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Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

1870 - 1924

Driven by ideological zeal, he reshaped Russia and made communism into a potent global force
By DAVID REMNICK for Time Magazine


Not long after the Bolsheviks had seized power in 1917, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin filled out a bureaucratic questionnaire. For occupation, he wrote "man of letters." So it was that a son of the Russian intelligentsia, a radical straight from the pages of Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed, became the author of mass terror and the first concentration camps ever built on the European Continent.

Lenin was the initiator of the central drama — the tragedy — of our era, the rise of totalitarian states. A bookish man with a scholar's habits and a general's tactical instincts, Lenin introduced to the 20th century the practice of taking an all-embracing ideology and imposing it on an entire society rapidly and mercilessly; he created a regime that erased politics, erased historical memory, erased opposition. In his short career in power, from 1917 until his death in 1924, Lenin created a model not merely for his successor, Stalin, but for Mao, for Hitler, for Pol Pot.

And while in this way Lenin may be the central actor who begins the 20th century, he is the least knowable of characters. As a boy growing up in Simbirsk, Lenin distinguished himself in Latin and Greek. The signal event of his youth — the event that radicalized him — came in 1887, when his eldest brother Alexander, a student at the University of St. Petersburg, was hanged for conspiring to help assassinate Czar Alexander III. As a lawyer, Lenin became increasingly involved in radical politics, and after completing a three-year term of Siberian exile, he began his rise as the leading communist theorist, tactician and party organizer.

In his personal relations with colleagues, family and friends, Lenin was relatively open and generous. Unlike many tyrants, he did not crave a tyrant's riches. Even when we strip Lenin of the cult that was created all around him after his death, when we strip away the myths of his "superhuman kindness," he remains a peculiarly modest figure who wore a shabby waistcoat, worked 16-hour days and read extensively. (By contrast, Stalin did not know that the Netherlands and Holland were the same country, and no one in the Kremlin inner circle was brave enough to set him straight.)

Before he became the general of the revolution, Lenin was its pedant, the journalist-scholar who married Marxist theory to an incisive analysis of insurrectionist tactics. His theories of what society ought to be and how that ideal must be achieved were the products of thousands of hours spent reading.

"The incomprehensibility of Lenin is precisely this all-consuming intellectuality — the fact that from his calculations, from his neat pen, flowed seas of blood, whereas by nature this was not an evil person," writes Andrei Sinyavsky, one of the key dissidents of the 1960s. "On the contrary, Vladimir Ilyich was a rather kind person whose cruelty was stipulated by science and incontrovertible historical laws. As were his love of power and his political intolerance."

For all his learning, Lenin began the Bolshevik tradition of waging war on intellectual dissidents — of exiling, imprisoning and executing thinkers and artists who dared oppose the regime. He was a "man of letters" of a particular sort. In the years before and after the October 1917 coup, Lenin was the avatar of a group of radical intellectuals who sought a revolution that did not merely attempt to redress the economic balances under czarism. Instead, Lenin made a perverse reading of the Enlightenment view of man as modeling clay and sought to create a new model of human nature and behavior through social engineering of the most radical kind.

"Bolshevism was the most audacious attempt in history to subject the entire life of a country to a master plan," writes Richard Pipes at the end of his two-volume history of the revolution. "It sought to sweep aside as useless rubbish the wisdom that mankind had accumulated over millennia. In that sense, it was a unique effort to apply science to human affairs: and it was pursued with the zeal characteristic of the breed of intellectuals who regard resistance to their ideas as proof that they are sound."

It is, perhaps, impossible to calculate just how many tens of millions of murders "flowed" from Leninism. Certainly Stalin differed from Lenin in the length of his time as dictator — some 25 years to Lenin's six — and he also had the advantage of greater technology. As a result, Stalin's murderous statistics are superior to Lenin's. And yet Lenin contributed so very much.

