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Vladimir Lenin: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

Vladimir Lenin was a Russian radical who led the Russian Revolution that overthrew the post-czar, provisional government. Read on to learn more about the architect and first leader of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, and then test your own knowledge of Vladimir Lenin with a brief quiz.

Who Was Vladimir Ulyanov Lenin?

While on the run from the Russian secret police, Vladimir Illych Ulyanov changed his last name to Lenin to avoid being arrested. His followers, the Bolsheviks, knew him as Lenin, so he kept the alias. As one of the most important and well-known leaders in world history, he led the Russian Revolution that overthrew a provisional government that replaced Czar Nicholas II. He also established the first communist government, which led to the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In expressing his vision for the future of Russia, Lenin said: 'We want to achieve a new and better order of society: in this new and better society there must be neither rich nor poor; all will have to work. ... This new and better society is called socialist society.'

Vladimir Lenin
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Early Life and Politics

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in Simbirsk, Russia, on April 10, 1870 into an upper middle class family; his father was a high-level education official. All of his five siblings were revolutionaries; his older brother, Alexander, was hung for his part in a plot to assassinate Czar Nicholas II. As a student, Lenin developed some politically radical ideas; he was expelled from Kazan University for participating in a demonstration. After returning to the Lenin estate, Vladimir's social standing allowed for him to continue his legal studies, and he eventually passed the bar exam.

In 1893, Lenin relocated to St. Petersburg. By this time, he'd become a Marxist. Karl Marx was a German writer who had written the 'Communist Manifesto,' and who preached the need for the vindication of the working class through violent revolution. According to Lenin, 'The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defense of bourgeois oppression.' While in St. Petersburg, Lenin wrote many controversial papers and articles with the intent of organizing the workers. In particular, he helped to organize the St. Petersburg Union for Struggle for the Liberation of Labor, which played a key role in the Russian Marxist movement.

Exile and Travel

Lenin was arrested in 1897 for his revolutionary activities and sentenced to three years of exile in Siberia. Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, another Marxist, joined him in Siberia, and they later married. During his exile, Lenin studied the Russian economy and wrote 'The Development of Capitalism in Russia,' which attacked Russia's antiquated economy.

After being released from Siberia, Lenin spent the next 17 years traveling throughout Europe, returning to Russia just once to participate in the failed revolution of 1905. He also joined the editorial board of Iskra, the central Marxist newspaper in Russia. Lenin understood that journalism could be a useful political tool and believed that 'A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer.'

During this period, Lenin had a falling out with another member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, Julius Martov, over the distribution of power. Whereas Martov believed that power should rest with the bourgeois or middle class, Lenin believed it should rest with the proletariat, or working class: 'Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.' Supporters of Lenin were referred to as Bolsheviks, or the majority; supporters of Martov were known as Mensheviks, or the minority.

Also during this period, Lenin helped like-mined people prepare for the revolution, the goal of which was to form a socialist Russia powered by the proletariat, or the working class. In addition to the poor rural farmers, the intellectuals would have a role by offering their political theories as guidance. As Lenin said: 'Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.'

Lenin firing up a crowd
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Role in the Russian Revolution

Lenin spent World War I in Switzerland before returning to Russia to lead the October Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the provisional government established after Czar Nicholas II abdicated his throne. Although he once said that 'Authority poisons everybody who takes authority on himself,' Lenin became chairman of the Council of People's Commissar which, in reality, transformed him in to a dictator. He was not happy about this turn of events, stating that: 'All our lives we fought against exalting the individual, against the elevation of the single person, and long ago we were over and done with the business of a hero, and here it comes up again: the glorification of one personality. This is not good at all. I am just like everybody else.'

Between 1918 and 1921, the Bolsheviks and the White Army, which included former members of the imperial armed forces, monarchists and other socialists, fought a violent civil war. Lenin remained unfazed by this turn of events: 'We fully regard civil wars, i.e., wars waged by the oppressed class against the oppressing class, slaves against slave-owners, serfs against land-owners, and wage-workers against the bourgeoisie, as legitimate, progressive and necessary.' He knew that 'You cannot make a revolution in white gloves.'

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