By Kaitlin Stilwell
Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov on April 22, 1870 in Simbirsk, a small city in Russia. Though Russian-born, he came from a mixed ethnic background including German, Jewish, Swedish and Kalmyk ancestors. He had a comfortable childhood in a middle-class home with several servants. His parents were educated and their children were encouraged to learn and question; in fact five of the six Ulyanov children took part in revolutionary activities in their lifetimes. When Lenin was 17, his father died unexpectedly and shortly after, his elder brother was hanged for involvement in a plot to overthrow the Tsar. That fall, Lenin entered Kazan University where he became interested in the writings of radical thinkers such as Karl Marx and Nikolai Chernyshevsky. He was exiled for a year because of these interests, but studied independently and received a law degree in 1891. He quickly decided that the practice of law was not for him.
Over the next few years, Lenin began his efforts to apply Marx’s teachings to the specific circumstances of Imperialist Russia. Marxism had been developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their native Germany almost 50 years previously when capitalism was at its height. The world had changed in this time and Lenin wished to adapt these principles to deal with the specific problems of Russia. The resulting philosophy would be known as Leninism, or Leninism-Marxism.
In 1894, Lenin wrote his first major work, What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats; he was arrested the following year and sentenced to three years exile in Siberia. During this time, he married his comrade Nadya Krupskaya.The period from the end of his exile in 1900 to the beginning of the First World War was one of great productivity. Lenin and Krupskaya moved abroad, living in France, Germany, and England; during these years, Lenin wrote much of his published work. He began the revolutionary newspaper Iskra (Russian for “spark”) and later Pravda. He was also instrumental in forming the Social-Democratic Labor party and representing it in a series of international congresses. He later formed and spearheaded the radical and uncompromising Bolshevik party in Russia. When war broke out in 1914, Lenin and Krupskaya moved to neutral Switzerland where Lenin wrote his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In March of 1917, the revolution began in Russia and many exiled revolutionaries made plans to return home, but permission to pass through war zones was not easily granted. Negotiations began with Germany’s Provisional Government to offer up prisoners of war in exchange for the Russian exiles’ passage through Germany but these came to naught. Through back channel negotiations, an inventive solution was finally reached. In April, Lenin and Krupskaya and nearly thirty others travelled in a sealed one-carriage train from Switzerland through Germany, by ferry to Sweden, and then back to their homeland. Once home, Lenin continued to write and agitate (preaching his April Theses) and in November (October in the Gregorian calendar), the October Revolution kicked off and the Bolshevik party, led by Lenin, gained control.
Lenin took many drastic measures in the years that followed to recreate Russia as a Marxist state. He consolidated the revolutionary factions under the Russian Communist party; he created a secret police force (the feared Cheka), and he restructured the economy to follow communist practices. In 1918, Lenin pulled Russia out of WWI, accepting a peace treaty with Germany; that same year, civil war broke out in Russia. The fight between the Red Army (Lenin’s forces) and the White Army (the dissidents) would continue until 1921, when the White Army was defeated. Faced with a country ravaged by war and poverty, Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy which reintroduced some capitalist practices back into the economy. Though forced to make some concessions along the way, Lenin never changed his vision for a Marxist Russia.
After a series of debilitating strokes that began in 1922, Lenin died on January 21, 1924 at the age of 53.