Born: April 10, 1870
Died: January 21, 1924
The Russian statesman Vladimir Lenin was a profoundly influential figure in world history. As the founder of the Bolshevik political party, he was a successful revolutionary leader who presided over Russia's transformation from a country ruled by czars (emperors) to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), the name of the communist Russian state from 1922 to 1991.
Vladimir Ilich Lenin was born in Simbirsk (today Ulianovsk), Russia, on April 10, 1870. His real family name was Ulianov, and his father, Ilia Nikolaevich Ulianov, was a high official in the area's educational system. Because Lenin's father had risen into the ranks of the Russian nobility, Lenin grew up in fairly privileged circumstances. Although he would fight as an adult for a revolution by the working lower classes, he did not come from such a hard-working background himself.
Lenin received the typical education given to the sons of the Russian upper class. Nevertheless, as a young man he began to develop radical (extreme) political views in disagreement with the existing Russian form of government. Russia at this time was ruled by emperors known as czars who inherited their positions, and Lenin's shift to radical views was probably fueled by the execution by hanging of his older brother Alexander in 1887 after Alexander and others had plotted to kill the czar. Lenin graduated from secondary school with high honors and enrolled at Kazan University, but he was expelled after participating in a demonstration. He retired to the family estate but was permitted to continue his studies away from the university. He obtained a law degree in 1891.
In 1893 Lenin moved to St. Petersburg, Russia. By this time he was already a Marxist—an admirer of the German writer Karl Marx (1818–1883). Marx (and his associate Friedrich Engels [1820–1895]) had believed in an international revolution (overthrow of the government) of the poor and lower-class workers (called the proletariat) who would lead the way to a new system of power. Under this new system, Marx argued, property would be owned communally (as a group) and work would be distributed equally. By 1893 Lenin had also become a revolutionary by profession. He wrote controversial papers and articles and tried to organize workers. The St. Petersburg Union for the Struggle for the Liberation of Labor, which Lenin helped create, was one of the seeds that started the Russian Marxist movement.
In 1897 Lenin was arrested, spent some months in jail, and was finally sentenced to three years of exile (forced absence from one's native country or region) in the remote area of Siberia. He was joined there by a fellow Marxist, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1869–1939), whom he married in 1898. During his Siberian exile he produced a major study of the Russian economy, The Development of Capitalism in Russia.
Not long after Lenin was released from Siberia in the summer of 1900, he moved to Europe. He spent most of the next seventeen years there, moving from one country to another frequently. His first step was to join the editorial board of Iskra (The Spark), the central newspaper of Russian Marxism at the time. After parting from Iskra, he edited a series of papers of his own and contributed to other journals promoting socialism (a version of Marxism). His journalistic activity was closely linked with efforts to organize revolutionary groups, partly because the illegal organizational network within Russia was partly based on the distribution of illegal literature.
Organizational activity, in turn, was linked with the selection and training of people who would work for the cause. For some time Lenin conducted a training school for Russian revolutionaries at Longjumeau, a suburb of Paris, France. Finding funds for the movement and its leaders' activities in Europe was also a problem. Lenin could usually depend on financial support from his mother for personal use, but she could not pay for his political activities.
A Marxist movement had developed in Russia during the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was a response to the rapid growth of industry, cities, and the proletariat (a group of lower-class workers, especially in industry). Its first intellectual spokesmen were people who had turned away from relying on the peasants (rural poor people) of the Russian villages and countryside, and they placed their hopes on the proletariat. They aimed for a revolution that would transform Russia into a democratic republic. Lenin's writings and work focused on the role of the proletariat as promoters of this revolution. However, he also stressed the role of intellectuals (people engaged in thinking) who would provide the movement with the theories that would guide the revolution's progress.
Lenin expressed these ideas in his important book What's to Be Done? in 1902. When the leaders of Russian Marxism gathered for the first important party meeting in 1903, these ideas clashed with the idea of a looser, more democratic workers' party that was promoted by Lenin's old friend Iuli Martov (1873–1923). This disagreement over the nature and organization of the party was complicated by many other conflicts, and from its first important gathering Russian Marxism split into two factions (opposing groups). The one led by Lenin called itself the majority faction (bolsheviki, or the Bolsheviks), while the other took the name of minority faction (mensheviki, or the Mensheviks). The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks disagreed not only over how to organize the movement but also over most other political problems.
In 1905 an uprising now known as the Revolution of 1905 occurred in Russia. Widespread revolt against the Russian czar's government spread throughout the country, but was eventually put to an end by the government. This revolt among the Russian people surprised all Russian revolutionary leaders, including the Bolsheviks. Lenin managed to return to Russia only in November, when the defeat of the revolution was practically certain. But he was among the last to give up.
