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date: 24 April 2017

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich

Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History
Philip PomperPhilip POMPER

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich (1870–1924) Russian revolutionary leader 

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who under the pseudonym “Lenin” would become the most important revolutionary of the twentieth century, carried through the first enduring socialist revolution in world history in 1917. The establishment of a militant socialist regime in the vast territory of the former Russian Empire threatened all existing political and social systems. Lenin’s successful combination of doctrinal nimbleness and tactical flexibility produced Leninism—the triumph of politics over spontaneous economic and social forces and the formation of a militant, party-led state controlled by a single leader. This became the foundation for the regime of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as well as its offshoots and imitators during the Cold War.

Family Background

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870–1924) was born in Simbirsk, Russia, to parents of multiethnic background. He was German, Swedish, and Jewish on his mother’s side and Central Asian and possibly Russian on his father’s. Two deaths in his family disrupted a fairly privileged and outwardly conventional childhood and adolescence. His father, Ilya Nikolaevich Ulyanov, director of public schools in Simbirsk Province, died in January 1886. Alexander, Lenin’s brilliant older brother, was hanged in May 1887 for his role in a terrorist conspiracy to assassinate Czar Alexander III. Vladimir was expelled from Kazan University in 1887, but received a law degree as an external student from St. Petersburg University in 1891. He quickly abandoned the law and instead became a dedicated follower of the German thinkers Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895).

Revolutionary Career

Lenin departed from Marxian theory, which in its most basic form posited that the revolutionary consciousness of the industrial proletariat would spontaneously produce socialist revolutions against capitalism. Lenin, however, believed that by themselves the workers could not achieve socialist consciousness. The working class in his view needed to be organized by a party led by scientific socialists. In 1903, Lenin’s position split Russia’s Social Democratic Party, but he won ground against the opposing Menshevik faction of that party and maintained personal control over his Bolshevik faction between 1903 and 1917. Lenin continually amended his original position to exploit revolutionary opportunities, and his tracts had vast influence.

Like other Russian revolutionary leaders in the early twentieth century, Lenin lived in exile for long periods of time (in Siberia from 1897 to 1900 and in western Europe for most of the years between 1900 and 1917). With German support, he returned to Russia after the collapse of the Romanov regime in March 1917. Lenin believed that World War I (1914–1918) was a symptom of capitalism’s final crisis and that a Russian socialist revolution would spark similar revolutions in Europe. Faced with the dual power of Russia’s Provisional Government and soviets (mainly urban-based revolutionary councils), Lenin called for all power to go to the soviets. In November 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks, led by Communist leader Leon Trotsky under the aegis of the Petrograd Soviet, overthrew the Provisional Government. At the Second Congress of Soviets, which was convened during the assault on the Provisional Government, Lenin established the de facto dictatorship of his party. He became the chair of the Council of People’s Commissars, and he retained that post as well as leadership of his party (renamed the Communist Party in 1918) until his incapacitation in 1923.

In Power

In January 1918, Lenin ordered the dissolution of the democratically elected Constituent Assembly. A civil war followed, but Lenin’s astute policies, his opponents’ obtuseness, and a great deal of luck saved the revolutionary regime. Distribution of land to the peasants and control of the central industrial region had given the new regime a basic advantage. After withdrawal from World War I followed by the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and Turkey) in March 1918, Lenin dealt with his domestic opponents. The defeat of the Central Powers allowed him to recoup most of the losses incurred at Brest Litovsk; war weariness and mutinous troops weakened the ability of Lenin’s foreign opponents to intervene in the civil war. To Lenin’s disappointment, however, European troop mutinies and minor outbreaks of soviets did not yield socialist revolutions in Europe. Lenin’s Third International of 1919, an association of international Communist parties later called the Comintern, became an instrument of Soviet policy and a stimulus to right-wing reaction in Europe. In recognition of the power of nationalism, Lenin created in 1922 the framework for a multinational federation, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union. In the long run, however, nationalism led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Lenin’s Last Experiments

During the civil war of 1918–1921, Lenin’s regime experimented with a fully socialized and centralized urban-industrial economy called “War Communism.” It destroyed the money economy and stimulated the underground markets that became a chronic feature of the Soviet command economy. Grain requisitioning alienated the peasants. At the end of the war, the industrial sector lay in ruins, urban centers were depopulated, the peasantry suffered devastating famine, and the Communist Party faced mutinous sailors and urban strikes. Lenin had by that time established a strong party-based bureaucracy, the large Red Army, and a powerful political police (Cheka). During 1918–1922, Lenin defeated not only the Whites (anti-Communist forces), but also suppressed the Russian Orthodox Church; other socialist parties; Trotsky’s faction; the syndicalist wing of his party that desired worker control of the economy; a large-scale peasant rebellion; and the mutiny of Russia’s Kronstadt naval base. At that point, Lenin abandoned War Communism and its policy of grain requisitioning and created a system of taxation and markets in which the peasants might trade their surplus. The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921 restored a money economy and revived urban retail trade and small industrial enterprises. Lenin encouraged investment by foreign capitalists, with minor results. He left to his successors the task of modernizing the economy. Although NEP created a framework for exchange between the urban-industrial and village-agricultural sectors, it did not solve the problem of backward, small-scale peasant agriculture. Lenin was still rethinking Russia’s path to socialism when he suffered a series of strokes from 1922 to 1924, the fatal one in January 1924. In 1922, Lenin supported Stalin’s promotion to the post of general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which would ensure Stalin’s rise to power after Lenin’s death.

Lenin, Vladimir IlyichClick to view larger

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, circa 1920. Lenin combined doctrinal nimbleness and tactical flexibility to form a militant, party-led state under his control.

Library of Congress.

The period after World War I showed that nationalism remained more powerful than international socialism. The international situation did not allow the Communists during Lenin’s lifetime to export their revolution, but Lenin’s abandoned experiment with War Communism from 1918 to 1921 became the basic economic model for Stalin’s and other Communist regimes. Lenin might have done things differently than Stalin had he lived, but Stalin quite rightly pointed to Lenin as his mentor. Political control trumped everything else, and personal control eventually subordinated the leadership of the party-state to the whims of dictators. The post-Stalin Soviet leaders rejected Stalin’s extreme methods and tried to revive Lenin’s NEP. Lenin remained the Soviet regime’s basic source of legitimacy until its collapse in 1991.


Wesleyan University

See also Marxism; Revolution—Russia; Russian Soviet Empire

Further Reading

Pomper, P. (1990). Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin: The intelligentsia and power. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Service, R. (2000). Lenin—a biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Shapiro, L., & Reddaway, P. (Eds.). (1987). Lenin: The man, the theorist, the leader: A reappraisal (Westview encore ed.). Boulder: Westview Press. [First published in 1967, London: Pall Mall Press in association with Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, CA]Find this resource:

Tucker, R. C. (Ed.). (1975). The Lenin anthology. New York: W. W. Norton.Find this resource:

Ulam, A. (1965) The Bolsheviks. New York: Macmillan.Find this resource:

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