Overview of life
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (22 April1870 – 21 January 1924) was a Russian communist revolutionary, politician and political theorist. He served as the leader of the Russian SFSR from 1917, and then concurrently as Premier of the Soviet Union from 1922, until his death. Politically a Marxist, his theoretical contributions to Marxist thought are known as Leninism, which coupled with Marxian economic theory have collectively come to be known as Marxisms Leninism.
Born to a wealthy middle-class family in Simbirsk, Lenin gained an interest in revolutionary leftist politics following the execution of his brother in 1887. Briefly attending the University of Kazan, he was ejected for his involvement in anti-Tsarist protests, devoting the following years to gaining a law degree and to radical politics, becoming a Marxist. In 1893 he moved to St. Petersburg, becoming a senior figure within the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. Arrested for sedition and exiled to Siberia for three years, he married Nadezhda Krupskaya, and fled to Western Europe, living in Germany, England and Switzerland. Following the February Revolution of 1917, in which the Tsar was overthrown and a provisional government took power, he returned home.
As the leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, he took a senior role in orchestrating the October Revolution in 1917, which led to the overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government and the establishment of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, the world’s first constitutionally socialist state. Immediately afterwards, Lenin proceeded to implement socialist reforms, including the transfer of estates and crown lands to workers’ soviets. Faced with the threat of German invasion, he argued that Russia should immediately sign a peace treaty which led to Russia’s exit from the First World War. In 1921 Lenin proposed the New Economic Policy, a system of state capitalism that started the process of industrialisation and recovery from the Russian Civil War. In 1922, the Russian SFSR joined former territories of the Russian Empire in becoming the Soviet Union, with Lenin as its leader. The Bolshevik faction later became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which acted as a vanguard party presiding over a single-party dictatorship of the proletariat.
After his death, Marxisms Leninism developed into a variety of schools of thought, namely Stalinism, Trotskyism and Maoism. Lenin remains a controversial and highly divisive world figure. Detractors have labelled him a dictator whose administration oversaw multiple human rights abuses, but supporters have countered this criticism citing the limitations on his power and have promoted him as a champion of the working class. He has had a significant influence on the international Communist movement and was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
Lenin’s father, Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov (1831-1886), was the fourth child of impoverished tailor Nikolai Vassilievich Ulyanov born a serf of either Kalmyk or Tatar descent and a far younger Kalmyk named Anna Alexeevna Smirnova, who lived in Astrakhan. Ilya escaped poverty by studying physics and mathematics at the University of Kazan, before gaining a teaching job at the Penza Institute for the Nobility in 1854. Introduced to Maria Alexandrovna Blank (1835-1916), they married in the summer of 1863. From a relatively prosperous background, Mariya was the daughter of a Russian-Jewish physician, Alexander Dmitrievich Blank, and his German-Swedish wife, Anna Ivanovna Grosschopf. Dr Blank had insisted on providing his children with a good education, ensuring that Mariya learned Russian, German, English and French, and that she was well versed in Russian literature. Soon after their wedding, Ilya obtained a job in Nizhni Novgorod, rising to become Director of Primary Schools in the Simbirsk district six years later. Five years after that, he was promoted to Director of Public Schools for the province, overseeing the foundation of over 450 schools as a part of the government’s plans for modernisation. Awarded the Order of St. Vladimir, he became a hereditary nobleman.
The middle-class couple had two children, Anna (born 1864) and Alexander (born 1868) before the birth of their third child, Vladimir “Volodya” Ilyich , on 10 April 1870, baptised in St Nicholas Cathedral several days later. They would be followed by three more children, Olga (born 1871), Dmitry (born 1874) and Mariya (born 1878). Another brother, Nikolai, had died several days after birth in 1873. Ilya was a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church and baptised his children into it, although Mariya a Lutheran was largely indifferent to Christianity, a view that influenced her children. Both parents were monarchists and liberal conservatives, being committed to the Emancipation reform of 1861 introduced by the reformist Tsar Alexander II; they avoided political radicals and there is no evidence that the Tsarist police ever put them under surveillance for subversive thought.
Every summer they left their home in Moscow Street, Simbirsk and holidayed at a rural manor in Kokushkino, shared with Mariya’s Veretennikov cousins. Among his siblings, Vladimir was closest to his sister Olya, whom he bossed around, having an extremely competitive nature; he could be destructive, but usually admitted misbehaviour. A keen sportsman, he spent much of his free time outdoors or playing chess, but his father insisted that he devote his life to study, leading him to excel at school, the Simbirsk Classical Gimnazia, a strictly disciplinarian and conservative institution. By his teenage years, Vladimir was coaching his elder sister in Latin and gave private tuition to a Chuvash student.
Ilya Ulyanov died of a brain haemorrhage on 12 January 1886, when Vladimir was 16 years old. Vladimir’s behaviour became erratic and confrontational, and shortly thereafter he renounced his belief in God. At the time, Vladimir’s elder brother Aleksandr “Sacha” Ulyanov was studying biology at St. Petersburg University, in 1885 having been awarded a gold medal for his dissertation, after which he was elected onto the university’s Scientific-Literary Society. He had become involved in political agitation against the absolute monarchy of reactionary Tsar Alexander III which governed the Russian Empire, reading the writings of a number of banned leftists, including Dmitry Pisarev, Nikolay Dobrolyubov, Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Karl Marx. Organising protests against the government, he joined a socialist revolutionary cell bent on assassinating the Tsar and with his scientific background was selected to construct a bomb. Before they carried out the attack, the conspirators were arrested and tried. On 25 April 1887, Sacha was sentenced to death by hanging, and executed on 8 May. Despite the emotional trauma brought on by the recent deaths of his father and brother, Vladimir continued with his studies, leaving school with a gold medal for his exceptional performance, and decided that he wanted to study law at Kazan University.
University and political radicalism: 1887-1893
Entering the Judicial Faculty of Kazan University in August 1887, Vladimir and his mother moved into a flat, renting out their Simbirsk family home. Becoming interested in his late brother’s radical ideas, he began meeting with a revolutionary cell run by the militant agrarian socialist Lazar Bogoraz, associating with leftists intent on reviving the People’s Freedom Party (Narodnaya Volya). Joining the university’s illegal Samara-Simbirsk zemlyachestvo, he was elected as its representative for the university’s zemlyachestvo council. On 4 December he took part in a demonstration demanding the abolition of the 1884 statute and the re-legalisation of student societies, but along with 100 other protesters was arrested by police. Accused of being a ringleader, the university expelled him and the Ministry of Internal Affairs placed him under police surveillance, exiling him to his Kokushkino estate. Here, he read voraciously, becoming enamoured with Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to be Done? (1863). Disliking his radicalism, in September 1888 his mother persuading him to write to the Ministry of the Interior asking them to allow him to study at a foreign university; they refused his request, but allowed his return to Kazan, where he settled on the Pervaya Gora with his mother and brother Dmitry.
In Kazan, he contacted M.P. Chetvergova, joining her secret revolutionary circle, through which he discovered Karl Marx’s Capital (1867); exerting a strong influence on him, he became increasingly interested in Marxism. Wary of his political views, his mother purchased an estate in the village of Alakaevka, Samara Oblast made famous in the work of poet Gleb Uspensky, of whom Lenin was a great fan
in the hope that Vladimir would turn his attention to agriculture. Here, he studied peasant life and the poverty they faced, but remained unpopular as locals stole his farm equipment and livestock, causing his mother to sell the farm.
