Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), Russian revolutionary leader and theorist, who presided over the first government of Soviet Russia and then that of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Lenin was the leader of the radical socialist Bolshevik Party (later renamed the Communist Party), which seized power in the October phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917. After the revolution, Lenin headed the new Soviet government that formed in Russia. He became the leader of the USSR upon its founding in 1922. Lenin held the highest post in the Soviet government until his death in 1924, when Joseph Stalin assumed power.
Lenin was born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov in the city of Simbirsk ( now Ul’yanovsk) in central European Russia. (He adopted the pseudonym Lenin, probably derived from the river Lena in Siberia, while doing secret work as a revolutionary.) He was the third of six children born to Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov and Maria Alexandrovna Blank. Ilya Ulyanov was the director of public education for the province of Simbirsk during Lenin’s childhood, and his service to the state earned him the title of hereditary nobleman. While Lenin was finishing school in Simbirsk in 1887, his older brother, Aleksandr, was arrested and executed in Saint Petersburg (then the capital of Russia) for his involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Russian emperor Alexander III. Later that year Lenin entered Kazan’ University (now Kazan’ State University), where he intended to study law. Before completing his first term at the university, however, Lenin was expelled for his involvement in a student demonstration. He settled on his mother’s estate in the village of Kokushkino and pursued his study of law as an external student of Saint Petersburg University (now Saint Petersburg State University).
While living on the estate, Lenin began to immerse himself in the radical political literature of the time. A particular favorite was the novel What Is To Be Done? (1863), by Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky. One of the novel’s main characters, a man named Rakhmetev, lived a life of extreme self-discipline and single-minded focus on revolutionary politics. Rakhmetev served as a model for Lenin, and it was largely these ideals of the Russian revolutionary tradition—which glorified political action and a life fully committed to the cause of revolutionary political change—that shaped Lenin’s political personality. Also about this time, Lenin became acquainted with the revolutionary ideas of German philosopher Karl Marx through Marx’s greatest work, Das Kapital (published in three volumes from 1867 to 1895). Marx’s ideas had a profound impact on Lenin, and he soon came to consider himself a Marxist.
Lenin received his law degree in 1892. He moved to the city of Samara and took a position as a lawyer’s assistant. Lenin’s earlier brush with the authorities limited his prospects as a lawyer, however, and he soon began channeling his ambitions into revolutionary politics. In the mid-1890s Lenin quit his law practice in Samara and settled in Saint Petersburg. There he became associated with a group of radicals who were similarly impressed by the ideas of Marx and the influential Russian Marxist Georgy Plekhanov.
The Marxist activists of Saint Petersburg, with Lenin prominent among them, began working with the industrial workers of the city to increase the workers’ awareness of their political and economic power. Although labor unions were outlawed in Russia at the time, the Marxists agitated and distributed political literature in the industrial districts of the city. They also attempted to help organize strikes to improve working conditions in the factories. In 1895 the Saint Petersburg Marxists formed an organization called the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class to continue these efforts. The union’s central organizers included Lenin and Yuly Martov, a young Marxist who would later become one of Lenin’s great rivals. The small group of intellectuals that formed the union also included Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s future wife and lifelong companion. Lenin and Krupskaya did not have any children.
The Saint Petersburg union was short-lived. Lenin and Martov were arrested by the state police shortly after the union’s formation, and further arrests eventually drew in more than 50 of the Saint Petersburg Marxists. After serving 15 months in prison, Lenin was sentenced in 1897 to three years of exile, which he spent in the southern Siberian region of Minusinsk, in the village of Shushenskoye. Krupskaya was sentenced to exile for a later incident; in order to be together the couple decided to marry, which they did in 1898. The period of exile was not a difficult one for Lenin and Krupskaya. Much of their time was spent reading and writing, and they were also able to earn some money by translating English and German works into Russian. It was during this period in Siberia that Lenin produced his first major work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), in which he attempted to apply the lessons of Marx to the circumstances characterizing Russian society. In the book, Lenin argued that despite its economic backwardness relative to many Western European nations, Russia fit the Marxist model of a capitalist society. While Marx saw the basis for revolution in the struggle between industrial capitalists and workers, Lenin saw a parallel struggle within the Russian peasantry, which he saw as divided into a small wealthy class and a larger impoverished class. For this reason, Lenin believed that Russia was ready for a revolution led by the lower classes—a revolution that would result in the overthrow of the imperial regime and the establishment of a socialist economy and state.
