The Women Who Shaped Vladimir Lenin
He Took Them As Seriously in Political Matters As He Did Men
“This man Lenin . . . he’s not dangerous.“
–Prince Georgy Lvov, the first post-imperial Prime Minister of Russia
All of the most important relationships in Lenin’s life were with women. He had very few close male friends and nearly without exception he lost those he made, or they fell by the wayside, because of politics. Men had to agree with him wholesale and bend to his will or be dropped from his inner circle. As a confidant for many years in exile recalled: “I began to separate myself from the revolutionary movement . . . and thus completely ceased to exist for Vladimir Ilyich.” By the time he was 33 the only man he addressed by the intimate Russian “ty” rather than the formal “vy” was his younger brother Dmitry.
For most of his life Lenin was surrounded by women—his mother, sisters, his wife of a quarter of a century, Nadya; and his mistress Inessa Armand, with whom he had a complex romantic attachment, as well as a close working relationship that waxed and waned in intensity over many years. During a decade and a half of exile, in various cramped lodging houses throughout Europe, he lived in easy, friendly familiarity with his mother-in-law, a woman of strong opinions that differed markedly from his own.
Invariably, Lenin’s women have been dismissed as mere drudges who performed domestic chores for him or were allowed to handle relatively simple and mundane political tasks. This is misleading. Lenin had more progressive and advanced views about the role of women than most of his male contemporaries in the revolutionary movement—though it is true that this does not set the bar particularly high.
In many ways, Lenin the great radical was a conventional Russian bourgeois man of the late 19th century: hardly a feminist in the modern sense of the term. He expected the women close to him to cosset him, fuss over him and look after him, which they did. But he listened to them and took them as seriously in political matters as he did men.
His wife Nadya is frequently portrayed as little more than his secretary, an amanuensis with no opinions of her own. Yet there was much more to her than that. She was a revolutionary when she met him, had been jailed and exiled to Siberia before she married him, and she played a vital role alongside him in the underground conspiratorial network that kept the flame of revolution alive in Russia before 1917. She wrote no works on Marxism or philosophy, seldom spoke up about political tactics or policy, and rarely contradicted him, but Lenin relied on her practical skills and sound judgement. She “ran” dozens of secret Bolshevik agents throughout the Russian empire and knew every aspect of the Party organization. Most importantly, Nadya kept her husband’s temper and fast-changing moods in check, which often demanded immense tact.
Inessa Armand was another woman whose role in his life has been misunderstood, or—in the case of the Soviet authorities after Lenin’s death—deliberately ignored. For ten years until she died in 1920 they had an on-off love affair. Armand was central to his emotional life. She was also among the best-known women socialists of her generation, one of Lenin’s closest aides, trusted to perform the most confidential tasks. Often she represented him at international gatherings of revolutionaries, a responsibility he delegated to very few people. She held positions by Lenin’s side in Moscow after the Revolution. Frequently she disagreed with him and plainly told him so, yet they remained inseparable. Everyone who knew her—including Lenin’s wife, who became her close friend in a curiously touching and devoted triangular relationship—understood how important she was to him. Yet after he died a “cult” of Lenin was developed by his successors which encouraged worship of him as a secular icon representing the pillar of Bolshevik rectitude and she was all but written out of Soviet history books. In the five years before 1917 he wrote many more letters to Inessa Armand—on personal and political matters—than to any one else. Their correspondence and her diaries were censored for nearly 70 years until the Communist state that Lenin founded collapsed.
Two of Lenin’s sisters survived past their teens and worked with him closely in the revolutionary underground. Anna Ilyinichna Ulyanova, born in 1864, was his elder by six years; Maria was eight years younger than him. Both were repeatedly jailed or exiled during the Tsarist regime for subversive activities; they helped to smuggle underground agents and socialist literature into and out of Russia. After the Revolution they held responsible jobs in the Soviet regime. For many years in exile in Europe, one or both of them—usually Maria—shared his home, with Nadya and his mother-in-law.*
Throughout his life Lenin relied on a network of devoted women totally loyal to him—and, most of them, to his revolutionary cause. They made great sacrifices for his career and at times took enormous personal risks on his behalf: Revolution was a dangerous business. He could, and sometimes did, take their faith in him for granted. But the commitments went both ways.
Many ruthless and cynical men are sentimental about their mothers. Lenin used to say frequently to family and comrades, “Mother . . . well, quite simply, she’s a saint.” He saw her rarely for the last twenty years of her life—she died in 1916, while he was in Swiss exile—but he was a devoted, not merely a dutiful, correspondent. Wherever he was on his wanderings about Europe he wrote to her regularly. The letters were rarely about politics or his literary/journalistic work, but he reported, often in minute detail, on his domestic arrangements, his health and his travels. Many are of a “nature notes” type about his hunting trips or excursions in the Alps, one of his great passions being walking in mountains and the untamed countryside. His letters home are invariably addressed to “Darling Mother” or “Mamoushka Dearest.” His last, a few weeks before her death, ends: “I embrace you warmly my dearest and wish you vigor.” Lenin was petulant, ill-tempered and irascible, especially as he grew older, but his mother was the one person he never complained about to anybody, the only one to whom he always showed unqualified love.