In September 1889, the Ulyanovs moved to Samara for the winter. Here, Vladimir contacted a number of exiled dissidents and joined Alexei P. Sklyarenko’s discussion circle. Both Vladimir and Sklyarenko adopted Marxism, with Vladimir translating Marx and Friedrich Engels’ political pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto (1848), into Russian. He began to read the works of the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, a founder of the Black Repartition movement, concurring with Plekhanov’s argument that Russia was moving from feudalism to capitalism. Becoming increasingly sceptical of the effectiveness of militant attacks and assassinations, he argued against such tactics in a December 1889 debate with M.V. Sabunaev, an advocate of the People’s Freedom Party. Despite disagreeing on tactics, he made friends among the Party, in particular with Apollon Shukht, who asked Vladimir to be his daughter’s godfather in 1893.
In May 1890, Mariya convinced the authorities to allow Vladimir to undertake his exams externally at a university of his choice. He picked the University of Saint Petersburg, obtaining the equivalent of a first-class degree with honours; celebrations were marred when his sister Olga died of typhoid. Vladimir remained in Samara for several years, in January 1892 being employed as a legal assistant for a regional court, and soon gaining a job with local lawyer Andrei N. Khardin. Embroiled primarily in disputes between peasants and artisans, he devoted much of his time to radical politics, remaining active in Skylarenko’s group and formulating ideas about Marxism’s applicability to Russia. Inspired by Plekhanov’s work, Vladimir collected data on Russian society, using it to support a Marxist interpretation of societal development. Hoping to be taken seriously as an intellectual, in 1893 he submitted a paper, “New Economic Developments in Peasant Life”, to the liberal journal Russian Thought, but it was rejected, only seeing publication in 1927.
St. Petersburg and foreign visits: 1893-1895
In autumn 1893, Vladimir moved to St. Petersburg, taking up residence in a Sergievsky Street flat in the Liteiny district, before moving to 7 Kazachy Alley, near the Haymarket. Employed as assistant to the lawyer M.F. Volkenstein, he joined a revolutionary cell run by S.I. Radchenko, whose members were primarily students from the city’s Technological Institute. Like Vladimir, they were Marxists, and called themselves the “Social Democrats” after the Marxist Social Democratic Party of Germany. Impressed by his extensive knowledge, they welcomed him and he soon became a senior member of the group. Championing Marxist thought among the revolutionary socialist movement, in January 1894 he openly debated with theorist V.P. Vorontsov at a clandestine meeting, where his outspoken behaviour was noted by a police spy. Intent on building Marxism in Russia, Vladimir contacted Petr Bernardovich Struve, a wealthy sympathizer whom he hoped could aid in the publication of literature, and encouraged the foundation of further revolutionary cells in Russia’s industrial centres. He also became friends with a young Russian Jewish Marxist named Julius Martov, who encouraged his comrades to spend more time engaged in revolutionary activity.
Vladimir entered into a relationship with fellow Marxist and schoolteacher Nadezhda “Nadya” Krupskaya, who introduced him to several socialist proletariat. By autumn 1894, Vladimir was the leader of a workers’ circle who met for two hours on a Sunday; known to them by a pseudonym, Nikolai Petrovich, they affectionately referred to him as starik (old man). He was meticulous in covering his tracks, knowing that police spies were trying to infiltrate the revolutionary movement. He also wrote his first political tract, What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats; based largely on his experiences in Samara, around 200 copies were illegally printed.
Although sharing ideas, Lenin and the Social-Democrats clashed with the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR), who were inspired by the example of the defunct People’s Freedom Party. Advocating an agrarian-socialist platform, the SR emphasised the revolutionary role of the peasant, who in 1881 numbered 75 million, in contrast to the 1 million urban proletariat in Russia. In contrast, the Marxists believed that the peasant class’ primary motivation was to own their own land, and that they were capitalists; instead, they saw the proletariat as the revolutionary force to advance socialism. Lenin nevertheless retained an influence from the thought of militant agrarian-socialist Petr Tkachavi.
He hoped that connections could be cemented between his Social-Democrats and the Emancipation of Labour group; an organisation founded in Geneva, Switzerland by Pleckhanov and other Russian Marxist emigres in 1883. Vladimir and E.I. Sponti were selected to travel to Switzerland to meet with Pleckhanov, who was generally supportive but criticised the Social-Democrats for ignoring the role that the bourgeoisie could play in the anti-Tsarist revolution. Traveling on to Zurich, Vladimir met and befriended Pavel Axelrod, another member of Emancipation of Labour. Proceeding to Paris, France, Vladimir met with Paul Lafargue and undertook research into the Paris Commune of 1871, which he saw as an early prototype for a proletarian government. Financed by his mother, he returned to Switzerland to stay in a health spa before traveling to Berlin, Germany, where he studied for six weeks at the Staatsbibliothek and met with Wilhelm Liebknecht. Returning to Russia with a stash of illegal revolutionary literature, he traveled to various cities, becoming aware that he was being monitored by the police. Coinciding with a series of strikes in St. Petersburg, centered on the Thornton textile mill in 1895, he distributed Marxist literature to the workers, and was involved in the production of a news sheet, The Workers’ Cause. However, both he and 40 other activists were arrested on the night before the first issue’s publication and charged with sedition.
Siberian exile: 1895-1900
Imprisoned at the House of Preliminary Detention in Shpalernaya Street, Vladimir was refused legal representation, so denied all of the charges. His family rallied round to help him, but he was refused bail, remaining imprisoned for a year before sentencing. Fellow revolutionaries smuggled messages to him, while he devised a code for playing chess with the neighbouring inmate. Spending much of his time writing, he focused on the role of the working-class in the coming revolution; believing that the rise of industrial capitalism had led large numbers of peasants to move to the cities, where they became proletariat, he argued that class consciousness would develop, leading them to rise up in violent revolution against the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. By July 1896 he had finished Draft and Explanation of A Programme for the Social Democratic Party and had commenced work on his book The Development of Capitalism in Russia.
Vladimir was sentenced without trial to 3 years exile in eastern Siberia. Given a few days in St. Petersburg in February 1897 to put his affairs in order, he met with fellow revolutionaries; the Social-Democrats had been renamed the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, and with many of its leading intelligentsia imprisoned, workers had taken over a number of senior positions, a move that caused rifts but which gained Vladimir’s cautious support. In 1896-97, strikes hit St. Petersburg, aided by the Marxists; believing his predictions to be coming true, Vladimir was unhappy at having to abandon the movement. The Tsarist government made use of a large network of prison camps and areas of exile on the verges of its empire to deal with dissidents and criminals; by 1897 there were 300,000 Russian citizens in this system, and Vladimir was now one of them. Permitted to make his own way there, the journey took 11 weeks, for much of which he was accompanied by his mother and sisters. Considered a minor threat, Vladimir was exiled to Shushenskoye in the Minusinsky District, a settlement that Vladimir described as “not a bad place”. Renting a room in a peasant’s hut, he remained under police surveillance, but corresponded with other subversives, many of whom visited him, and also went on trips to hunt duck and snipe and to swim in the Yenisei River.
