Ulyanovsk is a sleepy town on the Volga, but for over half a century it was a bustling shrine dedicated to its most famous son-Lenin. Robert Haupt took a river boat to the town in search of what shaped the Bolshevik leader, and listened to Russians trying to make sense of their communist historyby Robert Haupt / January 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
On the ninth day out of Moscow, we tied up unexpectedly at Ulyanovsk. “Welcome to Ulyanovsk” said the sign above the decaying, futurist riverboat station. But the passengers on the Fyodor Shalyapin river cruiser did not want to be welcomed-not there. If there is one thing the new Russians want no more of, apart from communist theory itself, it is the cult of the Ulyanov family and memorials to its brilliant son, Vladimir. To have had his birthplace on the itinerary at all was bad enough; to have allocated a whole day to it, unscheduled, was even worse. The passengers boycotted breakfast, and stayed in their cabins. Even the arrival of young women in tight dresses to rehearse their greetings for a boatload of businessmen expected from St. Petersburg stirred little interest. Those who had gone ashore eagerly at Kostroma and Nizhni Novgorod were now lounging on board, exasperated and sullen.
Lenin’s birthplace is atop a steep hill, reached by an arthritic bus which wears its exhaust smoke like a cowl. For most of this century the industry of Ulyanovsk has been, quite simply, the Ulyanovs. Its museums tapped the flow of millions of Soviet citizens who circulated each year around the shrines to Soviet communism and its founder. Now that Soviet power was broken, why would they choose to go to the sites they had been compelled to visit as children? Of all the ports on the Volga River, from Uglich north of Moscow to Astrakhan on the Caspian, the Fyodor Shalyapin had chosen for its unscheduled stop the one that nobody wanted.
The Ulyanov house is exactly where you would expect to find it, on a shaded street in the solid part of town. It is almost a pastiche of the petit-bourgeois ideal-upstairs, downstairs, lace, linen and grand piano. When the school inspector’s son developed his loathing for the bourgeoisie, it was above all a loathing of his own upbringing-the kind of self-loathing that can drive a zealot far from his roots and yet not prevent the memory of them returning every single loathsome day. Indeed, this memory of what he was once a part of can drive him so far that he ends up apart from everything and a part of nothing, as Solzhenitsyn saw:
Isolated-betrayed and deserted, while all manner of unifiers and disarmers, liquidators and defensists, chauvinists and anti-statists, trashy scribblers and mangy time-serving petit-bourgeois riff-raff had gathered elsewhere in a tight bunch. Sometimes he was reduced to such a small minority that nobody at all remained at his side, as in 1908, the year of loneliness and misery after all his defeats, the most dreadful, the hardest year of his life-also spent in Switzerland. The intellectuals had abandoned the Bolshevik ranks in a panic: so much the better, at least the party was rid of that petit-bourgeois filth. Among those foul caricature-intellectuals Lenin had felt particularly humiliated, insignificant, lost. It filled him with despair to feel himself sinking into their mire. It would have been idiotic to become like them. In every gesture, every word, every oath even, he was determined not to resemble them!
No fellow passengers were at the Ulyanov house, just two bored policemen standing under the pear tree and a couple of teenage girls exchanging gossip on a bench. The woman selling tickets was in a mood to be disagreeable. Perhaps that was her normal state, now that the Soviet coach trade had gone. She had her reply ready. “More people than you would think, actually!”
Vladimir’s room, with its books and desk, is reached via the bedroom of his elder brother Alexander. This may be how it actually was, but it is nevertheless convenient for those who wish to present the younger as the heir and avenger of the elder, who was hanged in 1887 for plotting against the Tsar (when Vladimir, then called Volodya, was 17). At the nearby Lenin museum the theme is stated with banal directness. Alexander, seated, looking downwards as if aware of his fate; Vladimir stands with his hand on his brother’s shoulder, his gaze fiercely ahead.
Ilya Ulyanov, Lenin’s father, looks out from the family portraits in the 19th century style, his wife seated demurely at his side. She was Maria Alexandrova Blank, who was the daughter of Anna Ivanovna Groshopf, daughter of Anna Beata Estedt who married Johann Gottlich Groshopf (Johann was rendered as Ivan for his daughter’s otchestvo, or middle name, a tell-tale sign of Russification). As with Stalin Djugashvili, not much Russian lineage there. This point is not lost on the monarchist-nationalist right which sees communism as an accident-and Lenin as an alien foisted on a troubled Russia, even as a German agent playing a similar role to the false Dimitry during the first Time of Troubles. The false Dimitry was shot from a cannon in the Kremlin, whereas until now the remains of Lenin are carefully preserved: it is his place in history that is tattered.
