Lenin (revolutionary)

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Vladimir Lenin
Office Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars
Term of office 19171924
Predecessor Alexander Kerensky
Successor Alexey Ivanovich Rykov
Date of birth April 22, 1870
Place of birth Simbirsk, Russia
Date of death January 21, 1924
Place of death Moscow, Russia
Profession Revolutionary, Politician
Political party Soviet Communist Party

(Russian: Владимир Ильич Ленин, IPA:Template:IPA, born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov; Template:OldStyleDateJanuary 21, 1924), was a Communist revolutionary of Russia, the leader of the Bolshevik party, the first Premier of the Soviet Union, and the main theorist of what has come to be called Leninism, which is described as an adaptation of Marxism to "the age of imperialism."

Early life

Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) circa 1887

Born in Simbirsk, Russia (now Ulyanovsk), Lenin was the son of Ilya Nikolaevich Ulyanov (18311886), a Russian civil service official who worked for progressive democracy and free universal education in Russia, and his liberal wife Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanova (18351916). Lenin was of mixed ethnic ancestry. In addition to being 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 (who converted to Christianity). Lenin was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church.

Lenin distinguished himself in the study of Latin and Greek. Two tragedies occurred early in his life. The first occurred when his father died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1886. In May 1887 his eldest brother Alexander Ulyanov was hanged for participation in a plot threatening the life of Tsar Alexander III. This radicalized Lenin. His official Soviet biographies have this event as central to his revolutionary exploits. A famous painting by Belousov, We will follow a different path, reprinted in millions of Soviet textbooks, depicted young Lenin and his mother grieving the loss of his elder brother. The phrase "We will follow a different path" meant that Lenin chose the right way to succeed in the revolution, which was based on a Marxist approach. Indeed, at that time Lenin became interested in Marxism, he got involved in student protests and later that year was arrested. He was then expelled from Kazan University. He continued to study independently and by 1891 had earned a license to practice law[1].


Upon graduation, Lenin took on a job as an assistant to a lawyer. He worked for several years in Samara, Russia, then in 1893 moved to St Petersburg. Rather than settling into a legal career, he became more involved in revolutionary propaganda efforts and the study of Marxism. On December 7 1895, he was arrested and held by authorities for 14 months, then exiled to the village of Shushenskoye in Siberia.

Lenin's mug shot, Dec. 1895

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 [1]. In 1900, his exile ended. He travelled in Russia and elsewhere in Europe. He lived in Zurich, Geneva, Munich, Prague, Vienna and London and during his exile founded the newspaper Iskra. He also wrote a number of articles 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; РСДРП in Russian), 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? [2]. 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 the Zimmerwald Conference of 1915. When Inessa Armand left Russia and settled in Paris, she met Lenin and other Bolsheviks living in exile, and is believed to have become Lenin's partner during this time. Lenin later moved to Switzerland.

Richard Pipes argues that Lenin had analyzed the Paris Commune and had concluded that it failed due to "excessive generosity-it should have exterminated its enemies." (The Russian Revolution 1899-1919, pp789-795) The full quote, however, as enunciated by Lenin in a speech delivered at an international meeting in Geneva on March 18 1908, the occasion of the anniversary of the Commune, was as follows: "Although the socialist proletariat was split up into numerous sects, the Commune was a splendid example of the unanimity with which the proletariat was able to accomplish the democratic tasks which the bourgeoisie could only proclaim. Without any particularly complex legislation, in a simple, straightforward manner, the proletariat, which had seized power, carried out the democratization of the social system, abolished the bureaucracy, and made all official posts elective. Two mistakes destroyed the fruits of a splendid victory. The proletariat stopped half-way: instead of proceeding to 'expropriate the expropriators,' it allowed itself to be diverted by dreams of instituting supreme justice in a country united by a national purpose; institutions, like the banks, were not seized. ... The second error was an excess of magnanimity on the part of the proletariat: it should have exterminated its enemies, but instead it endeavored to exert moral influence on them; it ignored the importance of pure military action in a civil war, and instead of proceeding to advance vigorously on Versailles and thus to crown the victory gained in Paris, it temporized and thus permitted the Versailles government to rally its sinister forces and make preparations for the bloody events of the May week." [3]

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 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 adopted an 'unpatriotic' position, stating the goal as the defeat of the Tsarist government in the war.

After the 1917 February Revolution in Russia and the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin knew he needed to travel back to Russia as soon as possible. But he was isolated in neutral Switzerland as the First World War was raging and it would not have been easy to travel through Europe. But the Swiss Communist Fritz Platten managed to negotiate with the German government for Lenin and his company to travel through Germany in a sealed train. Kaiser Wilhelm II himself is thought to have expected Lenin to cause political unrest back in Russia and end the war on the Eastern front. While on German territory, Lenin was not allowed outside the train. Once past Germany, Lenin continued by ferry to Sweden and the rest of the trip through Scandinavia was arranged by the Swedish Communists Otto Grimlund and Ture Nerman.

