Born Vladimir Ilich Ulanov in 1870, Lenin was the founder of the Russian Communist Party, leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and the architect, builder, and first head of the Soviet Union.
Lenin spent the years leading up to the 1917 revolution in exile, within Russia and abroad. The Bolshevik's quickly consolidated power; privatizing all aspects of the Soviet economy, cracking down on dissent through the Cheka, or secret police and instituting the Red Terror, aimed at destroying monarchist and anti-Bolshevik symapthizers during the Russian Civil War. Despite a series of strokes in his final years, Lenin attempted to shape the future of the Soviet Union, warning against the unchecked power of party members, including Joseph Stalin. His warnings went unheeded, and Stalin emerged victorious from the protracted power struggle following Lenin's 1924 death.
More to Explore
In 1917, the Russian Revolution led to the destruction of the imperial government, paving the way for the Bolsheviks' rise to power and the eventual formation of the Soviet Union.
Communist dictator Joseph Stalin led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and employed brutal tactics that resulted in the deaths of millions.
From 1914 to 1918, the Central Powers faced off against the Allied Powers in a devastating international conflict that later become known as World War I.
Widely considered one of the most influential and controversial political figures of the 20th century, Vladimir Lenin engineered the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 and later took over as the first leader of the newly formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
He was born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov on April 10, 1870, in Simbirsk, which was later renamed Ulyanovsk in his honor. He later adopted the last name Lenin in 1901 while doing underground party work. His family was well-educated, and Lenin, the third of six children, was close to his parents and siblings.
School was a central part of Lenin’s childhood. His parents, both educated and highly cultured, invoked a passion for learning in their children, especially Vladimir. A voracious reader, Lenin went on to finish first in his high school class, showing a particular gift for Latin and Greek.
But not all of life was easy for Lenin and his family. Two situations in particular shaped his life. The first came when Lenin was a boy and his father, an inspector of schools, was threatened with early retirement by a suspicious government nervous about the influence public school had on Russian society.
The more significant and more tragic situation came in 1887, when Lenin’s older brother, Aleksandr, a university student at the time, was arrested and executed for being a part of a group planning to assassinate Emperor Alexander III. With his father already dead, Lenin now became the man of the family.
Aleksandr’s involvement in oppositional politics was not an isolated incident in Lenin’s family. In fact, all of Lenin’s siblings would take part to some degree in revolutionary activities.
The year of his brother’s execution, Lenin enrolled at Kazan University to study law. His time there was cut short, however, when, during his first term, he was expelled for taking part in a student demonstration.
Exiled to his grandfather’s estate in the village of Kokushkino, Lenin took up residence with his sister Anna, whom police had ordered to live there as a result of her own suspicious activities.
There, Lenin immersed himself in a host of radical literature, including the novel What Is To Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, which tells the tale of a character named Rakhmetov, who carries a single-minded devotion to revolutionary politics. Lenin also soaked up the writing of Karl Marx, the German philosopher whose famous book Das Kapital would have a huge impact on Lenin’s thinking. In January 1889, Lenin declared himself a Marxist.
Eventually, Lenin received his law degree, finishing his schoolwork in 1892. He moved to the city of Samara, where his client base was largely composed of Russian peasants. Their struggles against what Lenin saw as a class-biased legal system only reinforced his Marxist beliefs.
In time, Lenin focused more of his energy on revolutionary politics. He left Samara in the mid-1890s for a new life in St. Petersburg, the Russian capital atthe time. There, Lenin connected with other like-minded Marxists and began to take an increasingly active role in their activities.
The work did not go unnoticed, and in December 1895 Lenin and several other Marxist leaders were arrested. Lenin was exiled to Siberia for three years. His fiancée and future wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, joined him.
Following his release from exile and then a stint in Munich, where Lenin and others co-founded a newspaper, Iskra, to unify Russian and European Marxists, he returned to St. Petersburg and stepped up his leadership role in the revolutionary movement.
At the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903, a forceful Lenin argued for a streamlined party leadership community, one that would lead a network of lower party organizations and their workers. “Give us an organization of revolutionaries,” Lenin said, “and we will overturn Russia!”
Fact Check We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!
This Day in History
Star Wars opens, 1977
On this day in 1977, Memorial Day weekend opens with an intergalactic bang as the first of George Lucas' blockbuster Star Wars movies hits American…
Keep up with the latest History shows, online features, special offers and more.Sign up