4 minute read

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin founded the Russian Communist party and led the 1917 Russian Revolution, which placed the Bolshevik party in charge of the government. The establishment of the Soviet Union can be traced to Lenin's study of revolution and the ruthless imposition of a one-party state based on Lenin's interpretation of Marxism. The Russian Revolution also profoundly affected U.S. society and politics.

Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov on April 22, 1870, in Simbirsk, a town on the Volga River. The son of a government official, Lenin was a bright student. He entered Kazan University at Kazan in 1887. That same year his brother Alexander Ulyanov was hanged for taking part in an unsuccessful plot to kill Czar Alexander III, of Russia. Lenin was deeply influenced by his brother's actions. Within three months, he was expelled from school for protesting the lack of freedom in the university. He moved to St. Petersburg and entered St. Petersburg University, from which he graduated with a law degree in 1891.

During his academic period, Lenin studied the works of KARL MARX and his political philosophy, Marxism. In 1893 Lenin joined the Social Democratic group, which believed in Marxist principles. A gifted writer and speaker, Lenin soon traveled to Western Europe to meet with other Marxists. He was arrested by the czar's police in 1896 for revolutionary activities and sent into Siberian exile in 1897. During his exile Lenin wrote one of his most important works, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899).

Lenin was allowed to leave Russia in 1900. He traveled to Germany, where he began writing for a revolutionary newspaper called Zarya (Dawn), which was smuggled into Russia. He took the pen name Lenin at this time, hoping to confuse the police. In 1902 he wrote what is considered a masterpiece of revolutionary organization, What Is to Be Done? In this work Lenin advocated the use of a highly disciplined party of professional revolutionaries to lead the masses in an uprising against czarist Russia. This revolutionary party would serve as the "vanguard of the proletariat." It would also assume supreme control during this revolutionary period.

Disputes within Russian revolutionary circles over Lenin's ideas led to a split in 1903 between Lenin's Bolshevik party and the Menshevik party, which favored moderation. Bolsheviks followed Lenin's instructions to commit acts of TERRORISM within Russia. They also worked hard to organize TRADE UNION members and Russian sailors and soldiers.

During most of WORLD WAR I, Lenin stayed in Switzerland. When revolution broke out in Russia in March 1917, Lenin returned with the aid of Germany, which hoped he would gain power and agree to a peace treaty. Accused of being a German agent by the provisional government, Lenin fled to Finland. He returned to Russia secretly in October 1917 and led the October Revolution, which toppled the provisional government and placed the Bolsheviks in charge.

Once in power Lenin moved quickly to eliminate all political opposition. He organized the Red Army (named after the color of the flag of the world Communist movement). The Red Army fought a civil war with the Whites, who opposed one-party and one-man rule by Lenin. The civil war ended in 1922, with the defeat of the White Army. During this period the U.S. government supported the Whites, fearing that the Russian Revolution was a prelude to further Communist revolutions in Europe. This fear seemed confirmed in 1919 when Lenin formed the Communist International to export revolution to the rest of the world.

In 1919 and 1920, U.S. anxiety about the Russian Revolution and the dictatorship of Lenin produced a national hysteria that has come to be known as the first RED SCARE. President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general A. MITCHELL PALMER created an antiradicalism unit and appointed J. EDGAR HOOVER to run it. In late 1919 and early 1920, Palmer raided suspected revolutionaries and subversives. Most of these suspects were not U.S. citizens. The largest "Palmer raid" occurred on January 2, 1920, when six thousand people were arrested. Palmer's agents abused the constitutional rights of these people, searching homes without warrants, holding individuals without giving specific charges, and refusing access to legal counsel. Many ALIENS were deported because of their radical political views.

Lenin's revolutionary zeal was tempered by the need to defeat the Whites and to establish a national government in the wake of the loss of lives and resources in World War I. Faced with economic ruin, Lenin instituted in March 1921 his New Economic Policy. This policy abandoned many socialist measures and permitted the growth of small businesses. Lenin also tried to get the United States and Europe to invest in the Soviet Union, but was refused because the Soviets had repudiated all foreign debts. The United States did, however, through its Commission for Relief, provide large amounts of food that may have helped save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Lenin's last years were marked by failing health and a concern about the direction of the Communist party and the Soviet Union. He worried about the increasing strength of the political bureaucracy and about Joseph Stalin's

Vladimir Lenin.

plottings to succeed him. In May 1922 he suffered a stroke, then returned to work against his doctor's advice. He suffered additional strokes in November 1922 and March 1923, the last one destroying his ability to speak clearly. Lenin died January 24, 1924, physically unable to appoint his successor. His body was preserved using special chemicals and placed in a tomb on Red Square in Moscow.


Lenin, Vladimir. 1993. The State and Revolution. New York: Penguin.

Service, Robert. 2000. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.



Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Legislative Veto to Lloyd's