Late in the evening of the 30 August 1918, Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, emerged from a meeting at the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow when he was approached by an unknown woman who called out his name. Detained momentarily by a colleague, who was remonstrating about bread shortages, Lenin was about to get into his car, his foot on the running board, when the woman produced a revolver and fired three shots. One shot missed him, ripping through his coat and hitting his colleague in her elbow, but the other two struck him down – one bullet went through his neck, the other into his left shoulder. Lenin survived – just. It had been the second attempt on Lenin’s life in just seven months.
Vladimir Lenin’s would-be assassin was 28-year-old Fanny Kaplan. Born Feiga Chaimovna Roytblat in the Ukraine on 10 February 1890, Kaplan, one of seven children, was drawn to revolutionary politics from a young age.
Dora Kaplan / Fanny Kaplan
At the age of sixteen, she joined an anarchist group based in Kiev, was given the name Fanny Kaplan, sometimes Dora Kaplan, and charged with assassinating the city’s governor. But the bomb she was preparing detonated in her room, almost blinding her. She was arrested and, had she not been so young (she was still under twenty-one), she would have faced the death penalty. Instead, she was sentenced to ‘eternal penal servitude’ in Siberia. During her time of forced labour, her eyesight deteriorated to the point of near blindness.
Following the February Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, Kaplan was released as part of a post-revolutionary political amnesty. She suffered from severe headaches and bouts of blindness but, following an intensive course of treatment, she regained partial sight.
She made her way to Moscow and there fell in with the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR), who, following the October Revolution, had fully expected to share power with their socialist colleagues, the Bolsheviks. Indeed, a Constituent Assembly consisting of SRs, Bolsheviks and others met in Petrograd on 18 January 1918, but when the assembled gathering rejected most of Lenin’s suggestions, he had it dissolved within the day.
And so, the embittered SRs plotted to undermine the Bolsheviks by targeting their leader. Thus, on 30 August 1918, Fanny Kaplan shot Lenin. Having done the deed, she followed SR protocol and allowed herself to be arrested, prepared to sacrifice her life for the cause.
Today I shot at Lenin
Interrogated by the Cheka, the Bolsheviks’ newly-formed security wing, Kaplan said, ‘Today I shot at Lenin. I did it on my own. I will not say from whom I obtained my revolver. I will give no details. I had resolved to kill Lenin long ago. I consider him a traitor to the Revolution.’
The Cheka, desperate to know who Kaplan was working for, got nothing out of her. So, at 4 am on 3 September, Fanny Kaplan was escorted into a garage and executed with a single bullet to the back of her head. Her corpse was bundled into a barrel, and set alight. There were to be no remains of Kaplan, no identifiable martyr to the SR cause. The order came from Yakov Sverdlov who, just six weeks before, had ordered the execution of the tsar and his family.
Did Fanny Kaplan really shoot Lenin?
But did Fanny Kaplan really shoot Lenin? We will never know for sure but doubts are so rooted that the answer is almost taken as a no – she did not. Why would the SR entrust such an important mission to a poorly-sighted woman, who had never handled a firearm before, to shoot Lenin in the dark? Despite the large crowd milling around Lenin’s car, not one of the eighteen witnesses questioned actually saw Kaplan firing her revolver. The bullet removed from Lenin’s neck, almost four years after the event, was found not to have been fired from the Browning revolver alleged to have been used by Kaplan.
But Lenin’s near death at the hands of a deranged woman suited the Bolsheviks at a time when their survival looked far from certain. Lenin profited from a surge of sympathy that served both him and his party well.
The day following Kaplan’s execution, the Bolsheviks launched their campaign of ‘Red Terror’: ‘It is necessary, secretly and urgently, to prepare the terror,’ urged Lenin. Felix ‘Iron’ Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka, openly declared, ‘We stand for organized terror – this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.’ As the Soviets were keen on saying – you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
Lenin had survived, physically and politically, but his injuries, together with his intense workload, contributed to a series of strokes, the first in May 1922, and ultimately led to his early demise, aged 53, on 21 January 1924.
Rupert Colley’s chilling novel, set in Stalin’s Moscow, The Black Maria, is now available.
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