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Lenin was born Vladimir Ulyanov on April 22, 1870 in the Russian city of Simbirsk, a provincial town on the Volga River. He was the third of six children. His father, Ilya, served as a school superintendent who worked his way up the ladder to being a nobleman. His mother, Maria, was the daughter of a German doctor. He enjoyed a comfortable childhood. He tended to be a rowdy, mischievous child who was prone to playing pranks on others.
Lenin was never a popular student in school. His antisocial attitudes led to having few friends. He never participated in any school activities, never helped other students with their homework, and never allowed them to look at his own schoolwork. High school principal Feodor Kerensky, a friend of Ilya Ulyanov, looked after the boy as well. He often played with the principal's young son Aleksandr.
In 1887, as he was studying for his final exams, he had learned that his older brother Aleksandr Ulyanov, who had left for St. Petersburg to study chemistry, had fallen in with revolutionaries. He was hung for his role in an abortive assassination attempt against Czar Alexander III.
Lenin graduated at the top of his class and enrolled at the Kazan University School of Law. Within two months, he took part in a student demonstration. Being the brother of a convicted terrorist, he was expelled with no chance of returning. During this time, he began studying the works of numerous radicals, but what would cement his path would be Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?. From Chernyshevsky, he deduced that what caused all previous revolutionary attempts to fail was a lack of leadership and organization.
Early Revolutionary Activity
Lenin joined an underground Marxist circle around the same time a famine struck the Volga River Valley, killing over 300,000 people. He refused to offer any assistance to the victims. "Famine," he said "would also destroy faith not only in the czar, but in God too." Any help would smother any hope for revolution.
The revolution he was waiting for was that predicted by Karl Marx. Capitalism, as Marx saw it in the 19th century, was stagnant and socialism was destined to replace it through class warfare. The dictatorship of the proletariat which would come with it would eventually pass away as utopia takes root. However this presented a problem: Marx was predicting the revolution to take place in the industrialized countries of the West, like Germany. Russia was chiefly agrarian. Furthermore, the population was 80% peasantry--a group Marx had dismissed.
Lenin, meanwhile, had the idea that the peasantry could be telescoped with the proletariat.
He met with Julius Martov to stir up unrest among factory workers. They distributed tracts and had hearings about workers' grievances. At one of these meetings, he met Nadezhda Krupskaya, an equally committed Marxist.
At one point, the circle got careless and allowed an undercover Okhrana agent into the group. Lenin was sent to prison. From his cell, Lenin continued to write pamphlets and essays. Krupskaya was a frequent visitor, bearing secret messages about the movement. In 1896, he was transferred to Siberia and followed by Krupskaya the following year. During that time, the two were married.
In exile, Lenin continued sending propaganda to his comrades under an array of pseudonyms.
He fled Russia for Munich, Germany in order to avoid continued monitoring. There, he established a revolutionary newspaper, Iskra ("Spark"). It was smuggled into Russia by numerous supporters, such as Iosef Dzugashvili. Iskra contained numerous vitriolic attacks on anyone who disagreed with Lenin, primarily rival socialists.
During a conference in Brussels in 1903, Lenin got into a heated argument that would cause a split in the Social Democrats. The side that sided with Lenin became known as Bolsheviks ("the Majority") and those who didn't were called Mensheviks ("the Minority"). It would be the only time that the Bolsheviks were the majority, but the name stuck.
By 1904, control of Iskra passed into the hands of the Mensheviks. In turn, Lenin started up another paper: Vperyod (Forward).
In 1905, the Russian Empire was rocked by revolution. The government wasn't overthrown, but Czar Nicholas II granted the country a constitution. It seemed like the Bolshevik movement would eventually lose steam.
The Great War was a disaster for the Russians. Troops constantly ran out of supplies and they lost just about every battle. The home front collapsed as rioters took to the streets of Petrograd, demanding bread. The turmoil would ultimately force Czar Nicholas II to abdicate and a Provisional Government to be formed. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, seeking to knock Russia out of the war, shipped Lenin across German-controlled territory and to the capital.
Lenin planned to have the new Bolshevik newspaper Pravda (Truth) to run a series of his objectives known as the April Theses. The staff refused to do so, thinking that publishing the article would hurt the movement in Russia.
The Provisional Government wasted no time in branding Lenin as a German spy, sent into Russia to undermine the war effort.
In July, the Bolsheviks attempted to take power from the Provisional Government. The uprising, known as the July Days, was disrupted by machine guns. Hundreds, including subordinate Leon Trotsky, were sent to prison. Lenin fled to Finland, having shaved his beard off and donned a wig.
General Lavr Kornilov, feeling that the Provisional Government was too weak to maintain order in Russia, attempted to seize power in August. Kerensky, desperate for support, released scores of Bolsheviks from prison and gave them guns. Kornilov's coup never took shape and Kerensky's government now appeared weak in the public's eye.
