Table of Contents


In Brief

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who later became known as Lenin, was born in April 1870 in Simbirsk in Russia and he died on the 21st of January 1924 in Gorki in the USSR. The exact date of his birth is uncertain and is variously said to be the 10th, 20th or 22nd of April 1870.

Lenin studied law at Kazan university and there became interested in revolutionary politics. He became a lawyer in Samara, then went to Saint Petersburg. Mixing with people of a revolutionary inclination, he formed, with friends, the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. He was arrested and jailed. On release from jail he left Russia. He formed the Bolsheviks and returned to Russia in 1905. In 1911 he left Russia again. A supposed Bolshevik was elected to the Russian Duma in 1912, but he worked with the Secret Police against Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

In 1917 Lenin returned to Russia, and the Bolsheviks battled for power. Lenin became a member of the Politburo in 1919. He implemented social and economic changes in Russia along Marxist lines. He became Premier of the Soviet Union in 1922. When he died he was succeeded by Josef Stalin.

In More Detail

Lenin's father was Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov, who was born into a poor family. Ilya's mother was Anna Alexeevna Smirnovaorked. Ilya managed to get into Kazan State University to study mathematics and physics. He then became a teacher at the Penza Institute for the Nobility. In 1863 he married Maria Alexandrovna Blank. Maria's father was a Jewish doctor, Alexander Dmitrievich Blank. Her mother was a German-Swedish woman called Anna Ivanovna Grosschopf. Maria received a good education.

Ilya and Maria moved to Nizhni Novgorod, where he had been offered a job in education. After several years he became Director of Primary Schools for the Simbirsk district, then five years later he became Director of Public Schools. He had to oversee the creation of four hundred and fifty schools as part of Russia's plans to modernize itself. For doing this he was given the Order of St. Vladimir and he became a hereditary member of the nobility.

Ilya and Maria had six children - Anna, Alexander, Vladimir (later to become Lenin), Olga, Dmitry and Maria. Another child, Nikolai, died soon after being born. All the children were baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church, which was Ilya's church, although Ilya's wife was a Lutheran. Essentially, however, she was indifferent to religion.

There was nothing politically radical about Ilya and his wife.

When young, Vladimir showed signs of being competitive and domineering. He enjoyed sport and chess. His father pushed him to study hard, and he did well at school (the Simbirsk Classical Gimnazia).

Ilya died on the 12th of January 1886. This affected the teenage Vladimir's behavior and made him aggressive and unpredictable. He lost any belief in God that he had.

Vladimir's elder brother Alexander was at Saint Petersburg University, doing well in his biology studies. He got involved in left wing reactionary politics and campaigned for the overthrow of the Tsar, Alexander III. One of the left wing politicians' works he studied was that of Karl Marx. Marx's writings were banned in Russia at the time. He joined a political group that had the goal of assassinating the Tsar. He was given the job of making a bomb. Before the group could carry out its plans, however, its members were arrested. They were put on trial, and on the 25th of April 1887 Alexander was sentenced to death (along with four others) by hanging. The sentence was carried out on the 8th of May. In those days hanging did not involve having the victim fall through a trapdoor so that their neck broke, but rather they stood on a bucket with a noose around their neck and the bucket was then kicked away so that the victim was strangled.

The death of his brother, on top of the death of his father, was obviously very difficult for Vladimir to come to terms with, but he persisted with his studies and did so well that he was awarded a gold medal when he left.

He decided to go to Kazan University to study law, and entered the university in the August of 1887. Vladimir's mother rented out their home in Simbirsk and she and Vladimir rented an apartment in Kazan. Having radical political ideas like his dead brother Alexander, Vladimir began to meet up with a group run by the revolutionary socialist Lazar Bogoraz. He then joined Kazan University's outlawed Samara-Simbirsk society (a society of male students from Samara and Simbirsk). They voted for Vladimir to be their society's representative on the university's council (illegal of course) for such societies. On the 4th of December 1887 he demonstrated with a hundred others to have the statute banning such societies to be repealed and to have them made legal. As a consequence he and the other demonstrators were arrested by the police. Because he was regarded as one of the instigators of the demonstration he was expelled from Kazan University. After that he was put under police surveillance.