On April 16, 1917, he returned to Petrograd and took a leading role within the Bolshevik movement, publishing the April Theses [4]. The April theses called for an 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 to become the obvious home for the masses as they became disillusioned with the provisional government, and with the luxury of opposition the Bolsheviks were freed of the responsibility for any consequences of the implementation of their policies (Christopher Read: From Tsar to Soviets pp151–153).

Lenin disguised wearing a wig and with his beard shaved off in Finland Aug. 11, 1917

Meanwhile, Aleksandr Kerensky and other enemies of the Bolsheviks accused Lenin of being a paid German agent. On this allegation co-leader Leon Trotsky made a defensive speech on July 17, saying: "An intolerable atmosphere has been created, in which you as well as we are choking. They are throwing dirty accusations at Lenin and Zinoviev. … Lenin has fought thirty years for the revolution. I have fought twenty years against the oppression of the people. And we cannot but cherish a hatred for German militarism. ... I have been sentenced by a German court to eight months’ imprisonment for my struggle against German militarism. This everybody knows. Let nobody in this hall say that we are hirelings of Germany." [5]

After a failed workers' rising 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" [6], which called for a new form of government based on workers' councils, or soviets. In this work he also claimed that ordinary workers should, in principle, be capable of running a factory or government. He emphasized, though, that to be able to govern the state, a worker should "learn communism." He furthermore insisted that a member of the government should be paid no more than the salary of an average worker.

Head of the Soviet state

Lenin in his Kremlin office, 1918

On November 8, Lenin was elected as the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars by the Russian Soviet Congress. Lenin emphasized the importance of bringing electricity to all corners of Russia and to modernize industry and agriculture. He was very concerned about creating a free universal health care system for all, the emancipation 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 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. 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, 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. 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.

After the Bolsheviks lost the elections for the Russian Constituent Assembly, Lenin used his military guards to close the first session of the Assembly on January 19. Later, the Bolsheviks organized a counter-Assembly, the third Congress of Soviets, allowing themselves and their allies over 90% of the seats. [7]. 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 to these conspiracies by shutting down their activities and jailing or shooting some of the members of the opposing parties.

Lenin, 1919

Even though Lenin supported and helped to form a "Soviet democracy," it is often argued by Lenin's opponents on the right, like Kautsky, and on his left, like Kollontai, that he countermanded proletarian emancipation and democracy (workers' control through the soviets or workers' councils). It is argued that this paved the road to Stalinism. Many of the institutions and policies Stalin used such as secret police, labor camps, and executions of opponents were already in use under Lenin's regime. However, Leon Trotsky argued that a direct correlation cannot be made between Lenin and Stalin because this perspective ignores many external factors, such as the turmoil of revolution and civil war during Lenin's leadership. Further Trotsky claimed that a "river of blood" separated Lenin from Stalin's actions because Stalin executed many of Lenin's old comrades and their supporters, grouped in the Left Opposition. This was indeed to include Trotsky himself.

The Leninist vision of revolution demanded a professional revolutionary cadre that would both lead the working 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-management). 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 workers' state." During the civil war, democracy would become concentrated within the Bolshevik party and later the politburo of the CPSU.

Lenin proclaims Soviet power, painting by V.A.Serov

To protect the newly-established Bolshevik government from counterrevolutionaries, Lenin's regime created a secret police, the Cheka, immediately after the revolution. The Bolsheviks had planned to hold a trial for the former Tsar for his crimes against the Russian people, but in August 1918 when the White Army was advancing on Yekaterinburg (where the once royal family was being held), Sverdlov made a quick decision to execute the Tsar and his family right away, rather than having them being taken by the Whites. Sverdlov later informed Lenin about this, who agreed it had been the right decision, since the Bolsheviks would rather not have let the royal family become a banner for the White Movement.

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. She called out to Lenin, who turned to answer. She immediately fired three shots, two of which struck him in the shoulder and lung. Lenin was taken to his private 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 eventually recovered, though his health declined from this point. It is believed that the incident contributed to his later strokes.

Lenin with Trotsky and soldiers in Petrograd, 1921

The Communist government responded to the assassination attempt, and to the increasingly mobilizing anti-communist offensive of which it was a component, with the "Red Terror." Tens of thousands of perceived enemies of the Revolution, many accused of actively conspiring against the Bolshevik government, were put in labor camps and up to 200,000 "counterrevolutionary elements" were executed. [8]

According to Orlando Figes, Lenin had always been an advocate of "mass terror against enemies of the revolution" and was open about his view that the proletarian state was a system of organized violence against the capitalist establishment. However, according to Figes the terror, while encouraged by the Bolsheviks, had its roots in a popular anger against the privileged. (A Peoples Tragedy, pp524-5) When in late 1918 Kamenev and Bukharin tried to curb the "excesses" of the Cheka, it was Lenin who defended it. (Figes p649) However, the nature of these so-called "excesses," as well as Lenin's reasons behind their defense, remain unnamed.

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 (Tsarist). 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 fights, however, continued for several more years.

