What Kind of Man Was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov?

It is surprising how the personality of one of the twentieth century’s best-known men remains elusive even today.

Our first glimpse of Vladimir Lenin in the John Reed classic Ten Days that Shook the World does not come until well into the book’s fifth chapter, ‘Plunging Ahead’. And it does not give us a particularly prepossessing picture of the first leader of a great revolution:

A short, stocky figure, with a big head set down on his shoulders, bald and bulging. Little eyes, a snubbish nose, wide generous mouth, and heavy chin; clean-shaven now but already beginning to bristle with the well-known beard of his past and future. Dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers much too long for him. Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been. A strange popular leader – a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colourless, humourless, uncompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncrasies – but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms…

H.G. Wells was also far from impressed by his first meeting with Lenin in 1920. The Russian leader came across to the English writer as a “little man: his feet scarcely touch the ground as he sits on the edge of his chair… at a great desk in a well-lit room”.

The contrast of the ‘little man’ with the ‘great desk’ at which he was seated was probably the product of the Fabian Socialist’s antipathy towards the ‘doctrinaire Marxist’, but the fact cannot be gainsaid that Lenin did not cut a dashing figure even in the eyes of a sympathetic soul.

Also read: The Last Weeks of Valdimir Lenin’s Life

Thus, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Bolshevik Minister of Culture in Lenin’s cabinet after the Revolution, confesses to his own sense of disappointment on his first meeting with Lenin in exile:

He did not make a very good impression on me at first sight. His appearance struck me as somehow faintly colourless and he said nothing very definite apart from insisting on my immediate departure for Geneva.

Even Gorky, whose tribute to Lenin after his death was more hagiographic than he would have cared to admit, recalled his first impressions in these unflattering terms:

I had not imagined him that way. I felt there was something missing in him. …He was too plain, there was nothing of ‘the leader’ in him.

Plain, colourless, detached, humourless, ‘a little man’ – a far from gratifying inventory of character traits for a man who led one of the most stirring popular uprisings in history. The question is, did Lenin the man really answer to such a dreary description? And if he didn’t – and I will argue he indeed didn’t – why did the first impressions about him revolve around such negative vibes?

Lenin addressing a crowd in Sverdlov Square, Moscow, 1920.

Before we turn to the more substantive questions, let us get H.G. Wells’s ‘little man’ out of our way. Lenin was 5 ft 5 inches – not a tall man by any means, but not nearly a ‘little man’ either. Almost everyone who met Lenin one-on-one – and this included the Guardian’s W.T. Goode who interviewed Lenin in October 1919, or about one year before Wells – thought of him as ‘a man of middle height… active and well-proportioned’.

As incredible as it may sound, Wells himself was 5 ft 5 inches tall! If we still puzzle over why he found Lenin a ‘little man’, we can do nothing better than read Leon Trotsky’s devastating critique (of Wells’s interview of Lenin) for an explanation. “…(T)hat he (Lenin) looked a ‘little man’ whose feet hardly reached the floor”, Trotsky writes, “might have been only the impression of a Wells who arrived feeling like a civilised Gulliver on a journey to the land of northern communist Lilliputians”.

For good measure, Trotsky called his own essay on the Wells affair The Philistine and the Revolutionary. Apparently, Wells had been quite patronising, even pompous, throughout his interview of Lenin. Later, whenever he was reminded of Wells, Lenin would shake his head and exclaim, “What a Philistine! What an awful petit-bourgeois!”

Also read: Year One of the October Revolution, One Hundred Years On

We will presently look at Lenin through the eyes of some of his closest associates and colleagues. But lest that be a somewhat partisan perspective, let us first consider the views of someone who was far from being wholly sympathetic to the Weltanschaung that Lenin represented.

