It’s the winter of 1918 in the Russian capital of Petrograd, now known as St. Petersburg.
Outside the headquarters of Russia’s legislative assembly, chairman Mikhail Rodzianko watches in horror at the scene unfolding in front of him. Hundreds of thousands of Russian protestors fill the city’s streets, demanding ends to food shortages, World War I, and Russia’s tsarist regime.
Mikhail sighs in exasperation. For a long time, he’s worried about the growing frustration with the steep human and economic cost of Russia’s involvement in World War I. For months, he has warned Tsar Nicholas II of an impending revolution and urged him to address the populace’s concerns. The tsar has so far refused to listen. Now, Mikhail fears violence is on the horizon as he listens to residents call for the overthrow of the Russian monarchy.
Soon, Mikhail sees soldiers begin to arrive at the scene. The chairman watches as regiment after regiment fills the street. But the crowd of protesters refuses to scatter.
Then, Mikhail watches as one group of soldiers begin to lift their rifles and open fire. But the regiment doesn’t fire at the demonstrators.
Mikhail gasps as he realizes they’re firing at other soldiers in support of the protesters.
Quickly, Mikhail runs inside the legislative assembly’s headquarters as a mutiny begins to take place in the street before him. Immediately, he rushes to send a telegram to the tsar.
Feverishly, Mikhail taps out his message: “The capital is in a state of anarchy. The Government is paralyzed. General discontent is growing. There must be no delay. Any procrastination is tantamount to death.”
The uprising in Petrograd will come to be known as the February Revolution. At Mikhail Rodzianko’s urging, Tsar Nicholas II will soon abdicate the Russian throne in an attempt to stop the turmoil, and a provisional government will take his place.
After the overthrow of the tsar, 27-year-old Fanya Kaplan will be released from a life sentence in Siberia’s labor camps as part of a post-revolutionary political amnesty. Upon her release, Fanya will watch a radical socialist movement led by Vladimir Lenin gain power and eventually topple Russia’s provisional government, sparking civil war. Soon, Fanya will take up the fight against Lenin and his communist party herself, hatching a plan to assassinate the new leader which she will carry out on August 30th, 1918.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is August 30th, 1918:The Failed Assassination of Vladimir Lenin.
Act One: A Young Anarchist
It’s December 1906 at a hotel in Kyiv; 12 years before Fanya Kaplan will attempt to assassinate Vladimir Lenin.
Inside the hotel, sixteen-year-old Fanya climbs the stairs to the building’s third floor. There, she walks to a room and knocks in a distinctive pattern. Quickly, the door opens, revealing Fanya's 18-year-old boyfriend Viktor. Behind him, Fanya spots an object resting on the room’s table. Excited, she pushes past Viktor happy to inspect a fully-completed homemade bomb.
From an early age, Fanya has been drawn to revolutionary politics. Last year, she joined an anarchist group based in Kyiv at just fifteen years old. Through her involvement with the group, Fanya met Viktor, another young anarchist.
Together, the two teens were recently given their first big assignment for the group. For the past few days, Fanya and Viktor have been preparing a bomb to assassinate Kyiv’s governor. Today, Viktor finally finished the explosive device. And with the bomb completed, they’re ready to move forward with the assassination plot.
Fanya takes a seat at the table and checks her watch. They finished the bomb just in time. Because any minute, another member of the anarchist group is supposed to pick up the device and use it to kill the governor.
Fanya's legs shake in anticipation as she glances from the bomb to Viktor to the door. And finally, there's a knock. Fanya and Viktor lock eyes. Viktor goes to the door and peeks through the peephole to make sure it’s their comrade. Then, Viktor nods in recognition and motions Fanya to bring over the explosive.
Carefully, Fanya picks up the bomb and heads to the door. But halfway there, the device explodes. Fanya is thrown backward and knocked unconscious. By the time she awakens, Viktor and the other anarchist are nowhere to be found.
Wounded and covered in blood, Fanya struggles to flee the hotel by herself. But she is stopped by police who detain her and charge her with possession of explosives "for a purpose contrary to state security and public peace." A week later, Fanya appears before a military field court and is sentenced to spend the rest of her life in Siberia’s hard labor prison camps.