In some scholarly circles in the West, Stalin was seen as an "aberration," a tyrant who perverted Lenin's intentions at the end of Lenin's life. But as more and more evidence of Lenin's cruelty emerged from the archives, that notion of the "good Lenin" and the "bad Stalin" became an academic joke. Very few of Stalin's policies were without roots in Leninism: it was Lenin who built the first camps; Lenin who set off artificial famine as a political weapon; Lenin who disbanded the last vestige of democratic government, the Constituent Assembly, and devised the Communist Party as the apex of a totalitarian structure; Lenin who first waged war on the intelligentsia and on religious believers, wiping out any traces of civil liberty and a free press.

Since the Soviet archives became public, we have been able to read the extent of Lenin's cruelty, the depths of its vehemence. Here he is in 1918, in a letter instructing Bolshevik leaders to attack peasant leaders who did not accept the revolution: "Comrades! ... Hang (hang without fail, so that people will see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers ... Do it in such a way that ... for hundreds of versts around, the people will see, tremble, know, shout: 'They are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucker kulaks' ... Yours, Lenin."

Among those artists and writers who survived the revolution and its aftermath, many wrote paeans to Lenin's intelligence that sound like nothing so much as religious songs of praise. The poet Mayakovsky would write, "Then over the world loomed/ Lenin of the enormous head." And later, the prose writer Yuri Olesha would say, "Now I live in an explained world. I understand the causes. I am filled with a feeling of enormous gratitude, expressible only in music, when I think of those who died to make the world explained."

By the Brezhnev era, Lenin's dream state had devolved into a corrupt and failing dictatorship. Only the Lenin cult persisted. The ubiquitous Lenin was a symbol of the repressive society itself. Joseph Brodsky, the great Russian poet of the late 20th century, began to hate Lenin at about the time he was in the first grade, "not so much because of his political philosophy or practice ... but because of the omnipresent images which plagued almost every textbook, every class wall, postage stamps, money, and what not, depicting the man at various ages and stages of his life ... This face in some ways haunts every Russian and suggests some sort of standard for human appearance because it is utterly lacking in character ... coming to ignore those pictures was my first lesson in switching off, my first attempt at estrangement."

When Mikhail Gorbachev instituted his policy of glasnost in the late 1980s, the Communist Party tried to practice a policy of regulated criticism. The goal was to "de-Stalinize" the Soviet Union, to resume Khrushchev's liberalization in the late 1950s. But eventually, glasnost led to the image of Lenin, not least with the publication of Vassily Grossman's Forever Flowing, a novel that dared compare Lenin's cruelty to Hitler's. While he was in office, Gorbachev always called himself a "confirmed Leninist"; it was only years later when he too--the last General Secretary of the Communist Party--admitted, "I can only say that cruelty was the main problem with Lenin."

After the collapse of the coup in August 1991, the people of Leningrad voted to call their city St. Petersburg once more. When Brodsky, who had been exiled from the city in 1964, was asked about the news, he smiled and said, "Better to have named it for a saint than a devil."



(b. Simbirsk, Russia, 22 Apr. 1870; d. Gorki, near Moscow, 21 Jan. 1924) Founder and leader of the Bolshevik Party, chair of Council of People's Commissars 1917 – 24 Vladimir Ul'yanov came from a provincial middle-class family of mixed ancestry (Russian-Kalmyk and Jewish-German), his father being a school inspector (hence in the minor nobility). Soon after his father's death in 1886 Lenin's elder brother Alexander, a student, was hanged for participating in a plot by a revolutionary populist group to assassinate Alexander III. This event made a deep impression on the younger Ul'yanov and, after passing his final school exams with distinction, he too joined a populist group when he began studying at Kazan University, for which he was rusticated. His mother bought an estate in Samara province, but there too he joined a populist group, although he became increasingly interested in Marxism. He completed a first class degree in law at St Petersburg University as an external student in 1891. After a period as an assistant advocate in Samara he moved in 1893 to St Petersburg, where he joined the Marxists. In 1895 he was sent to Geneva to make contact with Plekhanov's group. Soon after he returned he was imprisoned and in 1897 sentenced to Siberian exile. While in Siberia he married Nadezhda Krupskaya and completed, in 1899, his first major work The Development of Capitalism in Russia in which he argued that Russia had irrevocably embarked on the capitalist road and rejected populism (though his ideas on revolutionary organization remained influenced by it). After his release in 1900 he joined Plekhanov in Switzerland and, now using the pseudonym Lenin, with him launched the newspaper Iskra ("The Spark"), in which they attacked the "Economists" (supporters of incremental reform). In 1902 Lenin published his notorious pamphlet What is to be done? in which he argued that a successful revolutionary party in Russian conditions had to be a highly centralized and conspiratorial organization of "professional revolutionaries" to be an effective vanguard of the workers who would not spontaneously develop revolutionary consciousness. This novel view of the Marxist Party provoked considerable opposition. At the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP, held in Brussels and London in 1903, Martov's more moderate views on the party won the day, but Lenin's group, with the support of Plekhanov, won the elections to the central party bodies. Lenin termed his group the "Majoritarians" (Bolsheviki) and Martov's group "Minoritarians" (Mensheviki) and increasingly treated his group as the real party.

