Who Was Vladimir Lenin?

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was the architect of Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the first leader of what became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Through violent means he imposed a system of Marxist socialism called Communism on the former empire that attempted a redistribution of wealth intended to abolish the aristocracy and create a more equitable society for the masses.

The History of Vladimir Lenin

Early Years

A prominent Marxist, Lenin was born in 1870 in Russia with the last name Ulyanov. He picked up his political beliefs during his first, brief time in university, where he was expelled for political activity. Eventually, he was allowed to sit for his law examinations and earned a law degree. He became a public defender and part of a group of revolutionary Marxists. Eventually, his activities got him exiled to Siberia for three years, from 1897 to 1900. After that he moved to Europe, where he became a revolutionary journalist before returning to Russia for the Revolution of 1905, then leaving for Europe again during World War I.

The Russian Revolution

Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917 after the czar had abdicated and the soviet revolution was underway. The country was being run by a provisional government, which Lenin termed “a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” He envisioned a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” in which workers and peasants ruled. Russians were in despair over the toll that World War I was taking on the country and wanted change, and that war weariness allowed Lenin and his Red Guards, a secretly organized army of peasants, workers, and disaffected Russian military men, to seize control of the government in a bloodless coup d'état in November 1917.

The Russian Civil War

Once in power Lenin withdrew Russia from WW I, but his Red Army ended up fighting a three-year civil war with the White Army, a coalition of monarchists, capitalists, and democratic socialists. To fund the war, Lenin instituted something called “War Communism,” which nationalized all manufacturing and industry and requisitioned grain from farmers to feed the troops and sell abroad to raise cash for the government.

After an attempted assassination in 1918 in which he was seriously wounded, Lenin waged the Red Terror through the Bolshevik secret police, known as the Cheka. By some estimates more than 100,000 people thought to be against the aims of the revolution (known as “counterrevolutionaries”) or simply related to those who were in opposition were murdered by the state. The Red Army vanquished the final remnants of the White Army in Crimea in November 1920.

Forming the USSR

Lenin’s War Communism eventually led to economic ruin. After the Russian famine of 1921, which killed at least five million people, he introduced his New Economic Policy in an attempt to prevent a second revolution. It permitted some private enterprise, introducing a wage system and letting peasants sell produce and other goods on the open market while having to pay tax on any earnings, either in money or raw goods. State-owned enterprises such as steel operated on a for-profit basis.

In addition, various currencies of the time—including sovznaks, kerenkas, old imperial money, and bonds—were replaced by a new currency, the Russian ruble, backed by the gold standard. The country experienced hyperinflation, with wheelbarrows full of paper bills being required to buy a loaf of bread.

Lenin suffered a series of strokes between 1922 and 1924 that made it difficult for him to speak and govern. He died on January 21, 1924, barely a year after the Bolsheviks finally established the USSR, on Dec. 30, 1922, through a treaty among Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Transcaucasian Federation (later Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). His body was embalmed and put on display in a mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, where it still is today.

A 2017 Russian poll done by the Levada Center found that Lenin’s reputation as the father of his country is diminished but by no means undone. Fifty-six percent of Russians believe that he played an entirely or mostly positive role in Russian history, up from 40% in 2006. However, many of those polled couldn’t be specific about what he had done.