Vladimir Illyich Lenin - biography
July 3, 1989

Lenin was the man behind the Russian Revolution of 1917. His efforts and actions, along with his followers (the Bolsheviks), were directly responsible for the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917, and without him, the Bolsheviks would have been insignificant. Lenin was the driving force behind them and their success was his success. This is an explanation of the ways in which he went about achieving this success.

Lenin began life as Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov on May the 4th, 1870, the son of a government school inspector. He was the third of six children in the family of Ilya and Maria Ulyanov, and was brought up in Simbirsk (now renamed to Ulyanov in his honour), in the Volga region. Of his primary schooling little is known, but on graduating from secondary school he received a medal for being the school's top student. A few weeks beforehand, his eldest brother Aleksandr was executed for leading a plot to take the Tsar's life, and consequently the whole family had the stigma of "enemy of the state" placed upon them. Lenin's school principal recognised this and saw that it would hinder Lenin from getting a place in tertiary education; he wrote a letter of recommendation to Lenin's prospective university.

As a result, Lenin was accepted at Kazan University in 1887, in the law faculty. However, he was expelled a few months later for taking part in a student demonstration. After a time at his grandfather's estate, he was allowed back to Kazan, but not as a student. Despite this, he applied to sit the law exams of the University of St Petersburg, and got a first-class degree. After arguing successfully with the police over his fitness to practice, he set up a business in Samara, defending mainly peasants and artisans. In the course of his work he realised how much of a class bias there was in the legal system, and how bad most lawyers were for supporting this bias. He developed a loathing for both and never reversed his opinions.

Despite the success of his practice, he spent most of his time engaged in Marxist activities. In 1893 he went to St Petersburg to meet other Marxists, and in 1895 he went into western Europe to meet still more. It was here that he first met George Plekhanov, who influenced him a great deal. This was the start of a long and close association. Lenin returned to St Petersburg late 1895, and joined the Social Democratic Party, an illegal socialist party. Here he met up with Julius Martov (real name Julius Tsederbaum) and formed their own party together, the "Union of Struggle For the Emancipation of the Working Class", but by then end of the year they were arrested and sent to exile in Siberia. Here Lenin wrote his first book, "The Development of Capitalism in Russia". Upon gaining his freedom, he set to Geneva to team with Plekhanov in combating the Economists. [The Economists were socialists, but the main policy that Lenin and others (including Plekhanov) objected to was that "the proletariat should rely purely on improving their conditions at work through their trade union organisations". This was because Lenin feared that a reliance on Trade Unions would take the rebelliousness out of the worker, make him complacent, which was NOT what he wanted; he wanted revolution. The Economists pushed this policy and Lenin and Plekhanov opposed it.]

To aid their cause, and as a general propaganda vehicle, they chose to start a paper, Iskra ("The Spark") which was to be distributed throughout Russia and to all other communist, Marxist, and socialist groups. Eventually the editorial board from this paper split in half and went to London (as the Belgians didn't want them operating from Geneva any longer), Lenin among them. They were joined by Trotsky after his escape from Siberia.

Lenin published a brochure called "What Is To Be Done ?" in 1902, and while it criticised the Economists, it also reflected a change in lenin's attitude. He wanted an elite to run the party (as did the Economists, ironically), while other prominents like Martov did not. This was the direct cause of the RSDP (Russian Socialist Democratic Party) split in 1903 into Bolsheviks (Men of the Majority) and Mensheviks (Men of the Minority), even though the Bolsheviks had less members.

During the 1905 Revolution, Lenin was out of the country, in exile, in London. He did not treat the revolution seriously, and as late as April was still in London holding party conferences. He later referred to 1905 as a "great dress rehearsal". When he finally DID arrive in Russia, it was all over and things were returning to normal.

Up to World War I (1914), Lenin was mainly involved in power struggles within his own party and squabbling between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. In 1906 the party attended a "unification" congress in Stockholm, which brought about the reuniting of the two factions. However, there were still wide differences in opinion and Lenin did not alter his views or attitudes. The conference confirmed the Mensheviks as having an easy majority in the party as a whole.

From 1907 Lenin lived outside Russia, where he was relatively safe from the Okrahna (the Tsarist secret police). He lived in England, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Austria-Hungary, Switzerland and France, attending party conferences and keeping the Bolsheviks together. In 1912 he and other Bolsheviks started "Pravda" ("The Truth") and sold it openly. Lenin was the main contributor to this newspaper.

Throughout the "pre-war" years there was constant in- fighting within the party. Conflicts arose over whether to boycott the Duma, and whether to permit bank robberies as a legitimate source of party revenue. None of these fights were won by anyone and the overall image of the party on the outside, and its functioning on the inside, were adversely affected.

With the start of World War I, there was more fighting. The Mensheviks wanted Russia to continue with the war and fight Germany; Martov (by himself) wanted an end to war and a settlement with no annexations or indemnities; and the Bolsheviks under Lenin wanted the war to be turned into a great worldwide revolution against the ruling classes, he wanted global civil war. However, because none of them were anywhere near having any influence over the Tsar, no-one got anywhere. It was a battle of ideologies, and nothing came out of it at all. Despite this, the people in general (ie, the population of Russia) were becoming discontented. They saw the pointlessness of the war, and saw the terrible effects it was having on their economic, social and political climate. Eventually, in March 1917, their general discontent, which had up until then been just under the surface, broke through into open revolt, and the monarchy was overthrown.

Lenin was out of the country at the time, being in exile in Switzerland. He could not get through the Allied lines because the Tsar was supporting them, and any revolution would mean an end to that support. Also, they knew that Lenin had promised the Germans a peace treaty if he came to power. The Germans, on the other hand, had everything to gain by letting him through. They wanted to stir up as much internal trouble as possible, to make their enemy weaker, and had the chance of getting that peace treaty. Accordingly, they sent him through their country and occupied territories in a sealed train, along with Zinoviev, Radek and Lunacharsky to Russia. They arrived in Petrograd on the 6th of April.

One day later, he released his April Thesis, and stunned both opponents and allies alike. In it he demanded that there was to be no co-operation with the Provisional Government at all; that constant anti-war propaganda was to be commenced at once, all land must be nationalised (the start of collectivisation), and all power must be handed to the soviets. All the other socialists, including the Mensheviks, disagreed and the Bolsheviks and Lenin were isolated further.

All the other socialist parties went into coalition with the Provisional Government soon after it was formed. This was ultimately fatal - they became associated with all of its mistakes and inabilities, and their image became severely tarnished in the eyes of the population - "tools of the conservative classes". To them, Lenin and his Bolsheviks must have seemed like the gold among the quartz, so to speak. By August party membership had jumped 770% (!!) to 200 000, up from 26 000 in January, and the newly formed Red Guards (Lenin's own private army) numbered 10 000 fully armed, trained men.

Then came the Kronstadt Uprising. The Bolsheviks were blamed by the Provisional Government (inciting a riot) and Kerensky publicly denounced them as "traitors in German pay". Lenin and Zinoviev went into hiding, while Kamenev, Trotsky and Lunacharsky were arrested. In political spheres, the Bolsheviks were still a minority party (105 members compared to 248 Mensheviks and 285 Social Revolutionaries), even though on the streets there were by far the most popular. However, the political areas controlled who got arrested, and this is how Kamenev, Trotsky and Lunacharsky WERE arrested without further ado. This "purge" temporarily silenced the Bolsheviks.

With losses in the war reaching huge numbers, and general army discipline and morale slipping, the Provisional Government re-introduced the death penalty on the front. General Kornilov wanted complete death sentences throughout the army, not just those fighting, and requested this of the Government. It could not agree, knowing that it could cause major problems with the Petrograd Soviet and all the other political parties. Kornilov then turned on the Government and marched on Petrograd with his troops. The Bolshevik leaders were released, the Red Guards were mobilised, and the city set about defending itself. The Bolsheviks sent "professional agitators" into the troops and stirred up trouble; all the troops deserted Kornilov when they found out what was happening and there was little fighting. This earned the Bolsheviks even more respect in the eyes of the people and Lenin's popularity soared. The Provisional Government dissolved itself and tried again, but it was biased against the Bolsheviks in its very structure. The Bolsheviks saw this and only stayed long enough to deliver a abusive speech to the chairman. They did this again in October, just before the second revolution. This was the end for the Provisional Government.

Lenin was not the only person who was responsible for the Bolsheviks' success. Certainly, his policies won it for them in the end, specifically, elitist rule, non-co-operation with the Provisional Government, and his "separatist" ideals. However, it what the party did could not have been achieved by one man alone, and because of this credit must go to the whole party, not just Lenin. So, his role in the 1917 Revolutions could really be summed up as the Bolsheviks' role in the revolutions; he could not have done it alone, but they could not have done it without him.

From 1917 until 1921, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were wholly consumed with "picking up the pieces" of Russia, and, more importantly, crushing the ant-Bolshevik forces within Russia. The "White" forces (as opposed to the Red of the Bolsheviks), as they were called, consisted of western Allied counties, such as Britain and France, rebel army chiefs, Poles, and rival political factions. All of these were successfully defeated by 1921.

Despite this civil war, Lenin did not forget his original aims once he had power. He dissolved the Constituent Assembly, signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and made peace with Germany and tried to plan for long-range economic goals and immediate "fixes" for the economy with his War Communism policies. With the conclusion of the Civil War in 1921, he revoked most of the harsher policies in the War Communism package and replaced them with his New Economic Policy of March in that year.

War Communism was a set of economic policies designed to bring the country "back on the rails" after the revolutions, and, indeed, after the Tsarist system in general. Included were the total banning of all capitalism - the peasants were no longer permitted to sell their surplus and all of their grain left over from their own needs had to be given to the State. Additionally, Lenin needed grain to feed the Red Army and to alleviate, or rather, even out, hunger in areas of Russia. Consequently, he forcibly confiscated it from the peasants; if they would not give it to the State, then the State sent in police and possibly the Cheka (Bolshevik secret police) and grabbed it. There was nothing the peasant could do about it.

The New Economic Policy of 1921 reversed both these. Peasants could sell their surplus, and grain confiscations were stopped. Additionally, small businesses were allowed to trade again and free trade was allowed in moderation. This made the people considerably less aggressive to the new Government, and therefore more tolerant of change.

By 1922 Lenin was aware of the degeneration of the Bolsheviks as a party. He saw the huge mass of red tape and incompetence; even the division that he set up to get rid of this problems was less efficient than the rest of the government. Also, bigotry against non-Russians was becoming common in the government. He spoke out against all of these, and tried to reverse the trends, but he had little success.

During the Civil War, in 1918, Lenin was shot twice by a Social Revolutionary, Dora Kaplan. While appearing to recover perfectly (the shots were not fatal), they broke his health, and from then on it was a downward slide. His health had been adversely affected by the stresses of the last 25 years and, particularly, the revolutions and the civil war. He was sick by November 1921, and in May 1922, had a stroke, followed by another in December. Knowing that he was dying, he wrote what is called his political "testament". In this, he expressed his fears for the stability of the party in the near future, with specific regard to forceful members like Stalin and Trotsky. He warned against Stalin becoming leader, indicating his intention to remove him as party secretary, and calling him "too rude and arrogant". However, his health prevented him from replacing Stalin. He also called for an end to the trends mentioned earlier, for example, the red tape in the government. In March 1923, he had a third stroke and lost the ability to speak clearly. Finally, on the 21st of January 1924, he had yet another stroke and died of brain hemorrhage later that night. He was 53.

Lenin was very responsible for the successful Bolshevik takeover in 1917. He started, and continued, the party that was victorious, and gave them most of their ideals. He was the one who had the most influence, and decided how party policies would run. His unbending, determined personality undoubtedly had an influence; someone less rigid in their ideas may have given way to popular opinion. Yet, Lenin "stuck to his guns" and, in the end, won. His stubbornness paid off. However, it is not possible to say that Lenin was THE revolution. Without a doubt he was the driving force behind it (November) but he did not, and could not, do it by himself. He had help in the form of the rest of his party, the Bolsheviks. Without their help, resources and support it would not have been possible for him to get anywhere at all. Therefore, we cannot say that Lenin was responsible for the revolution, only that he played a huge part behind the scenes and that without him, there would have been nothing.

As for the consolidation of power after 1917, the same thing applies. Once the party was in position, ruling, it became more and more a Bolshevik achievement, rather than a Lenin one. Indeed, after 1922 and his strokes he dropped out of "centre stage" and watched from the sidelines, commenting loudly where necessary. His policies were the things that the country ran on, but it was the Bolsheviks that implemented them, so, again, it was a team effort. You cannot say that Lenin was IT, he did everything, he was the one who made it all work, but you certainly cannot exclude him, because without him, it is impossible to tell what would have happened, but it sure wouldn't have been the same.