The revolutionary events of 1905 in Russia caught Lenin unawares, like most other exiled socialists, and he returned to Russia only in November. In his work Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution he argued that the workers would have to take a leading role in the bourgeois revolution, co-operating with revolutionary elements in the peasantry. This latter point was unusual in Marxist thinking, perhaps showing underlying populist influence on Lenin. He made some moves towards reconciliation with the Mensheviks, putting forward the idea of "democratic centralism", in which his 1902 model of the party was modified by emphasis on the democratic electivity and accountability of the leadership. But, once in exile again in 1907, he resumed his policy of promoting schisms, designed to strengthen the revolutionary vanguard. Differences with the Mensheviks continued to widen, now reflecting disagreement on the whole approach to revolution, and the split became final in 1912. He spent the war years mainly in Switzerland, arguing for turning the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war. In Imperialism (written 1916) he argued that the capitalist powers were driven into territorial imperialism by capital export and used the "super-profits" derived from colonial exploitation to bribe the working class into quiescence by wage increases and social benefits, but that Russia, though less developed, could be the "weakest link" from which general revolution might develop.

Lenin, like other socialists, was surprised by the February Revolution in Russia and the consequent abdication of the Tsar. He obtained German permission to travel across Germany in a sealed train to Russia (where the Germans hoped his anti-war propaganda would help undermine the Russian war effort). Arriving in Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been renamed) in April 1917, he brought out his April Theses in which he disconcerted the more gradualist domestic Bolsheviks by urging non-cooperation with the Provisional Government, rejection of any participation in the war, and active propaganda work in the soviets to achieve a Bolshevik-dominated soviet government which would create a revolutionary state. It took some months before these tactics paid off, but gradually the effectiveness of Bolshevik propaganda (with slogans like "Bread", "Peace", "Land") combined with the ineffectiveness of the provisional government and its continuance of the war compromised the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries who took part in it and increased Bolshevik support in the Soviets. After a near catastrophic premature uprising in July (as a result of which Lenin was forced to go into hiding in Finland) Bolshevik fortunes rose again because of their role in foiling Kornilov's attempted coup in August. In his work The State and Revolution, which appeared in the summer of 1917, Lenin argued that the bourgeois state had to be smashed and a "dictatorship of the proletariat" established which would move rapidly to create a new order, though this was not considered an immediate prospect. However, by October the popular revolutionary mood was intensifying, the Bolsheviks gained majorities in many of the town and military soviets, and Trotsky and his group had come over to the Bolsheviks. Lenin returned on 10 October and urged an immediate armed uprising against the provisional government. Masterminded by Trotsky, the seizure of power was effected on the night of 25 – 6 October in the name of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, to which Lenin announced the setting up of a Council of People's Commissars, led by himself. However, contrary to the expectations of many, Lenin refused to share power with other socialists, though a few left-wing socialist revolutionaries were given minor posts. Some revolutionary decrees were quickly issued: the Decree on Peace withdrew Russia from the war; the Decree on Land sanctioned the peasant takeover of the estates; other decrees separated church and state and established workers' control in the factories (soon to be reversed); the armed forces were disbanded and a voluntary militia established. However, opposition soon made itself felt and Lenin was forced in December to create the Cheka, a secret police force, and to place "temporary" bans on non-Bolshevik newspapers and parties. Elections were held for the Constituent Assembly on universal suffrage in November, in which the Bolsheviks gained 24 per cent of the votes and the Socialist Revolutionaries 40 