"Comrade Lenin Cleanses the Earth of Scum," 1920 Communist poster

White Army forces, during this tumultous time of war and revolution, often themselves "behaved with great brutality and cruelty in areas they controlled. Towns were burned, property destroyed or stolen, peasant farmers' crops and livestock taken by force — if people objected, they faced torture and execution." [9] Far from being dictated by military necessity, Brovkin has argued that this level of terror was highly counterproductive. Alienation of the population behind the lines can explain, according to him, both red and white defeats during the civil war. (Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War: Political Parties and Social Movements in Russia, 1918-1922).

In the later months of 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, usually defined as those nation-states that were previously subject to capitalist imperial control. However, when the Russian Civil War was won he used military force to assimilate the newly independent nations Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, arguing that the inclusion of those countries into the newly emerging Soviet government would shelter them from capitalist imperial ambitions. [10] This would allow these countries admittance into the Soviet Union rather than simply forcing them to become part of Russia as would be in imperialist practices.

The long years of war, the policy of War communism, the Russian famine of 1921, and the encirclement of the first workers' state by hostile capitalist 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.

Lenin's struggle against Anti-Semitism

After the revolution, Lenin worked hard to combat Anti-Semitism, which was still alive in Russia as a heritage of the tsarist days. In a radio speech in 1919, Lenin said: "The tsarist police, in alliance with the landowners and the capitalists, organized pogroms against the Jews. The landowners and capitalists tried to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants who were tortured by want against the Jews. ... Only the most ignorant and downtrodden people can believe the lies and slander that are spread about the Jews. ... It is not the Jews who are the enemies of the working people. The enemies of the workers are the capitalists of all countries. Among the Jews there are working people, and they form the majority. They are our brothers, who, like us, are oppressed by capital; they are our comrades in the struggle for socialism. ... Shame on accursed tsarism which tortured and persecuted the Jews. Shame on those who foment hatred towards the Jews, who foment hatred towards other nations."[11]

Premature death

Kamenev and Lenin, 1922

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 his third stroke and was left bedridden for the remainder of his life and no longer able to speak.

After his first stroke, Lenin dictated a number of papers regarding the government to his wife. Most famous of these is Lenin's Testament, which among other things criticized top-ranking communists, and especially 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." 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, because the will criticized all of the most prominent figures in the central committee: Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Trotsky and Stalin, the committee had a vested interest in not releasing the will to the wider public. The central committee justified this by claiming that Lenin had been mentally ill in his final years and, as such, his final judgments were not to be trusted. Disregarding the words of Lenin is thought by most to be a fatal error, however, as he was apparently the only one to recognize the danger of allowing Stalin to take over party control.

Lenin's Testament was first officially published in 1926 in the United States by Max Eastman.

Lenin died on January 21 1924 at age 53. 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. 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 anywhere on his body that accompany the later 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.

File:Lenin's body.jpg
Lenin's body in the Lenin Mausoleum, Moscow

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.

During the early 1920s the Russian movement of cosmism was quite popular and there was an intent to cryonically 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 realized. Instead his body was embalmed and placed on permanent exhibition in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow on January 27, 1924.

After death

The Lenin Mausoleum at Red Square, Moscow

Lenin's preserved body is on permanent display at the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow. Due to 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 1980's, every major 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 asteroid were named after him. Children were taught stories about "granddaddy Lenin" while they were still in kindergarten.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the level of reverence for Lenin in post-Soviet republics has gone down considerably, but he is still considered an important figure by the generations who grew up during the Soviet period. [12] Most statues of Lenin have been torn down in Eastern Europe, but many still remain in Russia. The city of Leningrad was returned to its original name, St Petersburg, but the surrounding Oblast still carries his 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 last 16 years in Russia.

The name "Lenin"

"Lenin" (as a single word) was one of his revolutionary pseudonyms. He later changed his name from Vladimir Ulyanov to Vladimir Lenin. He was sometimes referred to as "Nikolai Lenin" by Western anti-Communists and in the foreign press [13] [14], but he was never known by this name in the USSR.

There are various theories on his pseudonym's origin and he 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. However, it certainly does not relate to the Lena execution, because the pseudonym predates this event.

Censorship of Lenin in the Soviet Union

Lenin's writings were carefully censored under the Soviet regime after his death. In the early 1930s, it became accepted dogma under Stalin to assume that neither Lenin nor the Central Committee could ever be wrong. Therefore, it was necessary to remove evidence of situations where they had actually disagreed, since in those situations it was impossible for both to have been right at the same time. Trotsky was a particularly vocal critic of these practices, which he saw as a form of deification of a mere human being who could, and did, make mistakes. [15] Later, even the fifth complete Soviet edition of Lenin's works (published in 55 thick volumes between 1958 and 1965) left out parts that either contradicted dogma or showed their author in too poor a light.[16]

See also

Statue of Lenin still standing at Oktyabrskaya, Moscow


  1. Robert Service "Lenin: A Biography" ISBN 0-330-49139-3

Further reading

External links

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Selected works

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