Bertrand Russell has left behind a much more nuanced picture of Lenin than Wells. Russell found Lenin “very friendly, and apparently simple, entirely without a trace of hauteur”, but also “an intellectual aristocrat”. Russell thought he had “never met a personage so destitute of self-importance” as Lenin, though that did not, in Russell’s eyes, prevent Lenin from being “(d)ictatorial, calm, incapable of fear, extraordinarily devoid of self-seeking, an embodied theory”.

“He laughs a great deal; at first his laugh seems merely friendly and jolly, but gradually I came to feel it rather grim.”

Vladimir, graduated from Simbirsk Gymnasium with a gold medal, came to Kazan and enrolled at the university’s celebrated Law Faculty. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An ‘unrepentant Rationalist’ himself, Russell speaks disapprovingly about Lenin’s “unwavering faith – religious faith in the Marxist gospel, which takes the place of the Christian martyr’s hopes of Paradise…”, but concedes that it was that faith, together with his “honesty ..(and) courage”, that Lenin’s strength may have come from. This is a fascinating portrait of a highly evolved, many-sided personality, a far cry from a colourless demagogue in an ideological straitjacket.

Both Trotsky and Lunacharsky happened to have worked with Lenin for many years, both before the October Revolution and after it. These two outstanding leaders of the Revolution were very dissimilar to each other in temperament and training, but both point to the same aspect of Lenin’s character as his defining quality. Lenin’s greatest gifts, Lunacharsky writes,

were not those of a tribune or a publicist, not even those of a thinker, but even in those early days it was obvious to me that the dominating trait of his character, the feature which constituted half his make-up, was his will: an extremely firm, extremely forceful will capable of concentrating itself on the most immediate task but which yet never strayed beyond the radius traced out by his powerful intellect and which assigned every individual problem its place as a link in a huge… chain.

And Trotsky:

(I)f I were to attempt briefly to define what sort of man Lenin was, I would stress that his whole being was geared to one great purpose. He possessed the tenseness of striving towards his goal. (Italics Trotsky’s)

And discussing Gorky’s portrait of Lenin, Trotsky adds:

Gorky is right when he says that Lenin is the extraordinary and perfect embodiment of a tense will striving towards the goal. This tension towards the goal is Lenin’s essential characteristic. (Trotsky’s italics)

It should now be possible to see why Lenin appeared cold and humourless to the casual observer. Upon everything he did, Lenin brought to bear the enormous weight of his powerful will, the tenseness of striving towards his goal. He had an extraordinary ability to concentrate all his energies and his entire attention upon the task at hand, and he would never allow his attention to flag on account of, or his energies to be dissipated by, any other consideration.

Here it is instructive to recall a comment made by Vera Zasulich, one of Russia’s first generation of Marxist revolutionaries, about the difference in approach to political disagreement and polemics between Lenin and George Plekhanov. Plekhanov, considered the ‘father of Russian Marxism’, was the undisputed leader of Russian Social Democracy and Lenin had long been his respectful disciple.

Also read: The House Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lived in Before he Became Lenin

But when the future course of the Russian revolution was to be settled, a bitter ideological struggle ensued between Lenin and Plekhanov. When that struggle took a dramatic turn, Zasulich had this to say to Lenin:

“George is like a greyhound: he will shake you and shake you and will let you go; you are like a bulldog; you have a deadly grip”.

It was his steely determination, his unrelenting intensity that came across as Lenin’s strongest suit. This showed clearly in his public speeches as well. Lunacharsky talks about the

“concentrated energy with which he spoke… those piercing eyes of his which grew almost sombre as they bored gimlet-like into the audience… the orator’s monotonous but compelling movements … that fluent diction so redolent of will-power.”

Lenin had none of Trotsky’s great oratorical flair, or the electric energy which Trotsky’s speeches were able to transmit to his audiences. There was little or no literary quality to Lenin’s diction, no clever play upon words, no witty turn of phrase. His was a solidly-built, strongly-argued speech which hammered the essential points down to simple, easily-followed everyday words and phrases. It was enormously effective as communication, but its purpose was utilitarian, not aesthetic.

