The Women in Lenin’s Life

the devoted & still unsung women who supported vladimir lenin before & during his rise to power

“The women in Lenin’s life were ruthlessly exploited by him. His wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, his mother Maria, mother-in-law Elizaveta, his sisters Anna and Mariya and his sometime lover Inessa Armand were all worn ragged in the cause of his own political ends.


The Women in Lenin’s Life

During my research for Conspirator I came to see that the women in Lenin’s life were ruthlessly exploited by him. He had no qualms whatsoever in using the loyalty of the women who formed his essential back up team for his own political ends. He wore them all ragged: his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, his mother Maria, mother-in-law Elizaveta, his sisters Anna and Mariya and his sometime lover Inessa Armand. I make no claims for Lenin’s wife Nadya (as she was to him throughout his life) as being a power player in his story. There is no doubt she was a key party activist throughout those years, responsible for the crucial work of coding and decoding correspondence and organising a network of agents, but like many women in the Russian revolutionary underground, much of her work went unsung. Lenin and his greater mission always came first.

What did reveal itself during my research was the extent to which, with horrifying predictability Lenin fell out with almost all of his male colleagues, and how it was always Nadya – the one, rock-solid constant in his life – who picked up the pieces and kept him going through repeated bouts of physical and mental collapse. And not just Nadya: it soon became clear that it was precisely the women in Lenin’s life – his mother, Mariya, and his sisters Anna and Mariya, who sent food parcels, money and books from Russia – who also offered essential moral and practical support.

Nadya’s mother, Elizaveta, trailed round Europe with her daughter and son in law. She uncomplainingly shared their cramped accommodation and the privations of their frequently impoverished lives, helping out as clerical back up, cook and bottle washer, and constantly berating them both for their self-neglect.

Lenin’s female back up team

These women might only be adjuncts to the much bigger story of Lenin – one of the great political leaders of the 20th century – but they were the ones who remained loyal and dependable in the midst of the destructive, febrile world of male-dominated émigré politics. Lenin the ruthless martinet and control freak spent his exile years one by one sacrificing friendships to the greater demands of the party and the revolution, but without his female back up team it is unlikely he would have either physically or mentally been capable of seizing power in 1917. During his years on the move around Europe, time and time again Lenin entered into frenetic political quarrels in his campaign to win dominion over the party, driving himself repeatedly to the point of total physical collapse. Nadya was always there, watching for the telltale signs, ready to take him away on holiday or for rest and relaxation in the mountains of Switzerland that they loved so much. At the expense of her own health – a long undiagnosed thyroid problem was not finally addressed until 1913 – she always put Lenin first, until she too reached the point of serious illness, upon which he, for once, had to find the time to take care of her. With extraordinary equanimity and dignity she came to terms with Lenin’s infatuation with the beautiful Inessa Armand and tolerated a sexual relationship conducted under her nose in Paris; in fact she became Inessa’s friend and confidant and took a personal interest in her children after her premature death. It is said Nadya even offered Lenin a divorce but he refused. He had, of course, a moral debt to her; but sex and love got in the way of revolution and in the end Inessa had to pay the price for her devotion and loyalty to Lenin, wearing herself out in the cause of the party and into an early grave, at the age of only forty-six.

“ Lenin’s lover Inessa Armand regularly did Lenin’s political dirty work for him as his representative at contentious party and political conferences and risked her life as well as enduring long periods of separation from her five children in Russia in order to serve the cause.”

Nadya — the unswerving keeper of the Leninist flame

The Soviets, of course, never told the story that way, any more than they ever properly acknowledged the courage of the many forgotten women who worked in the Russian revolutionary underground in Russia at this time and who – unlike Lenin from the relative safety of exile – did so at huge risk to their personal safety. I have tried in Conspirator to tell some of their stories. After Lenin’s death Nadya became the unswerving keeper of the Leninist flame – loyal and circumspect, never revealing a single controversial detail about their life together. She never ever revealed the secrets of her own inner life. Although revered as a revolutionary icon by ordinary people in Russia, after Lenin’s death in 1924 she was systematically isolated and intimidated by Stalin until she died in 1939. In the continuing search for new subjects, or to throw revealing light on the lives of those already much written about, it is precisely by viewing the stories of famous men afresh, through the eyes of the women in their lives, that we can accord these often underrated women their true place in the record. In so doing, we will at least ensure that the wives, lovers and helpmates of those much more famous men – women such as the long neglected Nadezhda Krupskaya – get proper credit where due.

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