Author Brandon Gauthier will host discussions at Concord, Hopkinton libraries

  • Brandon Gauthier COREY GARLAND.COM—Courtesy

  • The Ulyanov family: Maria Alexandrovna, Ilya Nikolaevich and their children. (Aleksandr “Sasha” Ulyanov is standing in the middle, Vladimir “Volodya” Ulyanov is sitting to the right, he would later be known by the name of Lenin). Wikimedia Foundation

  • Before Evil —Courtesy

  • A portrait of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin at the age of eight, 1878. STR / AP

  • Czar Nicholas II, left, and his son Alexei Nikolaievitch are shown in this undated file photo sawing wood to heat the Siberian prison camp, where they were held during the Russian Revolution. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 4/30/2022 6:40:40 PM
Modified: 4/30/2022 6:39:06 PM
The following is from “Before Evil: Young Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Kim” by Brandon K. Gauthier. “Before Evil” is a narrative, non-fiction work that analyzes the early lives of heinous tyrants through stories about family, education, rebellion, and tragedy. Below we see Vladimir Lenin’s older brother, Sasha — a straight-A student-turned-terrorist — hanged for trying to kill Russia’s Tsar Alexander III. Seventeen-year-old Lenin (Volodia) — an extraordinary student with no prior interest in politics — struggles to make sense of his brother’s death. The journey that follows leads to young Lenin’s own ideological radicalization…and, ultimately, the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and the creation of the world’s first communist dictatorship in Russia. Gauthier will discuss his new book at the Concord Public Library on May 10 at 6 p.m. and at the Hopkinton Town Library on May 12 at 7 p.m. Please see for more information.

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Then it was time to die. The guards came to get Sasha [Lenin’s big brother] early in the morning on May 8, 1887. He was taken into the courtyard of his island prison, walking to the gallows just as the sun rose on a beautiful spring morning, dawn offering one last pleasure. The priest put a cross before Sasha. He kissed it. Co-conspirator Petr shoved it away. Up the stairs and across the scaffold went the men. Brusque brevity marked the executions’ execution. Bodies swung.

Maria [Lenin’s mother] was on her way to visit Anna [Lenin’s older sister] when she bought a newspaper. The printed word, blunt as ever, reported Sasha’s death. Devastation.

A thousand miles away, Volodia [seventeen-year-old Lenin] was finishing high school. Three days before Sasha’s execution, he wrote a paper on a play by Pushkin. On the day in question, he aced a geometry final. Soon newspapers reported Sasha’s hanging. Local authorities put up posters publicizing it. Still, Volodia continued his finals, conquering trigonometry, then breezing unflappably through translations of Thucydides.

But the execution was on his mind. The night before one such test, a fellow pupil — who had not yet heard about Sasha — found Volodia sitting on a bench outside. Are you OK? the classmate asked. Why aren’t you studying? Silence. Sighs. Volodia tried to speak, but nothing came out. The sympathetic student remarked on the nourishing warmth and stillness of the May evening. “They hanged my brother,” said Volodia. The peer had no response. And the two sat quietly for a long time, before walking and parting with a handshake.

Volodia graduated number one in his class, giving the school no choice but to award him the valedictorian gold medal. Yet they denied him the honor of having his name inscribed on a plaque with prior award winners. His name would have gone next to Sasha’s.

Maria soon returned home from St. Petersburg. Trauma had frozen her hair white — though at least she returned with Anna, whom authorities released under strict conditions. Maria proceeded to sell the family’s house and possessions. They were moving.

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Volodia had not seen any of it coming. True, his brother’s interest in politics had grown markedly over the prior year. But the little brother had never felt concerned, had never dreamed of his big brother becoming a terrorist. “A revolutionary cannot devote so much time to the study of worms,” Volodia remembered thinking as Sasha worked tirelessly on his thesis. The why of it all eluded the younger sibling — he did not comprehend how his brother could have become radicalized so quickly. Volodia could not understand until he grasped the same ideas that had inspired Sasha.

He started with the conviction that Sasha must have felt he was doing the right thing — “that he had to act like this,” that “he couldn’t act in any other way.” If such thinking offered solace by preserving his brother’s integrity, it did not hold back Volodia’s immense curiosity. The determination to understand pushed him to investigate further. When a friend (who had shared an apartment with Sasha) visited, Volodia peppered him with questions. What were Sasha’s last months like? What had the police asked? What was his trial like? What did Sasha’s face look like during his testimony? What were his brother’s political views exactly? He needed to know.

… In the fall of 1887, Volodia went to college. The government would not allow him to attend St. Petersburg University despite his stellar academic standing. He was the sibling of a terrorist — a legacy to live down, rather than live up to. Fortunately for the younger brother, a glowing letter of support from good-hearted Headmaster Kerensky (the father of the man Volodia would overthrow in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917) offered crucial assistance. Volodia’s mother, said the letter, would keep her “extremely talented” son under close supervision at university. Authorities acquiesced, allowing the younger brother to attend Imperial Kazan University, his father’s alma mater. His family followed to watch over him.

Volodia didn’t last a year. Participation in a student protest in December 1887 was enough to warrant his expulsion and arrest. When a policeman took him into custody, reproaching him for the futility of his actions, Volodia paraphrased one of his brother’s favorite authors (Dmitry Pisarev), and retorted sharply: “The wall is rotten. One good shove and it will collapse.” This was no longer Volodia talking — this was Vladimir Lenin.

For that budding revolutionary, there was now no purpose to life other than achieving the total transformation of society into a socialist utopia. The aim of creating that new world for “new people,” of bettering the lives of men and women everywhere, was all that mattered. There was no morality outside the realization of those ends. “And what is a good person?” Lenin asked ruefully in exile before wincing at the “nonsense of the intelligentsia about moral consciousness.’” Any action — regardless of how extreme one might consider it—was acceptable if it helped put an end to class oppression. The stakes were a new world for mankind. No rules in the pursuit of paradise. No room 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 argued — let the deaths of the poor hasten the collapse of capitalism and the arrival of the revolution! “The worse, the better!”

This man emerged out of Sasha’s death.

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Brandon K. Gauthier (@bk_gauthier) completed his doctorate in Modern History at Fordham University in New York City in 2016. He is the Director of Global Education at The Derryfield School and an Adjunct Professor of History for Fordham University. He speaks passionately, and loudly. Historical conundrums keep him up at night. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Concord. “Before Evil” is his first book.

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