During her time there, Fanya’s harsh imprisonment wreaks havoc on her health. Throughout her first few years of forced labor, Fanya’s eyesight deteriorates to the point of near blindness, either from a head injury sustained during the explosion or the trauma she endures at the labor camp. She also begins to suffer from continuous, debilitating headaches. Eventually, Fanya becomes depressed and suicidal.
But, in the end, Fanya spends only 12 years of her lifelong sentence at the labor camp. On March 3rd, 1917, she and other political prisoners are released after the February Revolution overthrows Russia’s tsarist regime.
And once out of the camp, Fanya seeks treatment for her vision loss and is able to regain some of her eyesight. While she receives medical treatment in Ukraine, a far-left revolutionary political faction called the Bolsheviks rises to power in Russia. Led by Vladimir Lenin, the party seizes control during a coup known as the October Revolution.
Though many Russians are happy to see the end of Russia’s imperial government, many still do not support the Bolsheviks. And Fanya is one of them. In the wake of Russia’s February Revolution, Fanya ceases to identify as an anarchist and instead joins the country’s Socialist Revolutionary Party, known as the SRs.
Though both the SRs and Bolsheviks support the end of tsarist rule, they still differ in their visions of Russia’s political future. While the SRs support a democratic socialist republic, the Bolsheviks are committed to the ideas of Karl Marx and will eventually rename themselves as the Russian Communist Party.
Soon, these differences will lead to civil war in Russia. On one side is the Red Army who will fight for the Bolshevik form of socialism led by Lenin. On the other is the White Army, a collection of allied parties who unite to oppose Bolshevik rule.
Throughout the conflict, Lenin and his party’s unwillingness to work with the SRs will upset Fanya. One of Russia’s attempts at democracy after the October Revolution was the formation of a popularly elected Constituent Assembly. But in January, after just one meeting, Lenin will dissolve the SR-dominated assembly. For Fanya, this will be unforgivable. And soon, she will come to see Lenin as a traitor to the revolution, someone who is setting back the cause of socialism. This realization will push her to take action herself, leading Fanya to plot her second assassination attempt, this time on Soviet Russia’s new leftist leader.
Act Two: The Assassination Attempt
It’s just after 8 pm on August 30th, 1918 outside an arms factory in Moscow; one year after Fanya’s release from her prison camp.
On the sidewalk outside the factory, a crowd of residents stream past the building. Some stroll by, enjoying the warm summer night. Others stop, waiting to catch a glimpse of Vladimir Lenin who is currently speaking to workers inside the factory.
But one woman is there for a more sinister purpose. Toward the back of the crowd, Fanya eyes the factory exit that she knows Lenin will use. Today, she wears a wide-brimmed hat. In one hand, she has a green umbrella. In the other, she holds a briefcase; inside is the gun that she plans to use to assassinate Lenin.
For months, Socialist Revolutionaries like Fanya have become convinced that the only way to undermine the Bolsheviks is to target their leader. And Fanya believes now is the time to strike.
At the end of World War One, many Allied powers continued fighting in support of the White Army during Russia’s Civil War. But despite Allied support, including that from France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the Red Army has shown no signs of breaking.
So many opposing the Bolsheviks have resorted to guerilla tactics, including assassination. Just this morning, an anti-Bolshevik socialist successfully killed the chief of Lenin’s secret police in Petrograd. Earlier this year, two attempts were also made on Lenin’s life, but both failed. Fanya hopes today will be different.
Tonight, she plans to take advantage of Lenin’s public appearance at the arms factory, taking her shot as the leader leaves the building. Fanya knows it’s risky. Moscow’s residents are all around her. She doesn’t care if she gets caught. Fanya’s prepared to sacrifice her life for the cause.
So, Fanya waits patiently outside the factory until the exit door opens. She watches as Vladimir Lenin walks out into the street, surrounded by factory workers. And as Lenin heads toward the car waiting for him, Fanya lingers in the back of the crowd, her eyes locked on Lenin.
She watches as one woman approaches him and asks a question about Russia’s flour shortages. With one foot already on the floorboard of his car, Lenin turns around to answer her. And as he does, Fanya realizes now is the time to make her move.
Quickly, she reaches inside her briefcase, pulls out her pistol, and fires three times.
One bullet passes through Lenin’s coat. But the other two strike the leader, one in the neck and the other in his shoulder.
