Vladimir Lenin – a brief introduction

Vladimir Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov on 22 April 1870 in the town of Simbirsk (renamed Ulyanovsk in Lenin’s honour following his death in 1924). The third of six children, Lenin was born into a middle-class family, his father being an inspector of primary schools, a fact Lenin never tried to hide.

In 1887, Vladimir Lenin’s older brother, 21-year-old Alexander Ulyanov, was involved in an attempt to assassinate the tsar, Alexander III, for which in May 1887, he was hung. The event shocked the seventeen-year-old Lenin and certainly radicalized him. As the brother of an executed terrorist, Lenin was kept under police surveillance as he took his place to study law at Kazan University in Tatarstan.

While at university, Lenin became involved in politics and, after one student riot, was arrested. One of the arresting officers asked him ‘Why are you rebelling, young man? After all, there is a wall in front of you,’ to which Lenin replied, ‘The wall is tottering, you only have to push it for it to fall over.’

Lenin the Lawyer

Expelled from Kazan University, Lenin continued his studies independently before being allowed to finish his law degree in 1892 at the University of St Petersburg, obtaining a First Class degree and learning to speak Latin and Ancient Greek. For eighteen months, between 1891 and 1893, Lenin worked as a lawyer defending petty thieves, cases he invariably lost. His only success in the courts came sixteen years later when he successfully sued a French nobleman for knocking him off a bicycle near Paris in 1909. Moving to St Petersburg in 1893, Lenin became increasing involved with revolutionary activity and there, two years later, formed a group, the League of the Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. In 1895, Lenin was arrested and imprisoned for fourteen months in solitary confinement.

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Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech – a summary

On 25 February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech to a closed session of party leaders in which he dismantled the legend of the recently-deceased Joseph Stalin and, over four hours, criticized almost every aspect of Stalin’s method of rule. The speech entitled On the Cult of the Individual and Its Consequences would become known as simply Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’.

‘Why stir up the past?’

Joseph Stalin had died three years earlier, on 5 March 1953. In late 1955, Nikita Khrushchev had been mulling over the idea of ‘investigating Stalin’s activities’ for some months. It was a momentous prospect – Stalin had ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist for the best part of three decades; he had taken the nation to victory over the fascist Germans; and his legacy was still everywhere to be seen.

Stalin with Molotov and VoroshilovKhrushchev’s colleagues were aghast at his proposal, especially the ones who had served in senior positions under Stalin, men like Kliment Voroshilov and Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov (both pictured here with Stalin). These were men with blood on their hands, who, under Stalin’s orders, had facilitated and organised the liquidation of tens or hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women. Not surprisingly they asked, ‘Why stir up the past?’

And Khrushchev himself was far from blameless, having been the regional boss in the Ukraine during the mid-1930s, a time of mass terror, liquidations and deportations. But, as Khrushchev pointed out, ‘if we don’t tell the truth at the Congress, we’ll be forced to tell the truth some time in the future. And then we won’t be the people making the speeches; no, then we’ll be the people under investigation.’

Khrushchev ordered a report on Stalin and his activities. The investigative team, headed by one Comrade Pospelov, spent months shifting through huge amounts of files and paperwork. Khrushchev knew what he wanted to say – that Vladimir Lenin, the first Bolshevik leader, had used terror but had employed it in an legitimate manner – against class enemies and to safeguard the progress of the October Revolution; whereas, as his successor, Joseph Stalin had misused his power, employing terror in an arbitrary and illegitimate manner. Pospelov’s report, when finally it came, provided him with the ammunition.

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Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to venture into space.

Less than four years before, on 5 October 1957, the Soviets had launched the first satellite, or Sputnik, into space, followed a month later, on 3 November, almost the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, with a second, this time with a cosmonaut of sorts on board – Laika, a dog. Animal lovers throughout the world protested but Laika proved the first of many canines launched into space by the Soviets.


The Americans were shocked by how far the Soviets had raced ahead, and more so when their own launch, on 6 December 1957, resulted in a humiliating failure when their rocket exploded on take-off. ‘Flopnik,’ teased the press. America felt it was fast becoming a ‘second-rate power’ in the Cold War behind the Soviet Union. In response, the US formed NASA and did finally succeed in launching its own rocket in January 1958.