In September the next year his mother suggested he write to the Ministry of the Interior to ask if they would let him study at a university abroad. They said 'no', but allowed him to return to the city of Kazan (but not to the university). This he did, along with his mother and his brother Dmitry.

Once back in Kazan he joined a revolutionary group and read Karl Marx's Das Kapital. Marx's ideas appealed to him. These revolutionary ideas unsettled his mother, so she bought a country estate in the Samara region where they could live, hoping that Vladimir would turn away from politics and instead become interested in the life of a country landowner. Unfortunately as a rich man with a rather patronizing interest in his social and economic inferiors he annoyed the local people and they started stealing his animals and his farming equipment, so his mother soon sold the country estate.

Towards the end of 1889 they moved to Samara and Vladimir joined a Marxist group. He read Friedrich Engels's Communist Manifesto and translated it into Russian. He sided with Georgi Plekhanov's view that Russia was moving from being a feudal society to being a capitalistic society. He linked himself to the People's Freedom Party, although he advised against using criminal means to achieve power, and instead suggested working within the existing political system.

The following year Vladimir was able to go to the University of Saint Petersburg to take his final exams to qualify for a degree. He achieved first class honors. Unfortunately that year his sister Olga died of typhoid.

For the next few years Vladimir remained in Samara. He got a job at the beginning of 1892 as a legal assistant at one of the local courts. After that he worked for a local law firm. He still remained a political radical and wanted to try to put Marxist ideas into effect in Russia. He grew more distant from the People's Freedom Party.

In the fall of 1893 he went to live in Saint Petersburg. There he took a job as a lawyer's assistant. He joined a revolutionary group of Marxists who called themselves the Social Democrats. With his extensive academic knowledge he became a leading member of the group.

In January of the following year he came to the attention of the secret police when he debated his political beliefs in public. He sought to attract funds to pay for the publishing of political literature and to create groups of revolutionaries throughout Russia. By the fall of that year he was leading a group of socialist workers who met once a week. By this time Vladimir knew that the secret police were keeping an eye on him and he was on his guard against any of them surreptitiously becoming members of his group.

The People's Freedom Party had been superseded by the Socialist–Revolutionary Party and, just as with their predecessors, Vladimir disagreed with their views and policies. They wanted rural socialist peasants to rise up against the government, reasoning that as there were many more rural working class people than urban working class people, such an uprising had a much greater chance of success than an urban uprising. Marxists were against this as they felt all the rural peasantry would really be interested in would be seizing ownership of land and becoming capitalists, whereas they felt the urban proletariat would be genuinely interested in promoting socialist ideas rather than the ownership of property and businesses.

There was a Marxist group in Geneva in Switzerland called the Emancipation of Labor, and Vladimir wanted this group to form a connection with his own Social Democrats party. To this effect he went to Geneva to meet the leader of the party there - Pleckhanov. The latter, however, whilst being generally supportive of Vladimir, felt the Social Democrats failed to recognize the role the middle classes could play in any revolution.

Vladimir, being funded by his mother, then traveled to Zurich, Paris and Berlin where he met up with fellow Marxists and did academic research into socialist ideas. Returning to Russia, he took with him papers that in Russia were illegal. Despite being aware that he was still being monitored by the secret police, he distributed this literature in various cities in Russia. Wanting to produce a socialist news sheet, he, along with other people urging revolution, was arrested before the news sheet could be published.

He was sent to jail before his trial. Denied a lawyer to represent him, he pleaded not guilty to charges of sedition. He was refused bail and spent a year in prison. He spent much of this time writing. He was then sentenced, without trial, to three years exile in Siberia. With many of the other leaders of the Social Democrats, which had now changed its name to the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, having also been jailed or exiled, the party was now led by non-academic working class people. Nonetheless Vladimir was still broadly supportive of the party.