The time had come for the Bolsheviks to make their move.
By September, the Bolsheviks had won control of the Petrograd and Moscow soviets. Lenin, writing from Finland, sent out volleys of messages urging an uprising against the Provisional Government. Details of the putsch were left to a Militray Revolutionary Council (MRC), among its members was Trotsky.
The date of the revolt was set for November 6, 1917, the day before the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Early that morning, the government ordered a state of insurrection. The MRC was outlawed and warrants were issued for the arrest of the Bolshevik leadership.
Over the course of the day, Bolshevik agents systematically took control of post offices, bridges, power plants, train stations, banks, and other key locations in Petrograd. One detachment captured a cruiser, the Aurora, and brought it up the Neva River; another occupied the Peter-and-Paul Fortress. This was done so efficiently that it was said to resemble a changing of shifts. Soon, the seat of the Provisional Government, the Winter Palace, was surrounded. Its only defense was a collection of student recruits and women from the Death Battlion.
At 9:45 PM, a blank shot was fired from the Aurora. Around 11:00, cannons at the Peter-and-Paul Fortress began firing random shells at the palace.
The direct capture of the palace was, if anything, borderline comic at times. The Bolshevik volunteers entered the building through a side entrance; the defenders surrendered without a fight. Most of the volunteers couldn't read or write, so when they found the cabinet of minsters, they forced them to sign their own arrest warrants.
Kerensky, however, was not among them. He had fled the city the morning before in a car provided by the American ambassador.
DictatorLenin was debating at the Second Congress, being held at the Smolny Institute, a former private school for upper-class girls. The Mensheviks and moderate SRs protested the move, but were overruled by the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs. In frustration, they stormed out of the building. Trotsky mocked the walkout: "You're bankrupt! Your role's played out! Go where you belong: into the dustbin of history!"
Shortly after this, in the wee hours of November 8, Anatoly Lunacharsky read Lenin's manifesto to the remaining delegates. It proclaimed peace, the abolishment of private property, that control of production was to be handed to the workers, and self-determination granted to all nationalities. The reading was frequently interrupted by thunderous applause.
Later that night, Lenin presented the Decree on Peace, calling for an immediate ceasefire. Afterwards, he introduced the Decree on Land, which nationalized all land in the country, making it accessible to the workers.
When elections were held for the staffing of the Constituent Assembly on November 25, the Russian people voted overwhelmingly against the Bolsheviks. In a total of the 783 seats, the Bolsheviks only won 225 seats, while the Social Revolutionaries secured 420. Lenin was so frustrated by the results that he disbanded the assembly by force the following January.
In the wake of the ousted Kerensky's failed attempt to retake power immediately after the putsch, saw the need for a paramilitary force to ensure order. In December, Lenin and Felix Dzerdzhinsky founded the Cheka.
Lenin believed himself to be a man of destiny, having an unshakable belief in the righteousness of his cause. and in his own ability as a revolutionary leader. Lenin's friend Gorky described him as "a baldheaded, stocky, sturdy person", being "too ordinary" and not giving "the impression of being a leader".
Aside from Russian, Lenin spoke and read French, German, and English. Concerned with physical fitness, he took regular exercise, enjoyed cycling, swimming, and hunting, and also developed a passion for mountain walking in the Swiss peaks. He was also fond of pets, in particular cats. Tending to eschew luxury, he lived an austere lifestyle. Lenin despised untidiness, always keeping his work desk tidy and his pencils sharpened, and insisted on total silence while he was working.
Despite his revolutionary politics, Lenin disliked revolutionary experimentation in literature and the arts, for instance expressing his dislike of expressionism, futurism, and cubism, and conversely favoring realism and Russian classic literature. Lenin also took a conservative attitude with regard to sex and marriage. Throughout his adult life, he was in a relationship with Nadezhda Krupskaya, a fellow Marxist whom he married. Lenin and Nadya were both sad that they never had children, although they enjoyed entertaining their friends' offspring. Lenin had no lifelong friends and Armand has been cited as being his only close, intimate friend.
Lenin was an atheist and a critic of religion, believing that socialism was inherently atheistic; he thus deemed Christian socialism to be a contradiction in terms. Service described Lenin as "a bit of a snob in national, social and cultural terms". The Bolshevik leader expressed an attitude of cultural superiority between different nations; at the top was Germany, followed by Britain and France, and then Finland, with Russia coming beneath them. Privately, he was critical of his Russian homeland, describing it as "one of the most benighted, medieval, and shamefully backward of Asian countries". He was annoyed at what he perceived as a lack of conscientiousness and discipline among the Russian people, and from his youth he had wanted Russia to become more culturally European and Western. He informed Gorky that "an intelligent Russian is almost always a Jew or someone with Jewish blood", believing that the country's Jewish community had helped to modernize Russia through their artistic, cultural, and scientific achievements, further he expressing pride in having some Jewish ancestry.