The Apostle and the Revolutionary

St. Peter and Vladimir Lenin: How They Processed a Traumatic Event in their Lives Changed the World in Very Different Ways

(L) Fra Angelico, “St. Peter Preaching,” 1433. (R) Vladimir Lenin speaks to a crowd on May 5, 1920.
(L) Fra Angelico, “St. Peter Preaching,” 1433. (R) Vladimir Lenin speaks to a crowd on May 5, 1920. (photo: Multiple)

The Apostle Simon Peter and the communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin were men separated by thousands of years of history.

Yet both experienced a life-changing traumatic event in their lives. How they responded to and processed their grief and emotional pain would change the world in very different ways.


Simon Bar Jonah, Inc.

Prior to meeting Jesus of Nazareth, Simon Peter worked in a family business in the important regional fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee. When Peter responded to the call of Jesus, he likely turned over his responsibilities to a relative, and was now a “fisher of men.” Jesus later appointed him leader of His community of believers.

As the Apostles gathered for what would be their final Passover meal together, Jesus turned to Peter, and with great love and urgency said:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22: 31-32)

Peter made a bold proclamation to re-establish the integrity of his leadership among the other apostles, and his unquestioned fidelity to Jesus:

… “Lord, I am ready to go with you to both prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33)

Just a few short hours later all hell was breaking loose. Under the cover of darkness Jesus was arrested, beaten and abused by Temple guards, and facing Roman torture and execution. Peter rightly feared that as the designated leader of the Twelve Apostles he might suffer the same fate. Isolated and afraid, Peter three times publicly denied any association with Jesus.

As the first light of dawn appeared on the horizon, Peter remembered the prophetic warning of his Master at the Last Supper. He was ashamed and cried bitter tears of remorse as Jesus was condemned to suffer the horrific torture of Roman scourging and crucifixion.


Many Years Later…

A seminal event in the development of Vladimir Lenin as an icon of communist revolution occurred many years before the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917. This family trauma occurred shortly after the sudden death of Lenin’s father in 1886.

Tsarist Russia at this time was plagued by inept leadership and a system of government that made it challenging for the nation to evolve and adapt in a rapidly changing world. Idealistic young men who hungered for greater economic development and intellectual freedom had no creative outlet for their passion. Radical leaders seduced youth into embracing terrorism and assassination to advance their cause.

Lenin’s older brother Alexander was one such disenchanted, radicalized youth. On May 4, 1887, Alexander and his four companions, all in their twenties, were arrested after an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the tsar. Despite his mother’s pleas for mercy, on May 8 Alexander and his accomplices were executed.

How did the 17-year-old Vladimir react to the news of his brother’s death? A close friend said, “I saw [his] deep grief but also his determination not to show it…”

After the execution of Alexander, Lenin’s family was shunned by the bourgeois middle class of their hometown of Simbirsk. Town dignitaries who had attended their father’s funeral, and longstanding friends, now rejected and abandoned the family.

Author Victor Sebestyen writes (Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror) how Lenin’s repressed grief, and the family’s painful rejection, metastasized into a seething rage directed at the middle classes:

This triggered the vitriolic, sometimes uncontrollable, loathing for ‘liberals and middle-class do-gooders’ that would henceforth show until his dying day. “The bourgeois… they will always be traitors and cowards,” he declared with monotonous frequency from now onwards…A young boy who rarely thought about politics became radicalized almost overnight.


Divergent Paths of Grief

Imagine if St. Peter had responded like Lenin to his traumatic loss. He might have channeled the powerful emotional energy generated by his shame and grief into acts of revenge and terror against the Temple leadership and Roman forces of occupation. If Peter had chosen this path, he would have destroyed his vocation in Christ and brought the fury of Rome to crush the Church in her infancy.

After the resurrection, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Peter was first called to his special vocation as a “fisher of men,” Jesus revealed another way.

Jesus created an opportunity for Peter to enter into the shame and grief of his three denials, to allow that toxic pain to surface, so that their relationship could be restored within His merciful and healing embrace:

Jesus asked Peter a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was deeply hurt that Jesus had asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” “Lord, you know all things;” he replied, “You know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep. (John 21:17)

It is likely that during this exchange, Peter once again wept. But these tears flowed from healthy grieving, tears of cleansing and restoration. Peter could now be entrusted with pastoral authority in the Kingdom of God; an authority rooted in the deepest humility.


What If Lenin Followed Jesus Instead of Revolution?

Lenin channeled the powerful emotional pain from the loss of his brother, and the rejection of his family, into a passion for revenge. The ideology of communism and class warfare provided the perfect vehicle for his toxic rage.

Imagine what a different course Russian and world history would have taken if Lenin chose the way of humility and faith, and like Peter, poured out his heart to Jesus?

A spiritual and emotional path of healing, perhaps with a holy orthodox priest or layman, would have provided a sacred space to share his pain. Such an experience may have helped the young Lenin see the grave threat to his immortal soul, and the potential for greater evil that would flow from his obsession with revenge through communist revolution.

Lenin might have devoted his life to helping Russia find a way forward in social and economic progress; a vision that respected what was best in her history, including the great spiritual heritage of the Russian Orthodox faith.

Instead the politicized, weaponized rage of Lenin cast a dark and murderous shadow on the 20th century. Communism has been directly responsible for the death of 94 million people worldwide since the Russian Revolution of 1917.

This Holy Week and Easter Season, let us pray that today’s social justice warriors, and people of all political and ideological persuasions reject the poisonous politics of class warfare. May they denounce terror and violence, but also the “softer” terror of seeking the total economic and social destruction of their enemies.

Let us discover with Peter the power of the crucified and Risen Jesus; the life-giving, soul-saving power of sacrificial love.