per cent. When the Assembly met in January and voiced strong criticisms of the Bolshevik government, it was not allowed to reconvene, an important symbolic act in the creation of the one-party state. In March 1918 Lenin was forced to sign the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a separate peace with Germany and Austria, ceding huge amounts of territory, including the Ukraine. The Left SRs then resigned from the government and started resistance, soon afterwards foreign forces intervened and the civil war started. There developed a highly authoritarian and centralized system of rule known as "War Communism": all industrial enterprises were nationalized, all non-Bolshevik activity treated as counter-revolution, the economy run by central command, and military and civilian conscription employed. By 1920 the war was over, but with the economy in a state of collapse and millions dead. Following Trotsky's suggestion, Lenin introduced in March 1921 the New Economic Policy, a "breathing-space", though one that he thought could last for "a generation", involving denationalization of small-scale enterprises and restoration of an agricultural market. At the same time political discipline was increased with a ban on factional activity in the party and the maintenance of bans on non-Bolshevik parties and media. This "tactical retreat" rapidly revived the economy. But Lenin's health was now bad: after surviving an assassination attempt in 1918 he had his first stroke in 1921 and was more or less incapacitated from 1922. His last struggles were against the rising tide of bureaucracy (but his solution was a bureaucratic one — still more committees, like Rabkrin) and to prevent Stalin gaining power after his death (but his recommendation for Stalin's removal as General Secretary was suppressed). He died at the age of 53 in January 1924, his weak constitution broken by overwork.

Lenin had been obsessed with achieving socialist revolution in Russia, for which end he considered any means justified, including terror and deceit, and did not appreciate the long-term dangers of such methods. His emphasis on central direction and the party's vanguard role ("We know best what's good for you") never changed, despite the broadening of party membership, and produced the dangers of "substitutism" about which Trotsky warned. Once revolution was achieved he seemed trapped in short-term tactical changes, unclear about long-term strategy. Undoubtedly an outstanding political leader whose personal contribution changed the face of the twentieth century, his dogmatism and ruthlessness, even though partly compensated by approachability and rejection of hero-worship, provided a precedent for the excesses of Stalin.


The Russian statesman Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924) was the creator of the Bolshevik party, the Soviet state, and the Third International. He was a successful revolutionary leader and an important contributor to revolutionary socialist theory.

Few events have shaped contemporary history as profoundly as the Russian Revolution and the Communist revolutions that followed it. Each one of them was made in the name of V. I. Lenin, his doctrines, and his political practices. Contemporary thinking about world affairs has been greatly influenced by Lenin's impetus and contributions. From Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points to today's preoccupation with wars of national liberation, imperialism, and decolonization, many important issues of contemporary social science were first raised or disseminated by Lenin; even some of the terms he used have entered into everyone's vocabulary. The very opposition to Lenin often takes Leninist forms.

Formative Years

V. I. Lenin was born in Simbirsk (today Ulianovsk) on April 10 (Old Style), 1870. His real family name was Ulianov, and his father, Ilia Nikolaevich Ulianov, was a high official in the czarist educational bureaucracy who had risen into the nobility. Vladimir received the conventional education given to the sons of the Russian upper class but turned into a radical dissenter. One impetus to his conversion doubtless was the execution by hanging of his older brother Alexander in 1887; Alexander and a few associates had conspired to assassinate the Emperor. Lenin graduated from secondary school with high honors, enrolled at Kazan University, but was expelled after participating in a demonstration. He retired to the family estate but was permitted to continue his studies in absentia. He obtained a law degree in 1891.

