Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and also known by the pseudonyms Nikolai Lenin and N. Lenin), (April 22, 1870 – January 21, 1924), was a Russian revolutionary, a communist politician, the main leader of the October Revolution, the first head of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic and from 1922, the first de facto leader of the Soviet Union. He was the creator of Leninism, an extension of Marxist theory.
Born in Simbirsk, Russian Empire (now Ulyanovsk), Vladimir had several elder brothers and sisters. His father was a successful Russian official in public education who worked in education and wanted democracy. Lenin was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 1886, Lenin’s father died of a cerebral hemorrhage, and, in May 1887, when Lenin was 17 years old, his eldest brother Alexander was arrested and hanged for participating in a terrorist bomb plot threatening the life of Tsar Alexander III. His sister Anna, who was with Alexander at the time of his arrest, was banished to his family estate in the village of Kokushkino, about 40 km (25 mi.) from Kazan. This event radicalized Lenin, and his official Soviet biographies describe it as central to the revolutionary track of his life. It is also significant, perhaps, that this emotional upheaval transpired in the same year as that which saw him enroll at the Kazan State University. As Lenin became interested in Marxism, he was involved in student protests and was subsequently arrested. He was then expelled from Kazan University for his political ideas. He continued to study independently, however, and it was during this period of exile that he first familiarized himself with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Lenin was later permitted to continue his studies, this time at the University of Saint Petersburg, and, by 1891, had been admitted to the Bar. He also distinguished himself in Latin and Greek, and learned German, French and English. His knowledge of the latter two languages was limited: he relied on Inessa Armand to translate an article into French and into English in 1917. In the same year he also wrote to S. N. Ravich in Geneva “I am unable to lecture in French.”
Lenin practiced as a lawyer for some years in Samara, a port on the Volga river, before moving to St Petersburg in 1893. Rather than pursuing a legal career, he became increasingly involved in revolutionary propaganda efforts, joining the local Marxist group. On December 7, 1895, Lenin was arrested, held by authorities for fourteen months and then released and exiled to the village of Shushenskoye in Siberia, where he mingled with such notable Marxists as Georgy Plekhanov, who had introduced socialism to Russia.
In July 1898, Lenin married socialist activist Nadezhda Krupskaya and he published the book The Development of Capitalism in Russia in April of 1899. In 1900, his exile came to an end, and he began his travels throughout Russia and the rest of Europe. Lenin lived in Zurich, Geneva (where he lectured and studied at Geneva State University), Munich, Prague, Vienna, Manchester and London, and, during this time, he co-founded the newspaper Iskra (“The Spark”) with Julius Martov, who later became a leading opponent. He also wrote several articles and books related to the revolutionary movement, striving to recruit future Social Democrats. He began using various aliases, finally settling upon ‘Lenin’ — ‘N. Lenin’ in full.
Lenin was active in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and, in 1903, led the Bolshevik faction after a split with the Mensheviks. The names ‘Bolshevik’, or ‘Majority’, and ‘Menshevik’, or ‘Minority’, referred to the narrow outvoting of the Mensheviks in the decision to limit party membership to revolutionary professionals, rather than including sympathizers. The division was inspired partly by Lenin’s pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (1901–02), which focused on his revolutionary strategy. It is said to have been one of the most influential pamphlets in pre-revolutionary Russia, with Lenin himself claiming that three out of five workers had either read it or had it read to them. In 1906, Lenin was elected to the Presidium of the RSDLP — but, almost from then right up until the revolutions of 1917, he spent the majority of his time exiled in Europe, where, despite a hard and bitter existence, he managed to continue his political writings.
This self-imposed exile began in 1907, when he moved to Finland for security reasons. In response to philosophical debates on the proper course of a socialist revolution, Lenin completed Materialism and Empirio-criticism in 1909 — a work which became fundamental in the Marxist-Leninist philosophy. Lenin continued to travel in Europe and participated in many socialist meetings and activities, including the Prague Party Conference of 1912. When Inessa Armand left Russia and settled in Paris, she met Lenin and other Bolsheviks living in exile, and it is believed that she was Lenin’s lover during this time. As writer Neil Harding points out, however, although much has been made of this relationship, despite the “slender stock of evidence … we still have no evidence that they were sexually intimate”.
