Among the savviest and most single-minded politicians of the 20th century, Vladimir Lenin capitalized on the chaos in Russia caused by World War I and the resentments spawned by the advent of industrial capitalism.
By imposing discipline and a radical agenda on his Bolshevik Party and by providing a clear alternative to the repressive autocracy that had acquiesced before, if not abetted, Russian economic and social backwardness, Lenin acquired the power to lead his country toward socialism.
The Soviet regime established after the Russian Revolution in 1917 did not meet Lenin's ideals, but he continued to strive to enact the reforms he deemed necessary for modernizing Russian culture, the economy, and society. Ruthless yet compassionate, pragmatic yet idealistic, Lenin was a paradox who knew how to recognize the opportunity for revolution when others did not.
Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov grew up in Simbirsk, on the Volga, where his father was a school inspector. Born on April 22, 1870, he had two brothers and three sisters with whom he had a close relationship.
Along with others of similar education and professional attainments, Lenin's father hoped for major reforms to the Russian political, economic, and social systems. Yet Lenin's revolutionary aspirations and Marxist principles, which were avidly supported by his sisters, far transcended the reformist goals of his father.
Around 1886 Lenin began to develop his political thought and committed to revolution as a means of bringing about substantive, profound change in Russia. His brother Alexander was arrested in that year for having plotted to assassinate Czar Alexander III; his execution marked the young Vladimir and made him more politically conscious.
He yearned for an end to crass materialism, the sexual double standard, and the corrupt values of late 19th-century Russia. Perhaps as a consequence of his brother's experience, Vladimir opted against terrorism and assassination; instead he cultivated the persona of a self-conscious, professional revolutionary.
As a consequence of his brother's conviction, Lenin endured police surveillance. Although he was among the best students in Russia, he could not obtain a place at any of the major universities; he settled for the local university in Kazan. He was soon expelled, however, along with all "risky" students. He later studied law by correspondence at the University of Saint Petersburg, but conventional careers were clearly closed to him.
As he began his sporadic work as a legal assistant in late 1893, Lenin continued his voracious reading. He delved even further and more deeply into the works of intellectuals such as George Plekhanov, the founding father of Russian social democracy, and Karl Marx. In 1889 he translated the Communist Manifesto.
While Lenin continued to mourn the loss of his much-loved sister Olga, who died in 1891, he met the woman who would become his longtime companion and wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya. Together they studied Marx, contemplated social democratic strategy, and started to practice the tactics required of political subversives in czarist Russia.
Around the same time Lenin appeared in police surveillance records on his own account, having defended Marxist views in a debate with a populist in 1894. He also wrote his first pamphlets and articles around this time.
Lenin made his first trip outside Russia in 1895, when he met with social democrats such as Wilhelm Liebknecht in Germany and Paul Laforgue in France. Upon his return to Russia, he cofounded a social democratic group and established a newspaper. These activities attracted police attention, and Lenin was arrested in December along with many of his colleagues.
He spent about a year in Saint Petersburg, where he was interrogated four times, before being sentenced to three years in Siberia. Krupskaya was arrested while Lenin was in jail, and she received permission to join him in exile. Lenin spent the years in Siberia (1897–1900) reading, writing, and giving legal advice to local peasants.
He began to develop his own interpretations of Marxism and to interpret Russian conditions in that light. Lenin and other Russian social democrats rejected the populist argument that peasants were proto-communists.
Lenin rigorously opposed the notion that socialism would "just happen" or even come about as a consequence of a series of incremental reforms to capitalism. He maintained that both dramatic political change and dramatic socioeconomic change would have to occur; social democrats had to fight for them all simultaneously.
Lenin's perspective was influenced by the ideas of Russian revolutionary and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who had focused criticism on the state and the church as the major sources of oppression in Russia. Lenin shared Bakunin's antipathy toward religion and the Russian Orthodox Church, though he thought that the state could be captured and directed to serve the working class.
Although Lenin occasionally sought reconciliation, the 1903 split between his Bolsheviks and the more reformist Mensheviks became permanent. Lenin averred that Russian social democracy most needed a tightly disciplined party with a strong executive. As events showed, his organizational model proved valid.
The Russian Revolution of 1905 disappointed Russian radicals and revolutionaries, though they did find their way back into the country for a few years.
