10 Fascinating Facts About Russian Communist Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin
Arguably the most influential man of the 20th Century, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was responsible for the establishment of the first ever communist regime. Taking advantage of the political turmoil unleashed by the First World War the middle class Lenin rode the wave of instability to head what he liked to call the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Often seen as more pleasant and reasonable leader than his successor, Stalin, Lenin was, nevertheless a ruthlessly unpleasant totalitarian despot. Here are 10 fascinating facts about this pivotal character.
10. Lenin was inspired by the actions of his older brother Alexander Ulyanov
Lenin grew up in a fairly ordinary middle class family. While his parents were fairly unremarkable, however, his older brother and sister were interested in the growing anti-tsarist, revolutionary societies that were springing up all over Russia. His sister, Anna was sent to live under house arrest on the family’s country estate after suspicious activity brought her to the attention of the authorities. Lenin’s older brother, Alexander Ulyanov was desperate to change Russia and do away with the rule of the Tsars. Alexander joined the ‘Terrorist Faction of the People’s Will’ with the aim of assassinating the hated Tsar Alexander III. The terrorist group was not, however, well led or managed and were arrested by the police before they were able to attempt the assassination. Despite his family’s pleas to the Tsar for clemency Alexander was hanged in 1887 for his part in the conspiracy. The death of his brother had a great impact on the young Lenin, his family were ostracized as their friends did not want to be associated with a revolutionary family. Lenin himself was, shortly after, expelled from university in Kazan for inciting student riots.
He vowed that he would make people pay for his brother’s death Lenin was, many years later, able to revenge his brother’s death when he ordered the assassination of the Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, son and daughters, destroying the family who had caused his own so much pain. Lenin’s mother’s pleas for clemency had gone unheard prior to Alexander’s hanging so the pleas of the last of the Romanovs were ignored as the Tsar, his wife, his five children and some devoted servants were taken down into a basement and shot prior to being dismembered, burned in acid and buried in the local woods. Lenin’s revenge s complete, he had not only destroyed the family that had hurt his but had annihilated everything they had ever stood for and any hope they could possibly have for the future.
9. Lenin Was Not His Real Name
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was born in 1870 as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. As he grew up he became increasingly involved in the revolutionary movement of the late 1800s. Many of his revolutionary colleagues used pseudonyms in an attempt to protect their families and confuse the police and Tsarist authorities. He tried out a number of different pseudonyms before finding one that he liked, adopting the name Lenin inspired by the Siberian River Lena.
Under this new pseudonym he published a number of influential works and the revolutionary paper Iskra (Spark) which was published abroad and then smuggled into Russia.
8. Lenin was exiled for Revolutionary Activities by the Tsarist Authorities
After being kicked out of Kazan university it took Lenin until 1892 to complete his law degree and yb the 1890s he had moved to live in the Tsarist capital of St Petersburg where he represented peasants who struggled with a legal system that still had an incredible bias against the poor. Through his work Lenin became involved with other Marxists and in 1895h was arrested and sent to Siberia together with his wife Nadezhda. Lenin spent three years in exile in Siberia which was the perfect place to become more involved in revolutionary organizations. Upon his release he left Russia and moved to Munich so that he could continue his revolutionary activities unopposed by the Tsarist police.
Lenin returned to Russia in1903 in order to speak at the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labor Party with the aim of fermenting revolution and where he emerged as the leader of the Bolshevik faction (supporters of the proletariat) opposed to the Mensheviks who supported the rule of the bourgeoisie. A revolution started in 1905 when palace guards killed a delegation of people who were hoping to petition the Tsar. The nascent revolution petered out, however, much to Lenin’s frustration and he was forced, once again, to leave Russia in order to continue his revolutionary activities. The experience of 1905 persuaded Lenin that the use of extreme force was necessary in order to secure and advance the revolution.
The revolution of 1917 gave Lenin the chance to return. He fermented dissatisfaction with the provisional government and, in October, led a coup that installed him as leader of the country and gave him the opportunity to impose his Marxist beliefs on the largest nation on earth and parachuting it into a brutal civil war. He had spent 17 of his 47 years, the majority of his adult life and of the 20th century, away from Russia.
7. Lenin Wanted Russia To Lose WWI
While Lenin devoted his time abroad to working to support the proletariat of Russia he was anything but a patriot.
When Russia mobilized its armed forces and entered into the First World War every single political faction stood behind the Tsar and supported the country. Lenin, on the other hand, was convinced that the war would provide the catalyst (just as he Russo-Japanese War had provided the catalyst for the 1905 revolution) for the end of Tsarist rule. He instructed his Bolshevik party and its supporters to do all they could to undermine the war effort. It was, he instructed his followers, the perfect opportunity to turn the guns of the army, not on the Germans and Austrians but on the rulers of Russia.