In May 1898, Nadya joined him in exile, having been arrested in August 1896 for organizing a strike. Although initially posted to Ufa, she convinced the authorities to move her to Shushenskoye, claiming that she and Vladimir were engaged; they married in a church on 10 July 1898. Settling into a family life with Nadya’s mother Elizaveta Vasilyevna, the couple translated Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s The History of Trade Unionism (1894) into Russian, a job obtained for them by Struve. Keen to keep abreast of the developments in German Marxism where there had been an ideological split, with revisionists like Eduard Bernstein advocating a peaceful, electoral path to socialism Vladimir remained devoted to violent revolution, attacking revisionist arguments in A Protest by Russian Social-Democrats. Vladimir also finished The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), his longest book to date, which offered a well-researched and polemical attack on the Social-Revolutionaries and promoting a Marxist analysis of Russian economic development. Published under the pseudonym of “Vladimir Ilin”, it would be described by biographer Robert Service as “a tour de force”, but received predominantly poor reviews upon publication.
Munich, London and Geneva: 1900-1905
His exile over, Vladimir was banned from St. Petersburg, instead settling in Pskov, a small town two hours’ train ride from the capital, in February 1900. His wife, who had not served the entirety of her sentence, remained in exile in Ufa, where she fell ill. Intent on founding a newspaper, Vladimir and Struve raised money for the publication of Iskra (The Spark), a new organ of the Russian Marxist movement, now calling itself the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). After visiting his wife, on 29 July 1900, Vladimir left Russia for Western Europe. In Switzerland and Germany, he met with Axelrod, Plekhanov and Potresov, and lectured on the Russian situation. On 24 August 1900, a conference of Russian Marxists was held in the Swiss town of Corsier to discuss Iskra, but both Vladimir and Potresov were shocked at Plekhanov’s controlling nature and antisemitism. It was agreed that the paper would be produced in Munich, where Vladimir moved in September 1900. The first issue was printed on Christmas Eve, and contained an article written by Vladimir decrying European intervention in the Boxer Rebellion. A second RSDLP publication, Zarya, appeared in March 1901, and would run for four issues, but Iskra was far more successful, being smuggled into Russia illegally, becoming the most successful Russian underground publication for 50 years. It contained contributions from such figures as the Polish Rosa Luxemburg, the Czech-German Karl Kautsky, and a young Ukrainian Marxist, Leon Trotsky, who became a regular contributor from the autumn of 1902.
Vladimir adopted the nom de guerre of “Lenin” in December 1901, possibly taking the River Lena as a basis, thereby imitating the manner in which Plekhanov had adopted the pseudonym of “Volgin” after the River Volga. In 1902, he published a political pamphlet entitled What Is to Be Done? named after Chernychevsky’s novel under this pseudonym. His most influential publication to date, it dealt with Lenin’s thoughts on the need for a vanguard party to lead the working-class to revolution. When his wife finished her sentence, she joined him in Munich; she became his personal secretary, aiding the production of Iskra. Together, they continued their political agitation, with Lenin writing further articles for Iskra and drafting the program for the RSDLP, attacking ideological dissenters and external critics. Despite remaining an orthodox Marxist, he had begun to accept the Social Revolutionary Party’s views on the revolutionary power of the Russian peasantry, penning a pamphlet in 1903 entitled To the Village Poor.
In 1903, Lenin attended the 2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which initially convened at Brussels before moving to London. Here a longstanding ideological split developed within the party between the Bolshevik faction, led by Lenin, and the Menshevik faction, led by Martov. These terms “Bolshevik” (from the Russian bol’shinstvo meaning “majority”) and “Menshevik” (from the Russian menshinstvo meaning “minority”) derive from the narrow Bolshevik electoral defeat of the Mensheviks to the party’s newspaper editorial board, and to central committee leadership. The break partly originated from Lenin’s book What Is to Be Done? (1902), which proposed a smaller party organisation of professional revolutionaries, with Iskra in a primary ideologic role. Another issue that divided the two factions was Lenin’s support of a worker-peasant alliance to overthrow the Tsarist regime as opposed to the Menshevik’s support of an alliance between the working classes and the liberal bourgeoisie to achieve the same aim (while a small third faction led by Trotsky espoused the view that the working class alone was the instrument of revolutionary change needing no help from either the peasants or the middle classes).
The 1905 Revolution: 1905-1907
In November 1905, Lenin returned to Russia to support the 1905 Russian Revolution. In 1906, he was elected to the Presidium of the RSDLP; and shuttled between Finland and Russia, but resumed his exile in December 1907, after the Tsarist defeat of the revolution and after the scandal of the 1907 Tiflis bank robbery. Until the February and October revolutions of 1917, he lived in Western Europe, where, despite relative poverty, he developed Leninism urban Marxism adapted to agrarian Russia reversing Karl Marx’s economics politics prescription to allow for a dynamic revolution led by a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries.
Return to exile: 1907-1917
In 1909, to disambiguate philosophic doubts about the proper practical course of a socialist revolution, Lenin published Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1909), which became a philosophic foundation of Marxism-Leninism. Throughout exile, Lenin travelled Europe, participated in socialist activities, (the 1912 Prague Party Conference). When Inessa Armand left Russia for Paris, she met Lenin and other exiled Bolsheviks. Rumour has it she was Lenin’s lover; yet historian Neil Harding notes that there is a “slender stock of evidence . . . we still have no evidence that they were sexually intimate”.
In 1914, when the First World War (1914-18) began, most of the mass Social Democratic parties of Europe supported their homelands’ war effort. At first, Lenin disbelieved such political fickleness, especially that the Germans had voted for war credits; the Social Democrats’ war-authorising votes broke Lenin’s mainstream connection with the Second International (1889-1916). He opposed the Great War, because the peasants and workers would be fighting the bourgeoisie’s “imperialist war”one that ought be transformed to an international civil war, between the classes. Lenin’s view of the war can be summed up in a letter he wrote to the Romanian poet Valeriu Marcu in 1917: “One slaveowner, Germany is fighting another slaveowner, England, for a fairer distribution of the slaves”. At the beginning of the war, the Austrians briefly detained him in Poronin, his town of residence; on 5 September 1914 Lenin moved to neutral Switzerland, residing first at Bern, then at Zurich.
In 1915, in Switzerland, at the anti-war Zimmerwald Conference, he led the Zimmerwald Left minority, who failed, against the majority pacifists, to achieve the conference’s adopting Lenin’s proposition of transforming the imperialist war into a class war. In the next conference (24-30 April 1916), at Kienthal, Lenin and the Zimmerwald Left presented a like resolution; but the conference concorded only a compromise manifesto.
In the spring of 1916, in Zurich, Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). In this work Lenin synthesised previous works on the subject by Karl Kautsky, John A. Hobson (Imperialism: A Study, 1902), and Rudolf Hilferding (Das Finanzkapital, 1910), and applied them to the new circumstances of the First World War (1914-18) fought between the German and the British empires which exemplified the imperial capitalist competition, which was the thesis of his book. This thesis posited that the merging of banks and industrial cartels gave rise to finance capital the basis of imperialism, the zenith of capitalism. To wit, in pursuing greater profits than the home market can offer, business exports capital, which, in turn, leads to the division of the world, among international, monopolist firms, and to European states colonising large parts of the world, in support of their businesses. Imperialism, thus, is an advanced stage of capitalism based upon the establishment of monopolies, and upon the exportation of capital (rather than goods), managed with a global financial system, of which colonialism is one feature.
In accordance with this thesis, Lenin believed that Russia was being used as a tool of French and British capitalist imperialism in World War I and that its participation in the conflict was at the behest of those interests.