When, in 1893, he moved to St. Petersburg, Lenin was already a Marxist and a revolutionary by profession, joining like-minded intellectuals in study groups, writing polemical pamphlets and articles, and seeking to organize workers. The St. Petersburg Union for the Struggle for the Liberation of Labor, which Lenin helped create, was one of the important nuclei of the Russian Marxist movement. The most important work from this period is a lengthy pamphlet, "What Are the 'Friends of the People,' and How Do They Fight against Social-Democracy?" In it Lenin presents the essentials of his entire outlook.

In 1897 Lenin was arrested, spent some months in jail, and was finally sentenced to 3 years of exile in the Siberian village of Shushenskoe. He was joined there by a fellow Marxist, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, whom he married in 1898. In his Siberian exile he produced a major study of the Russian economy, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, in which he sought to demonstrate that, despite its backwardness, the economy of his country had definitely transformed itself into a capitalist one. If Lenin had produced nothing else than this learned though controversial work, he would today be known as one of the leading Russian economists of his period.

Emigration to Europe

Not long after his release from Siberia in the summer of 1900, Lenin moved to Europe, where he spent most of the next 17 years, moving from one country to another at frequent intervals, periods of feverish activity alternating with those of total frustration. His first step was to join the editorial board of Iskra (>The Spark), then the central newspaper of Russian Marxism, where he served together with the top leaders of the movement. After parting from Iskra, he edited a succession of papers of his own and contributed to other socialist journals. His journalistic activity was closely linked with organizational work, partly because the underground organizational network within Russia to some extent revolved around the distribution of clandestine literature.

Organizational activity, in turn, was linked with the selection and training of personnel. For some time Lenin conducted a training school for Russian revolutionaries at Longjumeau, a suburb of Paris. A perennial problem was that of financing the movement and its leaders' activities in their European exile. Lenin personally could usually depend on financial support from his mother; but her pension could not pay for his political activities. Much of the early history of Russian Marxism can be understood only in the light of these pressing money problems.

His Thought

A Marxist movement had developed in Russia only during the last decade of the 19th century as a response to the rapid growth of industry, urban centres, and a proletariat. Its first intellectual spokesmen were people who had turned away from populism (narodnichestvo), which they regarded as a failure. Instead of relying on the peasantry, they placed their hopes on the workers as the revolutionary class. Rejecting the village socialism preached by the Narodniks, they opted for industrialization, modernization, and Westernization. Their immediate aim they declared to be a bourgeois revolution which would transform Russia into a democratic republic.

In accepting this revolutionary scenario, Lenin added the important proviso that hegemony in the coming bourgeois revolution should remain with the proletariat as the most consistently revolutionary of all classes.

At the same time, Lenin, more than most Marxists, made a clear distinction between the workers' movement, on the one hand, and the theoretical contribution to be made by intellectuals, on the other. Of the two, he considered the theoretical contribution the more important, the workers' movement being a merely spontaneous reaction to capitalist exploitation, whereas theory was an expression of consciousness, meaning science and rationality. Throughout his life Lenin insisted that consciousness must maintain leadership over spontaneity for revolutionary Marxism to succeed. This implies that the intellectual leaders must prepare the proletariat for its political tasks and must guide it in its action. Leadership and hierarchy thus become key concepts in the Leninist vocabulary, and the role and structure of the party must conform to this conception. The party is seen as the institutionalization of true consciousness. It must turn into the general staff of the revolution, subjecting the working class and indeed all its own members to command and discipline.

Lenin expressed these ideas in his important book What's To Be Done? (1902), the title of the work expressing his indebtedness to Nikolai Chernyshevsky. When, in 1903, the leaders of Russian Marxism met for the first important party congress, formally the Second Congress, these ideas clashed head on with the conception of a looser, more democratic workers' party advanced by Lenin's old friend luli Martov. This disagreement over the nature and organization of the party was complicated by numerous other conflicts of view, and from its first important congress Russian Marxism emerged split into two factions. The one led by Lenin called itself the majority faction (bolsheviki); the other got stuck with the name of minority faction (mensheviki). Lenin's reaction to the split was expressed in his pamphlet "One Step Forward - Two Steps Back," published in 1904.