Lenin aligned himself with the German’s who, seeing the opportunity to obtain peace on their eastern front, did all they could to support him. When the Tsar abdicated in 1917 Lenin rushed back to Russia and started to do all he could to undermine the Provisional Government aided by the German government who arranged safe and uninterrupted passage through war torn Europe. Lenin’s position was well known in Russia and many of his enemies called him a German Agent.
As soon as he became the leader of the Country he declared peace with Germany (the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was very pro-German and disastrous for Russia). Showing that Lenin was willing to side with whomever could give him the best deal he repudiated the treaty when the Germans lost to the allies in 1918.
6. Lenin Was Originally Interested In Taking Power Through Democracy
While Lenin had, since 1905, spoken in favor of the replacement of the ruing regime with a government of the proletariat not the bourgeoisie he was originally interested in obtaining power through democracy in order to achieve some level of legitimacy and to differentiate his rule from that of the autocratic tsars. As the years went by, however, Lenin started to reject the democratic process and his Bolshevik faction split from the Mensheviks (who supported a democratic change) in 1912.
Lenin had rushed back to Russia as soon as he could following the overthrow of the tsar. He arrived in April and immediately realized that the Bolsheviks were and always would be in a minority. He did everything he could to destabilize the Provisional Government. He inspired his followers by claiming that the first revolution had replaced the aristocracy with the bourgeoisie and now a second revolution was required to replace them with the proletariat. These actions resulted in the Provisional Government banning the Bolsheviks and Lenin fled to Finland. He returned a few months later after the Provisional Government had to rely on the support of the Petrograd Soviet to remain in power in the wake of a military coup. Lenin took control of the Petrograd Soviet and deposed the Provisional Government in October 1917.
One of the complaints the Bolsheviks had levied against the Provisional Government was their delay in calling the elections to the new Constituent Assembly. Following the October Revolution, therefore, they had to hold elections. These took place in November 1917 and the Bolsheviks, despite enjoying strong support in industrial areas or among the military, failed to gain more than ¼ of the seats. The Bolsheviks now did everything they could to delay the convocation of the assembly. It finally sat in January 1918 for one day only as, when delegates elected a chairman opposed to the Bolsheviks and refused to ratify the decrees of the Congress of Soviets Lenin arranged for the building to be blocked the next day, preventing the delegates from entering. Lenin announced that the soviets had taken all power unto themselves.
As Lenin controlled the Congress of Soviets he became the defacto leader of Soviet Russia. Lenin’s brush with democracy was over. It was never very likely to succeed in any event, his attitude was summed up by the slogan ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, ie he was only interested in democracy if the elected representatives came from his desired groups (which he, of course, did not).
5. Lenin Survived An Assassination Attempt in 1918
Through the events connected with the overthrow of the Constitutional Assembly Lenin and his Bolsheviks became increasingly unpopular with other revolutionary factions. He was also fighting a vicious civil war against the ‘whites’ – tsarist forces supported by the allies. His hold on Russia was, therefore, tenuous and there was a feeling amongst other revolutionary factions that the assassination of Lenin would destroy the Bolshevik faction entirely.
In 1918 the Bolsheviks banned a number of rival political parties. One of these was the popular Socialist Revolutionaries who had received good results in the Constituent Assembly elections and one of whose members had been elected President prior to the forced dissolution by the Bolsheviks. One of the SR members, Fanny Kaplan, decided to try to assassinate Lenin in order to prevent him causing more harm to the country.
She made her attempt in August 1918 at the Hammer and Sickle, a Moscow factory where Lenin was speaking. After the speech she walked up to him as he was leaving the building, calling out as though to ask him some questions, and then shot him three times. The bullets hit him in his lung and shoulder. Lenin was very badly injured and did not ever fully recover. It is posited that the shooting contributed to the strokes that subsequently killed him.
Kaplan was arrested and probably tortured by the Cheka (the Secret Police) but refused to name any co-conspirators. She was executed a few days later.
4. Following the Attempt Lenin Unleashed the Red Terror on Russia
The Bolsheviks had already shown, by their shutting down of the Constituent Assembly and their blatant grab for power, that they were willing to stop at nothing to advance their Leninist version of Marxism. Fanny Kaplan’s attempt on Lenin’s life underscored exactly how vulnerable their own position was and how many people wanted rid of Lenin and his Bolsheviks.
They therefore decided to use the assassination attempt as an excuse to unleash the ‘Red Terror’ a movement to destroy any enemies or potential enemies of the Bolsheviks and remove all opposition to their rule. It was to go further and be more brutal than anything done by the Tsarist regime they replaced. The full horror is encapsulated by the phrase, spoken by Lenin when instructing that the reprisals be carried out when he told Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka to ‘prepare for terror’ and to make his enemies ‘tremble’.
Immediately after the assassination attempt the Petrograd Soviet shot 500 bourgeois hostages as a reprisal measure. From then on the Cheka killed anyone who even looked as though they might pose a threat. They worked tirelessly, executing between 10 and 15,000 people in the two months after the assassination alone, most people received no trial or legal process of any sort and were simply summarily executed. The execution of one member of a family could be enough to seal the fate of everyone else.