But the ultimate humiliation came on 12 April 1961, when the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin (pictured), became the first person in space in a round-the-world flight lasting 108 minutes. Originally, the flight was intended to take place on the 13th, but Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, feeling superstitious, brought it forward a day.

Gagarin was the successful candidate from a list of 20 possible names. The fact that he came from humble origins certainly helped. Also, on a more practical level, his height, or lack of it, (5 ft, 2 inches / 1.57 metres) was considered a benefit within the claustophobic confines of the capsule.

The Motherland Hears

Although Gagarin was later to claim, “I was never nervous during the space flight – there were no grounds for it”, not all the canine cosmonauts returned alive, and it was certainly a very high-risk project.

Gagarin’s fully-automated rocket was launched from Kazakhstan soon after nine on the morning of 12 April. Although fully controlled from the ground, Gagarin had been given a sealed envelope containing the necessary codes in order to take control of his rocket – should the need have arisen. But for most of the 108 minutes, all was under control and Gagarin was able to report back, “The Earth is blue… how wonderful. It is amazing” and whistle a tune by Russian composer, Dmitry Shostakovich“The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows”.

Towards the end of the flight, however, the temperature within the capsule soared and Gagarin almost lost consciousness. But on time, Gagarin was able to eject and parachute down came to Earth, landing safely in the Volga River. Khrushchev repeatedly asked, “Is he alive? Is he alive?” When told that his cosmonaut had landed safely, the celebrations began.

With his dashing good looks and a radiant smile, 27-year-old Gagarin returned to Earth a hero. Khrushchev was delighted. He had long pumped money into the Soviet space programme, as had the Americans in theirs. Supremacy in space, so the superpowers believed, equated to control of the Earth.

Khrushchev and Gagarin toured around Moscow in an open-top car. Gagarin became feted wherever he went and was made a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.

Gagarin – the National Treasure

Afterwards, Gagarin was prohibited from going into space again – he had become too much of a national treasure. So he began training as a fighter pilot.

It was during a training flight, on 27 March 1968, that Gagarin’s MiG-15 plane crashed and 34-year-old Yuri Gagarin, together with his co-pilot, died. He was buried within the Kremlin walls.

Inquests were held and conspiracies abounded but no one could be sure of the exact circumstances that caused Gagarin’s death. But aviation specialists from Russia have recently, after almost a decade of investigations, concluded that an open air vent within Gagarin’s plane caused him to panic and crash.

Ultimately, it was a sad and premature end to a glorious life for the hero with the beguiling smile.



Vasily Stalin – a brief biography

On 21 March 1921, Joseph Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, gave birth to Yasily Stalin, or Vasily Dzhugashvili. Their second child, Svetlana, was born five years later. On 9 November 1932, Nadezhda, suffering from depression, shot herself. Naturally, her death affected both children who, from then on, were brought up by a succession of nannies and security guards but it seemed to particularly disturb the 11-year-old Vasily.

Vasily StalinSpoilt boy

At the age of 17, Vasily joined an aviation school, despite only obtaining poor grades. His father’s aides had to ensure his entry. Stalin once described Vasily as a ‘spoilt boy of average abilities, a little savage… and not always truthful,’ and advised his son’s teachers to be stricter with him.

Once enrolled in the school, Vasily used his name to obtain privileges usually reserved for the most senior members. Stalin, on hearing of his son’s abuses, ordered an immediate end to his special treatment.

As a young man, Vasily continually used his name to further his career, to obtain perks and seduce women. It was a trait that his father deplored. Vasily drank to excess and, again exploiting the family name, denounced anyone he disliked or barred his way. Amazingly, he managed to graduate as a pilot. Continually drunk, he would commandeer planes and fly them while inebriated. Vasily was married twice but never managed to curtail his womanising.


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Yakov Stalin – a brief biography

Born 18 March 1907, Yakov Stalin (or Dzhugashvili) was the son of Joseph Stalin and Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze. Stalin certainly didn’t harbour particularly warm feelings for his son. Deprived of his father’s affections and upset by a failed romance, Yakov, or Yasha as Stalin called him, once tried to shoot himself. As he lay bleeding, his father scathingly remarked, ‘He can’t even shoot straight’.

