Vladimir Lenin – a summary

Vladimir Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov on 22 April 1870 in the town of Simbirsk (renamed Ulyanovsk in Lenin’s honour following his death in 1924). The third of six children, Lenin was born into a middle-class family, his father being an inspector of primary schools, a fact Lenin never tried to hide.

In 1887, Vladimir Lenin’s older brother, 21-year-old Alexander Ulyanov, was involved in an attempt to assassinate the tsar, Alexander III, for which in May 1887, he was hung. The event shocked the seventeen-year-old Lenin and certainly radicalized him. As the brother of an executed terrorist, Lenin was kept under police surveillance as he took his place to study law at Kazan University in Tatarstan. While at university, Lenin became involved in politics and, after one student riot, was arrested. One of the arresting officers asked him ‘Why are you rebelling, young man? After all, there is a wall in front of you,’ to which Lenin replied, ‘The wall is tottering, you only have to push it for it to fall over.’

Lenin the Lawyer

Expelled from Kazan University, Lenin continued his studies independently before being allowed to finish his law degree in 1892 at the University of St Petersburg, obtaining a First Class degree and learning to speak Latin and Ancient Greek. For eighteen months, between 1891 and 1893, Lenin worked as a lawyer defending petty thieves, cases he invariably lost. His only success in the courts came sixteen years later when he successfully sued a French nobleman for knocking him off a bicycle near Paris in 1909. Moving to St Petersburg in 1893, Lenin became increasing involved with revolutionary activity and there, two years later, formed a group, the League of the Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. In 1895, Lenin was arrested and imprisoned for fourteen months in solitary confinement.

In 1897, he was exiled to eastern Siberia where he took the alias Lenin, reputably influenced by the Siberian River Lena. While in exile, in July 1898, he married fellow revolutionary, Nadezhda Krupskaya. They may have been Marxists and committed atheists but, on the insistence of Krupskaya’s mother, the pair married according to the Orthodox faith.

What Is To Be Done?

Following his exile, Lenin wrote his influential What Is To Be Done? and was instrumental in splitting the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Lenin and his wife lived in Munich, London, and Geneva before returning to Russia in November 1905, towards the end of the 1905 Russian Revolution. Two years later, Lenin returned to exile and would not step on Russian soil again until almost a decade later in April 1917. Much of this time was spent in Switzerland where, as well as writing and guiding the direction of the revolution from afar, he found time to indulge his many hobbies. Lenin and Krupskaya became ardent hill walkers of the Swiss Alps and Lenin enjoyed swimming, cycling, music, skating, and chess.

Lenin also enjoyed music. In a conversation with Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, Lenin professed to enjoying Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23, the Appassionata, saying he ‘could listen to it every day… But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things, and pat the little heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. These days, one can’t pat anyone on the head; they might bite your hand off. Hence, you have to beat people’s little heads, beat mercilessly. Hmm — what a devilishly difficult job I have!’

Mr and Mrs Lenin

Nadezhda Krupskaya was unable to have children and is believed to have suffered from Graves’ disease, which can affect fertility. But Lenin’s longstanding affair with Inessa Armand, whom Lenin first met in 1909, probably didn’t help. Krupskaya was prepared to give her husband his freedom but Lenin persuaded her to stay and eventually his wife and mistress became friends. Lenin and Krupskaya, together with Armand, travelled on the sealed train that transported Lenin and his associates back into Russia from Germany. Armand’s death from cholera at the age of forty-four in 1920 greatly grieved Lenin and may have precipitated his own decline.

Lenin suffered three strokes; his third, in March 1923, left him paralyzed and unable to speak. Such was the pain experienced by Lenin during his final months, that he begged Stalin to obtain a dose of potassium cyanide to put him out of his misery. He specifically asked Stalin, probably because he knew only Stalin, a man so devoid of any humanity, would be strong enough to do it. But even Stalin baulked at the thought of it and couldn’t bring himself to administer the fatal dose.

The Soviet writer, Maxim Gorky, accused Lenin of being divorced from the workers and peasants he claimed to be representing, holding a ‘pitiless contempt, worthy of a nobleman, for the lives of the ordinary people… Life in all its complexity is unknown to Lenin. He does not know the ordinary people. He has never lived among them’.

Following Lenin’s death on 21 January 1924, the city of Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg) was renamed Leningrad in his honour. Vladimir Lenin became a messianic figure in Soviet Union, lionized and worshipped until the fall of communism in 1991.

Rupert Colley

Learn more about Lenin and the Russian Revolution in The Russian Revolution: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also Stalin: History In An Hour.

See also the death of Lenin and Lenin’s TestamentBloody Sunday 1905, Grigori Rasputin and a summary of the February Revolution.

Rupert Colley’s novel, The Black Maria, a chilling tale set in Stalin’s Moscow,, is now available.