This is an interesting and readable account of what led to the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander III in St Petersburg, in which Alexander Ulyanov was centrally involved and for which he was hanged. He was the elder brother of Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin). The attempt to kill the Tsar would be on the sixth anniversary of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on 1 March 1887.
Pomper argues that the influence of background, reading, upbringing, exclusion from political activity through democratic means and group dynamics played the key roles that drew Alexander into the ideas of Narodism. The father of Alexander and Vladimir Ulyanov was Director of Public Schools for Simbirsk and well placed in society. Pomper’s contention is that the mixed ethnic background of the family made them to some extent outsiders.
Pomper surveys the literature that Alexander read. This illuminates the period and the formation of his views. However, the author does not really broaden his focus to the wider socioeconomic changes in the Russian Empire to make the full historical context clear.
The triggers leading to Alexander joining the plot in December 1886 are shown to be the suppression of a demonstration to commemorate an old revolutionary, together with arrests and the clampdown on student organisations.
It was in the name of the People’s Will that Alexander Ulyanov produced the programme of the group. He developed politically in a period between the high points of Narodism’s direct action in the 1860s and 1870s, and the evolution of the Marxist and social democratic movement of the 1890s. He had read Marx and Plekhanov and indeed saw the main revolutionary force in society as the industrial working class.
It was in this period of changing and developing ideas that Lenin would begin his political development.
Pomper’s last chapter deals with the impact of Alexander’s death and ideas on his younger brother Vladimir. Revenge and sibling rivalry are pursued as key motivators of Lenin’s political activity, although he was also “a dedicated Marxist”.
Pomper states in his preface, “The story of how Lenin became a dogmatic Marxist and successful revolutionary leader is, however, too complex a story to be told here.” This is disappointing, as the secondary part of the book’s title is The Origins of the October Revolution.
Lenin said he extracted the revolutionary side of the Narodnik doctrine and trend. It would influence his policies on mass agitation and action (which had no place for individual terrorism), the peasantry and revolutionary organisation. If the author had wished to pursue these, they might have given interesting insights into the impact of this traumatic family event on the political development of Lenin – a Marxist who was far from dogmatic.
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