When the First World War began in 1914, and the large Social Democratic parties of Europe (at that time self-described as Marxist, and including luminaries such as Karl Kautsky) supported their various countries’ war efforts, Lenin was absolutely stunned, refusing to believe at first that the German Social Democrats had voted for war credits. This led him to a final split with the Second International, which was composed of these parties. Lenin (against the war in his belief that the peasants and workers were fighting the battle of the bourgeoisie for them) adopted the stance that what he described as an “imperialist war” ought to be turned into a civil war between the classes. As war broke out, Lenin was briefly detained by the Austrian authorities in the town of Poronin, where he was residing at the time. On 5 September 1914 Lenin moved to neutral Switzerland, residing first at Berne and then Zurich. In 1915 he attended the anti-war
Zimmerwald Conference, convened in the Swiss town of that name. Lenin was the main leader of the Zimmerwald Left.
It was in Zurich in the spring of 1916 that Lenin wrote the important theoretical work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In this work Lenin argues that the merging of banks and industrial cartels give rise to finance capital. According to Lenin, in the last stage of capitalism, in pursuit of greater profits than the home market can offer, capital is exported. This leads to the division of the world between international monopolist firms and to European states colonizing large parts of the world in support of their businesses. Imperialism is thus an advanced stage of capitalism, one relying on the rise of monopolies and on the export of capital (rather than goods), and of which colonialism is one feature.
Return to Russia
After the 1917 February Revolution in Russia and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin realized that he must return to Russia as soon as possible, but this was problematic because he was isolated in neutral Switzerland as the First World War raged throughout neighboring states. The Swiss communist Fritz Platten nonetheless managed to negotiate with the German government for Lenin and his company to travel through Germany by rail, on the so-called “sealed train”. The German government clearly hoped Lenin’s return would create political unrest back in Russia, which would help to end the war on the Eastern front, allowing Germany to concentrate on defeating the Western allies. Once through Germany, Lenin continued by ferry to Sweden; the remainder of the journey through Scandinavia was subsequently arranged by Swedish communists Otto Grimlund and Ture Nerman.
On April 16, 1917, Lenin arrived by train to a tumultuous reception at Finland Station, in Petrograd. He immediately took a leading role within the Bolshevik movement, publishing the April Theses, which called for an uncompromising opposition to the provisional government. Initially, Lenin isolated his party through this lurch to the left. However, this uncompromising stand meant that the Bolsheviks were to become the obvious home for all those who became disillusioned with the provisional government, and with the “luxury of opposition” the Bolsheviks did not have to assume responsibility for any policies implemented by the government.
After turmoil of the July Days, when workers and soldiers in the capital clashed with government troops, Lenin had to flee to Finland for safety, to avoid arrest by Kerensky. The Bolsheviks had not arranged the July Uprising. The time was still not ripe for revolution, claimed Lenin: the workers in the city were willing, but the Bolsheviks still needed to wait for the support of the peasants. During his short time in Finland, Lenin finished his book State and Revolution, which called for a new form of government based on workers’ councils, or soviets elected and revocable at all moments by the workers. He returned to Petrograd in October, inspiring the October Revolution with the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” Lenin directed the overthrow of the Provisional Government from the Smolny Institute from the 6th to the 8th of November 1917. The storming and capitulation of the Winter Palace on the night of the 7th to 8th of November marked the beginning of Soviet rule.
Head of the Soviet State
On November 8, 1917, Lenin was elected as the Chair of the Council of People’s Commissars by the Russian Congress of Soviets.
“Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country,” Lenin said, emphasizing the importance of bringing electricity to all corners of Russia and modernizing industry and agriculture.
He initiated and supervised devising and realization of the GOELRO plan, the first-ever Soviet project for national economic recovery and development. Lenin was very concerned about creating a free universal health care system for all, the rights of women, and teaching the illiterate Russian people to read and write. But first and foremost, the new Bolshevik government needed to take Russia out of the World War.
