Lenin’s birthday, Part One: On writing in invisible ink

22 Apr

Lenin and children (painting by Maya Nachiporenko, 1986)

Today is Lenin’s birthday. I remember the date well because for the first decade of my life it was part of my childhood mythology. April 22 was a sacred (of sorts) day – second only to bigger holidays, like the anniversary of the Revolution on November 7th or May Day. The founder of the Soviet state was my and all of my friends’ very own and affectionately apostrophized Grandpa Lenin who was rumored to have been great with children. He was a great superhero to have had growing up.

There was even a minor literary genre of children’s stories about Lenin. Of these stories I remember one particularly well. In it, Lenin, incarcerated by the evil Tsar, was not allowed to have ink and paper to write on (his words, we were told, were dangerous to his captors). But the ingenuity of Grandpa Lenin prevailed over the shorsightedness and the inability to see what a great man he was displayed by those who placed him under arrest. Lenin asked that his friends, who were allowed to see him, bring him books – lots of books (for reading was a positive value to instill in us, Soviet children!); he also went on a diet of milk and black bread. Here is the ingenious part: Lenin, the story went, made inkwells out of bread, poured milk into them, and using a quill pen, wrote in the margins of books he was given … in milk. Whenever the guard would come by, Lenin would eat his “inkwell.” If he guard checked the pages of the book for any traces of writing with some smuggled-in pen – well, the margins were all clean and white! Lenin would let his friends take back the books they loaned to him, the friends would bring each page in close proximity to a flame – and the milk script would turn brown, revealing the genius thoughts of our own tireless collective Grandpa about how to make the Revolution.

Needless to say, I tried this out – writing in milk, that is. It works. Try it yourselves on this 142nd birthday of Grandpa Lenin.

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