Vladimir Lenin

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Vladimir Lenin
Office: Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars
Term of Office: 1917-1924
Predecessor: Aleksandr Kerensky
Successor: Joseph Stalin
Date of Birth: April 22, 1870
Place of Birth: Simbirsk, Russia
Date of Death: January 21, 1924
Place of Death: Moscow, Russia
Profession: Politician
Political party: Soviet Communist Party

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (Russian: Влади́мир Ильи́ч Ле́нин ), original surname Ulyanov (Улья́нов) (April 22 (April 10 (O.S.)), 1870January 21, 1924), was a Russian revolutionary, the leader of the Bolshevik party, the first Premier of the Soviet Union, and the main theorist of Leninism, which he described as an adaptation of Marxism to "the age of imperialism".

"Lenin" was one of his revolutionary pseudonyms. There are various theories on its origin and he himself is not known to have ever stated exactly why he chose it. It is likely to relate to the River Lena, in parallel to leading Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov who used the pseudonym Volgin, after the Volga River. It has been suggested that Lenin picked the Lena as it is longer and flows in the opposite direction, but Lenin was not opposed to Plekhanov at that time in his life. It has also been suggested that it is an allusion to the Lena execution, but the pseudonym precedes this event.

He is sometimes referred to as "Nikolai Lenin" by Western anti-Communists. This was his original pseudonym, as shown in this article by John Reed, [1] but he was not known as such in the USSR subsequently.


Early life

Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) circa 1887
Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) circa 1887

Born in Simbirsk, Russia, Lenin was the son of Ilya Nikolaevich Ulyanov (1831 - 1886), a Russian civil service official who worked for increased democracy and free universal education in Russia, and his liberal wife Maria Alexandrovna Blank (1835 - 1916). Like many Russians, he was of mixed ethnic ancestry. In addition to Russian, he also had Kalmyk ancestry through his paternal grandparents, Volga German ancestry through his maternal grandmother, who was a Lutheran, and Jewish ancestry through his maternal grandfather (converted to Christianity). Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) himself was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church.

Vladimir distinguished himself in the study of Latin and Greek. Two tragedies occurred in his early life: in 1886, his father died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The following year, in May of 1887 his eldest brother Alexander Ulyanov was hanged for participation in a plot threatening the life of Tsar Alexander III. This radicalized Vladimir (his official Soviet biographies have this event as central to Lenin's revolutionary exploits) and later that year he was arrested, and expelled from Kazan University for participating in student protests. He continued to study independently and by 1891 had earned a license to practice law.

Lenin's mug shot, Dec. 1895
Lenin's mug shot, Dec. 1895


Upon graduation, Lenin took on a job as an assistant to the lawyer. He worked for a couple of years in Samara, then, in 1893, moved to St. Petersburg. Rather than settle into a legal career, he became more involved in revolutionary propaganda efforts and the study of Marxism. He memorably stated that "a lie, told often enough, becomes the truth". On December 7, 1895, he was arrested and held by authorities for an entire year, then exiled to the village of Shushenskoye in Siberia.

In July 1898, he married Nadezhda Krupskaya, who was a socialist activist. In April 1899, he published the book The Development of Capitalism in Russia [2]. In 1900, his exile ended. He travelled in Russia and elsewhere in Europe and published the paper Iskra as well as other tracts and books related to the revolutionary movement. At this period, he started using various aliases, finally settling upon Lenin.

He was active in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), and in 1903 he led the Bolshevik faction after a split with the Mensheviks that was partly inspired by his pamphlet What is to be Done? [3]. In 1906 he was elected to the Presidium of the RSDLP. In 1907 he moved to Finland for security reasons. He continued to travel in Europe and participated in many socialist meetings and activities, including the Prague Party Conference of 1912 and Zimmerwald Conference of 1915. When Inessa Armand left Russia and settled in Paris, she met Vladimir Lenin and other Bolsheviks living in exile. Inessa Armand likely became Lenin's partner.

When the First World War began in 1914, and the large Social Democratic parties of Europe (at that time self-described as Marxist), including luminaries such as Karl Kautsky, supported their various countries' war efforts, Lenin was shocked, at first refusing to believe, for example, that the German Social Democrats had voted for war credits. This led him to a final split with the Second International composed of these parties.

On April 16, 1917, he returned to Petrograd from Switzerland following the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, and took a leading role within the Bolshevik movement, publishing the April Theses [4]. The April theses called for uncompromising opposition to the provisional government. Initially by this lurch to the left Lenin isolated his party. However, this uncompromising stand meant that the Bolsheviks were the obvious home for the masses as they became disillusioned and with the luxury of opposition they were freed from the responsibility for any consequences from the implementation of their policies (Christopher Read: From Tsar to Soviets pp151-3).

