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Lenin Was A Cyclist—Revisiting The Paris Years

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History buffs will recall that the night of October 25-26 marks one of the defining moments in modern history, for it was 100 years ago on this night that Vladimir Lenin and his band of Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, effectively toppling the Russian government. It was the dawning of the first successful communist revolution, a movement that would utterly shape and define much of the 20th century. In the coming weeks and months, much will be written about the Russian Revolution’s inspiring, yet calculated leader, whose personal vision for a more egalitarian society disintegrated into the horrors of the Red Terror. Scholars and journalists will re-examine the crucial moments of his life. But few will point to the fact that, among other things, Lenin was an avid cyclist.

Words & Images: James Startt, European Associate to Peloton

I have long been aware that the French Communist Party has a long history with cycling. Its own newspaper, L’Humanité, was founded in 1904, one year after the Tour de France, and it was one of the first newspapers to cover the new bike race. In addition, I was aware that the newspaper nearly took control of the race after World War II. But I had no idea that Lenin himself was a cyclist.

This factoid alone reignited my interest in Lenin and, more specifically, his early years spent in Paris, where he lived from 1908 to 1912.

When I first moved to Paris myself more than 25 years ago, I was intrigued by the city’s rich literary and intellectual history and often walked by the aging haunts of the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, Miller and Dali found in and around the Montparnasse district. I remember hearing that Lenin too made up part of the diverse international intellectual fabric that has graced this city over the years, and that he often played chess at the local cafés in my own neighborhood. I even recall that his apartment, a small museum of sorts, could still be visited. But I did not know that he was a cyclist.

A recent story in the French sports daily L’Équipe by Jean-Christophe Collin, however, illustrated this fact well. Through letters and various histories about Lenin, Collin demonstrated that Lenin, in fact, cycled frequently. He relied on his bicycle to get to the Bibliothèque Nationale, where he worked on his own research and writings. Collin even noted that one of Lenin’s bicycles was stolen, while another was damaged when he was hit by a car. And letters by his wife Nadejda Kroupskaïa discuss frequent 60- and 70-kilometer rides out into the hills of the Chevreuse Valley, south of the city, quite a feat considering the bikes of the day.

The story intrigued me to say the least and, with the centennial of this defining moment in history only days away, I decided it was time to finally visit Lenin’s old apartment.

But my efforts were soon complicated.

First, I learned that the French Communist Party had sold the apartment nearly a decade ago. Although disappointed, I was not surprised since the party, once considered a major political force in France, now struggles to get even 2 percent of the vote in general elections. Little matter, I figured, I could still visit the building where a plaque on the façade once notified passersby of the building’s history. But arriving at No. 4 rue Marie-Rose I found that not even the plaque remains. Clearly frustrated, I could only look on in disbelief at a discolored rectangular area on the first floor of the façade where the plaque had clearly hung.

Fortunately for my quest, a local resident walking his dog instantly understood my predicament, as I am sure that I was not the first person he had seen staring up at this otherwise unremarkable building. “It’s down on the next street,” he said. “The museum is closed but they moved the plaque.”

Although he gave little precision, I quickly thanked him and made my way. The adjacent street, however, offered little satisfaction. But recalling that Lenin had actually lived in two different apartments in the neighborhood, I figured that the gentleman was referring to Lenin’s first address, which was just a couple of blocks farther away, on rue Beaunier. And, as I arrived, the plaque, with a profile of the revolutionary leader, was clearly in place. Finally, I had met with success.

Yet, nevertheless, I was frustrated by this superficial finding and wanted to get inside his old abode, because I have always been intrigued by the spaces and places inhabited by artists and intellectuals.

Returning home, I continued my search for information regarding Lenin’s Paris years. And a short report by the French weekly Le Point alerted me to the fact that Lenin’s apartment had since been bought by Europe, a small literary revue. Calling the publication the next morning, I found Jean-Baptiste Para, the editor-in-chief, more than welcoming. “Come on over,” he said quickly. “We’re here!” And soon enough I found myself inside the second-floor flat.

Jean-Baptiste Para, editor-in-chief of Europe magazine, works away in the apartment where a century earlier Vladimir Lenin prepared to change the world.

Taking a minute’s break from his editing duties, Jean-Baptiste quickly showed me around. Books from his own publication can be found along every wall and corner, although he admits that he has never published anything on Lenin himself.

“The French Communist Party made a real effort to keep it as it was when Lenin lived here. And we haven’t tried to change that,” he said. “Back in Lenin’s day this was considered quite a decent place. It was a cold-water apartment and didn’t have a bath because, well, back then most people washed in a basin or went to public baths. But it did have its own toilet, which was not common. Many apartments at the time only had common toilets on each floor.”

A reproduction of a painting by Russian modernist Kazimir Malevich, a contemporary of Lenin, complements our journey back in time.

The tour was quick. Jean-Baptiste works in the living room, much like Lenin did. And he showed me the small alcove where he slept, while his wife and stepmother shared a second room. “The fireplaces and mantles in each room are original as is the tile of the kitchen sink. And the wallpaper is period correct.”

As Jean-Baptiste returned to work, I kept imagining the apartment over a century ago. It did not seem like such a huge leap back in time to imagine Lenin here too, fastidiously working in this modest apartment amid papers and books as he prepared to take over the world with his own revolution.

Finally satisfied, I left and headed home. Now…if I could only find Lenin’s stolen bike!