Faced with the threat of a continuing German advance eastwards, Lenin argued that Russia should immediately sign a peace treaty. Other Bolshevik leaders, such as Bukharin, advocated continuing the war as a means of fomenting revolution in Germany. Trotsky, who led the negotiations, advocated an intermediate position, of “No War, No Peace”, calling for a peace treaty only on the conditions that no territorial gains on either side be consolidated. After the negotiations collapsed, the Germans renewed their advance, resulting in the loss of much of Russia’s western territory. As a result of this turn of events, Lenin’s position consequently gained the support of the majority in the Bolshevik leadership. On March 3, 1918, Lenin removed Russia from World War I by agreeing to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under which Russia lost significant territories in Europe. The Russian Constituent Assembly was shut down during its first session January 19 and the Bolsheviks in alliance with the left Socialist Revolutionaries then relied on support from the soviets. The Bolsheviks had formed a coalition government with the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries. However, their coalition collapsed after the Social Revolutionaries opposed the Brest-Litovsk treaty, and joined other parties in seeking to overthrow the Bolshevik government. Lenin responded to these efforts by a policy of wholesale persecution, which included jailing some of the members of the opposing parties.
To protect the newly-established Bolshevik government from counterrevolutionaries and other political opponents, the Bolsheviks created a secret police. The Bolsheviks had planned to hold a trial for the former Tsar, but in July 1918, when the White Army was advancing on Yekaterinburg where the former royal family was being held, Sverdlov acceded to the request of the local Soviet to execute the Tsar right away, rather than having him freed by the Whites. The Tsar and the rest of his immediate family were executed. Lenin was informed about the execution only after it had taken place, but did not criticize it. Independent newspapers criticized Lenin’s government; the secret police closed them down, until the Bolshevik-controlled Pravda and Izvestia had a monopoly on the supply of news.
On January 14, 1918, an assassination attempt was made against Lenin’s car in Petrograd by unknown gunmen. Lenin and Fritz Platten were in the back of the car together, after having given a public speech. When the shooting started, “Platten grabbed Lenin by the head and pushed him down. … Platten’s hand was covered in blood, having been grazed by a bullet as he was shielding Lenin.
On August 30, 1918, Fanya Kaplan, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, approached Lenin after he had spoken at a meeting and was on the way to his car. He had his foot on the running board. She called out to Lenin, who turned to answer. She immediately fired three shots hitting Lenin twice: one bullet, relatively harmless, lodged in the arm; the second round, more seriously entering at the juncture of Lenin’s jaw and neck, the third shot striking a woman who was talking with Lenin when the shooting began. Lenin fell to the ground, unconscious. He was taken to his apartment in the Kremlin, refusing to venture to a hospital since he believed that other assassins would be waiting there. Doctors were summoned but decided that it was too dangerous to remove the bullets. Lenin’s health declined from this point. It is believed by some that the incident contributed to his later strokes.
Lenin and the Red Terror
Following the assassination attempt on Lenin, and the successful assassination of Petrograd chief of secret police Moisei Uritsky, Stalin, in a telegram to Lenin, argued that a policy of “open and systematic mass terror” be instigated against “those responsible”. Lenin and the other Bolsheviks agreed, and instructed Felix Dzerzhinsky, whom Lenin had appointed to head of the secret police in 1917, to commence a “Red Terror”, which was officially announced to the public on September 1, 1918, by the Bolshevik newspaper, Krasnaya Gazeta. Suspected enemies could expect brutal torture, flogging, maiming or execution. Some were shot, others drowned, buried alive, or hacked to death by swords. Quite often those about to be executed were forced to dig their own graves. The only published Soviet statistics regarding Cheka executions are the semi-official ones provided by the Chekist Martin Latsis, limited to RSFSR over the period 1918–1920, giving the grand total of 12,733 executed, including 3,082 for taking part in rebellions, 2,024 for membership of counter-revolutionary organizations, 643 for gangsterism, 455 for incitement to revolution, 206 for corruption, 102 for desertion and the same number for espionage. These statistics are considered by many scholars to be decidedly understated, as they did not embrace Ukraine or the Crimea. In the latter the Bolsheviks slaughtered an estimated 50,000 people after White forces withdrew in 1920. Some historians estimate that between 1917 and 1922 up to 280,000 people were killed by the secret police, of which about half perished through summary executions and the other half through the suppression of rebellions (e.g. Tambov Rebellion). According to the Black Book of Communism, in May 1919 there were 16,000 people in labor camps based on the old Tsarist katorga labor camps, and in September 1921 there were more than 70,000. In response to rebellion and the advance of the White armies on Moscow Lenin's Hanging Order documents that Lenin himself ordered terror on 11th August 1918. A translation of the text is as follows:
“Comrades! The insurrection of five kulak districts should be pitilessly suppressed. The interests of the whole revolution require this because 'the last decisive battle' with the kulaks is now under way everywhere. An example must be demonstrated.