The February Revolution
In February 1917 popular demonstrations in Russia provoked by the hardship of war forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. The monarchy was replaced by an uneasy political relationship between, on the one hand, a Provisional Government of parliamentary figures and, on the other, an array of “Soviets” (most prominently the Petrograd Soviet): revolutionary councils directly elected by workers, soldiers and peasants. Lenin was still in exile in Zurich.
Lenin was preparing to go to the Altstadt library after lunch on 15 March when a fellow exile, the Pole Mieczyslav Bronski, burst in to exclaim: “Haven’t you heard the news? There’s a revolution in Russia!” The next day Lenin wrote to Alexandra Kollontai in Stockholm, insisting on “revolutionary propaganda, agitation and struggle with the aim of an international proletarian revolution and for the conquest of power by the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies”. The next day: “Spread out! Rouse new sections! Awaken fresh initiative, form new organisations in every stratum and prove to them that peace can come only with the armed Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in power.”
Lenin was determined to return to Russia at once. But that was not an easy task in the middle of the First World War. Switzerland was surrounded by the warring countries of France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and the seas were dominated by Russia’s ally Britain. Lenin considered crossing Germany with a Swedish passport, but Krupskaya joked that he would give himself away by swearing at Mensheviks in Russian in his sleep.
Negotiations with the Provisional Government to obtain passage through Germany for the Russian exiles in return for German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war dragged on. Eventually, bypassing the Provisional Government, on 31 March the Swiss Communist Fritz Platten obtained permission from the German Foreign Minister through his ambassador in Switzerland, Baron Gisbert von Romberg, for Lenin and other Russian exiles to travel through Germany to Russia in a sealed one-carriage train. At Lenin’s request the carriage would be protected from interference by a special grant of extraterritorial status. There are many evidences for German financial commitment to the mission of Lenin. The aim was to disintegrate Russian resistance in the First World War by spreading the revolutionary unrest. Financial support was continued until July of 1917, when the Provisional Government, after revealing German funding for the Bolsheviks, outlawed the party and issued an arrest warrant for Lenin.
A report from a German secret agent to Russia informing about Lenin’s arrival to Petrograd and his actions being fully in line with German expectations
On 9 April Lenin and Krupskaya met their fellow exiles in Bern, a group eventually numbering thirty boarded a train that took them to Zurich. From there they travelled to the specially arranged train that was waiting at Gottmadingen, just short of the official German crossing station at Singen. Accompanied by two German Army officers, who sat at the rear of the single carriage behind a chalked line, the exiles travelled through Frankfurt and Berlin to Sassnitz (arriving 12 April), where a ferry took them to Trelleborg. Krupskaya noted how, looking out of the carriage window as they passed through wartime Germany, the exiles were “struck by the total absence of grown-up men. Only women, teenagers and children could be seen at the wayside stations, on the fields, and in the streets of the towns.” Once in Sweden the group travelled by train to Stockholm and thence back to Russia.
Just before midnight on 16 April 1917, Lenin’s train arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd. He was greeted, to the sound of the Marseillaise, by a crowd of workers, sailors and soldiers bearing red flags: by now a ritual in revolutionary Russia for welcoming home political exiles. Lenin was formally welcomed by Chkheidze, the Menshevik Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. But Lenin pointedly turned to the crowd instead to address it on the international importance of the Russian Revolution:
The piratical imperialist war is the beginning of civil war throughout Europe … The world-wide Socialist revolution has already dawned … Germany is seething … Any day now the whole of European capitalism may crash … Sailors, comrades, we have to fight for a socialist revolution, to fight until the proletariat wins full victory! Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!
The April Theses
On the train from Switzerland, Lenin had composed his famous April Theses: his programme for the Bolshevik Party. In the Theses, Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks should not rest content, like almost all other Russian socialists, with the “bourgeois” February Revolution. Instead the Bolsheviks should press ahead to a socialist revolution of the workers and poorest peasants:
2) The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.
Lenin argued that this socialist revolution would be achieved by the Soviets taking power from the parliamentary Provisional Government: “No support for the Provisional Government … Not a parliamentary republic to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies would be a retrograde step but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom.”
To achieve this, Lenin argued, the Bolsheviks’ immediate task was to campaign diligently among the Russian people to persuade them of the need for Soviet power:
4) Recognition of the fact that in most of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies our Party is in a minority, so far a small minority, … and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.
The April Theses were more radical than virtually anything Lenin’s fellow revolutionaries had heard. Previous Bolshevik policy had been like that of the Mensheviks in this respect: that Russia was ready only for bourgeois, not socialist, revolution. Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, who had returned from exile in Siberia in mid-March and taken control of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, had been campaigning for support for the Provisional Government. When Lenin presented his Theses to a joint Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) meeting, he was booed by the Mensheviks. Boris Bogdanov called them “the ravings of a madman”. Of the Bolsheviks, only Kollontai at first supported the Theses.
Lenin arrived at the revolutionary April Theses thanks to his work in exile on the theory of imperialism. Through his study of worldwide politics and economics, Lenin came to view Russian politics in international perspective. In the conditions of the First World War, Lenin believed that, although Russian capitalism was underdeveloped, a socialist revolution in Russia could spark revolution in the more advanced nations of Europe, which could then help Russia achieve economic and social development. A. J. P. Taylor argued: “Lenin made his revolution for the sake of Europe, not for the sake of Russia, and he expected Russia’s preliminary revolution to be eclipsed when the international revolution took place. Lenin did not invent the iron curtain. On the contrary it was invented against him by the anti-revolutionary Powers of Europe. Then it was called the cordon sanitaire.”
In this way, Lenin moved away from the previous Bolshevik policy of pursuing only bourgeois revolution in Russia, and towards the position of his fellow Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his theory of permanent revolution, which may have influenced Lenin at this time.
Controversial as it was in April 1917, the programme of the April Theses made the Bolshevik party a political refuge for Russians disillusioned with the Provisional Government and the war.
The October Revolution
In Petrograd dissatisfaction with the regime culminated in the spontaneous July Days riots, by industrial workers and soldiers. After being suppressed, these riots were blamed by the government on Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Aleksandr Kerensky, Grigory Aleksinsky, and other opponents, also accused the Bolsheviks, especially Lenin of being Imperial German agents provocateurs; on 17 July, Leon Trotsky defended them:
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.
In the event, the Provisional Government arrested the Bolsheviks and outlawed their Party, prompting Lenin to go into hiding and flee to Finland. In exile again, reflecting on the July Days and its aftermath, Lenin determined that, to prevent the triumph of counter-revolutionary forces, the Provisional Government must be overthrown by an armed uprising. Meanwhile, he published State and Revolution (1917) proposing government by the soviets (worker-, soldier- and peasant-elected councils) rather than by a parliamentary body.
In late August 1917, while Lenin was in hiding in Finland, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army General Lavr Kornilov sent troops from the front to Petrograd in what appeared to be a military coup attempt against the Provisional Government. Kerensky panicked and turned to the Petrograd Soviet for help, allowing the revolutionaries to organise workers as Red Guards to defend Petrograd. The coup petered out before it reached Petrograd thanks to the industrial action of the Petrograd workers and the soldiers’ increasing unwillingness to obey their officers.
However, faith in the Provisional Government had been severely shaken. Lenin’s slogan since the April Theses “All power to the soviets!” became more plausible the more the Provisional Government was discredited in public eyes. The Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet on 31 August and in the Moscow Soviet on 5 September.
