Lenin, Vladimir Il’ich


Lenin, Vladimir Il’ich
(1870–1924)
   Revolutionary and Bolshevik leader who orchestrated the Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to the establishment of a communist regime in Russia and its territories. Vladimir Ulyanov - Lenin was a pen name he adopted in 1901 - was born in Simbirsk, Russia, to an average, respectable family; his father was a school teacher and administrator. As a child, Lenin was a good student whose childhood was uneventful until, when he was 17, his older brother was hanged for a failed attempt on the tsar’s life. That same year, Lenin participated in a student demonstration and was expelled from Kazan University where he was studying law; his brother’s revolutionary activity, of course, had not helped his case. The young Vladimir was permanently affected by these events and the social isolation that followed. He was eventually readmitted to the university and finished his law degree, but while there, he became involved in a Marxist group and began to read the works of the father of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov. In the spirit of Karl Marx, Lenin believed liberal reforms were only a temporary fix, not the solution, to the working class’s problems. In 1895, Lenin and several other Marxists founded the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. By the end of the year, however, the members of the League were arrested. Lenin spent 14 months in jail and then he was sentenced to three years’ exile in Siberia.
   In 1900, Lenin was released from exile, returned to Russia, and founded a revolutionary newspaper, Iskra ( Spark ). In 1902, he published What Is to Be Done? in which he argued that a successful Marxist organization should be led by a small group of dedicated and professional revolutionaries, who would be more effective and harder for the authorities to catch. Lenin believed that the working class, on its own, would not develop political consciousness, but only “trade-union consciousness.” Thus they needed help from revolutionary intellectuals who would guide them until, over time, the leaders would come from the working class itself. It was also in 1902 that part of the Iskra board moved to London, and there Lenin met Lev Davidovich Bronstein, who became known as Leon Trotsky. In 1903, the Russian Marxists gathered for a second time where they were split by disagreements over questions of organization and policy. It was during these disagreements that the names Bolshevik and Menshevik emerged. In 1905, the Bolsheviks held their own congress in London. Meanwhile, to fund Bolshevik efforts, Lenin and other Bolsheviks resorted to robbing banks; among those involved in this activity was Joseph Djugashvili, Stalin. In 1911, in Paris, Lenin met Inessa Armand, with whom he began a romantic relationship. In 1912, Lenin and some of his staunchest supporters founded a newspaper in St. Petersburg called Pravda, or “truth.” When war broke out in 1914, Lenin was arrested; he was soon released and fled to neutral Switzerland. The outbreak of World War I shattered any immediate hope of a unified international workers’ organization; Social Democrats all over Europe supported their countries’ war effort. Faced with this new challenge, Lenin reformulated his interpretation of Marxism to explain the current war. The result was his book, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in 1915–1916, which argued that capitalism directly leads to imperialism: as capitalist nations strive to find markets for their products, they will ultimately come into competition with one another, which will lead to war - an idea from The Communist Manifesto. But Lenin also believed that as capitalism entered its highest stage, so did the proletariat. So Lenin’s book was not only an explanation for World War I but also a prediction of revolution. When the first Russian Revolution broke out in February 1917, Lenin was in exile in Switzerland. Writing from Switzerland, Lenin made it clear that he opposed the newly created Provisional Government and hoped to topple it; he also expressed his intent and desire to take Russia out of the war. Consequently, France and Italy, both allies of Russia, would not allow Lenin passage to Russia.
   The German government, however, was more than happy to help Lenin get home, on the condition that he travel in a sealed train car so that he could not foment revolution along the way. So Lenin, Krupskaya, and 32 other Bolsheviks arrived on April 3, 1917 in St. Petersburg (now called Petrograd to eliminate the German root of the city’s previous name). Lenin immediately set out to get the other Bolsheviks to adopt his stance against the war and to take control of the Petrograd Soviet. During the summer of 1917, Lenin struggled to convince the Bolsheviks to accept his interpretation. Meanwhile, Bolshevik party membership grew rapidly and the position of the Provisional Government weakened. During this time, Trotsky returned to Russia and joined the Bolsheviks. By the fall of 1917, Alexander Kerensky and his Provisional Government were severely weakened and discredited, and the only thing between Lenin and revolution was the hesitancy of his fellow Bolsheviks. From Finland, Lenin continued to call for a seizure of power, and in early October he went to Petrograd and tried to convince the other leading Bolsheviks of his plan. Until late in the evening of October 24, the majority of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party did not imagine that the overthrow of the Provisional Government would take place before the opening of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets the next day. Lenin, however, was persistent and persuasive. On October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks executed a small military coup that passed unnoticed by most residents in Petrograd. In the following months, Lenin and the Bolsheviks worked to consolidate power and eliminate opposition, but by the summer of 1918, a civil war had erupted between the Bolsheviks, or Reds, and anti-Bolshevik forces, or Whites. The civil war raged for three years. By 1922, Lenin was chairman of the council of people’s commissars and the uncontested leader of both the Communist Party and the Soviet government.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Lenin, V. I. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. New York: International Publishers, 1993, c1939;
    Lenin, V. I. What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1973;
    Pipes, Richard, ed. The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archives. With the assistance of David Brandenberger; basic translation of Russian documents by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996;
    Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000;
    Theen, Rolf H. W. Lenin: Genesis and Development of a Revolutionary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973;
    Williams, Beryl. Lenin. Harlow, England: New York: Longman, 2000.
   LEE A. FARROW

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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