Lenin and his secret police did not stop there. They required peasants to work together in collective farms and sell all surplus grain to the government at ridiculously low prices. Any who refused were branded as kulaks (wealthy peasants) and either executed them or sent them for slave labor. Peasants increasingly refused to sell their grain and the army was sent in to capture it for removal to the cities. The soldiers, caring little for the demands of agriculture, took even the seed grain with the result that the country, riven by a terrible civil war, was also plunged into a (thoroughly avoidable) famine which killed between 3 and 10 million people.
3. Lenin Was A Pragmatic Realist
In his youth Lenin identified as a Marxist yet as he progressed on his path towards power he showed that he was willing to make a number of pragmatic decisions and even change his position if it would help him maintain power. Several examples from his life show how he was willing to subsume his ideologies to support the reality of power.
He was realistic enough to understand that he needed to support the calls for elections to the Constituent Assembly and then, when it no longer suited his aims, to get rid of it in favor of granting power to the Soviets. He signed a (disastrous) peace-treaty with Germany in order to free up Russian soldiers to further the revolution and destroy the White Russian (Tsarist) forces and later repudiated the treaty when Germany no longer posed a threat to Russia.
While the Civil War and Red Terror were raging Lenin imposed his favored form of communism, imposing collective farming countryside, devaluing the currency, commandeering grain and drafting workers into the military to perform forced labor. Compulsory labor, far from being seen as the oppression of the poor by a privileged minority was touted as a benefit for the working class. Compulsory labor under capitalism was the ‘enslavement of the working class’ the same system under the revolution was ‘the self-organization of the working class’.
This War Communism proved so disastrous that it led to a terrible famine (see above), Lenin had no qualms about changing his position and promoting the New Economic Policy designed to permit a limited return to a free market and revitalize the Russian Economy.
2. Lenin Did Not Trust Stalin
Following Lenin’s death in 1924 there was a struggle for the succession which was, eventually, won by Stalin. Stalin worked hard to paint himself as a great friend and supporter of Lenin during his lifetime and arranged for the photographic and literary record to be altered to reflect this.
Lenin had, however, become increasingly unhappy with the creeping bureaucratization of the Soviet Government and felt that Stalin, who as General Secretary of the Communist Party, had become incredibly powerful, was responsible for this. He set out his feelings, in writing, in 1923 in a letter that has become known as his ‘testament’ which he entrusted to his wife. Lenin wrote that he found Stalin rude, rough and lacking in finesse. He advised other leading members of the party to work together to depose him. Trotsky and Zinoviev failed to listen to the advice and suppressed the Testament in order to retain a hold on power. Within a few short years Stalin had arranged for their condemnation and death and ruled Russia alone.
1. Lenin’s Body Was Embalmed And Is Still On View Today
Lenin died of a stroke on 21 January and the regime did everything possible to celebrate his contribution to the new Russia and commemorate his memory. Petrograd was immediately renamed Leningrad in his honor and his body was embalmed so that it could be put on show. (It is interesting that this also played into an old Orthodox Christian tradition that the body of a true saint does not decay.
The body was sent to Moscow and people lined the railway line to pay their last respects. Despite the freezing cold over a million people travelled from across Russia to queue to see the body. Orthodox tradition held that there was a mourning period of 40 days and the decision was made to display his body to the population for that period. It proved so popular that the decision was made to put his body on display permanently in a purpose built mausoleum in Red Square.
Lenin’s embalming started a tradition amongst other similarly autocratic leaders; Chairman Mao of China and Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung of Korea were embalmed for posterity as was Eva Peron (she was only displayed for 2 years before being stuffed in a filing cabinet), even Stalin was embalmed although he was put in the wall of the Kremlin rather than in his own mausoleum. Embalming is, however, a difficult process to get right. Some former leaders such as Klement Gottwald of Czechoslovakia have had to be removed from display as they started to decompose.
Lenin is treated every few years to ensure that his body stays complete but he looks ever less realistic as the years go by. Since the overthrow of Communism, Lenin’s body has been seen as an increasing anachronism. His family were never in favor of his body being left on permanent display and more and more ordinary Russian’s feel that the time has come to rebury him. The current government has not, however, made any moves to change the status quo. Following some recent building and maintenance works on Red Square Lenin is once again on view to the public.
A ruthless and pragmatic leader, Lenin revenged himself of the death of his brother by annihilating all vestiges of the regime that killed him. He unleashed the Red Terror on his opponents, allowing his trusted lieutenants to execute people without trial. His hardnosed application of brutal economic policies that were later termed ‘war communism’ led to one of the worst famines of the 20th century. The fact that Russia and other parts of the world endured harsher and worse leaders over the course of the 20th century should not dull our eyes to the (genius) monster he truly was.