Lenin’s term of exile ended in 1900 and he made his way abroad, first going to Switzerland and then settling in Munich, Germany, where he was joined one year later by Krupskaya. Together with other like-minded Marxists, including Martov and Plekhanov, Lenin became one of the principal editors of the newspaper Iskra (The Spark), first published in Munich in December 1900. The newspaper’s aim was to bring together the Marxist groups scattered throughout Europe, particularly Russia, and to focus them on preparing for the overthrow of the imperial government rather than spending most of their time working for incremental reforms.
While many Marxists in Western Europe—primarily in Germany—had come to favor the strategy of pursuing socialist goals as a legal political party, the Iskra editors considered such an approach a betrayal of the ultimate commitment to socialist revolution. In his Iskra articles, Lenin repeatedly emphasized the need for radical thinking and political activism. He also developed strong views about how an underground Russian revolutionary party should be organized. In 1902 Lenin published a pamphlet in which he argued that the revolution should be led by a party of professional revolutionaries, organized in a disciplined, military-style fashion, who would lead the working masses to an inevitable victory over imperial rule. Lenin titled his pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, echoing the title of Chernyshevsky’s influential novel.
The implications of Lenin’s vision for the Russian Marxists became evident at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), held in 1903. (The First Congress, held in 1898, ended shortly after it convened when most of the delegates were arrested). At this meeting, Lenin and his colleagues debated the issue of party organization and membership. Lenin argued for a tightly organized party, limited in number, with its members actively engaged in organizational work. Other party members, including Martov, opposed this view, arguing that the party should be organized more loosely and should extend membership to anyone who accepted its program. A vote was held on the issue, and Lenin’s side narrowly won. As a result, two factions emerged within the RSDLP: the Bolsheviks (from the Russian word for “majority”), led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (from the word for “minority”), led by Martov. Lenin would spend much of the next few years attacking the Mensheviks and defining his vision of the modern revolutionary party.
During the period of his work on Iskra (1900-1903) and a second newspaper, Vperyod (Forward), begun in 1904, Lenin established himself as the unofficial leader of the RSDLP. However, he was still living abroad and thus was dependent upon intermediaries for information about developments in Russia. In 1904 Russia went to war with Japan (see Russo-Japanese War). A string of military defeats and the strains placed on society by the war made for a tense atmosphere in Saint Petersburg, and by the beginning of 1905 various segments of Russian society, including students and liberal members of the nobility, were calling for political reform. When an unarmed crowd of workers marched to the city’s Winter Palace on January 9 (or January 22, in the Western, or New Style, calendar) to submit a petition to Emperor Nicholas II, security forces fired on the crowd, killing or wounding several hundred marchers (see Bloody Sunday). The crackdown resulted in further strikes and demonstrations throughout the country, beginning the crisis that would become known as the Russian Revolution of 1905.
In October 1905 the emperor issued his October Manifesto, in which he made a number of political concessions, including a commitment to establish a popularly elected legislative assembly called the Duma. Lenin did not return to Russia until November—when the emperor proclaimed an amnesty for all political exiles living abroad—and did not play a significant role in the events of the revolution. By the end of 1905 the imperial government had restored order in Saint Petersburg, and by mid-1906 the government had reasserted complete control over the country. In April 1906 the numerous factions of the RSDLP (not only the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks but various ethnic and national affiliates as well) met in Stockholm, Sweden, for the Fourth Party Congress (the so-called Unity Congress). At the meeting, the RSDLP resolved to support elections to the new Duma, despite the party’s commitment to the objective of revolution. Lenin opposed this resolution, demanding no less than the complete overthrow of the monarchy.
In December 1907 Lenin began his second extended stay in Western Europe, settling first in Geneva, Switzerland, and then in Paris. While the disagreements that divided his Bolsheviks from the Menshevik faction continued, both sides were also experiencing internal turmoil resulting from a decline in membership. In 1912 Lenin and his supporters organized a party conference in Prague. At this conference, Lenin formally broke from his Menshevik opponents and the rest of the RSDLP to form an independent Bolshevik Party.
Lenin settled again in Switzerland, where he spent the initial years of World War I (1914-1918). The war inspired one of Lenin’s most influential works, titled Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). In this book, Lenin argued that the world war was an inevitable outcome of Western capitalism and imperialism, whereby the capitalist states of Europe had come to rely upon aggressive foreign expansion in order to maintain economic profits. Lenin was convinced that the war signaled the final decline of the worldwide capitalist economy and thus was bringing nearer the socialist revolution. He declared himself a “defeatist,” arguing that imperial Russia’s defeat in the war would be the surest means of bringing about revolution in Russia. In advocating Russia’s defeat in World War I, Lenin found himself very much alone among his fellow Russian Marxists, for whom the war had aroused a fair measure of patriotism.
