Apr 22 2010
Lenin the lawyer and linguist born on the Volga 140 years ago today
Which is the longest river in Europe? If you’d asked me that question 35 years ago I’d have said the River Rhine. If you’d asked me 25 years ago I’d have said the Danube and if you ask me now I’d say the Volga which I think would be right. It is located entirely in Russia and runs from the Valdai Hills to the Caspian sea, it is 3,692 kilometers long and is the 16th longest river in the world. Over half of Russia’s largest cities are on the Volga, one of which is Ulyanovsk (Ульяновск) formerly known as Simbirsk. In 1924, the city was renamed Ulyanovsk in honour of Vladimir Ulyanov, better know to us as Lenin. And Lenin was born today in 1870. Happy Birthday Vladimir!
I have lived in Central and Eastern Europe for 30 years now and the name Lenin inflames lots of passions, not always based on a lot of knowledge about who this person was and how he lived his life. It’s not my aim here to look at Lenin the revolutionary but to focus on some of the lesser known aspects of his life. It’s always good when looking at famous people with students to challenge conventional wisdom and make familiar perceptions a bit strange. Stalin wasn’t Russian and Hitler wasn’t German.
Lenin’s Educational Background
I never knew much about Lenin until I went to university where I learnt mainly about his role in the Russian revolution and his writings but I didn’t know anything about his family and educational background.
His father, Ilya Nikolaevich Ulyanov, was a secondary school teacher and become a provincial director of elementary education, visting lots of schools as a school inspector . He taught maths and physics. His mother, Maria Alexandrovna, was an elementary school teacher. She studied German, French and English. Both of his parents cared about improving the lot of ordinary Russians and it was in this kind of socially aware environment that Lenin grew up.
Lenin in Zurich
In 1892 he was awarded a first class diploma in Law and studied Latin, Greek, French, German and English and in the three years he lived in Switzerland he reached proficiency level in German. When I was in Zurich, having a look at places that Joyce lived in, I went to have a look at where Lenin lived too. I haven’t come across anything written about conversations between Lenin and Joyce but they must have frequented the same bars, mustn’t they? I took time out to drink in the cafe that both of them used to sit in, the cafe Odeon.
Albert Einstein and Herman Hesse used to go to this cafe too, and Tom Stoppard wrote a play “Travesties” in which Lenin, Joyce and the Dadaist Tristan Tzara meet up.
In 1998 I went to a British Studies conference in Nizhni Novgorod, known as Gorky (after Maxim Gorky) between 1932 and 1990. I was accompanied by my friend John Braidwood who now works in Oulu, Finland. John thought that this city was the same Gorky where Lenin had died and where the former communist leader of Hungary, Rákosi Mátyás died too in 1971.
But somebody at the British Council informed us that actually Lenin had died in the Gorki which is 10 miles outside Moscow, now named Gorki Leninskiye.
Of course we couldn’t resist going and explorjng the place, and after a train and bus journey and then 20 minutes trudging through deep snow, we finally got there. There were no other tourists, only two elderly women to show us round and tell us stories about Lenin and Stalin. John did a Russian degree at Leeds University so he could translate for me.
One of the things they told us was how often Lenin said that Stalin should could never ever be trusted with anything, never mind the leadership of the Soviet Union. In his last testament Lenin had written this: “Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post…”
The house John and I visited was a place Lenin went to several times in the years before he died and it is now a museum. There used to be millions of tourists and now hardly anybody ever goes there.
Here are some pictures which I took of John and a statue of Lenin’s body being carried away. It was a fun visit and I was reminded of it again today! It was weird seeing him embalmed in Red Square but that experience in the middle of a forest where he died was even more weird and something I shall never forget.
And finally if you haven’t seen “Goodbye Lenin”, it’s a great film about life in the former GDR after the changes of 1989/90, highly recommended.
The well-known phrase “Lenin lives, lived and will live” comes from Mayakovsky’s elegy “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin”. After 1917 the poet,playwright and film maker Vladimir Mayakovsky was involved in many creative projects, one of which was a film about a beginner schoolteacher trying to teach people how to read and write. i’ve only just watched it for the second time in my life but I’m definitely going to use it with my teacher trainees when I talk about what it’s like to go into the classroom as a teacher for the first time and the kind of things they are likely to be confronted with. In fact if I did my “six films about teachers” then I’d definitely include this one!
I first saw the silent film “The Young Lady and the Hooligan” in a theatre in East Berlin, accompanied by a live pianist. It was one of the most exciting moments I have ever experienced in a cinema. The short film is about a young woman who arrives in a school where she has to teach for the first time. Her task is to teach a class to read and write. All her students are male, ranging from young boys to old men, and they are not easy to teach. “The young hooligan”, played by Mayakovsky, writes on a test paper that he loves her. It is a fantastic film and I’d like to include just one extract of it where you see the moment in the classroom where he writes on the paper that he loves his teacher. The relevant part is from 3.35 to 5.35. The film is 35 minutes long altogether and is on youtube in four parts. It is a memorable moment in Soviet cinema and the only footage I know of a classroom in that immediate post revolutionary Russia period. It captures an important period in the drive to teach peasants basic literacy skills. What it would have been like to be a teacher then, eh? Post 1989, working in ex-socalist/communist countries in ELT was exciting but nothing could compare to working in villages with people who had never set foot in a school, could it? I hope you enjoy it. Here is the video link, it is the second part of the film. The first part is great too with the teacher arriving at the school and getting briefed on her job and if you like it watch all four parts! They are easy to find!
And on an ELT note: ” Today officials in Lenin’s birthplace are being ordered to learn English,” an interesting contemporary development.
Lernen, lernen und nochmals lernen.
Tanulni, tanulni, tanulni.
Učit se, učit se, učit se.
Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.