Lenin Vladimir Ilich
I INTRODUCTION Lenin, Vladimir Ilich (1870-1924), Russian revolutionary leader and theorist, who presided over the first government of Soviet Russia and then that of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Lenin was the leader of the radical socialist Bolshevik Party (later renamed the Communist Party), which seized power in the October phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917. After the revolution, Lenin headed the new Soviet government that formed in Russia. He became the leader of the USSR upon its founding in 1922. Lenin held the highest post in the Soviet government until his death in 1924, when Joseph Stalin assumed power.
II EARLY YEARS Lenin was born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov in the city of Simbirsk in central European Russia. (He adopted the pseudonym Lenin, probably derived from the river Lena in Siberia, while doing secret work as a revolutionary.) He was the third of six children born to Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov and Maria Alexandrovna Blank. Ilya Ulyanov was the director of public education for the province of Simbirsk during Lenin’s childhood, and his service to the state earned him the title of hereditary nobleman. While Lenin was finishing school in Simbirsk in 1887, his older brother, Aleksandr, was arrested and executed in Saint Petersburg (then the capital of Russia) for his involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Russian emperor Alexander III. Later that year Lenin entered Kazan’ University (now Kazan’ State University), where he intended to study law. Before completing his first term at the university, however, Lenin was expelled for his involvement in a student demonstration. He settled on his mother’s estate in the village of Kokushkino and pursued his study of law as an external student of Saint Petersburg University (now Saint Petersburg State University).
While living on the estate, Lenin began to immerse himself in the radical political literature of the time. A particular favorite was the novel What Is To Be Done? (1863), by Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky. One of the novel’s main characters, a man named Rakhmetev, lived a life of extreme self-discipline and single-minded focus on revolutionary politics. Rakhmetev served as a model for Lenin, and it was largely these ideals of the Russian revolutionary tradition—which glorified political action and a life fully committed to the cause of revolutionary political change—that shaped Lenin’s political personality. Also about this time, Lenin became acquainted with the revolutionary ideas of German philosopher Karl Marx through Marx’s greatest work, Das Kapital (published in three volumes from 1867 to 1895). Marx’s ideas had a profound impact on Lenin, and he soon came to consider himself a Marxist.
Lenin received his law degree in 1892. He moved to the city of Samara and took a position as a lawyer’s assistant. Lenin’s earlier brush with the authorities limited his prospects as a lawyer, however, and he soon began channeling his ambitions into revolutionary politics. In the mid-1890s Lenin quit his law practice in Samara and settled in Saint Petersburg. There he became associated with a group of radicals who were similarly impressed by the ideas of Marx and the influential Russian Marxist Georgy Plekhanov.
III ORGANIZER The Marxist activists of Saint Petersburg, with Lenin prominent among them, began working with the industrial workers of the city to increase the workers’ awareness of their political and economic power. Although labor unions were outlawed in Russia at the time, the Marxists agitated and distributed political literature in the industrial districts of the city. They also attempted to help organize strikes to improve working conditions in the factories. In 1895 the Saint Petersburg Marxists formed an organization called the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class to continue these efforts. The union’s central organizers included Lenin and Yuly Martov, a young Marxist who would later become one of Lenin’s great rivals. The small group of intellectuals that formed the union also included Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s future wife and lifelong companion. Lenin and Krupskaya did not have any children.
The Saint Petersburg union was short-lived. Lenin and Martov were arrested by the state police shortly after the union’s formation, and further arrests eventually drew in more than 50 of the Saint Petersburg Marxists. After serving 15 months in prison, Lenin was sentenced in 1897 to three years of exile, which he spent in the southern Siberian region of Minusinsk, in the village of Shushenskoye. Krupskaya was sentenced to exile for a later incident; in order to be together the couple decided to marry, which they did in 1898. The period of exile was not a difficult one for Lenin and Krupskaya. Much of their time was spent reading and writing, and they were also able to earn some money by translating English and German works into Russian. It was during this period in Siberia that Lenin produced his first major work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), in which he attempted to apply the lessons of Marx to the circumstances characterizing Russian society. In the book, Lenin argued that despite its economic backwardness relative to many Western European nations, Russia fit the Marxist model of a capitalist society. While Marx saw the basis for revolution in the struggle between industrial capitalists and workers, Lenin saw a parallel struggle within the Russian peasantry, which he saw as divided into a small wealthy class and a larger impoverished class. For this reason, Lenin believed that Russia was ready for a revolution led by the lower classes—a revolution that would result in the overthrow of the imperial regime and the establishment of a socialist economy and state.
Lenin’s term of exile ended in 1900 and he made his way abroad, first going to Switzerland and then settling in Munich, Germany, where he was joined one year later by Krupskaya. Together with other like-minded Marxists, including Martov and Plekhanov, Lenin became one of the principal editors of the newspaper Iskra (The Spark), first published in Munich in December 1900. The newspaper’s aim was to bring together the Marxist groups scattered throughout Europe, particularly Russia, and to focus them on preparing for the overthrow of the imperial government rather than spending most of their time working for incremental reforms.
While many Marxists in Western Europe—primarily in Germany—had come to favor the strategy of pursuing socialist goals as a legal political party, the Iskra editors considered such an approach a betrayal of the ultimate commitment to socialist revolution. In his Iskra articles, Lenin repeatedly emphasized the need for radical thinking and political activism. He also developed strong views about how an underground Russian revolutionary party should be organized. In 1902 Lenin published a pamphlet in which he argued that the revolution should be led by a party of professional revolutionaries, organized in a disciplined, military-style fashion, who would lead the working masses to an inevitable victory over imperial rule. Lenin titled his pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, echoing the title of Chernyshevsky’s influential novel.
The implications of Lenin’s vision for the Russian Marxists became evident at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), held in 1903. (The First Congress, held in 1898, ended shortly after it convened when most of the delegates were arrested). At this meeting, Lenin and his colleagues debated the issue of party organization and membership. Lenin argued for a tightly organized party, limited in number, with its members actively engaged in organizational work. Other party members, including Martov, opposed this view, arguing that the party should be organized more loosely and should extend membership to anyone who accepted its program. A vote was held on the issue, and Lenin’s side narrowly won. As a result, two factions emerged within the RSDLP: the Bolsheviks (from the Russian word for “majority”), led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (from the word for “minority”), led by Martov. Lenin would spend much of the next few years attacking the Mensheviks and defining his vision of the modern revolutionary party.
IV REVOLUTIONARY LEADER During the period of his work on Iskra (1900-1903) and a second newspaper, Vperyod (Forward), begun in 1904, Lenin established himself as the unofficial leader of the RSDLP. However, he was still living abroad and thus was dependent upon intermediaries for information about developments in Russia. In 1904 Russia went to war with Japan (see Russo-Japanese War). A string of military defeats and the strains placed on society by the war made for a tense atmosphere in Saint Petersburg, and by the beginning of 1905 various segments of Russian society, including students and liberal ...
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