By the time he went off to his place of exile in early 1897 there were about three hundred thousand revolutionaries and other people regarded as criminals by the Russian state either imprisoned or in labor camps or sent into exile. Vladimir was expected to make his way to his place of exile under his own steam. This he did accompanied by his sisters and mother, the journey to Siberia taking almost three months. Vladimir then rented a simple peasant's hut to live in. His freedom was curtailed by being under police surveillance. Nonetheless he was still able to communicate with some of his fellow Marxist revolutionaries.

In 1894 Vladimir had formed a relationship with a female revolutionary called Nadezhda Krupskaya (affectionately known as Nadya). In the May of 1898 she joined Vladimir in exile, having been arrested two years previously for her insurgent activities. Originally she had been banished to Ufa, but she claimed to be engaged to Vladimir and therefore requested to go and stay with him on that basis. They did indeed get married on the 10th of July 1898. Vladimir and Nadya lived together with Nadya's mother and occupied themselves with studying socialism and translating foreign socialist works into Russian.

Vladimir was by this time in favor of the use of violence to achieve a revolution.

After being released from exile in February 1900, Vladimir was forbidden to go to Saint Petersburg, so he moved to a small town called Pskov which was about a two-hour train journey from the Russian capital. Vladimir's wife, who was still in exile, had been sent back to Ufa.

Meanwhile the Marxist movement in Russia had again changed its name, now calling itself the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Vladimir and a fellow Marxist raised the money to produce a newspaper called The Spark for the movement. Vladimir then left Russia and went to Germany and Switzerland. In the latter country Vladimir met up with his old socialist contact Plekhanov, but found him too domineering to be able to get on with, and he also disliked Plekhanov's strident anti-Semitism. It was then decided to produce The Spark in Germany in Munich, so Vladimir went there in September of 1900. The first issue of The Spark came out on the 24th of December 1900. It continued to be published for decades, and was illegally distributed in Russia. From 1902 a Marxist from Ukraine called Leon Trotsky became a regular contributor to the publication.

It was in December of 1901 that Vladimir adopted the pseudonym of Lenin for his role as a political activist, and produced written material under this name from the following year.

Nadya was released from exile and joined Lenin in Munich and helped him work on The Spark. By this time Lenin had accepted the idea that a revolution by the rural peasantry could be effective in toppling the government and the Royal family.

In the summer of 1903 Lenin went to the 2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. It started in Brussels in Belgium, but then it seems that the Russians put pressure on the Belgian government to ban it, so it then continued in London in England. Here the Marxist movement split into two camps - the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks, led by Martov. The differences were that Lenin wanted a small Marxist party made up of people who would be professional revolutionaries, and he also wanted urban and rural working class people to join together to overthrow the royal family. Martov, however, wanted the urban proletariat to join forces with the urban middle class to achieve the same effect. Leon Trotsky differed from both men in that he believed that only the urban working class was necessary to achieve a revolution.

In 1905 there was a revolution in Russia and in November of that year Lenin returned to Russia to take part in it. The following year he was elected to the ruling council of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. However the Tsarists defeated the revolutionaries, so Lenin left Russia again at the end of 1907. He stayed out of the country until the revolutions in 1917. Whilst living abroad he developed his socialist ideas.

During the First World War, socialist parties, even revolutionary ones, tended to side with their respective governments. Lenin was against this on the basis that working class people were essentially fighting for the decisions and interests of their superiors, whereas Lenin felt the working classes should be fighting against their superiors, on an international level as well as a national one. Lenin felt that the outcome of the war almost made no difference because working class people would still basically be the slaves of capitalists no matter what country those capitalists came from.

In September 1914 Lenin moved to Switzerland, which was not involved in the war. First he went to Bern, then he went to Zurich. In 1915 he proposed at the Zimmerwald Conference that the war should be turned into a class war rather than a fight over land and resources and control over people. His proposal was rejected.