The pressures that the war inflicted on the Russian state eventually produced a second crisis for the imperial government. In late February 1917 (March, New Style), riots broke out in Saint Petersburg (which had been renamed Petrograd in 1914). The riots intensified rapidly, prompting the formation of an emergency committee of the Duma. The committee, composed of liberal politicians, assumed formal governmental powers and declared itself the Provisional Government of Russia on March 1. The other important political body that surfaced at this time was the Petrograd Soviet (Council) of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, an organization composed of elected deputies representing the city’s workers and soldiers. (The soviet had formed during the 1905 revolution but then had been outlawed by the imperial government.) On March 2 the emperor abdicated and the Russian monarchy effectively collapsed. Meanwhile, the revolution spread throughout Russia, resulting in the formation of numerous other soviets.
At this time, Lenin was in Zurich, Switzerland, separated from Russia by the front lines of the war. Lenin was convinced that the revolution must not stop with the assumption of power by the liberal Provisional Government. Instead, he believed it must proceed directly to the final stage of revolution according to Marxist theory: the creation of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”—that is, a government ruling on behalf of Russia’s industrial workers and peasants. Lenin was determined to return to Russia to incite further developments in the revolutionary movement and his own Bolshevik Party. His efforts to return home were thwarted by the French and Italian governments, which refused to let him pass through their countries because they feared that his presence in Russia would threaten the Allied war effort. However, Lenin received assistance from the German authorities, who hoped that his return would promote further political unrest in Russia and thereby help Germany win the war. The Germans sent Lenin to Petrograd in a famous sealed train that ensured his safety as he crossed through Germany, Sweden, and Finland. He arrived in his country’s capital in early April.
Almost immediately after arriving in Petrograd, Lenin issued his famous “April Theses,” in which he argued that the Bolshevik Party must struggle relentlessly to subvert the Provisional Government and must make preparations for an eventual assumption of power by the soviets. In July Lenin was implicated in an abortive armed uprising in Petrograd and was forced to leave the Russian capital for Finland. The objective of seizing power by force remained primary in Lenin’s mind, however, and from his exiled post he agitated ceaselessly for an armed uprising. During his exile in Finland, Lenin also formulated his ideas about socialist government in the famous pamphlet State and Revolution (1918).
Lenin returned to Petrograd in October and continued his demands for an armed uprising. By the end of the month, he finally succeeded in convincing a majority of the Bolshevik Party to favor a seizure of power in the name of—but not by—the soviets. In late October (November, New Style), armed workers, soldiers, and sailors stormed Petrograd’s Winter Palace, the headquarters of the Provisional Government, and arrested members of the government. The second Congress of Soviets, which convened the same day, proclaimed Soviet power.
With the support of another radical party, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left SRs; a splinter group of the more moderate Socialist Revolutionaries), Lenin’s Bolsheviks formed a coalition government headed by the Council of People’s Commissars, of which Lenin was the chairman. The first act of the new government was to issue two decrees: The first decree called for an immediate end to the war in Europe, and the second called for the nationalization of Russian land and authorized the Russian peasantry to forcibly confiscate privately owned lands. The new Soviet government had little popular authority, and few observers believed that it would last, especially given the chaotic atmosphere created by the ongoing world war. Desperate to make conditions more favorable for the new government, Lenin began pushing for peace negotiations with the Germans. On March 3, 1918, the German and Soviet governments signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in which the Soviet government ceded to Germany a vast amount of Russian territory, containing about one-third of Russia’s population, one-third of its cultivated land, and one-half of its industry. Although Lenin was convinced that these harsh terms must be accepted in order to end Russia’s involvement in the war, the treaty was widely unpopular, even within the Soviet government. It contributed to a split between the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs in 1918, which left Lenin and the Bolsheviks in sole control of the Soviet government. World War I continued until November of that year.