Yakov StalinYakov Stalin joined the Red Army at the outbreak of war in the East in June 1941, serving as a lieutenant in the artillery. On the first day of the war, his father told him to ‘Go and fight’.

Peace loving and gentle

His half-sister, Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Stalin and his second wife, Nadezhda, claimed in her book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, that Yakov never ‘took any advantage [as a soldier]; never made even the slightest attempt to avoid danger… Since my father, moreover, hadn’t any use for him and everybody knew it, no one in the higher echelons of the army gave him special treatment.’ Yakov, according to Svetlana, was ‘peace-loving, gentle and extremely quiet.’ But he wasn’t fond of his half brother Vasily (Svetlana’s brother) and disliked his ‘penchant for profanity’, and once turned on Vasily with his fists ‘like a lion’.

Nazi Officers Interrogating Yakov StalinOn 16 July, within a month of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Yakov was captured and taken prisoner (pictured). Stalin considered all prisoners as traitors to the motherland and those that surrendered he demonised as ‘malicious deserters’. ‘There are no prisoners of war,’ he once said, ‘only traitors to their homeland’.

Certainly Yakov, by all accounts, felt that he had failed his father. Under interrogation, he admitted that he had tried to shoot himself. His father probably would have preferred it if he had.

Stick your bayonets in the earth

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The Death of Stalin – a summary

Joseph Stalin died 5 March 1953, aged 73, a victim of his own power. So frightened were his staff, that having suffered a stroke he was left to fester for hours before anyone plucked up the courage to check on him.

“I don’t even trust myself.”

In his latter years Stalin’s health had deteriorated and towards the end of 1952 he suffered several blackouts and losses of memory. His sense of paranoia had reached absurd proportions. “I’m finished”, he said in his final days, “I don’t even trust myself.”

Stalin was almost nocturnal, often going to bed in the early hours, obliging his Politburo colleagues to do likewise, and rising around noon. But on 1 March 1953, there was no sign of life all day at the great man’s dacha. His personal staff although increasingly concerned were too fearful to check up on him. Finally, at 11 p.m. they did.

They found Stalin lying on the floor, unconscious and his pyjama bottoms soaked in urine. They rang Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s Chief of Police, who arrived and bellowed at the staff, “Can’t you see Comrade Stalin is deeply asleep. Get out of here and don’t wake him up.”

But Stalin had suffered a severe stroke. Finally, next morning, on Beria’s orders, a team of doctors arrived, but by then Stalin had been left unattended for twelve hours since the stroke.

“Extremely serious.”

Stalin had become distrusting of doctors and had had most of his personal physicians arrested. So the doctors now on the scene examined their patient in extreme nervousness. They asked Beria’s permission before proceeding with each part of the examination, even asking authorization to unbutton Stalin’s shirt. They wrote a detailed report, summarising, “The patient’s condition is extremely serious.”

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Svetlana Alliluyeva (Lana Peters), Stalin’s Daughter – a brief biography

22 November 2011 saw the death of Lana Peters in Wisconsin. To those who came into contact with her, she was simply a lonesome frail 85-year-old with a rather strange accent.  But she was, in fact, once known by the name of Svetlana Stalin and she was the daughter of Joseph Stalin.

Peters’ arrival in the US in 1967 gave the West a huge propaganda coup – the defection of Stalin’s own daughter was the ultimate proof of how terrible life was behind the Iron Curtain. She had even been prepared to leave behind her two adult children, aged 22 and 17, in the Soviet Union.

‘I have come here to seek self-expression’

In her first US press conference, in 1967, she acknowledged the father’s monstrous rule but insisted that the blame for the murder of millions of Soviet citizens could not be laid purely on one man – it was the regime and its ideology. ‘I have come here to seek the self-expression that has been denied me for so long in Russia,’ she said. Shortly afterwards, she wrote Twenty Letters To A Friend, which went on to become a bestseller. A follow-up autobiography, Only One Year, sold equally well. With time she became more critical of her past – she publicly burnt her Soviet passport and accused her father of being ‘a moral and spiritual monster’.

In 1970, she married Wes Peters. Peters’ first wife had died in a car crash. She was also called Svetlana and her mother, the widow of the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, saw in Alliluyeva a divine substitution for her deceased daughter. Under her urging, her new Svetlana and Peters married. They had one child, Olga, and although fond of each other, Svetlana Peters felt too suffocated by her husband’s former mother-in-law’s domineering presence and the marriage ended within three years.

