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Russian history: The Soviet saint

Lenin’s “different path”

A political genius, a German spy, a poor economist – the architect of the Soviet state left a controversial legacy. Vladimir Ulyanov was born in the town of Simbirsk on the Volga River on 22 April 1870. When he was 17 his elder brother Alexander was hanged for taking part in a failed plot against Tsar Alexander III. According to the Soviet version of history, it was the turning point in Lenin’s life. He decided a different strategy was needed to get rid of the monarchy. His phrase “We will follow a different path” was widely popularized in the Soviet Union. Nowadays, pronounced with a good deal of irony, the aphorism means you want to do things differently from your colleagues and predecessors to get better results.

Expelled from university for his radical ideas, Lenin completed his law degree as an external student. He then moved to St Petersburg, becoming a professional revolutionary and spent several years in exile in Siberia. Using different aliases in his writings, he finally settled on Lenin in 1901. His relatives later suggested the name was inspired by the river Lena in Siberia. Some historians believe Lenin was a real person whose passport Vladimir Ulyanov used. By 1907 it was unsafe for Lenin to stay in Russia and he spent most of the next decade in Western Europe, emerging as a prominent figure in the international revolutionary movement.

The February Revolution took him by surprise – he found out about it from newspapers and immediately wanted to return. Now settled in Switzerland, Germany helped the young firebrand to return to his native land, hoping he’d undermine the Russian war effort. Campaigning against the Provisional Government, he soon led the Bolshevik take-over of power. In 1918 Lenin survived two assassination attempts, but his long-term health was affected. Four years later he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. In his final years, Lenin worried about the increasing power of Stalin – misgivings Stalin made sure were never made public. He died on January 21, 1924, aged 53.

Life as a Soviet saint

Three days later the city of Petrograd was once again renamed. What was originally St. Petersburg became Leningrad. Lenin’s body was embalmed and placed on permanent exhibition in a mausoleum on Moscow’s Red Square. Over time, his name achieved a near-religious reverence. By the 1980s, every Soviet city had a statue of Lenin in its central square. Streets, collective farms, medals, and even an asteroid, were named after him. Lenin’s life became the subject of nursery rhymes and children’s stories. His writings were carefully censored to make sure nothing showed him in a poor light.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the adulation has died down. Most statues of Lenin have been torn down in Eastern Europe, but many still remain in Russia and ex-Soviet Central Asia. In 1991 the city of Leningrad returned to its original name, St. Petersburg. Yet the surrounding administrative area, Leningrad Oblast, kept Lenin’s name. The citizens of Ulyanovsk, Lenin’s birthplace, have so far resisted attempts to change the town’s name back to Simbirsk.