Mensheviks and Bolsheviks disagreed not only over organizational questions but also over most other political problems, including the entire conception of a Marxist program for Russia and the methods to be employed by the party. Bolshevism, in general, stresses the need for revolution and the futility of incremental reforms; it emphasizes the goals of Marxism rather than the process, with its timetable, by which Marx thought the new order was to be reached; in comparison to menshevism it is impatient, pragmatic, and tough-minded.

The Revolution of 1905 surprised all Russian revolutionary leaders, including the Bolsheviks. Lenin managed to return to Russia only in November, when the defeat of the revolution was a virtual certainty. But he was among the last to give up. For many more months he urged his followers to renew their revolutionary enthusiasm and activities and to prepare for an armed uprising. For some time afterward the technology of revolutionary warfare became the focus of his interest. His militancy was expressed in an anti-Menshevik pamphlet published in 1905, "Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution."

The major impact of the aborted revolution and its aftermath was a decided change in Lenin's attitude toward the peasantry. Lenin came to recognize it as a class in its own right - not just as a rural proletariat - with its own interests, and as a valuable ally for the revolutionary proletariat. His pamphlet "The Agrarian Question in the Russian Revolution of 1905-7" presents these new views in systematic fashion.

Bolshevism as an Independent Faction

In the 12 years between the Revolution of 1905 and that of 1917, bolshevism, which had begun as a faction within the Russian Social-Democratic Workers party, gradually emerged as an independent party that had cut its ties with all other Russian Marxists. The process entailed prolonged and bitter polemics against Mensheviks as well as against all those who worked for a reconciliation of the factions. It involved fights over funds, struggles for control of newspapers, the development of rival organizations, and meetings of rival congresses. Disputes concerned many questions about the goals and strategies of the movement, the role of national liberation movements within the Marxist party, and also philosophic controversies. Lenin's contribution to this last topic was published in 1909, Materialism and Empirio-criticism.

Since about 1905 the international socialist movement had begun also to discuss the possibility of a major war breaking out. In its congresses of 1907 and 1912, resolutions were passed which condemned such wars in advance and pledged the parties of the proletariat not to support them. Lenin had wanted to go further than that. He had urged active opposition to the war effort and a transformation of any war into a proletarian revolution. He called his policy "revolutionary defeatism." When World War I broke out, most socialist leaders in the countries involved supported the war effort. For Lenin, this was proof that he and they shared no aims or views. The break between the two schools of Marxism had become irreconcilable.

During the war Lenin lived in Switzerland. He attended several conferences of radical socialists opposed to the war or even agreeing with Lenin's revolutionary defeatism. He read extensively on the Marxist theory of state and wrote a first draft for a book on the subject, The State and Revolution. He also immersed himself in literature dealing with contemporary world politics and wrote a book which may, in the long run, be his most important one, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), in which Marxism is effectively made applicable to the 20th century. By the beginning of 1917 he had fits of despondency and wrote to a close friend that he despaired of ever witnessing another revolution. This was about a month before the fall of czarism.

Lenin in 1917

It took a good deal of negotiation and courage for Lenin and a group of like-minded Russian revolutionaries to travel from Switzerland back to Russia through enemy country (Germany). Much has been made of Lenin's negotiations with an enemy power and of the fact that some Bolshevik activities were supported financially by German intelligence agencies. There is no convincing evidence, however, which might show that acceptance of funds from objectionable sources made Lenin an agent of these sources in anyway. And from his point of view the source of aid was immaterial; what counted was the use to which it was put.

The man who returned to Russia in the famed "sealed train" in the spring of 1917 was of medium height, quite bald, except for the back of his head, with a reddish beard. The features of his face were arresting - slanted eyes that looked piercingly at others, and high cheek-bones under a towering forehead. The rest of his appearance was deceptively ordinary: a man of resolute movements clad quite conservatively in a middle-class suit.

