Author Brandon Gauthier will lead discussions at Concord and Hopkinton libraries
It was then time to die. The guards came for Sasha [Lenin’s big brother] early in the morning of May 8, 1887. He was taken to the yard of his island prison, marching to the gallows as the sun rose on a beautiful spring morning, the dawn offering a final pleasure. The priest put a cross in front of Sasha. He kissed her. Co-conspirator Petr rebuffed him. The men climbed the stairs and crossed the scaffolding. Brutal brevity marked the execution of the executions. Bodies swayed.
Married [Lenin’s mother] was on his way to visit Anna [Lenin’s older sister] when she bought a newspaper. The printed word, more brutal than ever, reported Sasha’s death. Devastation.
Thousands of miles away, Volodya [seventeen-year-old Lenin] finished high school. Three days before Sasha’s execution, he wrote an article about a play by Pushkin. On the day in question, he won a geometry final. Soon the newspapers reported Sasha’s hanging. Local authorities have put up posters to publicize it. Yet Volodya continued her finals, conquering trigonometry, then smashes relentlessly through the translations of Thucydides.
But execution was on his mind. The day before one of these tests, a classmate – who had not yet heard of Sasha – found Volodya sitting on a bench outside. How are you? asked the classmate. Why don’t you study? Silence. Sighs. Volodya tried to speak, but nothing came out. The friendly student noted the nourishing warmth and calm of the May evening. “They hanged my brother,” Volodya said. The peer had no response. And the two sat quietly for a long moment, before walking away and parting ways with a handshake.
Volodya got number one in her class, leaving the school no choice but to award her the gold valedictorian. Yet they denied him the honor of having his name inscribed on a plaque with previous winners. His name would have passed next to Sasha’s.
Maria soon returned home from St. Petersburg. Trauma had frozen her white hair – although at least she returned with Anna, whom authorities released under strict conditions. Maria proceeded to sell the house and family assets. They were moving.
Volodya hadn’t seen it coming. Certainly, his brother’s interest in politics had increased markedly over the previous year. But the little brother had never cared, had never dreamed that his big brother would become a terrorist. “A revolutionary cannot devote so much time to the study of verses,” Volodya recalls, thinking that Sasha worked tirelessly on her thesis. the Why the youngest brother was not aware of any of this – he did not understand how his brother had become radicalized so quickly. Volodya could not understand until he grasped the same ideas that had inspired Sasha.
He started with the belief that Sasha had to feel that he was doing the right thing – “that he had to act like this”, that “he couldn’t act any other way”. While such a thought offered comfort in preserving her brother’s integrity, it did not dampen Volodya’s immense curiosity. The will to understand pushed him to investigate further. When a friend (who had shared an apartment with Sasha) visited him, Volodya peppered him with questions. What were Sasha’s last months like? What had the police asked? How was his trial? What did Sasha’s face look like during her testimony? What exactly were his brother’s political views? He needed to know.
… In the fall of 1887, Volodya went to college. The government did not allow him to attend St. Petersburg University despite his excellent academic records. He was the brother of a terrorist – a legacy to live rather than live up to. Luckily for the younger brother, a glowing letter of support from the kind-hearted director Kerensky (the father of the man Volodya would overthrow in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917) offered crucial help. Volodya’s mother, the letter said, would keep her “extremely talented” son under close supervision at university. The authorities acquiesced, allowing the younger brother to attend Kazan Imperial University, his father’s alma mater. His family followed him to watch over him.
Volodya did not last a year. Participation in a student demonstration in December 1887 was enough to justify his expulsion and arrest. When a policeman took him into custody, blaming him for the futility of his actions, Volodya paraphrased one of his brother’s favorite authors (Dmitry Pisarev), and snapped back: “The wall is rotten. One good push and it’ll fall apart. It was no longer Volodya speaking, it was Vladimir Lenin.
For this budding revolutionary, there was no other goal in life than to achieve the total transformation of society into a socialist utopia. The goal of creating this new world for ‘new people’, of improving the lives of men and women everywhere, was all that mattered. There was no morality apart from achieving these ends. “And what is a good person?” Lenin asked sadly in exile before grimacing at the “intelligentsia’s nonsense about moral conscience.” Any action – no matter how extreme one might consider it – was acceptable if it contributed to ending class oppression. What was at stake was a new world for humanity. No rules in the pursuit of paradise. No place for bourgeois “morality”. It was with this attitude that the future dictator rejected his sister Anna’s efforts to help feed the poor during a famine in 1892. Let them die! he said — that the death of the poor precipitates the collapse of capitalism and the arrival of the revolution! “The worse, the better!”
This man came out of Sasha’s death.
Brandon K. Gauthier (@bk_gauthier) received his doctorate in modern history from Fordham University in New York in 2016. He is director of global education at the Derryfield School and adjunct professor of history at Fordham University. He speaks passionately and loudly. Historical puzzles keep him awake at night. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Concord. “Before Evil” is his first book.