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Library of Congress


Library of Congress

Summary of Lenin

Lenin, a pseudonym Vladimir Ulyanov adopted in 1901, was a revolutionary thinker and leader who played a key role in the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and acted as the first leader of the USSR. He has been called the most important politician of the twentieth century, and the most important revolutionary of all time.

Lenin’s Youth

Lenin was born on April 22nd 1870, in Simbirsk, Russia under the name Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov; he would adopt the name Lenin in 1901, possibly after the River Lena in Siberia. His family were educated, liberal and middle class, and Lenin’s father was a teacher who had risen to be inspector of schools, a government bureaucrat and member of the lower end of the hereditary nobility. Lenin’s heritage on his father’s side was partly Mongol, and on his mother’s partly Jewish. Lenin demonstrated a gift for classical languages and a hunger for learning as a child, and his youth appears to have been spent happily and comfortably. Lenin lived amongst five other siblings, four of which reached adulthood; all eventually joined revolutionary movements.

Lenin the Young Revolutionary

When Lenin reached 16, he was devout and apolitical, and not at all socialist as later supporters would claim. He was also excellent at school. Historians seeking the reason behind Lenin’s revolutionary activities often identify key events among his adolescence. Lenin’s eldest brother was executed for working with a revolutionary group planning to assassinate Tsar Alexander III, and Lenin’s father came under pressure from a tsarist government which feared public education to retire early, although he died in 1866 before this could happen. It’s believed these prompted Lenin to think about social and political issues for the first time, spurred on by reading books like ‘What Is To Be Done?’, which sets out a model for a harsh, fanatical revolutionary which greatly influenced Lenin. At first he was a Populist. In 1887 Lenin was able to go to university in Kazan only after character references from his school principal assuaged the authority’s fears that Lenin wasn’t like his brother.

Three months into his university education Lenin was expelled for joining an illegal assembly; arrest and banishment to a family estate followed. In 1888 he was allowed to return to Kazan, but refused permission to return to university. It was during this period, with many jobs now closed off from him, that Lenin began widely reading political writings and he became both a Marxist in 1889 and an anti-Populist. Rivals to Marx, like Bakunin, were also heavily influential. However, Lenin’s political beliefs owe as much to the Russian revolutionary tradition as he did to Marx, and he would alter the latter’s ideas. After the family moved to Samara the same year, Lenin was allowed back to university, obtaining a first class law degree without attending any lectures, and obtaining police permission to practice law.

Exile to Siberia

In 1893 Lenin moved to the Russian capital, St. Petersburg and, while working as a lawyer (although he had developed a dislike for the “class bias” of the Russian legal system) became a revolutionary, making contacts with other Marxists. This led to a visit to Europe in 1895 – partly funded by his mother’s state pension - to meet Russian political exiles and learn from them, and on his return Lenin helped unify Marxists groups in St. Petersburg under one banner. In 1895 Lenin, and the other leaders of the new Marxist union, were arrested; he was jailed for 15 months and exiled to Siberia for three years. In Siberia Lenin married Nadezhda Krupskaya, whom he had met previously in St. Petersburg so she could accompany him. Their exile was pleasant, with the relative freedom of the whole village: they could even hunt with guns and had a housekeeper. Here Lenin read and developed, and resolved to try and suppress his hobbies to focus on revolutionary activity. Trotsky claimed later that ‘Lenin’ was now fully formed, but in reality he lacked the confidence, harshness and resolve of his later life.

Exile in Europe and the Emergence of the Bolsheviks

Upon his release from Siberia, with his wife still in prison, Lenin moved to West Europe where he was freer to pursue revolutionary goals but still needed pseudonyms. He joined other exiled Marxists in starting a newspaper called Iskra, or The Spark, to expound their thinking and develop their ideas. The idea was essentially that a newspaper would be the best way to build the party, and develop the core of party thought, so to this end it was run by the core of the party leaders. Lenin tackled problems which had previously held the spread of Marxism in Russia back, including how a country with only a small urban proletariat would go through the developments Marx identified, and also expressing, in his “What Is To Be Done?” of 1902, the methods by which a centralised party would lead workers in revolutionary government. This was not a fully formed Bolshevik manifesto, more a set of practical guidelines and attacks on the opposition.

Iskra proved successful, and in 1898 Lenin and his fellows tried to unify the many different Russian Marxist groups into one by way of a Congress. The first, held in 1898, failed after being held in Minsk, but the second, was held in London. Here Lenin and his fellows divided, partly over Lenin’s demands for a party led by devoted revolutionaries that others feared would lead to dictatorship over the workers. Although Lenin’s supporters were in the minority, a walk out at the Congress left him in possession of a majority in the room, and his faction became known as the Bolsheviks (the majority). Lenin achieved this in a highly frenzied state, one that exhibited a ruthlessness to get his own way. He had split a young and fragile party, and effectively made an enemy of his former friend Martov to stick to his political principles.

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