Maria Alexandrovna Blank was born in 1835 in St Petersburg. Her father was an eccentric, a martinet and—a fact kept strictly secret by the Soviet authorities after Lenin’s death—a Jew. He had been born Sril (the Yiddish form of Israel) Moiseyevich (Moses) Blank in Odessa, but while studying medicine he converted to Orthodoxy and changed his first name and patronymic to Alexander Dmitriyevich. He travelled widely in Europe after qualifying as a doctor and married the daughter of a wealthy German merchant, Anna Groschopf. She was a Protestant. Under the restrictive religious laws of Tsarist Russia, his wife was required to convert to the Orthodox faith, but she refused and brought up her six children as Lutherans. **
Alexander Blank began as an army surgeon, later became a police doctor and, finally, an inspector of hospitals at Zlatoust, in the vast province of Chelyabinsk in western Siberia. This gave him the civil service rank of ‘state councillor’, which entitled him to claim noble status. When he retired in his 50s he registered as a member of the nobility of Kazan and he bought an estate, Kokushkino, about 30 kilometers northeast of the city, with a fine manor house and forty serfs who worked the land.
Maria Alexandrovna’s mother died when she was three. Her father began living with his late wife’s sister, Ekaterina von Essen, herself widowed. It was a shocking ménage for those days and Blank wanted to make an honest woman of his sister-in-law. He tried to marry her, but the marriage was illegal in the eyes of the Church and the couple were refused permission. Her money helped to buy the Kokushkino estate and they remained together until she died in 1863. ***
A quiet, strong-willed, introverted woman, Lenin’s mother had dark-brown hair, a slim figure and dressed elegantly, though rarely in the height of fashion. There was no kissing or embracing within the household and Maria Alexandrovna generally discouraged displays of emotion. She was the dominant figure at home, deeply respected and revered by all her children. “She had our love and obedience,” the eldest Ulyanov daughter, Anna, recalled later. “She never raised her voice, and almost never resorted to punishment.”
She was long-suffering and always sheltered her children from the reduced circumstances they would face following family deaths and the constant attention of the secret police. She was frugal but never mean. Intelligent and well educated, she never supported—and often did not understand—her children’s radical politics. She was certainly not a Marxist or a revolutionary of any kind. But she knew better than to quarrel with her children over a political issue or ask too many questions about their illegal activities, whatever the suffering their beliefs would bring them. Few of her letters to her son Vladimir have survived, but in those she barely mentioned politics once. To Maria Alexandrovna, family came first.
At various points all of her grown-up children were jailed or exiled, on occasions several of them at once. She would always move near their prison or to a town as close as possible to their place of exile. Often she would humiliate herself pleading with officials to release one of her daughters or sons, or to treat them more leniently. Though never rich, she was comfortably off and all of them relied on her money for prolonged periods. She sent them cash, clothes, books, food parcels and never appeared to complain about being asked. Vladimir would request help more than any of her other children, though at times he received ample funds from elsewhere. For some years he awarded himself a salary from Bolshevik Party funds, but he earned little from his books and journalism. Life as a professional revolutionary could be precarious and at times he was short of ready money; well into his forties he could not have survived without regular help from his mother.
Vladimir possessed little of the serenity and patient forbearance of Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanova, but he did inherit other features of her character. “No sooner had I come to know his mother than I discovered the secret of Vladimir Ilyich’s charm,” said Ivan Baranov, a comrade from Lenin’s early revolutionary years.
* Lenin had two other sisters, both called Olga. The first, born in 1868, died in infancy, less than a year old. He was closest to the second Olga, born in the autumn of 1871, eighteen months younger than him. They were inseparable as children and teenagers. According to many family friends, she was the prodigy of the Ulyanov brood, intellectually and artistically gifted, the one destined for great things. She was formidably talented and creative, as well as pretty and graceful. She died from typhoid aged just nineteen. They shared rooms in St Petersburg at the time and Lenin nursed her in her final days. He was inconsolable that he couldn’t save her, and for months his letters home after her death were full of guilt and gloom.
** Lenin was almost certainly unaware of his partially Jewish ancestry. His sister Anna discovered a piece of the story in her thirties when she went to Switzerland for the first time and met a family called Blank. She was told that nearly all Swiss by that name were likely to be Jews. Then she found that a silver cup—an heirloom of the Blank family that had come down to her mother—was the kind typically used in Jewish religious festivals. Soon after Lenin died Anna was asked by the Lenin Institute, established in 1924 to preserve his ‘legacy’, to write a definitive history of the Ulyanov family. She did a thorough job and found out details about her grandfather that were entirely new to her. She didn’t mention her work to anyone outside the family for many years. But in 1932, shortly before her own death, she wrote to Stalin and revealed her findings. She went to his office in the Kremlin and handed the letter to him personally. “It’s probably no secret to you that our research on our grandfather shows that he came from a poor Jewish family,” she told him. Publishing the facts, she said, “could help to combat anti-Semitism . . . Vladimir Ilyich always valued Jews highly and was always persuaded of their exceptional abilities.” Stalin read it carefully and responded immediately, ordering her: “Absolutely not one word about this letter to anyone.” Stalin was himself a rabid Jew-hater and probably understood viscerally, as well as calculated politically, that it would not have helped the Bolshevik cause among Russians if it had been revealed that the founder of the Soviet state had Jewish roots. If Lenin had known, he would probably have been relaxed about the revelation. As he once told the writer Maxim Gorky, “We do not have many intelligent people. [Russians] are a talented people. But we are lazy. A bright Russian is nearly always a Jew or a person with an admixture of Jewish blood.”
*** Alexander Blank frequently scandalized middle-class opinion in ways other than his domestic arrangements. He clashed with his bosses, terrified his juniors and held highly unorthodox views about what we would today call alternative medicine. He was a great believer in “balneology,” which involved wrapping patients head to toe for several hours in wet blankets and towels. He thought that being enclosed by water was good for hygiene and killed germs. The treatment has no scientific basis—but probably killed fewer patients than regular bleeding and the use of leeches, still common practice at the time.
From Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Victor Sebestyen.