A little-known episode from the Russian past illuminates some of its most significant events.
It has long been known that Lenin’s older brother, Alexander, was executed for his role in an attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Overlooked, until now, has been the effect of that execution on the life and thought of the younger brother who would head the first Soviet state. Pomper (History/Wesleyan Univ.; The Russian Revolutionary Intelligentsia) is unafraid to engage in psychohistory in examining these matters, not shy of exploring “the psychodynamics of a small group of university students who became terrorists.” Drawing on contemporary documents and archives as well as a broad range of scholarly literature, Pomper limns the curious world of the nihilists in the late 19th century, heavily armed bohemians whose men grew their hair long and wore menacing plaid shawls and whose women “cut their hair short, dressed austerely and somewhat mannishly, and sported red blouses and plaids in imitation of the men.” Given such garb, one would think that the secret police of the tsar would have seen the terrorists coming from a long way away, but the secret agents of the regime seem to have been about as effective as a modern airport-security guard. More effective, after Alexander was finally caught and killed, were the police of the next tsar—and then the police of Lenin, who, Pomper writes, took his sweet revenge by executing that ruler and all his family. Though Lenin admired his brother while competing with him, and though he borrowed some of the nihilists’ notions of the role of the peasantry in building Russian socialism, he rejected most of Alexander’s views—and, tellingly, scarcely mentioned him as he built “a new imperial structure, whose collapse Russians now regret.”
An evenhanded, complex, fascinating historical analysis.