But, to those who knew Lenin well, there was nothing grim or forbidding about him. Everyone was aware of his unbending will, his intense striving for his goals at all times. But that did not detract from his charm as a person. That was because of the presence of a strong countervailing factor in Lenin’s personality and both Lunacharsky and Trotsky talk about that characteristic with great warmth. This was Lenin’s astonishing vitality.

Life bubbles and sparkles within him. (Lunacharsky writes.) Today, as I write these lines, Lenin is already fifty, yet he is still a young man, the whole tone of his life is youthful. How infectiously, how charmingly, with what childlike ease he laughs, how easy it is to amuse him, how prone he is to laughter, that expression of man’s victory over difficulties!

Trotsky reminisces about an incident with evident pleasure:

We were holding a meeting in the mountain village of Zimmerwald (Trotsky is referring here to the Zimmerwald Conference of September, 1915 of European Socialist parties opposed to the First World War) and our commission was charged with preparing a manifesto. We were sitting at a round table in the open air… The work of the commission took a distressing turn. There were disagreements on various points, but mainly between Lenin and the majority. At that moment two splendid dogs came into the garden… They must have belonged to the owner of the place, because they started playing peacefully on the sand in the morning sunshine. Vladimir Ilyich suddenly got up and left the table. Half-kneeling, he started laughing and tickling, first one dog then the other, under their ears, along their bellies, lightly, delicately… There was spontaneity in Lenin’s gesture: … so carefree, so boyish was his laughter. He glanced at our commission as if he wanted to invite the comrades to take part in this lovely diversion. It seemed to me that people looked with some astonishment: everybody was still preoccupied by the serious debate. Lenin went on stroking the animals… He then returned to the table and refused to sign the proposed text of the manifesto. The discussion began anew with fresh violence.

This charming story is shot through with the same joy of life that is manifest in an anecdote that Gorky recounts in his memoirs of Lenin. This was in Capri in the year 1908, when Lenin was visiting the Gorkys at that magnificent Mediterranean island.

Rocking in his boat on waves as blue and transparent as the sky, Lenin tried to learn to catch fish ‘on the finger’, i.e., with a line, but no rod. The fishermen had told him to snatch in the line the instant his finger felt the slightest vibration.

“Cosi: drin-drin. Capisci?”they said.

At that moment he hooked a fish, and hauled it in, crying out with the delight of a child and the excitement of a hunter: “Aha! Drin-drin!”

The fishermen shouted with laughter, like children too, and nicknamed Lenin Signor Drin-Drin.

Lunacharsky links Lenin’s prodigious capacity for work to his boundless vitality, and suggests that this vitality was sustained and nourished by his ability to relax when he wanted to.

Lenin with a cat in the village of Gorki, near Moscow, 1922, in a photograph by his sister, Maria. Photo: SCRSS

…Lenin is one of those people who know how to relax. He takes his rest like taking a bath and when he does so, he stops thinking about anything; he completely gives himself up to idleness and whenever possible to his favourite amusement and laughter. In this way Lenin emerges from the briefest spell of rest freshened and ready for the fray again… Lenin loves the sort of fun which is unassuming, direct, simple and rumbustious. His favourites are children and cats; sometimes he can play with them for hours on end. Lenin also brings the same wholesome, life-enhancing quality to his work. I cannot say from personal experience that Lenin is hard-working; as it happens, I have never seen him immersed in a book or bent over his desk. He writes his articles without the least effort and in a single draft free of all mistakes or revisions. He can do this at any time of the day, usually in the morning after getting up, but he can do it equally well in the evening when he has returned from an exhausting day…

Here we meet a man to whom nothing human was alien. Lenin, as Trotsky remembered him after his death, “lived a full life, a wonderfully abundant life, developing, expanding his whole personality, serving a cause he himself freely chose”. How true!

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, commentator and translator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com