• 1. Hang (and make sure that the hanging takes place in full view of the people) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
• 2. Publish their names.
• 3. Seize all their grain from them.
• 4. Designate hostages in accordance with yesterday's telegram.
• Do it in such a fashion that for hundreds of kilometres around the people might see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucking kulaks.”
Whether anyone was actually hanged according to this order, remains unknown. At least 13 people were shot.
On the 19th August he sent another telegram to Penza expressing his exasperation and modifying his previous instruction: “I am extremely indignant that there has been absolutely nothing definite from you as to what serious measures have at last been carried out by you for the ruthless suppression of the kulaks of the five volosts and confiscation of their grain. Your inactivity is criminal. All efforts should be concentrated on a single volost which should be swept clean of all grain surpluses.”
Russian Communist Party and Civil War
In March 1919, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders met with revolutionary socialists from around the world and formed the Communist International. Members of the Communist International, including Lenin and the Bolsheviks themselves, broke off from the broader socialist movement. From that point onwards, they would become known as communists. In Russia, the Bolshevik Party was renamed the “Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks),” which eventually became the CPSU.
Meanwhile, the civil war raged across Russia. A wide variety of political movements and their supporters took up arms to support or overthrow the Soviet government. Although many different factions were involved in the civil war, the two main forces were the Red Army (communists) and the White Army (traditionalists). Foreign powers such as France, Britain, the United States and Japan also intervened in this war (on behalf of the White Army). Eventually, the more organizationally proficient Red Army, led by Leon Trotsky, won the civil war, defeating the White Russian forces and their allies in 1920. Smaller battles continued for several more years, however.
In late 1919, successes against the White Russian forces convinced Lenin that it was time to spread the revolution to the West, by force if necessary. When the newly independent Second Polish Republic began securing its eastern territories annexed by Russia in the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, it clashed with Bolshevik forces for dominance in these areas, which led to the outbreak of the Polish-Soviet War in 1919. With the revolution in Germany and the Spartacist League on the rise, Lenin viewed this as the perfect time and place to “probe Europe with the bayonets of the Red Army.” Lenin saw Poland as the bridge that the Red Army would have to cross in order to link up the Russian Revolution with the communist supporters in the German Revolution, and to assist other communist movements in Western Europe. However the defeat of Soviet Russia in the Polish-Soviet War invalidated these plans.
Lenin was a harsh critic of imperialism. In 1917 he declared the unconditional right of self-determination and separation for national minorities and oppressed nations. However, when the Russian Civil War was won he used military force to assimilate the newly independent states of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. He argued that the inclusion of those countries into the newly emerging Soviet government would shelter them from capitalist imperial ambitions.
During the civil war, as an attempt to maintain food supply to the cities and the army in the conditions of economic collapse, the Bolsheviks adopted the policy of war communism. That involved “requisitioning” supplies from the peasantry for little or nothing in exchange. This led the peasants to drastically reduce their crop production. Additionally, according to the official Bolshevik view which is still shared by some Marxists, rich peasants (kulaks) withheld grain in order to increase their profits — statistics indicate that most of the grain and the other food supplies passed through the black market. Then, the Bolshevik requisitions came to affect the food that peasants had grown for their own subsistence and their seed grain. The resulting conflicts began with the secret police and the army shooting hostages, and, according to The Black Book of Communism, ended with a second full-scale civil war against the peasantry, including the use of poison gas, death camps, and deportations. The same source emphasizes that in 1920, Lenin ordered increased emphasis on the food requisitioning from the peasantry, at the same time as the secret police gave detailed reports about the large scale famine. The long war and a drought in 1921 also contributed to the famine. Estimates on the deaths from this famine are between 3 and 10 million.
The long years of war, the Bolshevik policy of war communism, the Russian famine of 1921, and the encirclement of hostile governments took their toll on Russia, however, and much of the country lay in ruins. There were many peasant uprisings, the largest being the Tambov rebellion. After an uprising by the sailors at Kronstadt in March 1921, Lenin replaced the policy of War Communism with the New Economic Policy (NEP), in a successful attempt to rebuild industry and especially agriculture. The new policy was based on recognition of political and economic realities, though it was intended merely as a tactical retreat from the socialist ideal. The whole policy was later reversed by Stalin.