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Karl Eliasberg – a brief biography

In August 1942, Karl Eliasberg conducted a symphony, Shostakovich’s Seventh, in what must rate as the most gruelling concert ever given – for it took place in the city of Leningrad, a city surrounded by Germans and in the midst of a devastating siege which was to last almost 900 days.

Throughout his life, Karl Eliasberg had to be content with second place. From 1937 to 1950 he was the musical director and conductor for the Leningrad Radio Orchestra (LRO), the city’s second orchestra behind the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, one of the top conductors of the Soviet era. Mravinsky, considered by Dmitry Shostakovich as his favourite conductor, staged the première of the composer’s fifth symphony. At the start of the Leningrad Siege, Mravinsky and the LPO were evacuated to Siberia where they were to play over 500 concerts and 200 radio broadcasts. Eliasberg and the LRO however were left in the city playing only the occasional concert until the performances ceased altogether.

The Leningrad Symphony

When, in the spring of 1942, Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin’s man in Leningrad, decided to organise a performance of Shostakovich’s new seventh symphony, the Leningrad, the composer reputedly asked that Mravinsky conduct it. But with Mravinsky and the LPO ill-deposed in Siberia the baton fell to Eliasberg and his LRO.

Eliasberg gathered together his orchestra only to find that out of its one hundred members, only fifteen were still alive. Using musicians from the Red Army, rehearsals began in March 1942, and the Leningrad première was performed to a full house at the Philharmonic Hall on 9 August. Writing later, Eliasberg said, ‘People stood and cried. They knew this was not a passing episode but the beginning of something’.

After the concert Eliasberg married the orchestra’s pianist, Nina Bronnikova.

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Fanny Kaplan – the woman who tried to kill Lenin

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

Fanny KaplanAt 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.

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Ekaterina Dzhugashvili – Stalin’s mother

Joseph Stalin’s mother, Ekaterina Dzhugashvili, born 5 February 1858, married at the age of fourteen. Her first two children, both boys, died within their first year. Her third child, Joseph Dzhugashvili, was born 18 December 1878, and although struck by a bout of smallpox, he survived. History would remember him better as Joseph Stalin.

‘A sensitive child’

Ekaterina Dzhugashvili

Ekaterina Dzhugashvili, known as Keke, dictated her  memories in 1935, two years before her death. The transcript was stored by the Georgian archive of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and was only released in 2007 on the specific request of British author, Simon Sebag Montefiore, who, at the time, was writing his second biography of Stalin, Young Stalin.

She called her son ‘Soso’, Georgian for ‘Little Joey’: “My Soso was a very sensitive child,” she wrote.

Seeing her son’s survival as a gift from God, Keke was determined to see Soso enter church school to train to become a priest, fighting off, often physically, her husband’s insistence that he become a cobbler. “Mummy,” said the young Soso, “what if, when we arrive in the city, father finds me and forces me to become a shoemaker? I want to study. I’d rather kill myself than become a cobbler.” “I kissed him,” wrote his mother, “and wiped away his tears. Nobody will stop you studying, nobody is going to take you away from me.”

Having freed herself from her violent husband, Ekaterina Dzhugashvili moved from one accommodation to another picking up work where she could.

Like a tsar

In later life, Stalin arranged for his mother to move into a large mansion in Tiflis, capital of Georgia (now Tbilisi), but a woman of humble needs, she felt uncomfortable with such luxury and confined herself to one small room.

She turned down his requests to visit him in Moscow and Stalin, never fond of travelling, visited her only rarely. She once asked her son, ‘Joseph, what exactly are you now?’ He replied, ‘do you remember the Tsar? Well, I’m like a tsar.’ ‘You’d have done better to have been a priest,’ she said in response. When he asked her why she had beaten him so much as a child, she shrugged and said, ‘it’s why you’ve turned out so well.’

She wrote a short book about her ‘dear son’, still available today.

Ekaterina Dzhugashvili died 4 June 1937, aged 79. Stalin upset Georgian tradition and sensibilities by not attending her funeral, sending Laventry Beria, at the time Stalin’s man in Georgia, in his stead.

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