Lenin's view was that imperialism - the desire to extend control over territory, resources and people - was really a display of capitalism at its extreme. In other words imperialism was based almost solely on materialistic concerns (including financial concerns, as money buys material benefits and advantages).

In February 1917 Tsar Nicholas II abdicated because of popular demonstrations against him. Russia was then governed by a fractious coalition of existing political figures and representatives of anti-Tsarist councils (Soviets) elected by ordinary working class people. From his home in Switzerland, Lenin urged fellow Marxists to try to foment similar revolutions and the seizing of political power by ordinary people in other countries. He wanted to return to Russia, but of course this was difficult with a war going on all around Switzerland. Negotiations were started to allow Lenin and other exiles to travel through Germany, and eventually this permission was granted because the Germans wanted revolutionary figures like Lenin to return to Russia and further unsettle the country's current political leaders and weaken their commitment to being involved in the war. A train was provided for Lenin and other Russian anti-establishment exiles and it was allowed to travel unmolested through war-torn Europe. The exiles went to Sweden and then on to Russia. This was in April 1917. To further their aims, the Germans funded the exiles. When this was discovered by the Russian government in July, an arrest warrant was issued for Lenin and the Bolsheviks were outlawed.

Back in Russia, and having been given a rapturous reception by the public, Lenin called on working class people to engage everywhere in class-based civil war against capitalists and the middle class. He said that the February 1917 revolution was insufficient and that further revolution was needed. He was not satisfied by the existing coalition government and wanted councils of urban and rural working class people to have complete control of the government and of local government too.

This extreme rhetoric did not go down well either with the Bolsheviks or the government. The previous month Josef Stalin and Lev Kamenev had returned from Siberia where they had been exiled, and, through taking control of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, they publicly supported the coalition government. It was Lenin's belief, however, that further revolution in Russia would lead to similar socialist revolutions in other countries, and so would further the process that he wanted to see develop everywhere. He saw things from an international perspective, not a purely Russian one. European politicians, fearing this, started to distance their countries from involvement with Russia.

Riots took place in July, and this, along with the knowledge of Germany's support for Lenin and other Bolsheviks, was what prompted the government to ban the Bolsheviks and issue the arrest warrant for Lenin, who promptly fled to Finland. He now wanted there to be a violent uprising by soldiers and the proletariat against the coalition government. Russia should through means of force become governed by 'Soviets' - councils composed of, and elected by, working class people and ordinary soldiers.

A military coup was attempted by the Russian Army's Commander-in-Chief, General Lavr Kornilov, in August 1917. The coalition government became fearful and allowed the Bolshevik councils to form an armed guard to resist the coup, which subsequently failed. This made people sense that the Bolshevik councils by themselves were stronger than the coalition government. Consequently in that month the Bolsheviks secured control of Petrograd (the city against which the coup had been attempted) and then the following month they got control of Moscow. Lenin was then able to return to Russia. He then organized insurrection against the Russian coalition government, which yielded completely to the Bolsheviks in November 1917. The Bolsheviks now governed Russia.

It wasn't the case that all socialists wanted government purely by Soviets. Martov for example was against it. The Bolsheviks overcame socialists such as the Mensheviks, however, and got their way.

On the 26th of October 1917 Lenin went to the Congress of Soviets to address the people that made it up. Physically he was not an impressive sight, being rather short and stocky and not smartly dressed, but his intellect and understanding of situations and possibilities impressed his listeners. He called for other countries to cease fighting and negotiate peaceful settlements. He also called for ownership of land in Russia to be transferred to the Soviets. Congress then voted Bolsheviks onto the Council of People's Commissars. Bolsheviks then offered Council positions to members of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. (The Mensheviks formed the Right Socialist Revolutionaries.) At this point the Left Socialist Revolutionaries turned down this offer, but the following month they accepted it.

