Tense with expectation, the founder of Russian communism returned from exile to St. Petersburg on April 16, 1917, in a sealed railroad car supplied by his country’s age-old enemy, Germany. The homeland, to which he returned, was ravaged by war and starvation. Near collapse and anarchy, Russia was primed for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s impassioned message: “The people need peace, the people need bread, the people need land. We must fight for the social revolution!”
For the next seven years, Lenin gave his countrymen that revolution, one of the most pivotal events of the 20th century. He also gave them chaos, longer bread lines, and a legacy of terror that, while reminiscent of earlier despots in his nation’s history, was unique in its vast scale. A master strategist, he combined practicality and idealism to achieve his end, a new kind of utopianism, which sacrificed community to coercion and forbade dissent. Lenin’s single-party dictatorship would marry the intellect to the gun like no other before it, forever changing the global political order. By the time of Lenin’s death in 1924, the bulwark of Soviet-style totalitarianism — mass executions, the secret police, intellectual repression, arbitrary violence, and concentration camps — stood firm.
Even as the son of a hereditary nobleman, Lenin’s philosophy was molded leftward. Born on April 22, 1870, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was immersed as an adolescent in his family’s dedication to bettering the lot of the common folk. Perhaps because his parents were teachers, he was also drawn to a life of the mind. He played the piano and excelled at chess, being equally magnanimous in victory and defeat. While he studied law at the University of St. Peters-burg, his older brother Aleksandr was hanged for plotting to assassinate Czar Alexander III. By the time Lenin passed his final examination, he was already a convert to Marxist theory. As an international activist and a member of the radical Union of Struggle, he was arrested in 1895 and sent to Siberia, where he completed his first major theoretical work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia. It reflected his growing belief that some spark was needed to radicalize the consciousness of his nation’s workers. Upon his release, Lenin spent the next 17 years mostly in western Europe, editing socialist organs such as Iskra (The Spark).
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In 1902, his influential tract, “What Is To Be Done?,” appeared, postulating a secret vanguard of professional insurgents devoted to overturning Russian society through the rise of the proletariat. He involved himself in just such an insurrection three years later. It failed and, fleeing again, he maneuvered the Bolshevik wing of Russia’s Social Democratic Labor Party against the more numerous Mencheviks, who were concerned about the despotic tendencies of his revolutionary elite.
Lenin campaigned feverishly against his nation’s participation in the Great War and wished for socialists everywhere to oppose it. Sensing the time was at last ripe, he left Switzerland by train in April 1917, in that special car provided by the Germans, who were only too eager to help the skillful agitator destabilize his country’s military operations. When the July uprising faltered, Lenin left for Finland. Returning after a brief sojourn, he organized the Bolsheviks into Military Revolutionary Committees, and, in the wake of Czar Nicholas II’s abdication, engineered — with his comrade Leon Trotsky — the relatively bloodless coup that finally toppled the provisional regime of Alexander Kerensky. The date was Nov. 7, 1917, but the old-style calendar read October 25 — hence the “October Revolution” of 1917.
Having signed the humbling Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in 1918 to exit the war, Lenin now faced a civil conflict made all the more dangerous by foreign incursion and Allied backing of the anti-Bolshevik “Whites.” By the time the dissidents were subdued, Russia was mired in discontent. So bad were social conditions that Lenin himself was robbed near the Kremlin in 1919. Fearing uprisings and anxious for foreign trade, he inaugurated his New Economic Policy in 1921, which allowed peasants more free use of their land. In that same year, with starvation fanning across Russia, he accepted American aid, all the while insisting that communism was still working.
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What will history ultimately make of this harsh messiah whose brand of Marxism has been the model against which all revolutionaries measure their orthodoxy? Of a leader who claimed to speak for the people but put his faith in assassinations and purges? In matters of the heart, he had been faithful to those who were faithful to his cause: most especially, Nadezhda Konstantinova Krupskaya, his wife until he died, and Elisabeth d’Herbenville Armand (called Inessa), a Parisian-born activist who lived on and off with Lenin and Krupskaya. But he abandoned other sentimentalities like listening to Beethoven, which, he said, made him weak. Clearly, his fellow Russians are now free from decades of Lenin idolatry. The Anti-Czar’s statues have been dismantled and as the century closed, the revolutionary empire that had spread its influence across the face of the planet and had sacrificed millions for a Great Idea that was as moribund as its founder.