Ulyanovsk was Simbirsk when the Ulyanovs lived there, and every source is agreed on its provincialism. Sidorov, a travel writer who went there in 1891, recalls that Simbirsk was completely asleep:
This is a nest of the old nobility, its glory and merriment past… Once a centre of provincial splendour and of everything fashionable and elegant, the old aristocrat of the Volga banks today is impoverished, sleepy and half-forgotten…
Monastirsky, another chronicler of rural life, recalls the great fire of 1864:
The burnt town presented no interest, so most of the landowners and noblemen moved to Kazan. The elderly of Kazan remember the famous winter seasons of 1864-66 when the nobility of Simbirsk arrived and caused unusual animation. They continued to live the cheerful and luxurious life they had become used to in Simbirsk.
The noblemen of Kazan, who believed that they were better than those of Simbirsk, didn’t want to lag behind. This led to original and curious ball competitions, primarily between dresses and decor. The “Battle of the Ballrooms” was a competition of manners that belonged to the 18th century. But within two decades the noblemen of Kazan were engaged in a struggle that presaged the 20th century: the crossing point for the latest idea from St. Petersburg-a railway to Siberia. Monastirsky, a railway enthusiast, saw where the competition lay:
The personification of these two principles are, on one hand, semi-Asiatic and mentally-withered Kazan, which has outlived its glory and is soaked in routine, bureaucratism and class prejudice, and, on the other, democratic Samara, young, full of life, free of routine and relying only on its able hands.
Needless to say, the railway to Siberia crossed the Volga at Samara, the next town down the river. Within a few years of this decision, Vladimir Ulyanov began his studies at Kazan University. The university bears in big gold letters the title “Named After Ulyanova-Lenina” to confirm the fact-one of the few instances of a hall of learning being named after a student who failed to graduate.
At school, as every Russian knows, Vladimir Ulyanov won the gold medal. But every Russian knows equally well that young Volodya’s father was the district school inspector. When the school inspector’s son studied at Kazan in the 1890s, they were still laughing at the hicks from Simbirsk. Kazan itself was home to a defunct nobility, with a university offering subjects no one of intelligence would bother with. As for Samara, hadn’t Vladimir worked as a lawyer there and lost every case?
Along with the fires of Marxism and revenge, might not Vladimir Ulyanov have been driven by an overwhelming need to escape boredom? The world outside Russia already existed for him in the person of his mother’s German friend, Gertruda Nazaryeva. At school, one subject he enjoyed studying was the language of Marx and Hegel. Dreamy, lazy Simbirsk atop its high pedestal-you can see why it should have produced a prophet. But why such a brutal one? Kazan, too, a place of the past, not the future; of the age of stupid nobles, not of railways and electricity: why was its university such a learn-nothing?
Before Lenin’s Bolsheviks got to work on the universities, they were preceded in Kazan by an enemy of thought who stands out, even in Russian history, for odiousness. He was Mikhail Magnitsky, a former governor of Simbirsk who was made rector of the University of Kazan in 1818. Denied his recommendation that the university be razed, he set about the task another way. Of the revolutionary mood in Europe, he wrote:
The human word, that is what transmits this diabolical force; the printing press is its arm. Godless university professors are distilling the atrocious poison of disbelief and of hate towards legitimate power for our unhappy youth… [Russia should] separate herself from Europe so that not even a rumour about the horrible events taking place there could reach her. The present war of the spirit of evil cannot be arrested by the force of arms, for against a spiritual assault an equally spiritual defence is needed. A clairvoyant censorship united with a system of popular
education founded on the unshakeable base of faith is the only dyke against the flood of disbelief and depravity engulfing Europe.
If Lenin read those words, he must have underlined them-“a clairvoyant censorship united with a system of popular education founded on the unshakeable base of faith” is exactly where Felix Drzerzhinsky-Iron Felix, the first head of the revolution’s secret service-came in. He did for the Bolshevik regime in spades what the Tsar’s secret police had tried to do without much success: tracking down the sources of infidelity and eliminating them lest the contagion spread. The problem lay in the oxymorons: “clairvoyant censorship” and “unshakeable faith”: they cannot co-exist with the Enlightenment ideas that truth is susceptible to human reason, and that faith can be the child of doubt. Stalin dropped out of a seminary; Lenin out of a university where, within living memory, mathematics professors had been forced to teach that the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle represented the mercy of God descending to earth through Christ. Neither needed remedial lessons in philistinism. As for cruelty, the verdict of history that has damned Stalin is still being argued out over Lenin. Thus Gorki wrote:
More than often I was surprised by Lenin’s readiness to help people whom he considered his enemies. And to hide the happiness of saving a man, Lenin would cover this happiness with irony. He liked people altogether. His love looked far forward through the clouds of hatred.
Well, Gorki would say that, wouldn’t he? And where better to preserve his words than at the Lenin museum at Ulyanovsk? This is the predictable vast marble chamber with chipped steps and doors that require a heave to open-but inside there are novelties. For one thing, along with the usual hagiographies, the books desk sells the Russian-language edition of Readers’ Digest. Upstairs, the amphitheatre meant for the further glorification of the October Revolution was, when we arrived, showing Tom and Jerry cartoons. Most surprising of all, there was a debate going on, in contrapuntal time, over Lenin’s place in history.
