PHOTO: Russia’s last emperor Nicholas II and Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin
The Russian Empire experienced an explosion of terrorist activity during the reign of Emperor Nicholas II (1894-1917), a period of changing times and political unrest, when over 17,000 people were killed or wounded by revolutionary extremists.
By the late 1890s, capital punishment for murder in the Russian Empire was seldom carried out, instead a sentence of 10 to 15 years imprisonment with hard labour was served. Capital punishment, however, was still carried out for treason. For example, in the spring of 1887, Alexander Ilyich Ulyanov (1866-1887) was executed by hanging for conspiring to assassinate Emperor Alexander III.
The death penalty in Tsarist Russia at that time was applied only in extreme cases of serious state crimes and only after lengthy legal proceedings, which often in the end acquitted even those whose guilt was obvious.
Alexander’s execution, however, drove his younger brother Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Vladimir Lenin) to pursue the Russian revolutionary struggle ever more fervently. Vladimir was already active in politics prior to his older brother’s arrest. Lenin also remembered how his family had been shunned by liberal circles in Simbirsk following his brother’s arrest.
Any family member related to a terrorist was rarely persecuted by the authorities. As a result, in the autumn of 1887, Vladimir Ulyanov entered the Faculty of Law at Kazan Imperial University, where he began to organize anti-government meetings.
For this, he was expelled from the university and sent into exile. Instead of being sent to one of the harsh penal colonies in Sakhalin, Solovki, or Magadan, the future Bolshevik leader was exiled to the comfort of Kokushkino estate, which served as his family’s summer residence during Lenin’s childhood.
In September 1889, the Ulyanov family moved to the city of Samara, where Lenin worked first as a legal assistant for a regional court and then for a local lawyer. He then took his exams externally from the Faculty of Law at the University of St Petersburg, where he obtained the equivalent of a first-class degree with honours.
Upon graduating, however, Lenin continued to with his revolutionary agenda. So why did the Tsarist police not take Lenin’s revolutionary activities more seriously? Sadly, those who served to protect the Emperor continued to underestimate Lenin’s importance and growing influence.
As it turned out, Lenin was considered small fry, the Tsar’s agents did not see him as much of a threat. He was not considered a terrorist, so the authorities did not pay attention to him, as they were busy with the Social Revolutionaries and anarchists. Among these were the bombers and anarchists of Narodnaya Volya. The government was more occupied with the threats from the Savinkovs, the Figners, the Chernovs, the Spiridonovs, the Bakunins, and the Kropotkins—those who plotted the assassination of key government figures in the Russian Empire. But even many of them were spared execution, and instead exiled to hard labour.
A few years later, Lenin organized an alliance of struggle for the liberation of the working class, holding impassioned speeches to the workers and writing anti-government leaflets.
The authorities then took notice, which resulted in Lenin’s arrest, and sent to a St. Petersburg remand prison for a year. Here, he is of course interrogated, but his jailers do not torture or beat confessions out of him, nor is he starved.
His time in prison [including his exile to Siberia] served as the perfect melting pot for his revolutionary agenda. Dozens of books were transferred to him in prison, and it was here that Lenin wrote the bulk of The Development of Capitalism in Russia. It was published in 1899 under the pseudonym of “Vladimir Ilyin”. It established his reputation as a major Marxist theorist. In addition, he became a regular contributor to Marxist journals.
Lenin asked for a government allowance, which was granted, and paid for his needs. In addition, his rather wealthy mother Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanova (1835-1916), who in her youth served as a maid of honour at the Imperial Court, sent her son everything he requested.
Lenin’s life in exile created the ideal lifestyle for a revolutionary: fresh air, healthy food, an abundance of meat, milk, vegetables, and hunting. His day to day routies required no duties, no service. It was in exile that he was cured of his gastric disease, which he suffered from his youth.
Vladimir Ilyich, his wife and mother-in-law did not strain during their exile: a young peasant girl was paid 2.5 rubles a month, to clean, cook and carry out other household duties.
Soon Lenin was allowed to live in Pskov, a little later he was allowed to travel around Russia. The police saw no reason not to issue a foreign passport to the future leader of the revolution.
Lenin repeatedly held anti-government meetings, carried out subversive activities against tsarism, wrote leaflets and writings for Marxist journals, instead of rotting in prison or being executed.
Another reason that Lenin escaped more harsher sentences and even execution, was the lesson he learned from his older brother. Vladimir Ilyich, was cunning and crafty, never leaving a paper trail of his activities, so as not to get his hands dirty or implicate him in any illegal activity. This would serve him well in the summer of 1918, when he ordered the murder of Emperor Nicholas II, his wife, and their five children. Lenin did not want his name linked with the murder of the Tsar or his family, particularly his five children – the latter of whom were innocent of any politics
Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not really carry a primary threat, nor was it Lenin who put an end to tsarism, the latter was that of the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks gained power following the overthrow of the Kerensky government in October 1917. Once he had seized power, Lenin put a bounty on members of the Russian Imperial Family. To this day, many historians believe that the order to kill Russia’s last Tsar came directly from Lenin himself. In addition, he ordered that all remaining members of the Imperial Family should be killed, for fear that any survivors would be a beacon for the restoration of monarchy. These actions thus earned him the title of “terrorist”!
One question thus remains: had Nicholas II had Lenin executed, would it have spared the Tsar and his family the violent and horrific murder that they endured in 1918?
 Thou Shalt Not Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917 by Anna Geifman. Published by Princeton University Press, 1993
 Narodnaya Volya (‘People’s Will’) was a 19th-century revolutionary political organization in the Russian Empire which conducted assassinations of government officials in an attempt to overthrow the autocratic system and stop the government reforms. Their acts of revolutionary violence culminated in the successful assassination of Emperor Alexander II in March 1881—the event for which the group is best remembered.
© Paul Gilbert. 12 April 2022