Philip Pomper


On his book Lenin's Brother: The Origins of the October Revolution

Cover Interview of January 21, 2010

In a nutshell

Lenin’s Brother tells the tragic story of a brilliant young scientist and his turn to terrorism, and the history of the family that his actions devastated.

During his senior year at St. Petersburg University, Alexander Ulyanov joined a small group of terrorists with a hard core of suicidal young men, all of them, like him, students at the university.  Ulyanov joined their plot to assassinate Alexander III less than a year after he received the university’s highest award for his junior thesis.  Sasha (like his older sister,  Anna, I often call him “Sasha,”) had just turned twenty-one when he was hanged with four other members of “The Terrorist Faction of the People’s Will” in May 1887.

A large part of the book is about student radicalism, the psychodynamics of a hastily organized group of young terrorists, their bomb-building and planning, the discovery of the plot by the Tsar’s security apparatus, the botched assassination attempt, and the trial that followed.  This narrative engages the phenomenon of suicide terrorism.  The other main narrative is about the Ulyanov family.

The patriarch of the family, Ilya Ulyanov, a beneficiary of Alexander II’s Great Reforms, inspired in his children a love of science and a service ethic.  Ilya had risen to the post of Director of Schools in Simbirsk Province.  The reaction under Alexander III ended his career and probably hastened his death in January 1886.  The effect of Ilya’s death on the family is an important part of the story.  It precipitated a crisis and aggravated the already strained relations between Sasha and his younger brother, Vladimir.

Four years Sasha’s junior, the teenager who would become Lenin had at first worshipped his older brother, but their relationship took an ugly turn during the summer of 1886.  As senior male in the family, Sasha reluctantly had to play the role of disciplinarian; when Sasha returned to St. Petersburg for his senior year, he left behind an angry and depressed Vladimir.  Sasha’s hanging at this critical moment in their relationship changed the course Vladimir’s life.