In October Lenin returned from Finland. From the Smolny Institute for girls, Lenin directed the Provisional Government’s deposition (6-8 November 1917), and the storming (7-8 November) of the Winter Palace to realise the Kerensky capitulation that established Bolshevik government in Russia.
Forming a government
Lenin had argued in a newspaper article in September 1917:
The peaceful development of any revolution is, generally speaking, extremely rare and difficult … but … a peaceful development of the revolution is possible and probable if all power is transferred to the Soviets. The struggle of parties for power within the Soviets may proceed peacefully, if the Soviets are made fully democratic
The October Revolution had been relatively peaceful. The revolutionary forces already had de facto control of the capital thanks to the defection of the city garrison. Few troops had stayed to defend the Provisional Government in the Winter Palace. Most citizens had simply continued about their daily business while the Provisional Government was actually overthrown.
It thus appeared that all power had been transferred to the Soviets relatively peacefully. On the evening of the October Revolution, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets met, with a Bolshevik-Left SR majority, in the Smolny Institute in Petrograd. When the left-wing Menshevik Martov proposed an all-party Soviet government, the Bolshevik Lunacharsky stated that his party did not oppose the idea. The Bolshevik delegates voted unanimously in favour of the proposal.
However, not all Russian socialists supported transferring all power to the Soviets. The Right SRs and Mensheviks walked out of this very first session of the Congress of Soviets in protest at the overthrow of the Provisional Government, of which their parties had been members.
The next day, on the evening of 26 October O.S., Lenin attended the Congress of Soviets: undisguised in public for the first time since the July Days, although not yet having regrown his trademark beard. The American journalist John Reed described the man who appeared at about 8:40 pm to “a thundering wave of cheers”:
A short, stocky figure, with a big head set down in his shoulders, bald and bulging. Little eyes, a snubbish nose, wide, generous mouth, and heavy chin; clean-shaven now, but already beginning to bristle with the well-known beard of his past and future. Dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers much too long for him. Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been. A strange popular leader a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colourless, humourless, uncompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncrasies but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms, of analysing a concrete situation. And combined with shrewdness, the greatest intellectual audacity.
According to Reed, Lenin waited for the applause to subside before declaring simply: “We shall now proceed to construct the Socialist order!” Lenin proceeded to propose to the Congress a Decree on Peace, calling on “all the belligerent peoples and to their Governments to begin immediately negotiations for a just and democratic peace”, and a Decree on Land, transferring ownership of all “land-owners’ estates, and all lands belonging to the Crown, to monasteries” to the Peasants’ Soviets. The Congress passed the Decree on Peace unanimously, and the Decree on Land faced only one vote in opposition.
Having approved these key Bolshevik policies, the Congress of Soviets proceeded to elect the Bolsheviks into power as the Council of People’s Commissars by “an enormous majority”. The Bolsheviks offered posts in the Council to the Left SRs: an offer that the Left SRs at first refused, but later accepted, joining the Bolsheviks in coalition on 12 December O.S. Lenin had suggested that Trotsky take the position of Chairman of the Council the head of the Soviet government but Trotsky refused on the grounds that his Jewishness would be controversial, and he took the post of Commissar for Foreign Affairs instead. Thus Lenin became the head of government in Russia.
Trotsky announced the composition of the new Soviet Central Executive Committee: with a Bolshevik majority, but with places reserved for the representatives of the other parties, including the seceded Right SRs and Mensheviks. Trotsky concluded the Congress: “We welcome into the Government all parties and groups which will adopt our programme.”
Lenin declared in 1920 that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country” in modernising Russia into a 20th-century country:
We must show the peasants that the organisation of industry on the basis of modern, advanced technology, on electrification, which will provide a link between town and country, will put an end to the division between town and country, will make it possible to raise the level of culture in the countryside and to overcome, even in the most remote corners of land, backwardness, ignorance, poverty, disease, and barbarism.
Yet the Bolshevik Government had to first withdraw Russia from the First World War (1914-18). Facing continuing Imperial German eastward advance, Lenin proposed immediate Russian withdrawal from the West European war; yet, other, doctrinaire Bolshevik leaders (e.g. Nikolai Bukharin) advocated continuing in the war to foment revolution in Germany. Lead peace treaty negotiator Leon Trotsky proposed No War, No Peace, an intermediate-stance Russo German treaty conditional upon neither belligerent annexing conquered lands; the negotiations collapsed, and the Germans renewed their attack, conquering much of the (agricultural) territory of west Russia. Resultantly, Lenin’s withdrawal proposal then gained majority support, and, on 3 March 1918, Russia withdrew from the First World War via the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, losing much of its European territory. Because of the German threat Lenin moved the Soviet Government from Petrograd to Moscow on 10-11 March 1918.
On 19 January 1918, relying upon the soviets, the Bolsheviks, allied with anarchists and the Socialist Revolutionaries, dissolved the Russian Constituent Assembly thereby consolidating the Bolshevik Government’s political power. Yet, that left-wing coalition collapsed consequent to the Social Revolutionaries opposing the territorially expensive Brest-Litovsk treaty the Bolsheviks had concorded with Imperial Germany. The anarchists and the Socialist Revolutionaries then joined other political parties in attempting to depose the Bolshevik Government, who defended themselves with persecution and jail for the anti-Bolsheviks.
To initiate the Russian economic recovery, on 21 February 1920, he launched the GOELRO plan, the State Commission for Electrification of Russia , and also established free universal health care and free education systems, and promulgated the politico-civil rights of women. Moreover, since 1918, in re-establishing the economy, for the productive business administration of each industrial enterprise in Russia, Lenin proposed a government-accountable leader for each enterprise. Workers could request measures resolving problems, but had to abide the leader’s ultimate decision. Although contrary to workers’ self-management, such pragmatic industrial administration was essential for efficient production and employment of worker expertise. Yet Lenin’s doctrinaire Bolshevik opponents argued that such industrial business management was meant to strengthen State control of labour, and that worker self-management failures were owed to lack of resources, not incompetence. Lenin resolved that problem by licencing (for a month) all workers of most factories; thus historian S. A. Smith’s observation: “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.”
Internationally, Lenin’s admiration of the Irish socialist revolutionary James Connolly, led to the USSR’s being the first country to grant diplomatic recognition to the Irish Republic that fought the Irish War of Independence from Britain. In the event, Lenin developed a friendship with Connolly’s revolutionary son, Roddy Connolly.
Establishing the Cheka
On 20 December 1917, “The Whole-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage”, the Cheka ( Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya Extraordinary Commission) was created by a decree issued by Lenin to defend the Russian Revolution. The establishment of the Cheka, secret service, headed by Felix Dzerzhinsky, formally consolidated the censorship established earlier, when on “17 November, the Central Executive Committee passed a decree giving the Bolsheviks control over all newsprint and wide powers of closing down newspapers critical of the regime. . . .”; non-Bolshevik soviets were disbanded; anti-soviet newspapers were closed until Pravda (Truth) and Izvestia ( The News) established their communications monopoly. According to Leonard Schapiro the Bolshevik “refusal to come to terms with the socialists, and the dispersal of the Constituent assembly, led to the logical result that revolutionary terror would now be directed, not only against traditional enemies, such as the bourgeoisie or right-wing opponents, but against anyone, be he socialist, worker, or peasant, who opposed Bolshevik rule”. On 19 December 1918, a year after its creation, a resolution was adopted at Lenin’s behest that forbade the Bolshevik’s own press from publishing “defamatory articles” about the Cheka. As Lenin put it: “A Good Communist is also a good Chekist.”