After a failed workers' uprising in July, Lenin fled to Finland for safety. He returned in October, inspiring an armed revolution with the slogan "All Power to the Soviets!", against the Provisional Government. His ideas of government were expressed in his essay "State and Revolution" [5], which called for a new form of government based on the worker's councils, or soviets.

It has been largely suggested that Lenin had reached Petrograd from Switzerland with the help of the German Empire. Eye witnesses are said to have confirmed that Lenin had been carried in a sealed train on the way, escorted by Germans. Kaiser Wilhelm II himself is thought to have expected Lenin to paralyze the Russian army through revolution and end the war on the Eastern front and he saw him only as a contemporary figure that would lose power soon afterwards.

Head of the Soviet state

Lenin in his Kremlin office, 1918
Lenin in his Kremlin office, 1918

On November 8, Lenin was elected as Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars by the Russian Soviet Congress. Faced with the threat of German invasion, 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. Leon Trotsky, who led the negotiations, advocated an intermediate position, calling for a peace treaty only on the conditions that no territorial gains on either side be consolidated. After the negotiations collapsed, Germany launched an invasion that resulted 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, and Russia signed the eventual Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under disadvantageous terms (March 1918).


One month after the October revolution, the Bolsheviks gained 25% of the votes in the Russian Constituent Assembly election, 1917. Lenin dissolved the Assembly on the same day it opened its first session.

The Bolsheviks instead opened a counter-Assembly, the third Congress of Soviets, giving themselves and their allies over 90% of the seats. [6]. They 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 they joined other parties in seeking to overthrow the government of the soviets. The situation degenerated, with non-Bolshevik parties (including some of the socialist groups) actively seeking the overthrow of the soviet government. Lenin responded by (unsuccessfully) trying to shut down their activities.

It is often argued that Lenin countermanded proletarian emancipation and democracy (worker's control through the soviets or workers' councils) and that this paved the road to Stalinism. However Trotsky argued that a "river of blood" separated Lenin from Stalin's actions. The Leninist vision of revolution demanded a professional elite that would both lead the masses in "their" conquest of power and centralize economic and administrative power in the hands of a workers' state. From the spring of 1918, Lenin campaigned for a single individual to be put in charge of each enterprise (contrary to most conceptions of workers' self-managment). As S.A. Smith wrote: "By the end of the civil war, not much was left of the democratic forms of industrial administration promoted by the factory committees in 1917, but the government argued that this did not matter since industry had passed into the ownership of a worker's state."

On March 3, 1918, Lenin removed Russia from World War I by agreeing to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Under this treaty, Russia lost significant territory in the Ukraine, Finland, Polish and Baltic territories.

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 his way to his car. She called out to Lenin, and when he turned to answer, fired three shots, two of which struck him in the shoulder and lung. Lenin was taken to his private apartment in the Kremlin, and refused to venture to a hospital, believing other assassins would be waiting there. Doctors were summoned, but decided that it was too dangerous to remove the bullets. Lenin eventually recovered, though his health declined from this point, and it is believed that the incident contributed to his later strokes.

Lenin, head of the revolution, Soviet poster from 1967.
Lenin, head of the revolution, Soviet poster from 1967.
Lenin with Trotsky and soldiers in Petrograd in 1921
Lenin with Trotsky and soldiers in Petrograd in 1921

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 be known as communists. In Russia, the Bolshevik Party was renamed the "Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks)", which eventually became the CPSU.

Meanwhile, a 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 (monarchists). Foreign powers such as France, Britain, United States and Japan also intervened in this war (on behalf of the White Army). Eventually, the Red Army won the civil war, defeating the White Russian forces and their allies in 1920 (although smaller forces remained for several more years).

In the later months of 1919, successes against 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 late 18th century, it clashed with Bolshevik forces for dominance in these areas, which have led to the outbreak of the Polish-Soviet War in 1919. With revolution in Germany and Spartacist League on the rise, Lenin viewed this a perfect time and place to "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 Polish-Soviet War invalidated these plans.

The long years of war had taken their toll on Russia, however, and much of the country lay in ruins. In March 1921, Lenin replaced the policy of War communism (which had been used during the civil war) with the New Economic Policy (NEP), in an attempt to rebuild industry and especially agriculture. But the same month saw the suppression of an uprising among sailors at Kronstadt ("the Kronstadt rebellion").

Premature death

Kamenev and Lenin
Kamenev and Lenin

Lenin's health had already been severely damaged due to the intolerable 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 the third stroke and was left bedridden and no longer able to speak.

