Philip Pomper


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

Cover Interview of January 22, 2010

The wide angle

Lenin’s Brother follows my earlier work on Lavrov, Nechaev, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin.  The book allowed me to revisit Lenin’s entry into the revolutionary movement—a fateful moment.  Most historians agree that without Lenin, the October Revolution would probably not have occurred.  In Lenin’s Brother I suggest that without Sasha there might not have been a Lenin.

I began to study radical thinkers early on in my career.  I discovered that their personalities and emotions affected their thought, even the most elevated theory.  Leopold Haimson’s 1955 work on the early phase of Russian Marxism, The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism, had illustrated the effect of personality on theory and suggested a psychological approach.

But I found psychoanalytic thinking especially useful.  This is the angle from which Lenin’s Brother addresses the condition of the Russian Empire during the counter-reforms of Alexander III and the revolutionary ideologies, old and new, that animated Sasha and “The Terrorist Faction of the People’s Will.”

Russia’s 1880s were a transitional moment.  The nihilist thinkers of the 1850s and 1860s and the narodnik theorists of the 1870s and 1880s still had great influence, but students were already reading Marx and Engels and creating hybrid doctrines.  The nihilist exaltation of natural science and socialism made it quite easy to move to the theories of Marx and Engels, who offered scientific laws of history.  However, the narodnik theorists had added something quite important: the belief that the most “developed” people, the students and practitioners of science, owed a debt to the tens of millions of peasants whom the regime had sacrificed for the sake of its power elite.  The regime had unintentionally created an intelligentsia, a stratum of critically thinking individuals.  Peter Lavrov wrote in an influential tract that precisely the most “developed” people owed a debt to the peasants, whose toil had paid for their education.

This sense of debt to the people, to the narod, had inspired small-scale efforts to educate the poor, but also a large-scale movement into the villages by student propagandists and agitators in the mid 1870s.  Like the nihilists, Lavrov taught that socialism was scientific and that the intelligentsia could pay their debt by teaching the peasants about socialism and bringing about a socialist revolution.  Other less scrupulous socialists emphasized science less and immediate action more.  Michael Bakunin and Sergei Nechaev, for example, had written the notorious “Catechism of a Revolutionary.”  They eschewed the need for scientific preparation and believed that agitation and terrorism might produce a vast peasant uprising.

The thousands of revolutionaries of the 1870s inspired by Lavrov and Bakunin had little success, partly because the peasants were less receptive than they thought, but also because the Tsarist police and gendarmes cracked down.  This played into terrorism and the notion that in order to get their message to the people, socialists needed to force a constitution that would allow free speech—in effect, freedom of socialist propaganda.  The assassination of the Tsar presumably would serve this purpose—hence the terror campaign of the People’s Will during 1879-1881.  They successfully assassinated Alexander II on March 1, 1881, but suffered the almost total destruction of their organization.  A few émigrés, most notably, Lavrov, sustained the theoretical orientation of the terrorist party in safe havens abroad and somehow managed to preserve the ethical orientation that attracted Alexander Ulyanov.

The assassination of Alexander II cut short the slow movement toward a constitution and produced instead the severe reaction under Alexander III.  During the reign of Alexander II, despite the attempts to curb the growing and increasingly revolutionary nihilist subculture in the universities, students had emerged with their mutual aid organizations intact and the universities with their autonomy.  Even during the 1870s the Great Reforms had continued and produced, among other things, a liberal bar.  That, too, suffered from the acquittal of Vera Zasulich, who had wounded the Governor General of St. Petersburg in 1878, but liberal defenders remained for the trial of “The Terrorist Faction of the People’s Will.”  Political assassins now had to face closed Senate tribunals.  Alexander III ratcheted up the attack on student and faculty autonomy and produced the “prison-house” atmosphere described by Anna Ulyanov in her memoirs.

This was an era of counter-reforms, opposing the Enlightenment trends that had begun in the eighteenth century, trends that had survived the Napoleonic Wars, the reaction against the Decembrist rebellion in 1825, and the Westernizing efforts of Alexander II, who remained committed to a species of constitution even while he was being hunted down by the People’s Will.  Although Alexander III had to modernize and to seek alliances in the West, he created a backward-looking regime and reinforced existing Russophile tendencies.  The regime’s powerful security apparatus, with spies seeded throughout student bodies in universities, successfully thwarted efforts to recreate a strong terrorist network.  In this unpromising setting, only the most desperate and suicidal students, most of whom came to the universities already radicalized, would form a terrorist conspiracy.