Lenin crumples to the ground. The crowd around her lets out screams of horror at the sight of his bloody, motionless body in the street. And quickly, the city’s residents begin to run away in fear, scattering in every direction.
As they flee, Fanya puts her gun back inside her briefcase and hides behind a nearby tree. From there, she watches as Red Guards flood the street. A group of them lift the unconscious Lenin into his car, while others begin arresting nearby suspects.
Soon, one of them notices Fanya behind the tree. And as he walks up to her, she sees him eye her briefcase with curiosity. Fanya tries to walk away, but the officer calls her back. Reluctantly, Fanya turns around.
The officer demands to know what she’s doing, and what's in the briefcase. In response, Fanya defiantly asks him why he wants to know. The officer arches an eyebrow and grabs her and the briefcase, opening it up to reveal the gun. Immediately, he marches her off to the local police station.
As Fanya walks away from the crime scene, she glances back in time to see Lenin’s car start to race toward the Kremlin. As she watches it disappear in the distance, Fanya wonders if her shots were enough to prove fatal.
And soon, she will discover that they were not. By the time Lenin arrives at his living quarters in the Kremlin, he will regain consciousness. His wounds will prove severe. The bullet that passed through his neck also punctured his left lung. Both he and his aides will be unsure if he’ll live or die. And Lenin will refuse to leave the security of the Kremlin to go to the hospital.
But, eventually, doctors will come to him. There, they will struggle to remove the bullets without the facilities of a hospital. But Lenin will pull through. And even as the leftist leader will fight to stay alive, elsewhere in Moscow, Fanya will begin to prepare to die.
Act Three: The Red Terror Begins
It’s late at night on August 30th, 1918 at a Moscow police station, only a few hours after Fanya Kaplan shot Vladimir Lenin.
Inside, Fanya sits on a couch as officers mill about the room, wondering what to do with the suspected shooter.
They are still unsure whether Fanya is the one who fired the shots. Though they discovered a gun on her, they haven’t found any witnesses to confirm that she was the assassin. And Fanya has refused to give them any explanation for her presence outside the factory or why she was carrying a gun.
But that is about to change. Fanya knows that if she admits to attempting to murder Lenin, she will immediately be put to death. But Fanya believes the socialist cause is worth her sacrifice. And she wants to own her fate.
So, Fanya stands up from the couch. And as officers turn to look at her, Fanya loudly confesses to her crime, declaring, “I shot Lenin.”
But she refuses to give the officers any more information. Instead, Fanya makes the following statement during her interrogation: “My name is Fanya Kaplan. Today I shot Lenin. I did it on my own. I will not say from whom I obtained my revolver. I will give no details.”
By the following morning, Lenin will be on the road to recovery while Fanya will be preparing for her execution. Just a few days after her arrest, Fanya will be shot in the back of the head in the gardens of the Kremlin. On orders to destroy her remains completely, Fanya’s corpse will then be bundled into a barrel and set alight.
But Fanya’s death will be only the first of many to come.
Despite Fanya’s refusal to reveal her connection to the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks will still tie the party to the assassination attempt, with sympathetic newspapers declaring that the time has come for Russians to turn their hearts into steel and kill their enemies until they drown in their own blood.
Soon, the Bolsheviks will launch a campaign of political repression and executions as retribution for Fanya’s attack. In the next few months, nearly a thousand SRs and other political opponents will be arrested and executed in a wave of brutality known as the Red Terror. Over the next two years, anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 suspected political enemies will be killed.
Though Lenin will survive Fanya’s shooting, he will never fully recover. His wounds are suspected to cause a series of strokes that will incapacitate and eventually kill him. After two years, Lenin’s Red Terror will end with his death in 1924.
But even though the details of Lenin's injuries are clear, Fanya Kaplan's role in the assassination plot is not. Some historians will question whether Fanya was truly the culprit, citing her poor eyesight and the absence of witnesses who saw her fire the gun. Others will argue that Fanya was just one of many conspirators involved in the plot. But regardless of Fanya’s actions on the day Lenin was shot, the impact of her confession will be undeniable, becoming a catalyst for one of the darkest periods of Russia’s history when she set the Red Terror into motion on August 30th, 1918.
Next on History Daily. August 31st, 1997. Princess Diana dies in a car crash after a tumultuous and highly publicized marriage and divorce from Prince Charles.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.