Lenin’s health had already been severely damaged by the strains of revolution and war. The assassination attempt earlier in his life also added to his health problems. The bullet was still lodged in his neck, too close to his spine for medical techniques of the time to remove. In May 1922, Lenin had his first stroke. He was left partially paralyzed on his right side, and his role in government declined. After the second stroke in December of the same year, he resigned from active politics. In March 1923, he suffered his third stroke and was left bedridden for the remainder of his life, no longer able to speak.
After his first stroke, Lenin dictated to his wife several papers regarding the government. Most famous of these is Lenin's Testament, which was partially inspired by the 1922 Georgian Affair and among other things criticized top-ranking communists, including Joseph Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky. Of Stalin, who had been the Communist Party’s general secretary since April 1922, Lenin said that he had “unlimited authority concentrated in his hands” and suggested that “comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post.” Upon Lenin’s death, his wife mailed his Testament to the central committee, to be read at the 13th Party Congress in May 1924. However, the committee and especially the ruling “triumvirate” — Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev — had a vested interest in not releasing the will to the wider public. The central committee justified this by stating that Lenin had been mentally ill in his final years and, as such, his final judgments were not to be trusted. Lenin’s Testament was first officially published in 1925 in the United States by Max Eastman. In the same year, Trotsky wrote an article that downplayed its significance, stating that Lenin’s notes should not be regarded as a “will” and had neither been concealed nor violated. He did invoke it in his polemic against Stalin on later occasions, while in exile.
Lenin died at 18:50 Moscow time on January 21, 1924, aged 53, at his estate in Gorki Leninskiye. Rumors of Lenin having syphilis sprang up shortly after his death. The official cause given for Lenin’s death was cerebral arteriosclerosis, or a fourth stroke. But out of the 27 physicians who treated him, only eight signed onto that conclusion in his autopsy report. Therefore, several other theories regarding his death have been put forward.
Documents released after the fall of the U.S.S.R., along with memoirs of Lenin’s physicians, suggest that Lenin was treated for syphilis as early as 1895. Documents suggest that Alexei Abrikosov, the pathologist in charge of the autopsy, was ordered to prove that Lenin did not die of syphilis. Abrikosov did not mention syphilis in the autopsy; however, the blood-vessel damage, the paralysis and other incapacities he cited are typical of syphilis. Upon a second release of the autopsy report, none of the organs, major arteries, or brain areas usually affected by syphilis were cited. In 1923, Lenin’s doctors treated him with Salvarsan, the only drug at the time specifically used to treat syphilis, and potassium iodide, which was customary at the time in treating the disease. Although he might have had syphilis, given the complex political dynamics this is difficult to prove. Most historians still agree that the most likely cause of his death was a stroke induced by the bullet still lodged in his neck from the assassination attempt.
The city of Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in his honor three days after Lenin’s death. This remained the name of the city until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when it reverted to its original name, St Petersburg.
Lenin’s body was embalmed and placed on permanent exhibition in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow on January 27, 1924.
Lenin’s preserved body is on permanent display at the Lenin Mausoleum. His brain was removed soon after death, cut into three thousand paper thin slices, and stored, between sheets of glass, in the wooden drawers of a cabinet of an office of the old Soviet Union's Department of Psychiatric Medicine.
Because of Lenin’s unique role in the creation of the first Communist state, and despite his expressed wish shortly before his death that no memorials be created for him, his character was elevated over time to the point of near religious reverence. By the 1980s, every city in the Soviet Union had a statue of Lenin in its central square, either a Lenin street or a Lenin Square near the center, and often 20 or more smaller statues and busts throughout its territory. Collective farms, medals, hybrids of wheat, and even an asteroid were named after him. Lenin’s life became the subject of nursery rhymes and children’s storytelling.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the level of reverence for Lenin in post-Soviet republics has fallen considerably, though he is still considered an important figure by generations who grew up during the Soviet period. Most statues of Lenin have been torn down in Eastern Europe, but many still remain in Russia and ex-Soviet Central Asia. In 1991, following a close vote and political battles between communist and liberals the city of Leningrad returned to its original name, St Petersburg, whilst the surrounding Leningrad Oblast retained Lenin’s name. The citizens of Ulyanovsk, Lenin’s birthplace, have so far resisted all attempts to revert its name to Simbirsk. The subject of interring Lenin’s body has been a recurring topic for the past several years in Russia.
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