Lenin on antisemitism
Lenin was enthusiastic about new mass communication technology like the radio and the gramophone and its capacity for educating Russia’s mostly illiterate peasant population. In 1919 Lenin recorded eight speeches on to gramophone records. During the Nikita Khrushchev era (1953-64), seven were published. The eighth speech, which was not published, outlined Lenin’s thoughts on antisemitism:
The tsarist police, in alliance with the landowners and the capitalists, organised 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. … 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. … The capitalists strive to sow and foment hatred between workers of different faiths, different nations and different races. … Rich Jews, like rich Russians, and the rich in all countries, are in alliance to oppress, crush, rob, and disunite the workers. … Shame on those who foment hatred towards the Jews, who foment hatred towards other nations.
Lenin survived two serious assassination attempts. The first occasion was on 14 January 1918 in Petrograd, when assassins ambushed Lenin in his automobile after a speech. He and Fritz Platten were in the back seat when assassins began shooting, and “Platten grabbed Lenin by the head and pushed him down… Platten’s hand was covered in blood, having been grazed by a bullet as he was shielding Lenin”.
The second event was on 30 August 1918, when the Socialist Revolutionary Fanya Kaplan approached Lenin at his automobile after a speech; he was resting a foot on the running board as he spoke with a woman. Kaplan called to Lenin, and when he turned to face her she shot at him three times. The first bullet struck his arm, the second bullet his jaw and neck, and the third missed him, wounding the woman with whom he was speaking; the wounds felled him and he became unconscious. Fearing in-hospital assassins, Lenin was brought to his Kremlin apartment; physicians decided against removing the bullets lest the surgery endanger his recovery, which proved to be slow.
Pravda publicly ridiculed Fanya Kaplan as a failed assassin, a latter-day Charlotte Corday (the murderess of Jean-Paul Marat) who could not derail the Russian Revolution, reassuring readers that, immediately after surviving the assassination: “Lenin, shot through twice, with pierced lungs spilling blood, refuses help and goes on his own. The next morning, still threatened with death, he reads papers, listens, learns, and observes to see that the engine of the locomotive that carries us towards global revolution has not stopped working…”; despite unharmed lungs, the neck wound did spill blood into a lung.
Historian Richard Pipes reports that “the impression one gains … is that the Bolsheviks deliberately underplayed the event to convince the public that, whatever happened to Lenin, they were firmly in control”. Moreover, in a letter to his wife (7 September 1918), Leonid Borisovich Krasin, a Tsarist and Soviet regime diplomat, describes the public atmosphere and social response to the failed assassination attempt on 30 August and to Lenin’s survival:
As it happens, the attempt to kill Lenin has made him much more popular than he was. One hears a great many people, who are far from having any sympathy with the Bolsheviks, saying that it would be an absolute disaster if Lenin had succumbed to his wounds, as it was first thought he would. And they are quite right, for, in the midst of all this chaos and confusion, he is the backbone of the new body politic, the main support on which everything rests.
In response to Fanya Kaplan’s failed assassination of Lenin on 30 August 1918, and the successful assassination of the Petrograd Cheka chief Moisei Uritsky, Stalin proposed to Lenin “open and systematic mass terror . . . . . . those responsible”; the Bolsheviks instructed Felix Dzerzhinsky to commence a Red Terror, announced in the 1 September 1918 issue of the Krasnaya Gazeta (Red Gazette). To that effect, among other acts, at Moscow, execution lists signed by Lenin authorised the shooting of 25 Tsarist ministers, civil servants, and 765 White Guards in September 1918. In his Diaries in Exile, 1935, Leon Trotsky recollected that Lenin authorised the execution of the Russian Royal Family. However, according to Greg King and Penny Wilson’s investigation into the fate of the Romanovs, Trotsky’s recollections on this matter, seventeen years after the events described, are unsubstantiated, inaccurate, and contradicted by what Trotsky himself said on other occasions. Most historians say there is enough evidence to prove Lenin ordered the killings. According to the late Soviet historian Dmitri Volkogonov:
Indirect evidence shows that the order to execute the royal family was given verbally by Lenin and Sverdlov. The object of ‘exterminating the entire Romanov kin’ is confirmed by the almost simultaneous murders of Grand Duchess Yelizaveta Feodorovna, Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, Prince Ivan Konstantinovich, Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich, Prince Igor Konstantinovich and Count Vladimir Paley (son of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich), all of them in Alapaevsk, a hundred miles from Yekaterinburg.
Earlier, in October, Lev Kamenev and cohort, had warned the Party that terrorist rule was inevitable, given Lenin’s assumption of sole command. In late 1918, when he and Nikolai Bukharin tried curbing Chekist excesses, Lenin overruled them; in 1921, via the Politburo, he expanded the Cheka’s discretionary death-penalty powers.
The foreign-aided White Russian counter-revolution failed for want of popular Russian support, because the Bolshevik proletarian state, protected with “mass terror against enemies of the revolution”, was socially organised against the previous capitalist establishment, thus class warfare terrorism in post Tsarist Russia originated in working class (peasant and worker) anger against the privileged aristocrat classes of the deposed absolute monarchy. During the Russian Civil War, anti-Bolsheviks faced torture and summary execution, and by May 1919, there were some 16,000 enemies of the people imprisoned in the Tsarist katorga labour camps; by September 1921 the prisoner populace exceeded 70,000.
In pursuing their revolution and counter-revolution the White and the Red Russians committed atrocities, against each other and their supporting populaces, yet contemporary historians disagree about equating the terrorisms because the Red Terror was Bolshevik Government policy (e.g. Decossackization) against given social classes, while the class-based White Terror was racial and political, against Jews, anti-monarchists, and Communists, (cf. White Movement). Such numbers are recorded in cities occupied by the Bolsheviks:
In Kharkov there were between 2,000 and 3,000 executions in February-June 1919, and another 1,000-2,000 when the town was taken again in December of that year; in Rostov-on-Don, approximately 1,000 in January 1920; in Odessa, 2,200 in May-August 1919, then 1,500-3,000 between February 1920 and February 1921; in Kiev, at least 3,000 in February-August 1919; in Ekaterinodar, at least 3,000 between August 1920 and February 1921; In Armavir, a small town in Kuban, between 2,000 and 3,000 in August-October 1920. The list could go on and on.
Professor Christopher Read states that though terror was employed at the height of the Civil War fighting, “from 1920 onwards the resort to terror was much reduced and disappeared from Lenin’s mainstream discourses and practices”. However, after a clerical insurrection in the town of Shuia, in a 19 March 1922 letter to Vyacheslav Molotov and the Politburo, Lenin delineated action against defiers of the decreed Bolshevik removal of Orthodox Church valuables: “We must… put down all resistance with such brutality that they will not forget it for several decades… The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing… the better.” As a result of this letter, historian Orlando Figes estimates that perhaps 8,000 priests and laymen were executed. And the crushing of the revolts in Kronstadt and Tambov in 1921 resulted in tens of thousands of executions. Estimates for the total number of people killed in the Red Terror ranger from 50,000 to over a million
In 1917, as an anti-imperialist, Lenin said that oppressed peoples had the unconditional right to secede from the Russian Empire; however, at end of the Civil War, the USSR annexed Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, because the White Movement used them as attack bases. Lenin defended the annexations as geopolitical protection against capitalist imperial depredations.