Trotsky was offered the position of Chairman of the Council, but he refused because he believed that his being a Jew could cause resentment in people, so instead he was given the post of Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Lenin became Chairman of the Council and thus became head of state.

A Soviet Central Executive Committee was formed which, although it had a Bolshevik majority, also had on it people from both the Right and Left Socialist Revolutionaries.

In December 1917 Lenin ordered the creation of the Cheka, or The Whole-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. This was a secret police force, run by Felix Dzerzhinsky, whose job it was to deal with anyone who was opposed to the socialist revolution or the Bolsheviks. This could be done by censoring or closing down critical publications. Even Bolshevik publications were banned from criticizing the Cheka. Later on, opponents of the revolution and Bolshevism would be dealt with brutally.

Now a decision had to be taken as to what to do about the ongoing war. Leon Trotsky tried to negotiate a peace treaty with the Germans, but failed. The Germans continued to advance into west Russia. Lenin's suggestion was simply to cease fighting and cede to the Germans the territory that they had taken by then. This was agreed and it marked the end of Russia's involvement in the First World War. Because of Germany's advance towards Petrograd, the capital of Russia was changed to Moscow, which was further away from its western border. This ceding of territory was opposed by Socialist Revolutionaries, and this caused political conflict. The Bolsheviks dealt with this by jailing and harassing people who opposed them.

In January 1918 an assassination attempt was made on Lenin's life when he was shot at as he travelled in a car after making a speech.

In August of that year another attempt was made to shoot him, this time as he was standing outside his car talking to someone. Fanya Kaplan approached and shot at him three times. She shot him in the arm and the jaw. Her third shot hit the person Lenin was speaking to. Lenin took some time to recover adequately from being shot.

Earlier in August 1918 the Petrograd Cheka chief Moisei Uritsky had been assassinated. Lenin's response to this and the subsequent attempt on his own life was to order a vicious crackdown on anyone who was anti-Bolshevik. This violent persecution was known as the Red Terror and it was announced to the public on the 1st of September 1918. Hundreds of people were ordered to be executed. Later tens of thousands would be murdered. Over the next three years tens of thousands of people were also imprisoned in labor camps. Lenin was a great advocate of brutality as a way of instilling long-term fear in any people who might be contemplating opposing Bolshevism.

During this time there was civil war as the Red Terror took place, opposed by the White Terror, which was the attacking of Communists, Jews and anti-monarchists. Lenin annexed Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia because they were used as bases by the White Movement. The civil war was ruinous for Russia. Lenin began to requisition food and labor and property from citizens, even peasants, causing much resentment and resistance, which Lenin again dealt with by using brutality. In total during this civil conflict something like five million people were killed.

One of Lenin's initial aims in developing living standards for ordinary people in Russia was to improve standards in rural parts of Russia by extending the supply of electricity to those parts. As well as extending electricity supplies throughout Russia from 1920 onwards, free education was introduced, and universal health care. Extra rights were granted to women.

As far as industrial enterprise was concerned, every enterprise had a leader to whom workers could raise complaints and make suggestions, but workers had to go along with whatever the leader decided. This hardly went along with socialist ideals but it was necessary to avoid conflict and chaos and to keep enterprises functioning well.

In 1921, so as to aid economic recovery from the effects of the civil war, Lenin permitted private enterprise and a free market economy where prices were not set by the state.

Lenin would have liked to see communist revolutions taking place all around the world, but this was not to be, although communism, or at least some degree of socialism, did take a grip in many countries.

In 1922 and early 1923 Lenin suffered three strokes. This made it effectively impossible for him to continue ruling Russia (by now called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). After the third stroke he could not speak and he was confined to bed.

In 1922 Josef Stalin had become General Secretary of the Communist Party. Lenin did not want Stalin to become leader of the USSR after his death, but this was indeed what happened after Lenin died at Gorki on the 21st of January 1924. Lenin's body was transported to Moscow where it lay in state for three days. In his honor Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. (In 1991 it was renamed Saint Petersburg.)


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