Russian revolutionary, first head of state of the USSR, b. 22 April (10 April) 1870 (Simbirsk, Russia, d. 21 January 1924 (Gorky near Moscow, USSR)
Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov was the third of six children. His father, the son of a serf, had become a schoolteacher and advanced to inspector of schools, his mother was the daughter of a physician. Vladimir therefore had a cultured upbringing and received a good education; but he was not spared the experiences of the time. Russia, still steeped in autocratic feudalism and just emerging from the serfdom system, was in intellectual turmoil and under heavy police oppression. A government deeply suspicious of public education confronted his father with forced retirement before his untimely death. In 1887 Vladimir's eldest brother Aleksandr was hanged for being involved with a revolutionary group, and Vladimir found himself at 17 the male head of a household under a cloud of public mistrust.
In autumn 1887 Ulyanov enrolled at Kazan University for a law degree. Three months later he was expelled for participating in an illegal student assembly and banned to the village of Kokushkino, where his older sister Anna already had to stay at their grandfather's estate on police orders. A year later Vladimir was allowed to return to Kazan but barred from university. He spent his time meeting other revolutionaries and reading revolutionary literature, including Karl Marx' Das Kapital. In January 1889 he declared himself a Marxist.
In 1891 Vladimir Ulyanov was granted permission to sit the law examinations, which he passed at the head of the class in all subjects. Eventually he was admitted to the bar and practiced law in the country town of Samara, where his clients were mainly poor peasants and tradespeople. This sharpened his eye for social injustice even further, and he learnt to hate and despise the class bias of the legal system.
From 1893 Ulyanov practiced in St. Petersburg and joined the clandestine revolutionary movement. In 1895 he was jailed for 15 months and then sent to Shushenskoje in Siberia for a three year term. There he married Nadeshda Krupskaya, who he had met in St. Petersburg and who had followed him to Siberia. Ulyanov and Krupskaya shared the struggle for a better Russia throughout their lives.
Released from Siberia in 1900 Ulyanov and Krupskaya went into exile. Ulyanov adopted the pseudonym Lenin and worked with others to publish the newspaper Iskra (the Spark).
Revolutionaries of the time generally agreed that Marxism, which declared that the difficulties of mature capitalism can only be overcome by action of the working class (the proletarian revolution), was not suitable for Russia, which had not even entered capitalism yet. The Russian workers, they argued, had to first assist the bourgeoisie to perform the bourgeois revolution and install capitalism, before the social aims of socialism could be achieved.
Lenin opposed this view in a series of writings and newspaper articles, arguing that under bourgeois leadership the distribution of land to the peasants would be used to produce conditions favourable for the installation of capitalism in the countryside. He supported his arguments by scientific study of actual developments; in Development of Capitalism in Russia, written during his Siberian exile, he presented research that showed how the emerging capitalism was already destroying the traditional Russian commune system in the villages. He concluded that the only way to safeguard the gains of a social revolution in Russia was to perform the revolution in two stages, bourgeois first and proletarian second, in immediate succession.
To achieve this aim, Lenin set out to organize the workers and prepare them for the revolution. His work What is to Be Done? of 1902 describes the building plan for a vanguard party. His position led to a split of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP) into the Bolsheviks, who supported Lenin, and the Menshewiks, who wanted to limit proletarian action to assistance for the bourgeoisie. ("Bolshevik" means majority, "Menshevik" minority, because at the decisive congress Lenin's position happened to have the majority, although generally his position did not have RSDWP majority support.). The two factions continued to work within the RSDWP until 1912.
The issue became urgent in 1905 when a first (bourgeois) revolution in St. Petersburg surprised Lenin abroad in Switzerland. The Mensheviks wanted to leave government to the bourgeoise; Lenin declared that power should soon be handed over to the workers and peasants. The revolution failed, and the years 1907 - 1917 saw Lenin in exile, where the question continued to be debated. In 1912 Lenin called a congress of the Bolsheviks in Prague and effectively split the RSDWP. The two factions set up their own central committees, party structure and publication apparatus.
The proof for all revolutionaries came with the outbreak of World War I, a conflict between imperialist powers who were trying to either change or defend the division of the world into imperialist colonial empires. Lenin declared that the only action of a revolutionary would be to denounce the imperialist war and agitate amongst soldiers not to turn their guns against fellow workers but against their masters at home who benefitted from the war. To his disbelief, all Socialist parties sided with their respective governments and supported their war effort. Even many Bolsheviks were unwilling to follow Lenin.