Lenin died on January 21, 1924. Rumors of Lenin's syphilis sprang up shortly after his death. The official cause given for Lenin's death was cerebral arteriosclerosis, or a stroke (his fourth), 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. For example, a posthumous diagnosis by two psychiatrists and a neurologist recently published in the European Journal of Neurology claimed to show that Lenin died from syphilis.

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 also 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 also customary at the time in treating the disease.

Although he might have had syphilis, so did a large percentage of Russians at this time. Also, he had no visible lesions on his body that accompany the last stages of the disease. 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; 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.

At his funeral Lenin had his body wrapped in the remains of a red flag preserved from the Paris Commune, an event that he described as an example of the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat".

Lenin's body in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow
Lenin's body in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow

Lenin's preserved body is on permanent display in Moscow. After his first stroke, Lenin published a number of papers the government. Most famous of these is Lenin's Testament, which among other things criticized top-ranking communists such as Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. 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". Lenin's wife discovered the paper in Lenin's study, and read it to the central committee, who while believing parts of it, did not take it to heart, and as such, these sharp criticisms of the internal party were not more widely released.

During the early 1920s the Russian movement of cosmism was quite popular and there was an intent to cryogenically preserve Lenin's body in order to revive him in the future. Necessary equipment was purchased abroad, but for a variety of reasons the plan was not realised. Instead his body was embalmed and placed on permanent exhibition in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow on January 27, 1924.

Red SquareThe Lenin Mausoleum at Red Square in Moscow
Red Square
The Lenin Mausoleum at Red Square in Moscow

After death

Due to Lenin's unique role in creation of the first Communist state, and despite his expressed wish shortly before death that no memorials be created for him, his character was elevated over time to the point of near religious reverence. By 1980's, every major city in 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 asteroids (#852 - Wladilena) were named after him. Children were taught first stories about "granddaddy Lenin" while they were still in kindergarten.

Since the fall of Soviet Union, the level of reverence for Lenin in post-Soviet republics has gone down considerably, but he's still considered an important figure by the people who grew up during Soviet period. Many statues of Lenin have been torn down. The city of Leningrad was returned to its original name, St. Petersburg. On the other hand, 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 last 15 years in Russia. According to public opinions polls, 40% of Russian citizens prefer to keep Lenin's body in the Mausoleum, whereas 50% favor its interment.

Lenin's brain study

Lenin's brain was removed before his body was embalmed. The Soviet government commissioned the well-known German neuroscientist Oskar Vogt to study Lenin's brain and to locate the precise location of the brain cells that are responsible for genius. The study was performed in Vladimir Bekhterev's Institute of Brain. Vogt published a paper on the brain in 1929 where he reported that some pyramidal neurons in the third layer of Lenin's cerebral cortex were very large. However the conclusion of its relevance to genius was contested. Vogt's work was considered unsatisfactory by the Soviets. Further research was continued by the Soviet team, but the work on Lenin's brain was no longer advertised.

Contemporary anatomists no longer believe that morphology alone can determine the functioning of the brain.


Lenin was ranked #84 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history.

See Also

Selected works

Further reading

Publications by Socialist Workers Party (UK) from a Leninist perspective:

  • Birchall, Ian (2005). A Rebel's Guide to Lenin Bookmarks Publications. ISBN 1905192037.
  • Cliff, Tony: Lenin; vol.1, Building the Party (1893-1914); vol.2, All Power to the Soviets (1914-1918); vol.3, Revolution Besieged (1917-1923); Pluto Press (1.edition), Bookmarks Publications(2.edition)

References on repressions during Lenin's regime

  • Courtois,Stephane; Werth, Nicolas; Panne, Jean-Louis; Paczkowski, Andrzej; Bartosek, Karel; Margolin, Jean-Louis & Kramer, Mark (1999). The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674076087.
  • Kennan, George Frost: Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin. Boston (1961) Particularly pp.141-150, 179-185.
  • Pipes, Richard (1995) Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. Vintage. ISBN 0679761845.
  • Pipes, Richard (1991) The Russian Revolution. Vintage. ISBN 0679736603.
  • Rummel, R.J. (1996). Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917. Transaction Publishers ISBN 1560008873.
  • Yakovlev, Alexander (2004). A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300103220.
  • Smith, S.A (2002). The Russian Revolution: A Very Short introduction Oxford University Press

External links

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Preceded by:
Aleksandr Kerensky (as Head of the Provisional Government of 1917)
Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars
Succeeded by:
Alexey Ivanovich Rykov

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