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leader of the Soviet Revolution
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), Russia, on April 22, 1870. His father, Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov, was a schoolteacher who had become director of schools in Simbirsk Province. His mother, Maria Aleksandrovna Blank, was the daughter of a doctor. He and his five siblings -- Olga, Maria, Alexander, Dmitri, and Anna -- enjoyed pleasant childhoods, and all except one sister who died at the age of 20 would grow up to become revolutionaries. As a child, Vladimir enjoyed swimming, hiking, fishing, hunting, and chess, but his sister Anna later noted that he had no close childhood friends.
Right: Lenin family portrait (Vladimir is at far right).
As the child of a teacher it was not surprising that Vladimir had learned to read by the time he was five years old. Initially taught by a private tutor at home, he entered school at age nine and quickly became known as a brilliant student.
In 1886, Lenin's father died. The next year, his brother Alexander was hanged for taking part in an unsuccessful plot to kill Czar Alexander III. The same year that his brother was executed, the 17-year-old Lenin won a gold medal for excellence in studies and finished school. He enrolled in the law school at Kazan' University in the fall of 1887, but was expelled three months later for taking part in a student meeting protesting the lack of freedom in the school. Repeatedly denied permission to re-enter Kaplan, he was finally admitted to St. Petersburg University in 1890, but was not allowed to attend classes; he was, however, allowed to study on his own and to take exams. He received his law degree in 1891 and joined a law firm in Samara (now Kuybyshev).
Early Revolutionary Activity
By the time Lenin graduated from St. Petersburg he had become absorbed in the study of Marxism. In 1893, he joined a Marxist organization, moved to St. Petersburg, and became an active revolutionary. Czar Alexander III died in 1894, and was succeeded by his son, Nicholas II. Between April and September of 1895, Lenin traveled to France, Germany and Switzerland to contact other Marxists. In December of that year, he was arrested in St. Petersburg by the czar's police while preparing The Workers' Cause, a revolutionary newspaper. After being held and questioned for more than a year, he was exiled to Siberia (1897).
Although he had been exiled, Lenin enjoyed general freedom of movement in Siberia and was even given a small allowance by the Russian government so he could rent quarters in Shushenskoye (near Abakan). On July 22, 1898, he married Nadezhda Konstantinova Krupskaya, whom he had met at a Marxist pancake supper in 1894. The couple had no children. While in exile, Lenin wrote one his most important works, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899).
Right: Nadezhda Krupskaya.
In 1898, a number of secret Marxist groups in Russia joined together to form the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. After Lenin's exile ended in January of 1890, he got permission from the government to leave Russia. He subsequently went to Germany, where he helped found the party newspaper Iskra (Spark), which had to be smuggled into Russia. The editors of Iskra also published Zarya (Dawn), which dealt with Marxist theory, and it was in this paper that Vladimir Ulyanov began using the name Lenin. Many revolutionaries of the day changed their names to confuse authorities, and it is believed that Lenin took his new name from the Lena River of Siberia.
In 1902, Lenin wrote What Is to Be Done?, a pamphlet describing his ideas on party organization. In 1903, a dispute over leadership led the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party to split into two groups. Lenin became leader of the Bolshinstvo (majority), which later became known as the Bolsheviks; the other group became known as the Menshinstvo (minority), or Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks wanted party membership limited to a small number of full-time revolutionaries, believing that the revolution would only be successful if led by trained professionals and that the party should organize the Proletariat (workers). The Mensheviks wanted fewer restrictions on party membership and preferred democratic practices to secret plotting.
By the early 1900's, Russian citizens were demanding more political freedom, land for peasants, social legislation, higher wages for workers, and greater representation in the government. They also wanted an end to the ongoing war between Russia and Japan. On Sunday, January 22, 1905, Father George Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest, led about 200,000 persons in a peaceful march on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, hoping to present the peoples' requests to the czar. For reasons unknown, troops fired on the unarmed marchers, killing and wounding hundreds. Bloody Sunday, as it became known, sparked more unrest, and by autumn strikes had paralyzed the country. On October 30, 1905, Czar Nicholas II granted freedom of speech, some voting rights, and a parliament. He also pardoned all exiles. Lenin returned to Russia in November and almost immediately called for a general revolt. A mass strike began in Moscow on December 20, and before long strikes were taking place across Russia and a full-fledged revolution had developed. The revolution had been crushed by the end of December, however.
From 1906 to 1908, Lenin spent most of his time writing revolutionary pamphlets and attending party conferences in England, Germany and Sweden. Although not officially exiled, he found it difficult to carry out his activities in Russia. After spending two years in Finland, he went to Switzerland and then to France. In April of 1912, in St. Petersburg, several Bolsheviks established Pravda (Truth), a revolutionary paper that was sold openly. Lenin subsequently moved to Krakow, then in Austria-Hungary but now in Poland, and became Pravda's chief contributor.
After Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914, the Austrian government arranged for Lenin to go to neutral Switzerland. The Russian revolutionary movement split into two groups, one favoring a Russian victory and the other, led by Lenin, a Russian defeat. Germany supplied money to some of the revolutionaries, including Lenin, hoping that the revolutionaries would weaken the Russian war effort. In 1915, Lenin promised the Germans that if he came to power he would sign a peace treaty.
