Nikolai Lenin (1870-1924) was one of the most influential people in the 20th century. The leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, he transformed Communism from a political theory into a principal for running a nation and created one of the world's largest empires, the Soviet Union.
Historian John Keegan declared that Lenin should be Time Magazine's the Man of the Century. "The ideas of Karl Marx were of little more than philosophical important until 1917," Keegan wrote, "when Lenin applied those ideas with revolutionary force" and "Russia became a example to Marxist revolutionaries everywhere and energized nationalist reactionaries, of whom the most important was Adolf Hitler." Based on the number of books written about him (4,007 in 1999 in the Library of Congress collection), Vladimir Lenin is the world's third most famous person. He ranks behind Jesus and Shakespeare but ahead of Hitler and Buddha.
Lenin was one of about 160 pseudonyms and false names he used to confuse tsarist secret police. His real name was Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov. Other aliases included Petrov, Tulin, Ilin, William Frey, Ivanov, I.L., S.T.A. He used the alias Jacob Richter to obtain a readers pass at the British Library.
Lenin was bald at the of 23. His aged appearance and behavior earned him the nickname the "Old Man" among his fellow revolutionaries. Throughout his life, Lenin lived modesty and had little desire for material goods. He usually wore a shabby waistcoat. American writer John Reed described Lenin as a short, stocky, balding man with a large head, small, winking eyes and a snub nose. He wore a goatee and had no creases in his eyelids which betrayed his Mongolian ancestry.
Books: Lenin, A New Biography by Dmitri Volkogonov (Free Press, 1994); The Unknown Lenin by Richard Pipes; Lenin: a Biography by Robert Service, an Oxford historian. Lenin, Stalin and Hitler didn't write their own memoirs.
Lenin's Early Life
Lenin was born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov on May 4, 1870 in the small, remote Volga city of Simbirsk (Ulyanovsk) into a middle-class family. The son of a Mongol Kalmyk serf, Lenin's father was a school teacher who rose to become the inspector of schools in Simbirsk. Lenin's mother was the daughter of a landowning physician with a hint of royal blood. Her father was Jewish.
As a child, Lenin was nicknamed the Little Barrel because he was fat and fell down a lot (a habit attributed to large head and top-heavy proportions). He was also know for his destructiveness: on one of his birthdays he hammered the legs off a papier-mâché horse he was given.
In school, Lenin was not popular with the other students, but he received good marks, distinguished himself in Latin and Greek, and read a great a deal, particularly the works of Goethe and Turgenev.
The late 1880s was marked by two tragedies: the deaths of his father and his brother Alexander. Recalling his father's fatal heart attack in 1885, Lenin later wrote, "I was 16 when I gave up religion." In 1887, Alexander was hanged for participating in a conspiracy to kill Tsar Alexander III.
Lenin's Early Revolutionary Activities
The death of his brother is considered the event that drove Lenin into becoming a radical. Lenin and his four brothers and sisters were all involved in revolutionary activities at one time or another. The fact that his brother had been executed for revolutionary activities made it difficult for Lenin to find a place in mainstream society.
Lenin was accepted in the law school at Kazan University only with the help of his high school principal but was expelled after only three months for participating in a student demonstration. After studying in his own, Lenin had the highest mark of 124 students on the law examination and received a law degree in 1891.
In 1893, Lenin moved to St. Petersburg, where he became involved in revolutionary activities with dissidents who lived underground, communicated with codes and invisible ink, operated under aliases and referred to their discussion groups as pancake teas. During this period Lenin organized Marxist workers into six-member cells, infiltrated factories and reported harsh working conditions, and published inflammatory pamphlets with phrases like "pillars of reactionaries," and "pack of little Judases" (the bureaucracy).
In 1895, Lenin took his first trip outside of Russia. In Switzerland he was introduced to Georgi Plekhanov, a Social Democrat who wanted to establish a government ruled by liberal bourgeois. After reading one of Lenin's pamphlets, Plekhanov remarked, "You show the bourgeois your behind. We on the contrary, look them in the face." The disagreement was a precursor to a division that would split the workers movement in Russia into two factions.
When Lenin returned to Russia he brought back a printing machine and illegal literature in the false bottom of a trunk. Before Lenin's first revolutionary newspaper could be published, Lenin was arrested in December, 1895. Lenin spent 15 months in prison in a comfortable cell in which he communicated with people in the outside world with messages written in milk which turned yellow when held over a candle. The milk was stored in hollow bread pellets that could be swallowed if someone entered his cell suddenly.
Lenin was then exiled for three years in southern Siberia (known as Siberian Italy), far from the icy north where other prisoners were sent. After the Siberian exile, Lenin began his rise as a leading communist theorist, tactician and party organizer. Lenin tried briefly to become a gentlemen farmer but after reading Marx's Das Capital in 1889 he became a committed Marxist. In the Soviet era, young children were told that during this period Lenin lived in small hut he built himself while he was hiding from the czar’s police.
Lenin was described as being kind, open and generous to family and friends and to people around him. He treated peasants with courtesy and always sent his mother a letter on his father's name day. Trotsky once wrote he "had a way of falling in love with people" even spies who had infiltrated his organization.
Lenin was also described as a congenital lair, foul-mouthed, cowardly, evil and unscrupulous. He was obsessed with power and had "propensity for bombast." The British agent Bruce Lockhart said Lenin had a "quizzing, half-contemptuous, half-smiling look." After meting Lenin on May 19, 1920, Bertrand Russell wrote, "He laughs a great deal...his laugh seems friendly & jolly, but gradually one finds it grim."
Maksin Gorki described Lenin in Communists gatherings as "firm," "inflexible," "quiet, rather cold and mocking" but in private Gorki said he was "a wonderful companion and lighthearted person with a lively and inexhaustible interest in the world around him, and very gentle in his relations with people." Anatoli Vasilievich Lunarcharski said: "Lenin is not in the least ambitious. I believe he never looks at himself, never glances in the mirror of history, never even thinks about what posterity will say about him—he simply does his work."
Lenin has been described as a "bookish man with scholarly habits." He read extensively and often worked 16 hour days. He could communicate in seven languages—French, German, English, Italian, Czech, Polish and Swedish, plus Latin and Greek. Although he could read and write in all these languages he was less proficient in speaking them. After coming to power in 1917, Lenin wrote in the blank for occupation—"man of letters"— on a bureaucratic form he filled out.
Lenin enjoyed riding bicycles, collecting mushrooms and hunting and disliked seeing pictures of himself in the newspaper and listening too much to music. He once said, "I can't listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, make you want to say stupid things and stroke the heads of people who create such beauty while living in this vile hell. And now you mustn't stroke anyone's head—you might get your hand bitten off."
Lenin loved gadgets and machines. Describing his fondness of sharpening pencils, his brother Dimitri wrote he sharpened them with a "sort of special tenderness, so the letters came out like delicate threads." He referred to his telephones as "she" and once suggested to Trotsky that they get around in huge Russian buildings on roller skates.
Lenin and Women
While in Siberia, Lenin was joined by his fiancee, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, a fellow revolutionary he met in St. Petersburg at a study circle. They were married in Siberia in 1898. She was from blue blooded families.
Lenin and his wife didn't have any children. Their relationship was more political in nature than romantic. Krupskaya was Lenin's editor and chief confidant. The slept in separate rooms, maybe because he was known for going to bed late and getting up late. His wife was a terrible cook. The two of them lived with Lenin's unmarried sister.
Lenin's mistress Inessa Armand, a wealthy divorcee, and a committed French Bolshevik—also took a backseat to his revolutionary activities. She and Lenin’s wife were not only aware of each other; they were also good friends. A Great Love by Alexandra Kollantay is about Lenin's affair with Inessa Armand.
Despite his endorsement of women's rights Lenin occasionally made chauvinist remarks. He once told Armand no woman he ever met could read Das Kapital straight through, figure out a railroad schedule or play chess. Lenin's niece, Olga Dmitrievna, was brought up in a house inside the Kremlin near Lenin. She had the run of the place and was even allowed to ride a pony in the Secret Garden. Her childhood impression of Stalin was that he was a "kindly man."
Lenin as an Exile
Between 1900 and 1917, Lenin spent most of his time abroad, writing and working with other expatriate Russian dissidents with goal of igniting a world revolution.
After being released from exile in Siberia, Lenin left for Switzerland, where he, Plekhanov and others started a newspaper called "Spark" and a magazine called "Dawn," in which he first referred to himself as Lenin. Dawn folded after a couple of issues but Spark was smuggled into Russia, sometimes wrapped around fish, and attracted a large audience. Lenin still had a passbook savings account in Zurich in 1997 with 12.90 Swiss francs.
Lenin spent a lot of time in Finland. He met other Communist leaders and Russian activists in Finland and was once smuggled aboard a train into Russia disguised as a Finnish laborer.
Lenin wrote 10,000,000 words in his lifetime, most of which was published after his death in 35 volumes. Among his works are The Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats (1897), The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), What Is to be Done? (1902), Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909), Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), and The State and Revolution (1917).
All through his life, Lenin followed the same five step plan when organizing material he wrote: 1) a plan on a half sheet of paper; 2) a rough outline on the left hand side of the folded sheet of paper; 3) revisions on the right hand side; 4) a pencil-written draft; and 5) a final draft in ink.
Among the quotes attributed to Lenin are: 1) "Revolutions are the locomotives of history. Drive them full speed ahead and keep them on the rails." 2) "And all that believed were together and had all things in common." 3) "God making is the worst way of spitting in one's now face." 4) "imperialism is the highest form of capitalism."
Lenin as a Revolutionary Leader
As the leader of the Bolsheviks, Lenin was regarded as an uncompromising, radical. He established a terrorist organization that infiltrated tsarist organizations and clamped on freedom of expression in an effort to keep party members disciplined and committed.
After the unsuccessful 1905 Revolution Lenin called for workers to take up arms, including brass knuckles and barbed wire and "put Europe into flames." He told the Social Democrats, "I am appalled, absolutely appalled, to know that for more than half a year you have been talking about bombs—and not a single bomb has been made."
In 1905, Lenin returned undercover to Russia, awaiting the right moment to lead the revolution. That moment never occurred and Lenin was forced to leave Russia once again. In 1907, the same year Stalin held up bank transport to secure funds for the Bolsheviks, the 37-year-old Lenin fled Russia. He settled in Bern and waited again, through World War I, until 1917.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016