The primary theme was being sung by the guide-a stocky woman with starched hair-from a booklet with a yellow and brown cover entitled The Life of V. I. Lenin: Questions and Answers. This booklet was actually published this year, by the Simbirsk Books publishing house, and is an attempt by the Lenin museum to deal with questions now being openly asked about the father of Bolshevism. None of the Lenin museums that litter Russia has had in the past to dismiss claims that the Bolsheviks accepted German gold or that Lenin was a German agent, a spy, a Jew. That the claims are answered with scorn rather than argument isn’t surprising; until very recently they were not answered at all.
But let us stick to the questions. Who is asking them? Even Readers’ Digest has moved on to other topics, now that the Evil Empire has been accounted for. What might be called bourgeois opinion in Russia-those engaged in trying to build a better life for themselves and their children than their parents had-shares the attitude of the passengers on the Fyodor Shalyapin and regards Lenin as too boring to think about. No, the shuttlecock is being struck from the far end of the court by the monarchist-nationalists, the motley Cossacks, anarchists, Zhirinovskovists, far-right Orthodox priests, anti-Semites who want to bring back the Pale of Settlement, millennialists and xenophobes of every stripe. This is the ultimate revenge on Lenin: that his legacy should be an embalming industry which today offers its services to the families of the new Russian capitalist class; an immense collection of unsaleable books; and a dialogue of the deaf between those few in Russia who believe that his role in history matters and the misfits and madmen who think it important to dispute with them.
The tattiness of the yellow and brown booklet may be easily shown up. Along with Gorki, evidence that Lenin was a man of the people is summoned from (of all people) Iron Felix:
A 17-year-old office girl of the Housing Department, Valentina Pershikova, pulled out
of some brochure Lenin’s portrait and drew all over it. She was immediately arrested. On March 6th 1919, Lenin received a telegraph from the head of the First Militsia district, V.S Katchev, with an appeal to send an order to release the girl… [He] sent the following telegram back: “For defacing the portrait, an arrest cannot be made. Release Valentina Pershikova immediately, and if she is a counter-revolutionary, watch her.”
Other parts of the brown and yellow booklet disclose the new-found sensitivity of the Lenin industry-and the direction from which the attacks on it are coming. Sub-headings read: “Not one cathedral was ruined, until the 1930s… Shooting the Tsar’s family, not one document confirms it…”
The counterpoint to the tour guide-the unofficial version of Soviet history-was provided by a mother in her 30s. She wore fashionable striped trousers, blue jacket, her hair was blonded by post-Soviet dyes. Her boy was eight or nine.
“They were living in Simbirsk, when they received a letter that Alexander had been hanged because he wanted to kill the Tsar,” she said. But she went on: “And Lenin then killed all those who disagreed with him. Can you imagine: he shot all the Tsar’s family including the little children, and hanged them too.” The guide was stuck in the turgid yellow and brown text. The little boy’s education continued.
“Those who were for the revolution were all right. For others, it was a time of hanging. The revolution didn’t start in other countries, even though the Bolsheviks sent them money,” the mother said.
The guide caught up. “Lenin had no role in the killing of the Tsar’s family. And he never received any money from Germany.”
The questions were running ahead of the answers. “Who is that, Mama?” the boy asked. “Don’t you know who Stalin is? Stalin ruled after Lenin. He built the concentration camps. He was smoking his pipe all the time,” she replied.
“Why did they want communism, mama? What was the point?” asked the boy. The mother paused for a few seconds. “Well, for example, an ice cream cost only 20 kopeks, and a car cost 5,000 roubles.” She paused again and, as if to balance the scales, added: “But the wages were only 100 roubles.”
In all the museums devoted to Lenin and communism in the former Soviet Union, the unifying element is not what is there, the banality of power, but what is absent: sentiment. There is sentimentality, children pictured at play with the childless Lenin, Lenin (who said he could not listen to music because it made him feel like caressing its creators when the task is to break heads) lost in thought while his mother plays the piano. But there is nothing of Lenin himself at play. He was a man without vices or hobbies. Tolstoy’s museum at Yasnaya Polyana has a collection of wooden tennis-rackets and a photograph of the old boy himself behind the net. The founding chairman of the Moscow Velocipede Society was one LN Tolstoy. If Tolstoy were alive today you could be fairly certain that he would have tried hang-gliding or roller-blading. You can get the smell of Tolstoy’s appetites: they were human. Whatever human traces Lenin may have left have been wiped out by the machine he created. The Lenin museum at Ulyanovsk fulfills the purpose all such museums must aspire to: of telling us, above all, what their subject was like.