless performed the essential function of getting the group beyond a point of no return in their commitment to assassinate Alexander III. Even members of the group that recognized his pathology seemed to play it down in view of Shevyrev’s importance to the enterprise.

Joseph Lukashevich, the chief bomb maker, played the essential role of designing the bombs and setting the bomb–making regime. His connections to the Polish revolutionary underground were very important. Shevyrev and Lukashevich played key roles in recruiting people who would take on the suicide mission of bomb thrower. They would have to get quite close to the Tsar’s carriage in order to sling their heavy bombs (technically, grenades) at it. The mission required all–or–nothing types who knew they would die, win or lose. In this respect they were “suicide terrorists.” The bomb throwers set the dynamic of the group because they were determined to go through with the mission despite a variety of bad news. Ulyanov subordinated himself to them, even though he recognized their recklessness. In such groups, a kind of homage to revolutionary machismo and commitment to the will of the majority often determined the actions of the more thoughtful, cautious members.

DL: How did the terrorist group’s actions play out? Were they given a fair trial?

PP: On the whole, they were seen as reckless and amateurish, but their behavior at the trial and especially Ulyanov’s speech gave them the cachet of revolutionary martyrs. The judicial system that tried political prisoners in this period of Russian history more or less worked out in advance what would happen at the trial. It did, however, allow two people who played important roles in the assassination attempt to escape hanging. Lukashevich was one of them and he wrote valuable memoirs. It’s quite interesting to see the work behind the scenes—to be able to discern the regime’s pre–trial methods and the way the accused communicated with each other and figured out how to save Lukashevich and mitigate the sentence of others. The trial states in bold print what was already clear about the people who wanted to give their life for the cause. Alexander Ulyanov was one of them.

DL: What was the relationship like between Alexander and his younger brother Vladimir, later to be known as Lenin?

PP: In 1886—87 they had a bad relationship. Some of it issued from a fairly typical sibling rivalry of a 17–year–old and his 21–year–old brother, some of it was about clashing personalities, and some of it was about the death of their father in January 1886. Alexander became the senior male who had to keep his rebellious younger brother in line. The brothers also differed about careers and books. Vladimir tended to prefer the humanities, and to Alexander this marked him as a less than serious person. During the summer before Alexander’s senior year in 1886, the brothers hotly quarreled and this set the stage for the shock of March 1887 and Alexander’s arrest. That changed everything. No one in the family knew about Alexander’s commitment to a terrorist group. After that, Lenin had to deal with his own guilt for his hatred of Alexander, to try to understand this new and mysterious Alexander, and to reshape his own identity. The rest is history.

DL: How did Alexander and Lenin compare as revolutionaries?

PP: Vladimir ultimately took his brother as a negative example—as an amateur who perished needlessly in a botched conspiracy and gave up his life too cheaply. At some level he needed to identify with his brother, but also to outdo him. Lenin became a professional revolutionary and quite a successful one. The historical context of industrialization and the development of mass constituencies more amenable to revolutionary messages facilitated the formation of revolutionary parties and their emergence from the underground. The brother took the role of martyr—something typical for the narodniki of the earlier period (narodism is often translated “populism,” but is quite unlike American populism). Lenin lived through the transition from the period when the revolutionaries carried on as conspirators and terrorists to the period of mass constituencies and parties.

DL: Do you think that Lenin would have become the author of the October Revolution without the actions and death of his older brother?

PP: We only know that Vladimir stepped on the revolutionary path because of his brother. Vladimir did not read revolutionary literature or show any of the typical signs of someone on the way to a revolutionary career. Things changed dramatically after that. I wrote about this more fully in Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin: The Intelligentsia and Power.

DL: After Alexander was hanged, he was regarded as a martyr by many Russians. How is he viewed today?

PP: Alexander is not a prominent figure and Lenin himself is losing his aura. The revolution now seems to be less important than World War II, Lenin less important than Stalin. Of course, different generations have different viewpoints. There are still true believers, but evidently fewer young people admire revolutionaries or know very much about the revolutionary tradition. Things were different when I was a graduate student in Moscow.

David Low '76 writes about arts and culture for the Wesleyan magazine and Wesleyan Connection. He is associate director of publications in the Office of University Communications. He is also a published fiction writer. E-mail: