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Vladimir Lenin: Everything You Didn't Know About The Russian Revolutionary

1900s | October 21, 2020

Embalmed body of Lenin at Red Square. (Getty Images)

Becoming Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born to a middle-class, well-educated family in Simbirsk, Russia on April 22, 1870. His father, Ilya, was a mathematician who had worked his way up from serfdom to eventually becoming the director of schools, and the Ulyanov children were expected to use this privileged status to gain an education and do great things with their lives. However, Vladimir's elder brother, Alexander, may have mucked things up a bit by trying to blow up the Russian Emperor Alexander III with a homemade bomb as his carriage passed them by in St. Petersburg and getting himself executed a few months later.

Although Ulyanov thought little of his brother's actions, the suspicion around this possibly radicalized family was enough to get him kicked out of law school when he showed even the slightest signs of political dissent. This expulsion only served to turn him into an autodidact, and he quickly devoured the writings of Communist legend Karl Marx. He joined an intelligentsia-style political book club, so to speak, and became enamored with the idea of a Marxist revolution.

The Bolshevik. (Tretyakov Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

Famine And Exile

Meanwhile, things were looking particularly bad for Russia as a famine spread along the Volga River due to the dreadfully cold and dry winter of 1891, resulting in over 400,000 deaths, most of which were from the peasant class. Needless to say, the people were not impressed with the government's inability to handle such an important crisis. This despair emboldened the Marxists and Ulyanov in their belief that there was definitely a better alternative to be found in a system like Communism.

However, Ulyanov's attempt to unionize factory workers by spreading the Bolshevik "Union for the Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class" pamphlets, which touted extremist notions like eight-hour workdays and secured pensions, was met with a swift kick to Siberia, where he was sentenced to three years of exile. Once again, trying to push Ulyanov out only served him better, as he had more time to write and influence the Russian people toward his own unique version of Communism. It is here that he tried on different writer's pseudonyms and finally landed on the name of Vladimir Lenin, as he is still called today. 

Nicholas II of Russia with the family, 1913. (Boasson and Eggler/Wikimedia Commons)

The Fall Of The Romanovs

For the remainder of his relative youth, Lenin bounced from country to country, proving too volatile for the Romanovs to tolerate. Nonetheless, the working class of Russia still showed up on the doorstep of the Winter Palace, the residence of then-emperor Nicolas II, to demand better working conditions and a livable wage early in the morning of January 2, 1905.

Although the men, women, and children protested peacefully as they marched ahead to the palace, tensions rose as the police descended. What happened next is still a matter of debate, as even the police were given variant commands for dealing with the protesters. All that can be said is that hundreds or possibly even thousands of unarmed protesters were killed that fateful day, known forever as Bloody Sunday.

The gruesome event turned the tide for the Romanovs, who had ruled Russia since the 1600s. The people of Russia were hungry, angry, overworked, and now betrayed. The Romanovs were falling, and as riots over inflation grew, the Emperor saw fit to abdicate his position and flee for the sake of his family's lives. Finally, the long-expected Russian Revolution was on, and Lenin was chomping at the bit to be a part of it, though he didn't rise to real political prominence until after World War I.

Fanny Kaplan, 1913. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Red Terror

What was left of the Russian government attempted to outlaw the Bolshevik Party, but the tides had already turned. Over the course of November 6 and 7, 1917, Lenin and the Bolshevik revolutionaries stormed the Winter Palace and took over the State Duma (legislators) with relative ease in an event that came to be known as the October Revolution because Russia was still using the Julian calendar back then.

Finally, the Bolsheviks succeeded in taking over the motherland, free to instate their Communist ideologies. First, though, Lenin had some loose ends to tie up. He ordered the massacre of the Romanov family, women and children included, in an effort to prevent future challenges to his very new and precarious power. They even killed the dogs. Although word got out that Tsar Nicholas II was executed, the deaths of the rest of the family were kept quiet for a number of years.

Lenin quickly went to work enacting the demands of worker's rights activists and nationalizing basically every facet of life, from trade to utilities to banks. Things went downhill quickly, however, as 1918 saw food shortages and the resulting Russian Civil War. Lenin ushered in an era so cruel that it's known as the Red Terror, when he actively encouraged violence and established the use of concentration camps where thousands of executions took place.

On August 30, 1918, one revolutionary named Fanny Kaplan became embittered enough by the perceived betrayal of Lenin that she decided to take him out of power herself. While two of the bullets she shot landed in his neck and chest, it wasn't enough to kill the dictator, and she was executed shortly thereafter.  

Lenin making a speech in the Red Square, 1919. (Grigory Petrovich Goldstein/Wikimedia Commons)

Lenin's Legacy

Although he had spent the majority of his life waxing poetic about the virtues of a Communist society, reality proved harder than the written page. In an echo of 1891, 1920s Russia also faced a famine due to environmental issues, and Lenin's solution—taking food grown by the peasant class and redistributing it—resulted in an even bigger disaster than that caused by the emperors before him. An estimated five million people starved to death, partially due to issues with the newly nationalized railway system that disrupted food distribution.

Clearly, Lenin needed to tweak a few things, so in 1922, he offered probably his greatest accomplishment to the people of Russia, the New Economic Policy. Essentially, he allowed capitalism on a small scale while the government retained authority over large industry and the banks. His rule was short, however, as he died only a couple of years later on January 21, 1924, likely due to complications from the several strokes he suffered in his later years. As Russia's economy finally stabilized and the country at last caught up with the modernization happening in the rest of Europe, Lenin was looked upon as a hero who, while imperfect, saved the country from the backwards ways of the emperors.

During the three days after his death that his body was displayed, he was mourned by an estimated one million people. In fact, to this day, Lenin's body remains extraordinarily well preserved in a mausoleum in Moscow, where it "requires daily moisturizing and chemical injections." If you're ever feeling macabre in Moscow, the mausoleum is apparently still open to the public, and for free!

Lenin's legacy remains a complicated one, but there is no arguing that he had a major impact on the world, and according to some historians, is one of the single most influential people of the entire 20th century.

Tags: 1900s | politics | russia

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