In March 1918 the Bolsheviks renamed themselves the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). That summer, former officers of the imperial military, as well as political figures who had been deposed in the Bolshevik seizure of power, began to form anti-Bolshevik armies in southern Russia and Siberia. Called the White armies, these groups strongly opposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the antidemocratic seizure of power by the Bolshevik Party (see White Russians). The Whites were supported by the World War I Allies, who believed that their victory over Germany depended on Russia rejoining the Allied cause. Meanwhile, the Soviet government began to organize its own military force, the Red Army, under the direction of Lenin’s longtime associate Leon Trotsky. In August 1918 Lenin was seriously wounded by two bullets in an assassination attempt carried out by a political opponent. His strong recovery from the wounds, and his quick return to work, did much to contribute to the “cult” of Lenin as a Christlike figure who could perform miracles.
From 1918 to 1921 Russia was torn by a civil war between the White armies and the Red Army of the Soviet government (see Russian Civil War). In the summer of 1918 the Soviet government, under Lenin’s leadership, launched the Red Terror, a brutal campaign aimed at eliminating political opponents among the civilian population. The government also introduced a series of economic policies in an effort to put socialist principles into practice and to respond to Russia’s pressing economic needs. As part of this program, which came to be known as War Communism, the government began forcibly seizing grain and other food products from the peasantry in order to increase the supply of food to army troops and workers in the cities. In urban areas, factories were nationalized and workers were subject to strict discipline.
While contending with civil war and economic upheaval at home, Lenin also turned his attention to the international arena. In March 1919 he organized the Third International, popularly known as the Communist International, or Comintern, to promote world revolution according to the Russian Communist model. The Comintern initially focused on Europe as the center for the future revolution. However, when a European upheaval failed to materialize, the Comintern shifted its attention to Asia, where it supported the cause of colonial peoples struggling against European imperialism.
The policies of War Communism led to significant declines in Russia’s agricultural and industrial output. Widespread strikes and uprisings broke out in cities and rural areas, and by early 1921 mass unrest was threatening the stability of the Soviet government. At the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party, held in March, Lenin introduced a policy of economic liberalization known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). The policy signified a temporary retreat from Lenin’s goal of transforming the Soviet economy into a fully Communist one.
In May 1922 Lenin suffered a stroke. He recovered and resumed work three months later, but then in December he suffered a second stroke and it became apparent that his health was in serious decline. That month the Soviet government declared the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a federal union consisting of Soviet Russia and neighboring areas that were under Russian military occupation or ruled by branches of the Communist movement. Lenin became preoccupied with how the new USSR would be governed after his death. He favored a collective leadership to succeed him and was particularly concerned about the political infighting that had come to divide the party leadership and the Soviet government. In late 1922 and early 1923 Lenin dictated what became known as his “testament,” in which he expressed regret at the direction the Soviet government had taken, with particular emphasis on its dictatorial manner and its complex bureaucracy. He singled out Joseph Stalin, then general secretary of the Communist Party, as the main culprit in many of these trends. Stalin’s aggressive behavior had brought him into conflict with the ailing Lenin.
In March 1923 Lenin suffered a third stroke that deprived him of his ability to speak. A fourth and fatal stroke occurred in January 1924, while Lenin was attempting to recuperate at his villa outside Moscow. Lenin’s death occasioned a bitter struggle for power among members of the Soviet leadership, principally between Stalin and Trotsky. Ultimately, Stalin emerged as the supreme leader of the Communist Party and the USSR.
Although Lenin had wished to be buried alongside his mother in Petrograd, Stalin insisted that Lenin’s body be preserved in a mausoleum for public display. Lenin’s body was embalmed, and in August 1924 the V. I. Lenin Mausoleum opened in Moscow’s Red Square (it was subsequently rebuilt in 1930). After Lenin’s death, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in his honor. It kept that name until 1991, when the Soviet Communist government collapsed and the city was renamed Saint Petersburg.
Lenin was one of the foremost revolutionary leaders of the 20th century. As a politician, he was characterized by remarkable determination, ruthlessness, and sometimes cruelty. Although it was Lenin’s clarity of vision that ultimately guided the Bolsheviks to power, his vision for the future of Russia and the USSR was less clear. Lenin was more successful as a revolutionary leader than as a statesman, and his legacy would contribute to the political and ideological divisions that characterized the Soviet leadership in the 1920s. Lenin’s greatest achievements were those attained in struggle—such as in the Bolsheviks’ bid for power in 1917 and their effort to preserve their authority during the civil war. His leadership, and his conception of the revolutionary party as a disciplined, military-style organization, served as an important model for later revolutionary leaders of the 20th century, such as Mao Zedong of China and Fidel Castro of Cuba. Lenin was also one of the leading Russian writers and thinkers of the period, and his works made important contributions to the development of revolutionary socialist theory.