Apr 22 2010

Lenin the lawyer and linguist born on the Volga 140 years ago today

Published by under Uncategorized

The longest river in Europe

The longest river in Europe

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!

The house where Lenin was born

The house where Lenin was born

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.

Monument to Lenin's parents

Monument to Lenin's parents

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. Lenin's house in Zurich 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.

Cafe Odeon where Lenin whiled away many hours with or without James Joyce

Cafe Odeon in Zurich where Lenin whiled away many hours with or without James Joyce

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.

Lenin, Joyce and Tzara in Zurich

Lenin, Joyce and Tzara in Zurich

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.

Gorki Leninskiye

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.

Me next to the statue of Lenin in the place where he died

Me next to the statue of Lenin in the place where he died

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…”

Statue of Lenin's body being carried out of the house and John!

Statue of Lenin's body being carried out of the house and John!

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.

John in Lenin's library

John in Lenin's library

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.

"Russian Schoolroom" Norman Rockwell (1967)

"Russian Schoolroom" Norman Rockwell (1967)

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Famous Mayakovsky poster urging people to work hard to stave off the cold, hunger and thirst. A great poster to get students to describe and interpret

Famous Mayakovsky poster urging people to work hard to stave off the cold, hunger and thirst. A great poster to get students to describe and interpret

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!

Baryshya i khuligan (1918)

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!

The Young Lady and the Hooligan

And on an ELT  note: ” Today officials in Lenin’s birthplace are being ordered to learn English,”  an interesting contemporary development.

"Learn, learn and learn again"  Lenin

"Learn, learn and learn again" Lenin

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.

3 responses so far




3 Responses to “Lenin the lawyer and linguist born on the Volga 140 years ago today”

  1.   Vicky Lorason 24 Apr 2010 at 9:41 am

    Hi Mark and thank you for this great and informative post about Lenin!
    It was nice that you saw him from the perspective of the lawyer and linguist, two sides of him that were very essential to him as Lenin the person and character.
    To tell you the truth, I had read quite a lot about him but did not know that he actually lived in Switzerland and frequented the Odeon in Zurich! Next time I am in Zurich will definitely have my coffee there – where Herman Hesse and Einstein did too!
    Every post of yours is so informative and interesting – I feel as if I am in university again (a time I look back at with nostalgia sometimes) … but that wasn’t the only time learning took place! Thankfully I am still learning!
    Thank you again for this.
    Kindest regards,
    Vicky

    Reply

  2.   Barbara Bujtason 29 Apr 2010 at 2:13 pm

    THank you Mark,
    I am Hungarian and I can recall my kindergarten years (70′s), we used to love ‘Uncle Lenin’ :)
    Then we of course learned about him at school, then suddenly (that was the changing of the regime) he was considered someone from the dark side. I’d come along with Vicky, your entry is interesting and informative, and for me it is also striking what a blurred picture I may have in my head about certain figures in history! We are so much used to judging people (at least here, in my area) that we nearly forget facts. Thanks for opening a window for me.

    Barbara

    Reply

  3.   The Bothnianon 12 May 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Delighted to have been blogged up by my great friend Marek. Yes, those were indeed hot, heady and sweaty times cooped up in that Moscow hotel room! (We were very ill after Nizhny Novgorod – I had spend the previous days washing Mark’s eyes as he was effectively blind!) I spent some of yesterday afternoon with him in a Budapest café and we chewed the cud about the hoped for Rainbow Revolution in the UK. I woke up in Finland this morning to discover the dream had turned into betrayal with the LibDems becoming the Tory bérencek. Lenin doesn’t come into things much more, but Finland does boast the ‘only permanent Lenin museum in the world’ in Tampere, where Lenin first met Stalin. Our trip out to Горки Ленинские was magical; we were explorers in a lost world! The confusion arose for me because of a lazy remembering of the great writer Максим Горький, born in, of course, Нижний Новгород, and my failure to remember that there is a soft sign in the middle, making горький bitter or pungent and not горки meaning hills. You can see we must have had a great time! Bless him.

    Reply

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply