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Prominent Russians: Vladimir Lenin

April 22, 1870 – January 21, 1924
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He is the founder and the guiding spirit of the Soviet Republics - a communist philosopher, ardent disciple of Karl Marx, leader of the Bolshevik Party and the mastermind of the 1917 October Revolution. Some consider him a prophet, others a tyrant; there are those who call him a saint, many more – a devil. What is certain is that Lenin played an enormous role in the history of the 20th century. He reshaped Russia and had millions of people bent to his will. Lenin applied communist ideas to real life and his “experiment” forever changed the face of the world.

Early Life and Work

Throughout his life Lenin often used pseudonyms for work or for security reasons. His real name is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov.
He was born in the town of Simbirsk in 1870 on 9 April (in 1918 a European-style calendar was adopted in the country, these days his birthday falls on 22 April). After Lenin’s death the city was renamed Ulyanovsk in tribute to its famous native.
Lenin was the third of six children. Little Vladimir was baptized in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
Lenin’s father, Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov, was a schoolmaster and made quite a career in education. He received numerous honors for his work and was awarded a special order that made him a nobleman, so technically his children, including Lenin, inherited the title.
His mother, Maria Aleksandrovna, was a daughter of a Jewish doctor who was baptized an Orthodox Christian.
In fact Lenin’s family was a mix of cultures and nationalities: Russians, Jews, Kalmyks, Swedes, Volgan Germans and possibly others.

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His father died in 1887. That year marked a turning point for young Lenin and in a lot of ways determined his path as future revolutionary.
His older brother, Aleksandr Ulyanov, was involved with “Narodovoltsy” – a revolutionary terrorist society. In 1891 Aleksandr was arrested and later executed for taking part in an assassination plot against Tsar Alexander III.
Lenin’s sister Anna, who was with Aleksandr at the time of his arrest, had to live in exile at the family estate not far from Kazan, a city in the central part of Russia, currently the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.
Lenin finished school with honors and was accepted to Kazan University to study law, but was soon expelled for taking part in student protests. Around that time he became interested in the works of Karl Marx. He continued his studies at St. Petersburg University where he soon passed his bar.
Lenin started his practice as a barrister in Samara, a port city on the Volga in the Central part of Russia. He even took part in several trials appearing for the defense.
In 1893 he moved to St. Petersburg – then the capital of the Russian Empire. Lenin quickly became involved with Marxist societies and radical groups and even published several writings of his own. Most of them were declared illegal and passed from hand to hand. Thus he caught the eye of the Russian radicals as well as the Russian police.
In 1895 he founded a group of his own called “The Union for the Liberation of the Working Class.” Soon he was arrested along with his collaborators.
In Siberian exile he met his future wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, who would become his companion for the remaining 26 years of his life.
His teachings attracted more and more adepts and were not popular with the Russian authorities. So Lenin, together with his wife, decided to leave the country. Away from Russia he created his own propaganda machine.
In 1900 Lenin launched his legendary newspaper “Iskra.” It was published in Munich with the motto “From Spark to Flame!” That spark, along with foreign funds, fed the flame of the Russian underground.


Lenin returned to Russia when the country stood on the brink of revolution in 1905. Political rallies raged throughout the country that bore a shameful loss in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The resentment among Russian peasants was overwhelming and in October 1905 the All-Russian strike began. Lenin didn’t miss his chance. He was anticipating a revolutionary blow and gave recommendations: “Some should kill their shadow-agent, blow up police stations; others will rob a bank…”

The Moscow uprising of 1905 was suppressed by the authorities, but it taught Lenin that the real force was with the proletariat – workers, soldiers and peasants would become the weapons of his revolution and the instruments of his dictatorship.

Meanwhile Russian Tsar Nicholay II gave in under enormous public pressure. The Russian parliament was born and although it didn’t last long, it signified the rise of the Liberal bourgeoisie, so much despised by Lenin. He immigrated to Switzerland.

For Russia it was an era of “underground” politics with numerous rivaling revolutionary trends that weren’t too scrupulous about the methods they chose; propaganda was used as often as dynamite.

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While abroad Lenin organized the release of a legal newspaper in St. Petersburg, called “Pravda” (“Truth”). He composed numerous articles under different pseudonyms for Bolshevik newspapers. Although Lenin stayed abroad he remained the guiding force for his collaborators and did everything he could to feed the revolutionary spirit, but not without the help of foreign sponsors, which later helped to accuse Lenin of spying.

1917 and the first steps of the new dictator

The February Revolution came as a shock to the Tsar but also to many revolutionaries, including Lenin. He hadn’t been to Russia for 17 years except for a period of a few weeks.

When he arrived at Petrograd train station the guards of honor were at the platform to greet him. Lenin was confused and said to his wife, “They will arrest me!” When he realized there was no danger he gave a passionate speech right at the station: “Hail to the Global Socialist Revolution!” he declared.
The overthrow of Tsarism was only the first step Lenin was preparing for the big battle for the Socialist state. He called for a new socialist revolution.

The program he offered met opposition even within the circle of his supporters. His old-time ally Georgy Plekhanov called his idea “crazy” and was sure it would spread anarchy throughout Russia. His grave prediction was not far from reality but Lenin’s plan was nonetheless met with an ovation by the people who made the revolution happen – the proletariat. His popularity was based on sheer populism but it worked perfectly for the angry crowds ready for action. They heard exactly what they wanted – “Power to people! Power to Soviets!”

Lenin had an amazing power over the crowds.
Lenin’s contemporary, Nikolay Sukhanov, a socialist activist and a famous critic of the Bolshevik Revolution wrote: “Lenin is an orator of a great power who is capable of simplifying a complicated matter… the one who is pounding, pounding, and pounding people’s minds until they lose their will, until he enslaves them.”
After a failed coup in July that year Lenin had to flee to Finland along with his supporters. From there he sent letters to his colleagues. The radicalism of his views shocked some of his oldest supporters, as he demanded an armed rebellion.
He came back secretly in October and despite deep controversies within the party, he managed to achieve what he had planned: the fall of the Provisional Government.
The Soviet (Council) of People’s Commissaries was created and Lenin was put at its head. He issued decree after decree: land to peasantry, workers’ control at the factories, and eviction of entrepreneurs from factories. Lenin was in euphoria, he himself described it as «Es Schwindelt» (German for “vertigo”).

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One of the first moves of Lenin’s government was to ban all opposition press.
When asked about freedom of speech Lenin answered: “Freedom of speech?! We are not going to commit suicide.”
But promises of bread and peace were easier to make than to execute.
Despite severe opposition within the government Lenin signed an unfavorable peace treaty with Germany at the price of the loss of territory and payment of an indemnity. This peace treaty and the land reform widened the gap within the party.
By this time Lenin was the leader of the new Soviet Russia but his reality was far from the ideal he had planned, which caused resentment within the revolutionary movement as well as among the people.
The Civil War broke out. It split the country into numerous camps: the Whites, the Reds, the forces of Petliura (Ukrainian separatists), rioting peasants and soldiers, Cossacks – the bloodshed took the lives of millions of people.
In the summer of 1918, after a major offensive undertaken by the White forces, the whole family of the Russian Tsar was executed. It is still not known to what extent Lenin was part of such an order, but he definitely approved it.

On 30 August Lenin was shot twice by Fannie Kaplan. His response was the “Red Terror,” although the idea was not fresh. A month before that, on 26 June 1918, Lenin wrote to the Chairman of Petrograd’s Council Grigory Zinoviev: “...We’ve just heard that workers of Petrograd wanted to avenge the murder of Volodarsky (a Bolshevik activist) with mass terror and that you stopped them. I protest! It’s impossible! You should encourage the energy of terror against the enemies of revolution, particularly in Petrograd, it sets an example…”

The communist experiment
"You cannot make a revolution in white gloves"

Lenin didn’t have a clear plan for his economic model.
The workers’ control over the factories led to an almost complete paralysis of production, massive stealing and was threatening hunger.
Lenin declared the dictatorship of War Communism – the “war” part was needed to explain the severe implementing of the order.

The word “trade” was banned; “exchange” was used instead (i.e. a fur coat for several pounds of flour).

Soviet authorities introduced “prodrazvyorstka” – food apportionment, the state defined the volumes of products that peasants had to give to the state. By 1922 it included the whole specter of agricultural products.

Lenin ordered everyone to work and failure to do so was punished by execution.
A new bureaucratic body was created – the Labor Committee.
Public work was also obligatory and overwhelming - everything from building bridges to chopping wood - everyone had to be involved, from workers to poets and scientists.
Inflation was skyrocketing. Workers were paid 26 rubles a day whereas a pound of bread cost nearly 170. Working hours were 14 to 16 hours a day.

Transport was free but it hardly worked, commodities were free but they didn’t function.

By 1920 production was by seven times less than in 1913 and the volumes of railway services fell to the levels of 1880.

But the most dramatic cost of the experiment was the loss of 10 million lives.

The Famine

In 1921 famine erupted in the Volga Region. It was caused by a number of reasons, including a severe drought that hit the country and the desperate condition of the country’s agriculture due to the First World War and Civil War and “prodrazvyorstka.” In many regions peasants staged riots, killing the representatives of the Bolshevik authority. Up to 40 million people were starving. There were reports of cannibalism. The number of orphans and child crime grew drastically. The Soviet government had to turn to foreigners for humanitarian aid. The League of Nations was not in a hurry to help; between the two evils, the famine and Bolshevism, they chose the former as a weapon against the latter. The Norwegian explorer Fridthof Nansen managed to organize humanitarian aid and funds, along with the American company APA.

The Famine largely stopped in 1922, in some regions in 1923. The total death toll was at least 5 million people.

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The Country’s economy was collapsing and Lenin undertook urgent measures. He turned to a New Economic Policy - NEP. The main goal was to introduce reforms based on the old system, not by breaking it. Soon enough it yielded results. The Soviet government got rid of “prodrazvyorstka” and labor duty. Free trade was legalized again as well as small businesses, which were allowed to hire people. The banking system was resurrected and partial privatization was permitted. War communism didn’t disappear, but was gradually yielding its position. Although the economy was showing signs of recovery, the majority of communist activists, and sometimes Lenin himself, treated the new policy as “inevitable evil.” Fearing the comeback of capitalism, they wanted to wrap up the program as soon as possible and did so after Lenin was no longer in power.

Lenin’s purge

Some Soviet scholars, particularly in the sixties (years of “Thaw”), liked to say that Stalin distorted Lenin’s ideas. Of course the scale of atrocities undertaken by Stalin is larger in comparison to Lenin’s, but Lenin set the trend. The fact is that it was Lenin who gave birth to concentration camps, declared a hunt against the Russian intelligentsia and clergy and laid the grounds for a totalitarian state.


Unlike Stalin Lenin did not persecute Jews. In 1919 he recorded a speech on Jews: “…Shame on accursed Tsarism, which tortured and persecuted the Jews. Shame on those who foment hatred towards the Jews, who foment hatred towards other nations."


Lenin’s order to Dzerzhinsky, 1 May 1919: “ is needed to get done with the priests and religion as soon as possible. Arrest the priests as the enemies of revolution and saboteurs, execute them without mercy everywhere you spot them. As many as you can! Churches should be shut down. The cathedrals have to be sealed and used as warehouses. "

Ironically, a man who unleashed a massacre of Orthodox priests was a Baptized Orthodox Christian. Throughout 1922 alone at least eight thousand priests, monks and nuns were executed according to Lenin’s orders.


It’s hard to explain his despise for the Russian intelligentsia, particularly taking into consideration the fact that Lenin was part of this circle. In 1922 he launched a campaign to deport prominent scientists and public figures.

The famous Russian poet Boris Pasternak wrote about Lenin: “He struck out hard… His words, which all men heard too well, were traced in the blood of great events. He was their voice, their proclamation… Alone, he ruled the tides of thought, and through that mastery – the State.”

The “tides of thought” that Lenin ruled were those of the country’s working class. And with the right words, they quickly recognized the intelligentsia as their enemies. Many of those who weren’t deported were later arrested or executed. In eight years (1917-1925) nearly two million people fled the country; the majority of them never came back.

Social reforms

Revolution accelerated women’s emancipation. Some of the reforms were inspired by Inessa Armand who was believed to be Lenin’s mistress. Lenin declared equality between men and women.

From the record of his meeting with Clara Zetkin in 1920: “Women's incipient social life and activities must be promoted, so that they can outgrow the narrowness of their philistine, individualistic psychology centered on home and family ... In the sphere of sexual relations and marriage, a revolution is approaching ... There can be no real mass movement without the women ... We cannot exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat without having millions of women on our side. Nor can we engage in communist construction without them. We must find a way to reach ... the mass of women, who feel themselves exploited, enslaved and crushed by the domination of the men...”

Emancipation though wasn’t welcome all over Russia. In Central Asia, where plural marriage was an old-time tradition, it was introduced by force.

It is important to note that it was also a practical and desperate measure, conditioned by a drastic fall in men’s population after the First World War, the Civil War, the Spanish flu pandemic and the Famine.

Soviet Russia under Lenin was the first country in the world that legalized homosexuality and abortion. Although Stalin changed it back to Tsarist standards.

Learn, learn and learn!

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Lenin launched a massive propaganda campaign for education. Nine years of secondary education were free and compulsory for everyone (the system is kept to this day). At the beginning of the 20th century the literacy level among men was 35,8%, women – 12,4%. By 1939 the literacy level in Soviet Russia reached 70%. The Soviet Union ranked among the countries with the highest literacy levels.

Lenin out of politics

When in emigration Lenin got used to a comfortable life but without hints of luxury. He was fond of swimming and walking, didn’t smoke, rarely drank except sometimes beer and wine. His affair with Inessa Armand was an exception of his proper family life.

He left all human qualities out of politics. According to Lenin loyalty, gratitude and respect for past achievements had no place in real politics. He was ruthless towards his ideological opponents. During debates he could be extremely rude even towards his relatives and allies.

As a politician he was extremely unscrupulous when it came to money. Lenin approved of armed robberies (Joseph Stalin took part in several of these). His “good” cause was worth its victims. A lot of his funds came from rather doubtful sources. So it’s not a surprise that at one point he was accused of spying for Germany.

Lenin – a spy?

In 1914 the Russian Empire entered war against Germany. Soon after the 1917 revolution there appeared documents that claimed Lenin was acting under the orders of the German government. One must keep in mind the person behind the allegations was his political rival Aleksandr Kerensky (the head of Provisional Government).

There are however reports of German agents within Lenin’s circle while he lived in Switzerland.
When the February Revolution hit, Lenin, along with other revolutionaries, traveled back through Germany. His critics grabbed the opportunity to call him a German spy. Official Soviet history called it slander.

It’s a fact though that a lot of revolutionaries were paid from German pockets. When it came to funds, Lenin had shifty principles; he simply didn’t care where they came from. To call him a spy would be a mistake. It was a two-way street as both sides got what they wanted. Lenin used the money to get the power. Germans used the revolution to sign a truce with Russia on terms that were to their advantage.

Despite all the power and authority he’d accumulated Lenin never surrounded himself in luxury.
One of his allies, Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich, managed the party finances. He was aware that Lenin had a very modest budget and knew of his zest for reading. Books were expensive and Bonch-Bruyevich decided to use the funds of the state library. He soon received an angry note from Lenin saying: “For my library I pay myself. I ask you to pay and save the receipts.” The money came with the note.

When Bonch-Bruyevich informed Lenin about his increase in salary, Lenin rejected it indignantly. Bonch-Bruyevich tried to explain that the increase concerned everyone and was necessary to cover inflation, but Lenin refused to listen. He refused all privileges he was given.

His women

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Nadezhda Krupskaya was not only his wife and companion, but also his closest friend and his most loyal ally. If Lenin was the spirit of the revolution, she was its secretary. While in emigration Krupskaya organized the work of the underground, planning meetings, and coding and decoding messages to comrades. Lenin’s life-long passion was Inessa Armand, a native of France. They met in 1909 in Paris. Armand was 35 years old, Lenin was 40. They didn’t hide their close relations. In Paris Armand lived in the same apartment house with Lenin and Krupskaya. Soviet historians denied all hints of intimate relations between the two, despite the testimonies of some of the closest allies of Lenin. She also worked for the revolution and inspired the feminist movement. Armand died of cholera in 1920. Nadezhda Krupskaya took Armand’s children into care after her death.

Assassination attempts

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Lenin survived several, the most famous on 30 August. Fannie Kaplan shot him twice with poisoned bullets, but to his doctors’ surprise, Lenin quickly recovered. But this wasn’t the only case. While traveling from Petrograd to Moscow his train was intercepted by rioting soldiers. Again he was miraculously saved. Another time his car (a Rolls-Royce) was robbed on the road. Lenin was with his driver and a bodyguard. They were armed but didn’t use their guns because the robbers were dressed as road police. When they understood the trick it was too late. The robbers didn’t recognize Lenin. When they understood whom they had robbed, they tried to find Lenin and kill him. They were soon captured.

Lenin the Commander

With the beginning of the Civil War, Lenin personally took part in the creation of the regular Red Army. He was in control of mobilization (party members were also called to the front), arming and supplying. He managed to use the giant military stocks of Tsarist Russia and manipulate the controversies within the White movement to create a ten-fold advantage over the enemy and even bring the Tsarist military commanders on his side.

Lenin ruthlessly suppressed military and peasant riots whenever they occurred.

Lenin’s last years

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Lenin was a true workaholic, which ruined his health. At the beginning of the twenties doctors forbade him daily work. In May 1922 he had his first stroke. He lost his power of speech and his right arm and leg were paralyzed. In December came another stoke. The third followed in March 1923 and turned him into a living corpse.

Immediately after the first stroke, party activists started their fight for power. Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky were the main rivals.

While still capable of working, Lenin released several articles calling for a review of socialism and to give workers more control of the state apparatus, moreover he called on Stalin to be removed from his post. Stalin was against Lenin’s comeback and spread rumors of Lenin’s mental illness.

Lenin died on 21 January 1924 in the arms of his close ally Nikolay Bukharin.

There were rumors that Lenin had syphilis but they were never confirmed. The rumors are easy to explain though. When Lenin got sick, genetic syphilis was cited among possible causes and a special medical expedition was sent to his homeland to investigate the medical history of his family. However the final diagnose was cerebral sclerosis. Moreover the illness was genetic as his father died due to the same disease.

The funeral procession was several kilometers long. People were freezing in the extremely cold weather; for many his death was personal tragedy. Soviet authorities ordered his body embalmed. A mausoleum was built to keep his body on show for generations to come. According to some reports Lenin wished to be buried in St. Petersburg by his mother.

Winston Churchill, an ardent supporter of the British interventionist forces, which, along with the Whites made the last effort to suppress the Bolsheviks, later said: “He (Lenin) 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”


His image was all but canonized by Soviet propaganda. His face could be seen everywhere in the country – framed above classroom blackboards, in canvas dominating every office, or frozen in cement, marble or even bronze on the main square of every city. To this day there’s hardly a city in Russia that doesn’t have a street named after him. Lenin is also one of the beloved characters of the Russian jokes.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the citizens of Leningrad voted for a return to the city’s original name. The city that bore the name of the revolutionary is now called Saint Petersburg. A native of the city, Joseph Brodsky, the dissident poet forced to live in exile during the Soviet era, said at the time: “It’s better to be named after the saint than the devil.”

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To this day Lenin’s body is kept in a glass coffin in a mausoleum in the very heart of Russia – Moscow’s Red Square. These days the number of people who queue up to get a glimpse at the legendary communist leader is not so big. For many it’s no longer about ideology but simply curiosity, a popular Moscow sightseeing venue. As it has for decades, his tomb overlooks Russia’s famous mall, the GUM, although today it houses the luxury brands from Western designers – something that would make Lenin turn in his grave.

Debates are still fuming over the role he played in the country’s history.

In 2008 the Russian federal television channel “Rossiya” launched a major TV campaign to choose a historical figure to be considered the country’s symbol. The program was called “The Name – Russia.” Every candidate was supported by a prominent political or public figure. Lenin featured among the candidates. Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, spoke in his support. Lenin ranked sixth in the final list. Despite this fact, polls show that the younger generation of Russians finds it hard to define the role of Lenin in Russian history.

Lenin was by all means a great politician, if greatness is measured by the power of will and the scale of damage. He destroyed one powerful empire to create another based on extreme violence. In many ways he defined the development of world history during 20th century. The first dictator of the century, he was not the last and paved the way for Stalin, Hitler, Mao and many others. However, his victory in 1917 was at the same time his defeat, as his “great” cause was doomed. It took 70 years and millions of lives to put an end to Lenin’s era.

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