To maintain the war-isolated cities, keep the armies fed, and to avoid economic collapse, the Bolshevik government established war communism, via prodrazvyorstka, food requisitioning from the peasantry, for little payment, which peasants resisted with reduced harvests. The Bolsheviks blamed the kulaks’ withholding grain to increase profits; but statistics indicate most such business occurred in the black market economy. Nonetheless, the prodrazvyorstka resulted in armed confrontations, which the Cheka and Red Army suppressed with shooting hostages, poison gas, and labour-camp deportation; yet Lenin increased the requisitioning.
The six-year long White-Red civil war, the war communism, the famine of 1921, which killed an estimated five million, and foreign military intervention reduced much of Russia to ruin, and provoked rebellion against the Bolsheviks, the greatest being the Tambov rebellion (1919-21). After the March 1921 left-wing Kronstadt Rebellion mutiny, Lenin replaced war communism with the New Economic Policy (NEP), and successfully rebuilt industry and agriculture. The NEP was his pragmatic recognition of the political and economic realities, despite being a tactical, ideological retreat from the socialist ideal; later, the doctrinaire Joseph Stalin reversed the NEP in consolidating his control of the Communist Party and the USSR.
Retirement and death
Persistent stories mark syphilis as the cause of Lenin’s death. A “retrospective diagnosis” published in The European Journal of Neurology in 2004 strengthens these suspicions.
The mental strains of leading a revolution, governing, and fighting a civil war aggravated the physical debilitation consequent to the wounds from the attempted assassinations; Lenin retained a bullet in his neck, until a German surgeon removed it on 24 April 1922. Among his comrades, Lenin was notable for working almost ceaselessly, fourteen to sixteen hours daily, occupied with minor, major, and routine matters. About the man at his life’s end, Volkogonov said:
Lenin was involved in the challenges of delivering fuel into Ivanovo-Vosnesensk… the provision of clothing for miners, he was solving the question of dynamo construction, drafted dozens of routine documents, orders, trade agreements, was engaged in the allocation of rations, edited books and pamphlets at the request of his comrades, held hearings on the applications of peat, assisted in improving the workings at the “Novii Lessner” factory, clarified in correspondence with the engineer P. A. Kozmin the feasibility of using wind turbines for the electrification of villages… all the while serving as an adviser to party functionaries almost continuously.
When already sick, Lenin remembered that, since 1917, he had only rested twice: once, while hiding from the Kerensky Provisional Government (when he wrote The State and Revolution), and while recovering from Fanya Kaplan’s failed assassination. In March 1922, when physicians examined him, they found evidence of neither nervous nor organic pathology, but, given his fatigue and the headaches he suffered, they prescribed rest. Upon returning to St. Petersburg in May 1922, Lenin suffered the first of three strokes, which left him unable to speak for weeks, and severely hampered motion in his right side; by June, he had substantially recovered. By August he resumed limited duties, delivering three long speeches in November. In December 1922, he suffered the second stroke that partly paralyzed his right side, he then withdrew from active politics. In March 1923, he suffered the third stroke that rendered him mute and bed-ridden until his death.
After the first stroke, Lenin dictated government papers to Nadezhda; among them was Lenin’s Testament (changing the structure of the soviets), a document partly inspired by the 1922 Georgian Affair, which was a conflict about the way in which social and political transformation within a constituent republic was to be achieved. It criticized high-rank Communists, including Joseph Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, and Leon Trotsky. About the Communist Party’s General Secretary (since 1922), Joseph Stalin, Lenin reported that the “unlimited authority” concentrated in him was unacceptable, and suggested that “comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post.” His phrasing, implies “personal rudeness, unnecessary roughness, lack of finesse”, flaws “intolerable in a Secretary-General”.
At Lenin’s death, Nadezhda mailed his testament to the central committee, to be read aloud to the 13th Party Congress in May 1924. However, to remain in power, the ruling troika Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev suppressed Lenin’s Testament; it was not published until 1925, in the United States, by the American intellectual Max Eastman. In that year, Trotsky published an article minimising the importance of Lenin’s Testament, saying that Lenin’s notes should not be perceived as a will, that it had been neither concealed, nor violated; yet he did invoke it in later anti-Stalin polemics.
Lenin died at 18.50 hrs, Moscow time, on 21 January 1924, aged 53, at his estate at Gorki settlement (later renamed Gorki Leninskiye). In the four days that the Bolshevik Leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin lay in state, more than 900,000 mourners viewed his body in the Hall of Columns; among the statesmen who expressed condolences to the Soviet Union was Chinese premier Sun Yat-sen, who said:
Through the ages of world history, thousands of leaders and scholars appeared who spoke eloquent words, but these remained words. You, Lenin, were an exception. You not only spoke and taught us, but translated your words into deeds. You created a new country. You showed us the road of joint struggle… You, great man that you are, will live on in the memories of the oppressed people through the centuries.
Winston Churchill, who encouraged British intervention against the Russian Revolution, in league with the White Movement, to destroy the Bolsheviks and Bolshevism, said:
He alone could have found the way back to the causeway… The Russian people were left floundering in the bog. Their worst misfortune was his birth… their next worst his death.
The Soviet government publicly announced Lenin’s death the following day, with head of State Mikhail Kalinin tearfully reading an official statement to delegates of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets at 11am, the same time that a team of physicians began a postmortem of the body. On 23 January, mourners from the Communist Party Central Committee, the Moscow party organisation, the trade unions and the soviets began to assemble at his house, with the body being removed from his home at about 10am the following day, being carried aloft in a red coffin by Kamenev, Zinoviev, Stalin, Bukharin, Bubhov and Krasin. Transported by train to Moscow, mourners gathered at every station along the way, and upon arriving in the city, a funerary procession carried the coffin for five miles to the House of Trade Unions, where the body lay in state.
Over the next three days, around a million mourners from across the Soviet Union came to see the body, many queuing for hours in the freezing conditions, with the events being filmed by the government. On Saturday 26 January, the eleventh All-Union Congress of Soviets met to pay respects to the deceased leader, with speeches being made by Kalinin, Zinoviev and Stalin, but notably not Trotsky, who had been convalescing in the Caucasus. Lenin’s funeral took place the following day, when his body was carried to Red Square, accompanied by martial music, where assembled crowds listened to a series of speeches before the corpse was carried into a vault, followed by the singing of the revolutionary hymn, “You fell in sacrifice.”
Three days after his death, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in his honour, so remaining until 1991, when the USSR dissolved, yet the administrative area remains “Leningrad Oblast”. In the early 1920s, the Russian cosmism movement proved so popular that Leonid Krasin and Alexander Bogdanov proposed to cryonically preserve Lenin for future resurrection, yet, despite buying the requisite equipment, that was not done. Instead, the body of V. I. Lenin was embalmed and permanently exhibited in Lenin’s Mausoleum, in Moscow, on 27 January 1924.
Despite the official diagnosis of death from stroke consequences, the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov reported that Lenin died of neurosyphilis, according to a publication by V. Lerner and colleagues in the European Journal of Neurology in 2004. The authors also note that “It is possible that future DNA technology applied to Lenin’s preserved brain material could ultimately establish or disprove neurosyphilis as the primary cause of Lenin’s death.”
In a poll conducted by a Russian website, 48 per cent of the people that responded voted that the body of the former leader should be buried.