Lenin went to neutral Switzerland and helped organise two anti-war conferences. His position "Transform the imperialist war into civil war!" did not gain a majority. The conferences adopted the slogan "Immediate peace without annexations or indemnities, and the right of the peoples to self-determination" instead. Lenin used his time again for thorough research. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism he demonstrated how the war had grown out of the need of capitalism for insatiable expansion and that it could not end in a just peace if left to the imperialists. He argued that wars are an unavoidable ingredient of imperialist economics. To this day this study, first published in Russia in 1917, remains a cornerstone of Marxist-Leninist analysis of trends in modern capitalism.
In 1917, with barely any hope that the war would end and his voice would be heard, Lenin received news that the workers and soldiers of Petrograd (the new name for St. Petersburg since 1914) had had enough of the war and had succeeded in deposing the Tsar. He returned to Russia and arrived in Petrograd one month after the "February Revolution" had put an end to the tsarist regime. The workes and soldiers had set up democratically elected soviets (councils of workers' and soldiers' deputies), who initially had held all political power. Before Lenin's arrival they had already handed power over to a provisional bourgeois government, without however disbanding themselves. There were thus two centres of power in existence. Lenin began to agitate under the slogan "All Power to the Soviets!" and declared that a soviet government would begin immediate peace negotiations, confiscate all estates without compensation and distribute all land amongst the peasants.
At the beginning of 1917 Lenin's position was a minority in all soviets. During the next six months it became clear that the Provisional Government had no intention to extract Russia from the war. The Bolsheviks demanded immediate peace, land and bread. By September the Bolsheviks were the majority in most soviets.
Lenin had to go underground and into exile in Finland but continued to agitate for "All Power to the Soviets!" On 20 October he crossed the border into Russia, disguised as a coal tender operator on a Finish locomotive, to attend a secret meeting of the Bolshevik central committee, where he declared the time ripe for another revolution.
The October Revolution took place on 7 and 8 November (October in the old Russian calendar) 1917. Soldiers and sailors deposed the Provisional Government. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets voted with a large majority to accept all power, elected Lenin as chairman of the new Soviet Government and approved the Peace Decree and the Land Decree. The new government entered peace negotiations and signed the peace of Brest-Litowsk, accepting most humiliating conditions and much loss of Russian territory in the west.
The western Allies, who had refused to participate in peace negotiations, now concentrated on destroying the young Soviet Republic. They gave the anti-Soviet forces (the "Whites") massive support, and during 1918 - 1920 Russia went through two years of civil war that cost millions of lives. The Whites reinstated the estates, meted out cruel retribution against the peasants and installed iron central rule over non-Russian nationalities. The Soviet Red Army turned over all land owned by gentry, church and crown to the peasants and gave non-Russian nationalities the right to self-determination, including secession. The revolution thus received support from the peasants and support or sympathetic neutrality from the nationalities, and by 1921 the Whites were defeated.
Although the new Soviet Republic had achieved peace, Russia was still a very backward country with an engrained culture of fear of and obeisance to authority. Most revolutionaries did not expect socialism to survive in Russia unless it was supported by social revolution in the industrially advanced countries. Under Lenin's leadership the Bolsheviks, who had changed the name of their party in 1918 to Russian Communist Party, established the Communist International in 1919 to promote world revolution. Its demand for self-determination and independence of all nations gave it a large following in the colonial world and contributed greatly to the liberation of the colonies. But the revolution failed to materialize in Europe - some attempts in Germany were quickly crushed by the bourgeois government -, and Lenin had to concentrate on the survival of Russian socialism.
By 1922 there were clear signs that legacy of the oppresive tsarist reign and of serfdom had not been eradicated overnight. Authoritarian rule, fear of raising dissent and other old vices had krept into the Communist Party and led to increasing inefficiency and incompetence. Even the old Russian chauvinism towards the other nationalities raised its head again. One of the new breed of Communists, who relied more on power than scientific analysis and revolutionary attitude, was Josef Stalin. Lenin was acutely aware of the difficult situation and tried to reform the party. When Stalin became general party secretary in April 1922 he warned the party and began to work for Stalin's replacement. Before he could make any progress, however, he suffered a series of strokes, was temporarily paralized and for periods unable to speak. Between 23 December 1923 and 4 January 1924 he managed to dictate his last thoughts about the party, which show great concern about the stability of the party and the country. He died on 21 January 1924.
Lenin was a charismatic and inspiring leader of immense moral authority. He was a brilliant analyst of economical and political developments; his theoretical works had tremendous impact on world developments for the entire 20th century. He was a political genius who at every stage of history knew how to win allies and friends for the revolution and divide its enemies. The Soviet Union erected statues in his honour all around the country. Some found new homes in the cities around the world when the new bourgeois government of Russia ordered their removal after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.