Lenin saw the beginnings of a bourgeois revolution, though the ephemeral character of constitutional reforms granted by the czar indicated that Russians had much revolutionary ground yet to travel. After returning to exile in Europe, where he would remain for the decade prior to 1917, Lenin resumed his efforts to push Russia out of its czarist rut.
The International Socialist Bureau did not recognize Lenin as sole leader of the Russian socialists, though he did gain control over the key newspapers of the group. In the years prior to World War I, Lenin organized, read, and wrote. He published articles on party organization, socialism, religion (in which he recommended that the party oppose religion, even as a private affair), and socialism in Asia.
The outbreak of World War I found Lenin and Krupskaya in Kraków, Poland. Lenin had taken an interest in the implications of foreign affairs for social democracy in Russia since the turn of the century, and he reservedly predicted that the war would hasten the advent of socialism in Europe. Although unafraid of class, civil, or revolutionary wars if they would promote socialism, Lenin could not abide imperialist, bourgeois international wars.
Lenin envisioned a Socialist International that would recognize national cultures as equal and sovereign while emphasizing the shared character of the socialist struggle. Lenin continued and further elaborated his thought on wars and the overall international situation in Imperialism (published in 1917) and State and Revolution.
When the revolutionary year of 1917 dawned, Lenin seemed a rather marginal figure on the Russian political stage. Having been out of Russia for decades and with only a relatively small group of ardent supporters, Lenin returned to Petrograd in April with apparently little prospect of acquiring power.
He surprised even his allies, many of whom had greeted him upon his arrival at Finland Station, with his April Theses; the party did not fall into line with his radical demands until three weeks of debate had passed.
Lenin's refusal to endorse participation in the provisional government contravened the desire of many Bolsheviks (including Joseph Stalin) to exercise influence in any way they could. He advocated an immediate end to Russian participation in World War I.
He encouraged Bolsheviks to cultivate close relations with the soviets that had formed in the cities and the countryside. Lenin wanted to destroy the state institutions that were oppressing Russians, though he did not state that he aimed to eliminate the police, the bureaucracy, and the army for good.
Lenin further recommended the confiscation and redistribution of landed estates; he hoped to prevent small peasant farms from replacing them by immediately nationalizing the land. He planned to introduce socialism gradually, first by giving control over production and distribution to the soviets of workers' deputies.
As the days and months of 1917 passed, Lenin became an increasingly important leader, even after the provisional government began to hound the Bolsheviks. His decisive moves to capitalize on the weakness of that government enabled his party to seize power in October, even though the Bolsheviks had not yet converted even a minority of Russians to their ideology.
The Bolsheviks did not have control over the countryside in 1917 or immediately thereafter, with the result that peasants had proceeded to form smallholdings; some of them had already begun to amass considerable acreage.
Hence, collectivization could not occur as Lenin had hoped. The Ukraine and other provinces under the control of the Russian government experienced a revival of nationalist sentiment. The economy remained in shambles.
World War I had already demonstrated the incapacity of Russian infrastructure and industry to provide for the people, but Russia's gross national product suffered even further after the Bolsheviks gave control of factories to workers who had no training in management and little real knowledge of the overall production process.
Lastly, the party abandoned real democracy; Lenin declared that the Bolsheviks had to direct the government and the economy until such time as the Russian people had experience with the new system and had enough education to appreciate the communist ideal. The Bolsheviks enacted legislation that gave equal rights to women, though the people had not pushed for such changes.
Lenin suffered a debilitating stroke in 1923 after having previously suffered two less harmful attacks. By that time the Communist government had yielded to political and economic pressure as well as the reality of food shortages and lack of industrial supplies, by enacting the New Economic Policy.
Lenin and his supporters intended for such reforms to ease nationalization, collectivization, and the end of private enterprise, though they allowed for the latter and for small family farms in the short term as a means to generate the national wealth needed to effect the transition to communism.
Before Lenin died he had already surrendered real, everyday control over the government. He had not appointed a successor; his close associates Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin each viewed themselves as such, along with several other aspirants.
When he died in 1924, Lenin had effected a revolution that had radically changed perceptions of Russia and its prospects for the future. Whether his successors could realize the potential of the revolution and the promise of communism remained unknown.