Politics and world revolution
Lenin was a Marxist and principally a revolutionary. His revolutionary theory the belief in the necessity of a violent overthrow of capitalism through communist revolution, to be followed by a dictatorship of the proletariat as the first stage of moving towards communism, and the need for a vanguard party to lead the proletariat in this effort developed into Marxism Leninism, a highly influential ideology. Lenin biographer Robert Service noted that Lenin considered “moral questions” to be “an irrelevance”, rejecting the concept of moral absolutism; instead he judged whether an action was justifiable based upon its chances of success for the revolutionary cause.
As stated in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin’s revolutionary project embraced not just Russia but the world. To implement world revolution the Third or Communist International was convened in Russia in 1919, to replace the discredited Second International. Lenin dominated the first, second (1920) and third (1921) Congresses of the International and hoped to use the organisation as an agency of international socialist revolution. After the failure of revolutionary ambitions in Poland, in the Polish Soviet War of 1919-21, and after various revolutions in Germany and Eastern Europe in 1919 had been crushed, Lenin, increasingly, saw that anti-colonial struggles in the Third World would be the foci of the revolutionary struggle. He believed that revolution in the Third World would come about through an alliance of the proletarians with the rural peasantry. In 1923 Lenin said:
The outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc,. account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe. And during the last few years it is this majority that has been drawn into the struggle for emancipation with extraordinary rapidity, so that in this respect there cannot be the slightest doubt what the final outcome of the world struggle will be. In this sense the complete victory of socialism is fully and absolutely assured.
Lenin praised Chinese socialist revolutionary leader Sun Yatsen and his Kuomintang party for their ideology and principles. Lenin praised Sun, his attempts on social reformation and congratulated him for fighting foreign Imperialism. Sun also returned the praise, calling him a “great man”, and sent his congratulations on the revolution in Russia. Organised on Leninism, the Kuomintang was a nationalist revolutionary party, which had been supported by the Soviet Union.
Lenin was a prolific political theoretician and philosopher who wrote about the practical aspects of carrying out a proletarian revolution; he wrote pamphlets, articles, and books, without a stenographer or secretary, until prevented by illness. He simultaneously corresponded with comrades, allies, and friends, in Russia and world-wide. His Collected Works comprise 54 volumes, each of about 650 pages, translated into English in 45 volumes by Progress Publishers, Moscow 1960-70. The most influential include:
What is to be Done? (1902) states that a revolution requires a professional vanguard party.
Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) explains why capitalism had not collapsed, as Marx had posited, presenting the First World War as a capitalist war for land, resources, and cheap labour.
The State and the Revolution (1917) interprets the ideas of Marx and Engels, the October Revolution’s theoretic basis, and opposes the social-democratic tendency as indecisive in effecting revolution.
April Theses (1917) propose the socio-economic need for a socialist revolution.
“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920) sharply criticizes the “ultra-left”
After Lenin’s death, the USSR selectively censored his writings, to establish the dogma of the infallibility of Lenin, Stalin (his successor), and the Central Committee; thus, the Soviet fifth edition (55 vols., 1958-65) of Lenin’s luvre deleted the Lenin Stalin contradictions, and all that was unfavourable to the founder of the USSR. The historian Richard Pipes published a documentary collection of letters and telegrams excluded from the Soviet fifth edition, proposing that edition as incomplete.
Personal life and characteristics
One of Lenin’s biographers, the historian Robert Service, asserted that the Russian had been “a young man of intense emotions”, who also exhibited a “visceral hatred” of the “slightest sign of illegality or corruption”, which he saw exhibited throughout Tsarist Russia. He furthermore argued that Lenin was a man who could be “moody and volatile”. Service noted that Lenin developed an “emotional attachment” to his ideological heroes, such as Marx, Engels and Chernyshevsky, owning portraits of them.
Lenin’s outward appearance was distinguished by simplicity and strength. He was below the middle height, with the plebeian features of the Slavonic type of face, brightened by piercing eyes; and his powerful forehead and still more powerful head gave him a marked distinction.
Leon Trotsky, “Lenin” in The Encyclopedia Britannica (Fourteenth Edition, 1939): 911-914
According to Bertrand Russell, who had an hours conversation with him:
He is very friendly, and apparently simple, entirely without a trace of hauteur. If one met him without knowing who he was, one would not guess that he is possessed of great power or even that he is in any way eminent. I have never met a personage so destitute of self-importance. He looks at his visitors very closely, and screws up one eye, which seems to increase alarmingly the penetrating power of the other. He laughs a great deal; at first his laugh seems merely friendly and jolly, but gradually I came to feel it rather grim. He is dictatorial, calm, incapable of fear, extraordinarily devoid of self-seeking, an embodied theory. The materialist conception of history, one feels, is his life-blood. He resembles a professor in his desire to have the theory understood and in his fury with those who misunderstand or disagree, as also in his love of expounding, I got the impression that he despises a great many people and is an intellectual aristocrat.
According to most reports, in his personal life Lenin was a modest and unassuming man. He liked children and cats and his enthusiasms included bicycling, amateur photography, chess, skating, swimming, hunting, music and hiking. Lenin despised untidiness, always keeping his work desk tidy and his pencils sharpened. When in exile in Switzerland, Lenin, accompanied by his wife Krupskaya, developed a considerable passion for mountain walking in the Swiss peaks.
As influential as he was in life, Lenin may have been more so in death. Over 100 million have lined up to view his mummified body. His memory has been used to support every change in Soviet policy and every new regime since his death. His theories inspired the successful revolutions of Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh; as well as countless other revolutionaries in countries full of oppressed and powerless people.
Vladimir Lenin: Voice of Revolution, A&E Biography, 2005
When Lenin died on 21 January 1924, near Moscow, he was acclaimed as “the greatest genius of mankind” and “the leader and teacher of the peoples of the whole world”. Historian J. Arch Getty has remarked that “Lenin deserves a lot of credit for the notion that the meek can inherit the earth, that there can be a political movement based on social justice and equality”. Time Magazine also named Lenin one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, and one of their top 25 political icons of all time; remarking that “for decades, Marxist Leninist rebellions shook the world while Lenin’s embalmed corpse lay in repose in the Red Square”. Following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, reverence for Lenin declined among the post-Soviet generations, yet he remains an important historical figure for the Soviet-era generations.
According to the article in Encyclopedia Britannica written by Professor of Northern Illinois University Albert Resis:
If the Bolshevik Revolution is as some people have called its the most significant political event of the 20th century, then Lenin must for good or ill be considered the century’s most significant political leader. Not only in the scholarly circles of the former Soviet Union, but even among many non-Communist scholars, he has been regarded as both the greatest revolutionary leader and revolutionary statesman in history, as well as the greatest revolutionary thinker since Marx
Statues and city names
During the Soviet period, many statues of Lenin were erected across Eastern Europe. Although many of the statues have subsequently been removed, some remain standing, and a few new ones have been erected.
Many places and entities were named in honor of Lenin. The city of Saint Petersburg, the site where both February and October revolutions started, was renamed Leningrad in 1924, four days after Lenin’s death. In 1991, after a contested vote between Communists and liberals, the Leningrad government reverted the city’s name to Saint Petersburg while the surrounding Leningrad Oblast remained so named; like-wise the city of Ulyanovsk (so-named after Lenin’s birth name) and the Ulyanovsk Oblast remain so named. Gyumri in Armenia was named Leninakan from 1924 to 1990, Khujand in Tajikistan Leninabad from 1936 to 1991.
In space, the 852 Wladilena asteroid was named in his honor.