The February Revolution
By 1917, Russia was losing the war and unrest was mounting across the country. Food shortages were constant and Russian money had virtually no value. Russian workers went on strike in early March (February on the old Russian calendar), and, by the 9th, about 200,000 strikers were demonstrating in the capital. Soldiers, many of whom had been serving unpaid, refused to keep order. On March 12, a group called the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies was established in Petrograd. Czar Nicholas II gave up the throne on March 15, and a democratic government was established. George Lvov, a Russian political leader, became Prime Minister.
Lenin was in Switzerland during the February Revolution, but set out for Russia as soon as he learned of the czar's abdication. He arrived in Petrograd on April 16, 1917, and received a hero's welcome. He quickly regained leadership of the Bolsheviks, but was not able to seize the government. In July 1917, following an unsuccessful Bolshevik uprising, the government was reorganized under Alexander Kerensky. On July 19, the new government ordered Lenin's arrest as a German agent. Lenin fled to Finland.
Right: Lenin being greeted upon his return to Petrograd.
While in Finland, Lenin wrote The State and Revolution (1917), in which he explained how to organize a revolution and what kind of government should be established afterward. In September 1917, he wrote the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party and declared that it was time for action, saying "History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now."
In October 1917, Lenin once again returned to Petrograd. Kerensky's government and leadership had become weak, and Lenin urged the Central Committee to begin a revolt immediately. After Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik president of the Petrograd Soviet, gained control over some government troops and some naval troops had agreed to support the revolt, the Bolsheviks decided to act. With little violence, the Bolsheviks seized Petrograd on November 7 (October 25 on the old Russian calendar), and Kerensky fled. It took more violence to take Moscow, but the capital finally fell on November 15, and the Bolsheviks were in control of the government.
Leader of Soviet Russia
The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened on November 8, 1917. The Congress, controlled by the Bolsheviks, appoined a Council of People's Commissars. Lenin was then made head of the Council, effectively making him leader of Soviet Russia. At his first appearance before the Congress, Lenin requested permission to ask Germany for a three-month cease fire, and for the abolition of private land ownership; both requests were granted. On March 3, 1918, Russia and Germany signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, ending the war between them. Under terms of that treaty, Russia gave Germany the entire Baltic region, Bessarabia, Finland, Russian Poland, and the Ukraine, and also promised to provide Germany with raw materials. In return, Germany agreed to help keep Lenin in power. Also in 1918, Lenin convinced the Bolsheviks to change the name of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party to the Russian Communist Party.
Within a month of gaining control of the government, Lenin had established a political police force to deal with people opposed to his rule. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks killed Czar Nicholas II and his family, an act seen as unnecessarily cruel by many Russians. On August 30, 1918, after speaking to workers at a Moscow factory, Lenin was shot by Dora Kaplan, a member of the Social Revolutionary Party. Although hit by two bullets, Lenin recovered within a few weeks. Kaplan was executed, as were hundreds of other people suspected of harboring ill will toward the government.
In January 1918, Lenin formed the Red Army, an elite military force charged with quashing resistance to the government. The forces opposing the Red Army became known as the Whites, a group that included revolutionries, democrats, nationalists, and people who preferred the old government and opposed any change. With no unity of purpose, the Whites were never able to organize effectively and by 1922 all opposition to Lenin's rule had been effectively quashed.
Although civil war had left Russia's economy in ruins and Lenin's nationalization policies had all but destroyed the country's industrial and agricultural bases, Lenin steadfastly believed that Communism should rule the world. In 1919, he organized the Comintern (Communist International), which ran Communist parties in all parts of the world and helped gain international support for the Bolsheviks during the civil war. In 1920, he tried to export the revolution by military means by way of Poland to Central Europe.
After the civil war, Lenin focused his efforts on revitalizing Russia's shattered economy. In March 1921, he introduced the New Economic Policy, which replaced many of the socialist measures instituted at the start of his rule. Under this policy, small businesses were permitted to resume limited operations, free retail trade was allowed to resume, foreign capitalists were allowed to invest in Russia, and peasants were allowed to sell food to private customers. Lenin also asked the United States, England, France, and Germany for credit, trade, and diplomatic recognition. None of those nations were willing to extend credit, but the United States Commission for Relief, headed by Herbert Hoover, did provide enough food to save hundreds of thousands of Russians from starvation. Most of Europe, as well as the United States, resumed diplomatic relations with Russia after Lenin's new economic policies went into effect.
The strain of revolution and war took its toll on Lenin's health, and by November 1921 he was noticeably ill. Although he suffered a stroke in May 1922, Lenin continued to work because he did not like the direction the Bolshevik government was going. He suffered a second stroke in December 1922, but again continued working. A third stroke, suffered on March 8, 1923, left him unable to speak clearly and in need of constant care. He died in Gorki of a brain hemorrhage on January 21, 1924.
This page was last updated on January 21, 2017.