What were Lenin’s favourite outdoor activities? Addressing crowds of workers and peasants? Chasing down whiteguard counter-revolutionaries? Not even close. What about ice-skating (at which he was very proficient), hunting (at which he was completely hopeless), or swimming? Getting closer. But the answer would have to be either long-distance hiking … or cycling.
He and Nadya (Nadezhda Krupskaya) would go for long, long walks in the Swiss mountains, on the Siberian steppes, in the countryside around Krakow, Paris, Munich or Copenhagen. But they would also cycle.
In letters to his mother, sisters and brothers, written by either Lenin or Krupskaya, we find constant references to cycling (all references from Collected Works, volume 37). It soon became a primary mode of transport for everyday life, relaxation and holidays. In exile from Russia, Lenin first notices bicycles in Munich: ‘The traffic in the streets here’, he writes to his mother 1901, ‘is far less than in an equally large Russian city; this is because the electric trams and bicycles are completely ousting cabs’ (p. 332). However, it would take another few years before he and Nadya actually got on some bicycles, first on holiday in Stjernsund, Sweden, where they were soon ‘leading a holiday life – bathing in the sea, cycling’ (p. 369), and then more regularly in Geneva, which seems to have been very congenial for a novice cyclist. In addition to his notorious cold bath or shower at 6 am, Lenin now refers regularly to cycling in his letters (p. 387).
By 1908 they were planning a move to Paris, and by now the bicycles were important enough to contemplate taking with them: ‘We are going to find out what to do with the bicycles. It is a pity to leave them behind; they are excellent things for holidays and pleasure trips’ (p. 397). But Paris was not Geneva, especially in terms of traffic. Soon after arriving, Lenin writes to his sister:
I have received your postcard – merci for the news. As far as the bicycle is concerned I thought I should soon receive the money, but matters have dragged on. I have a suit pending and hope to win it. I was riding from Juvisy when a motorcar ran into me and smashed my bicycle (I managed to jump off). People helped me take the number and acted as witnesses. I have found out who the owner of the car is (a viscount, the devil take him!) and now I have taken him to court (through a lawyer). I should not be riding now, anyway, it is too cold (although it’s a good winter, wonderful for walks)’ (p. 447).
By the end of the month (January 1910) the case had gone in his favour and he was back on the bike: ‘The weather is fine and I intend to start cycling again since I have won the case and should get my money from the owner soon’ (p. 452-3; see also p. 450). All the same, he continued to curse Parisian traffic: ‘I have often thought of the danger of accidents when I have been riding my bicycle through the centre of Paris, where the traffic is simply hellish’ (p. 452).
Yet now Lenin was hooked, a committed cyclist who would get out whenever he could – as did Nadya. Not being city people, they preferred places on the edge of town and close by the country. Later that year, he writes to his sister Anna: ‘I have been cycling for some time and I often go for rides in the country around Paris, especially as we live quite near the fortifications, i.e., near the city boundary’ (p. 458). They would send postcards from cycling tours, such as this one from June, 2010:
Greetings to you, Anyuta and Mitya from our Sunday excursion. Nadya and I are cycling. Meudon Forest is a good place and close by, 45 minutes from Paris. I have received and answered Anyuta’s letter. A big hug from myself and Nadya.
V. U.’ (p. 460).
In fact, like any good cyclist Lenin grew impatient for spring, when he could get out his bike and start riding again. As he writes to his mother: ‘It seems that we are having an early spring here this year. Some days ago I again went cycling in the woods – the fruit trees in the orchards are all covered in white, “as though bathed in milk”, and such a wonderful perfume – a really delightful spring! It is a pity I cycled alone; Nadya has caught cold, has lost her voice and has to stay at home’ (p. 475). On such rides he would encounter storms, weariness, exhilaration … and flat tires, that universal moment of the cyclist. Nadya narrates from Krakow in March 1914: ‘Volodya went for quite a long ride on his bicycle but had a burst tyre’ (p. 515). And he could sometimes overdo it, as Nadya puts it in a letter to his mother: ‘It is very beautiful here [in Poronin, Poland]. Fortunately you cannot do a lot of cycling, because Volodya used to abuse that amusement and overtire himself’ (p. 498).
In other words, the leader of the most successful communist revolution ever was a committed cyclist, pedalling as often and as far as he was able. An image of a typical day for Lenin is provided in this description by Nadya from their time at the socialist commune in Longjumeau, France, in 1911:
‘Volodya is making good use of the summer. He does his work out in the open, rides his bicycle a lot, goes bathing and is altogether pleased with country life. This week we have been cycling our heads off. We made three excursions of 70 to 75 kilometres each, and have explored three forests – it was fine. Volodya is extremely fond of excursions that begin at six or seven in the morning and last until late at night’ (p. 610).