On January 21, 1924, Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin died at age 53 after suffering a series of strokes. Ninety years later, explore nine surprising facts about his tumultuous life, in which he catalyzed revolution, civil war, political crackdowns and radical redistributions of land and wealth.
1. Lenin’s brother was hanged for plotting to kill the czar.
Lenin’s older brother, Alexander, a university zoology student, was arrested in March 1887 for participating in a bombing plot to assassinate Czar Alexander III. Some of his co-conspirators begged for clemency and therefore had their sentences reduced. But Alexander initially refused to take that route, believing it would be “insincere.” Eventually, he sent an unrepentant letter to the czar in which he requested mercy for the sake of his mother. “[Her] health has been strongly shaken in recent days, and if my death sentence is carried out it will put her life in most serious peril,” Alexander wrote. The plea went unheeded, and he was hanged that May.
2. Lenin was kicked out of college.
In August 1887, just a few months after his brother’s death, 17-year-old Lenin entered Kazan University to study law. He was expelled that December, however, for taking part in a student protest. Though numerous attempts at readmission failed, he later enrolled as an external student at St. Petersburg University. Lenin completed his education there in 1891 and then briefly labored as a defense attorney. By that time, he had become enthralled by the work of famed communist thinker Karl Marx.
3. Lenin was exiled to Siberia for three years.
Lenin published his first Marxist essay in 1894, and the following year he traveled to France, Germany and Switzerland in order to meet with like-minded revolutionaries. Upon returning to Russia, he was arrested while working on the inaugural issue of a Marxist newspaper. He then spent over a year in jail prior to being sent off to Siberia, where he married a fellow exile and purportedly passed the time taking long walks, writing, hunting and swimming. Following the completion of his sentence in 1900, Lenin received government permission to leave the country. He remained abroad for most of the next 17 years, coming back only briefly during a failed revolutionary uprising in 1905.
4. Lenin was not his real name.
Born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Lenin tried out a number of pseudonyms, including “K. Tulin” and “Petrov,” prior to settling on “Lenin” by 1902. Historians believe it may have been a reference to the Lena River in Siberia. Other Russian revolutionaries likewise used pseudonyms, in part to confuse the authorities. Joseph Stalin’s birth name, for example, was Iosif Dzhugashvili, and Leon Trotsky’s was Lev Bronshtein.
5. Lenin hoped Russia would lose World War I.
When World War I broke out in 1914, every political faction in Russia supported the war effort except for Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who correctly predicted that defeat would bring about the czar’s downfall. Lenin even accepted financial assistance from Germany, one of Russia’s enemies in the conflict. In March 1917, with inflation rampant, food supplies low and the army in tatters, Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. A sealed railroad car provided by Germany brought Lenin back to Russia the following month. That November, he engineered a new revolution, seizing power from the provisional government that had been in place since the czar’s collapse. On his first day in office, his regime abolished private landownership and began truce talks with the Germans. Despite agreeing to give up a huge chunk of territory in Finland, Ukraine, the three Baltic states and elsewhere in exchange for peace, the Bolsheviks annulled the deal once Germany surrendered to the Allied powers in November 1918. A few years later, much of that land was then incorporated into the newly formed Soviet Union.
6. Lenin quickly did away with an experiment in democracy.
Before taking power, Lenin spoke in favor of a popularly elected Constituent Assembly that would hash out a post-revolutionary form of government. But he quickly changed his tune after the Bolsheviks won only a quarter of the seats in November 1917 elections. When the assembly convened the following January in St. Petersburg’s Tauride Palace, the Bolshevik delegates attempted to disrupt the proceedings with a cacophony of noise. They then walked out after losing a vote to limit the assembly’s authority. After over 12 hours of deliberations, in which, among other things, they declared Russia a republic, the remaining delegates adjourned for the night. Before they could meet again, Lenin dissolved the body and posted guards outside the meeting hall. In so doing, he claimed to be carrying out the “will of the people.” Not long afterward, Lenin banned all political parties except his own, strictly censored the press and ruled, in his own words, “based directly upon force, and unrestricted by any laws.”
7. Lenin succeeded where his brother had failed.
As civil war raged between Lenin’s supporters and opponents, Czar Nicholas II and his family were awakened on the night of July 16, 1918, and instructed to dress quickly. Their captors in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, purportedly told them that the anti-Bolshevik White Army was closing in, and that they needed to move to a safer location. Instead, however, the czar, his wife, their five children and four servants were whisked into a basement, where a firing squad burst in and gunned them all down. According to the Bolsheviks, local government officials in Yekaterinburg made the decision to kill the royal family without consulting their superiors. Yet this version of events has not gone unchallenged. Historians who doubt Lenin’s innocence point, among other things, to an entry in Trotsky’s diary, in which he recalled a top Bolshevik official telling him: “[Lenin] believed that we shouldn’t leave the Whites a live banner to rally around.” In addition to the czar, the Bolsheviks executed thousands of other perceived political opponents without trial during the civil war, particularly after an August 1918 assassination attempt left Lenin with bullet wounds in his neck and shoulder. The White Army also committed many atrocities.
8. Lenin began to harbor serious doubts about Stalin.
Stalin, a close member of Lenin’s inner circle, became general secretary of the Communist Party in April 1922. Soon after, Lenin began to regret that appointment. In a letter to Russia’s congress, penned in December 1922 and January 1923 but not read until after his death, he described Stalin as “too rude.” “This failing … becomes intolerable in the office of general secretary,” he wrote, adding that Stalin should be replaced with someone “more patient, more loyal, more respectful and more attentive to his comrades, less capricious and so on.” In a separate letter, Lenin accused Stalin of having “the gall to call my wife to the telephone and abuse her.” Around that time, however, Lenin suffered a third stroke that left him essentially unable to speak. Stalin went on to win a vicious power struggle to succeed Lenin and become one of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators.
9. Lenin was mummified following his death.
Thousands upon thousands of mourners streamed past Lenin’s exposed coffin at his funeral, which took place a day after St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad in his honor. A months-long embalming process then transpired, followed by the construction of a permanent mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. Lenin’s mummified body has been on display there ever since, except for a four-year period during World War II when it was moved to Siberia.