Over the next twelve years bolshevism, which had begun as a faction within the Russian Social-Democratic Workers party, gradually emerged as an independent party that had cut its ties with all other Russian Marxists. The process involved long and bitter arguments against Mensheviks as well as against all those who worked to reunite the factions. It involved fights over funds, struggles for control of newspapers, the development of rival organizations, and meetings of rival groups. Disputes concerned many questions about the goals and strategies of Marxism and the role of national (rather than international) struggles within Marxism.
Since about 1905 the international socialist movement had begun also to discuss the possibility of a major war breaking out among European nations. In 1907 and 1912, members met and condemned such wars in advance, pledging not to support them. Lenin had wanted to go further than that. He had urged active opposition to the war effort and a transformation of any war into a proletarian revolution. When World War I (1914–1918; a conflict involving most European nations, as well as Russia, the United States, and Japan) broke out, most socialist leaders in the countries involved supported the war effort. For Lenin, this was proof that he and the other leaders shared no common aims or views. The break between the two schools of Marxism could not be fixed.
During World War I (1914–18) Lenin lived in Switzerland. He attended several conferences of radical socialists opposed to the war. He read a large amount of literature on the Marxist idea of state government and wrote a first draft for a book on the subject, The State and Revolution. He also studied literature dealing with world politics of the time and wrote an important book, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, in 1916. By the beginning of 1917 he had fits of depression and wrote to a close friend that he thought he would never see another revolution. This was about a month before the overthrow of the Russian czar in the winter of 1917, which marked the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
It took a good deal of negotiation and courage for Lenin and a group of like-minded Russian revolutionaries to travel from Switzerland back to Russia through the enemy country of Germany. The man who returned to Russia in the spring of 1917 was of medium height, quite bald, except for the back of his head, with a reddish beard. The features of his face were striking—slanted eyes that looked piercingly at others, and high cheek-bones under a towering forehead. The rest of his appearance was deceptively ordinary.
Fluent in many languages, Lenin spoke Russian with a slight speech defect but was a powerful public speaker in small groups as well as before large audiences. A tireless worker, he made others work tirelessly. He tried to push those who worked with him to devote every ounce of their energy to the revolutionary task at hand. He was impatient with any other activities, including small talk and discussions of political theories. Indeed, he was suspicious of intellectuals and felt most at home in the company of simple folk. Having been brought up in the tradition of the Russian nobility, Lenin loved hunting, hiking, horseback riding, boating, mushroom hunting, and the outdoor life in general.
Once he had returned to Russia, Lenin worked constantly to use the revolutionary situation that had been created by the fall of the czar and convert it into a proletarian revolution that would bring his own party into power. As a result of his activities, opinions in Russia quickly became more and more sharply at odds. Moderate forces found themselves less and less able to maintain any control. In the end, by October 1917 power fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks. As a result of the so-called October Revolution, Lenin found himself not only the leader of his party but also the chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (equivalent to prime minister) of the newly proclaimed Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (the basis for the future Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
During the next few years Lenin was essentially dictator (a ruler with unquestionable authority) of Russia. The major task he faced was establishing this authority for himself and his party in the country. Most of his policies can be understood in this light, even though he angered some elements in the population while satisfying others. Examples of such policies include the government's seizing of land from its owners and redistributing it to the peasants, forming a peace treaty with Germany, and the nationalization (putting under central governmental control) of banks and industry.
From 1918 to 1921 a fierce civil war raged, which the Bolsheviks finally won against seemingly overwhelming odds. During the civil war Lenin tightened his party's dictatorship and eventually eliminated all rival political parties. Lenin had to create an entirely new political system with the help of inexperienced people. He was also heading a failing economy and had to create desperate means for putting people to work. He also created the Third (Communist) International, an association of parties that promoted the spread of the revolution to other countries and that enforced the Soviet system as a model for this movement. Meanwhile he had to cope with conflict and criticism from his own party colleagues.
When the civil war had been won and the regime firmly established, the economy was ruined, and much of the population was bitterly opposed to the regime. At this point Lenin reversed many of his policies and instituted a reform called the New Economic Policy. It was a temporary retreat from the goal of establishing socialism at once. Instead, the stress of the party's policies would be on economic rebuilding and on the education of a peasant population for life in the twentieth century. In the long run, Lenin hoped both these policies would make the benefits of socialism obvious to all, so the country would gradually grow into socialism.
On May 26, 1922, Lenin suffered a serious stroke (a loss of consciousness due to the rupture or blockage of an artery in the brain). After recovering from this first stroke, he suffered a second on December 16. He was so seriously ill that he could participate in political matters only occasionally. He moved to a country home at Gorki, Russia, near Moscow, where he died on January 21, 1924.
Carrère d'Encausse, Hélène. Lenin. New York: Holmes & Meier, 2001.
Cliff, Tony. Lenin. London: Pluto Press, 1979.
Service, Robert. Lenin—A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Volkogonov, Dmitri. Lenin: A New Biography. New York: Free Press, 1994.