Versed in many languages, Lenin spoke Russian with a slight speech defect but was a powerful orator in small groups as well as before mass audiences. A tireless worker, he made others work tirelessly. Self-effacing, he sought to compel his collaborators to devote every ounce of their energy to the revolutionary task at hand. He was impatient with any extraneous activities, including small talk and abstract theoretical discussions. Indeed, he was suspicious of intellectuals and felt most at home in the company of simple folk. Having been brought up in the tradition of the Russian nobility, Lenin loved hunting, hiking, horseback riding, boating, mush-rooming, and the outdoor life in general. He sought to steel himself by systematic physical exercise and generally forbade himself those hobbies which he considered time-wasting or corrupting: chess, music, and companionship. While his life-style was that of a dedicated professional revolutionary, his tastes in art, morals, and manners were rather conventional.

Once he had returned to Russia, Lenin worked feverishly and relentlessly to utilize the revolutionary situation that had been created by the fall of czarism so as to convert it into a proletarian revolution which would bring his own party into power. These were the crucial 6 months of his life, but space does not permit a detailed account of his activities in the period. The result of his activities is well known: Opinions in Russia quickly became more and more polarized. Moderate forces found themselves less and less able to maintain even the pretense of control. In the end, the so-called provisional government, then headed by Kerensky, simply melted away, and power literally fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks. As a result of this so-called October Revolution, Lenin found himself not only the leader of his party but also the chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (equivalent to premier minister) of the newly proclaimed Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic.

Ruler of Russia

During the first years of Lenin's rule as dictator of Russia, the major task he faced was that of establishing his and his party's authority in the country. Most of his policies can be understood in this light, even though he alienated some elements in the population while satisfying others. Examples are the expropriation of landholdings for distribution to the peasants, the separate peace treaty with Germany, and the nationalization of banks and industrial establishments.

From 1918 to 1921 a fierce civil war raged which the Bolsheviks finally won against seemingly overwhelming odds. During the civil war Lenin tightened his party's dictatorship and eventually eliminated all rival parties from the political arena. A spirited defense of his dictatorship can be found in his "The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky" (1918), in which he answers criticism from some more moderate Marxists. Lenin had to create an entirely new political system with the help of inexperienced personnel; he was heading a totally exhausted economy and had to devise desperate means for mobilizing people for work. Simultaneously he created the Third (Communist) International and vigorously promoted the spread of the revolution to other countries; and meanwhile he had to cope with dissent among his own party comrades, some of whom criticized him from the left. The pamphlet "Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder" is a response to this criticism.

When the civil war had been won and the regime established firmly, the economy was ruined, and much of the population was bitterly opposed to the regime. At this point Lenin reversed many of his policies and instituted a trenchant reform, called the New Economic Policy. It signified a temporary retreat from the goal of establishing communism at once and a resolve to make do with the social forces available: the Communist party declared itself ready to coexist and cooperate with features of the past, such as free enterprise, capitalist institutions, and capitalist states across the borders. For the time being, the Soviet economy would be a mixture of capitalist and socialist features. The stress of the party's policies would be on economic reconstruction and on the education of a peasant population for life in the 20th century. In the long run, Lenin hoped that both these policies would make the blessings of socialism obvious to all, so that the country would gradually grow into socialism. The wariness, the caution, the fear of excessive haste and impatience which Lenin showed in the years 1921-1923 are expressed only inadequately in the last few articles he wrote, such as "On Cooperation," "How We Must Reorganize the Workers and Peasants Inspectorate," and "Better Less but Better."

In 1918 an assassin wounded Lenin; he recovered but may have suffered some lasting damage. On May 26, 1922, he suffered a serious stroke from which he recovered after some weeks, only to suffer a second stroke on December 16. He was so seriously incapacitated that he could participate in political matters only intermittently and feebly. An invalid, he lived in a country home at Gorki, near Moscow, where he died on Jan. 21, 1924. His body was preserved and is on view in the Lenin Mausoleum outside the walls of the Moscow Kremlin.











This web page was last updated on: 12 December, 2008