Even if you are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Vladimir Lenin’s personal story, you will no doubt have heard of his name and the political theory he developed – and which is named for him.
As the architect of the Soviet Union – or, as it was officially known, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – he is an almighty historical figure whose actions determined the course of some of the biggest political events of the 20th century. Here are 10 facts about him.
1. He became exposed to radical political ideas at university
Lenin was born into a well-educated family and went on to study law at Kazan University in August 1887. But by the December he had been expelled for taking part in a student protest. He eventually enrolled as an external law student at Saint Petersburg University and completed his studies there in 1891.
2. His brother was executed
The killing of Lenin’s elder brother, who had been a member of a revolutionary group, also influenced his politics. Alexander was hanged by the state in May 1887 after allegedly taking part in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III.
3. He was exiled to Siberia
Lenin was arrested for his political activities in 1895 and served more than a year in jail before being sent to Siberia for three years. Many of his contemporaries suffered the same fate but in Lenin’s case at least it wasn’t all bad – it was in Siberia that he met and married his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya.
4. Lenin wasn’t his real name
Born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, he adopted the pseudonym “Lenin” in 1902. It was not uncommon for Russian revolutionaries to take aliases, partly as a way of confusing the authorities.
5. He developed his political theory from Marxism
A devout Marxist, Lenin believed that his interpretation of Marxism was the only authentic one. This interpretation was termed “Leninism” in 1904 by Russian revolutionary and Menshevik Julius Martov.
Leninism emphasised the need for a highly committed intellectual elite – the so-called “revolutionary vanguard” – who would drive the rest of the proletariat (working-class people) towards revolution and the eventual establishment of socialism.
6. He masterminded the Bolshevik takeover of Russia
Lenin spent much of the 17 years after his exile in Siberia in western Europe, during which time he became leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party. After Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, was overthrown in 1917, Lenin returned home and began working against the provisional government that had replaced him.
Later that year he led a Bolshevik toppling of the provisional government – what has become known as the “October Revolution” – and a civil war ensued between the various combatant forces vying for power. By 1922, this war had mostly been won by the Bolsheviks.
7. He was ruthless
Lenin’s ideology was authoritarian in nature and he showed little mercy for political opponents. Among the many instances of political repression and mass killings for which he is held responsible are the arrests and executions that constituted the so-called “Red Terror” campaign of the civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have been killed during this campaign.
8. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt
Following a public speech in Moscow in August 1918, Lenin was shot and badly injured. The attack generated much sympathy for him amongst the public and boosted his popularity. But although he survived, he was seriously ill by the end of 1921, with some attributing his sickness to metal oxidation from the bullets that were lodged in his body from the assassination attempt.
8. He permitted some private enterprise
Though an ardent socialist, Lenin was also a pragmatist. And when his socialist model began to stall, he introduced the New Economic Policy in 1921. Under this policy, which continued until a few years after his death, peasants were allowed to sell some of their produce for profit, while small traders were allowed to set up businesses. The economy picked up but Lenin’s critics accused him of selling out to capitalism.
10. He suffered three strokes
Lenin was plagued by ill health in the last few years of his life and suffered three strokes in the space of two years – two in 1922 and one in March the following year. After the third stoke, he lost his ability to speak. Although by May 1923 he appeared to be making a slow recovery, on 21 January 1924 he fell into a coma and died later that day.