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Lenin has become known as the single most important and iconic figure of the Russian Revolution. Born Vladimir Ul’ianov, he took the pseudonym Lenin in 1901.
Lenin was a charismatic leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) who showed vision and determination in changing the economic, political and ideological foundations of society. However, much of his popularity was created through his personal cult that started emerging in Soviet Russia even before his death in 1924.
Even today, Lenin continues to attract public attention and fascination, and it is practically impossible to find unbiased accounts that objectively present Lenin as a person rather than politician.
Lenin studied law at Kazan University, where he became involved with the revolutionary cause and subsequently quit his course. He completed his legal studies at the University of St. Petersburg, sitting exams as an external student.
After qualifying, Lenin worked as an attorney assistant, before moving to Samara, where he took part in 20 court cases: 16 criminal, and four civil. What we know about the cases from the archives proves that Lenin could have become a good defence lawyer had he not devoted his life to the revolutionary cause.
Most of his adult life Lenin spent organising and writing for the Social Democratic movement, much of it in exile across Europe, Britain, and in Siberia. From 1903, when the movement split, he led the ‘Bolshevik’ faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.
Lenin came to power in the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 (October in the old-style calendar), which overthrew the Provisional Government. He had been instrumental in winning the Bolsheviks over to a policy of armed insurrection in order to form a Soviet government, a policy which was carried out through the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet.
After the October Revolution, Lenin became the chairman of the new executive power Sovnarkom, the Council of People’s Commissars – an equivalent of cabinet ministers. Lenin’s power rested less on this formal position than on his prestige among the leaders and supporters of the Bolshevik party, which became the All-Russia Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in 1918.
Lenin was a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Party, which consisted of five full members and three ‘candidates’. There was no one formal post for a party head or leader.
Under Lenin’s leadership, the new Soviet state faced critical challenges which threatened its survival. He was a guiding force, navigating the regime through civil war, economic dislocation and famine, though at great cost.
He insisted on pulling Russia out of the First World War, but at the expense of the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and bloody civil conflicts.
Soviet rule was secured and the Constituent Assembly (parliament) closed, but the Soviet leadership had alienated other socialist parties and established a one-party state. Members of other socialist parties and factions had to either join the Bolsheviks or became ‘enemies of the state’.
A number of progressive social measures were enacted, but the economic situation continued to worsen. In the struggle to retain power, workers’ democracy was eroded and the Party took total control over all aspects of economy and state building.
The Bolsheviks had taken power with the expectation either that a world revolution would succeed in overthrowing the capitalist governments of the developed world, or else that they would themselves be overthrown by counter-revolution and international intervention. Neither of these occurred.
They survived, but as revolutionary movements across Europe failed, they were left isolated as the rulers of a predominantly agricultural and ‘pre-capitalist’ country.
Lenin died on 21 January 1924, after suffering a series of strokes.
Leaders of the Communist Party had been preparing for his death, concerned that the new Soviet state would lose legitimacy without its central figurehead. They built a ‘Lenin cult’ of symbols and myths to secure the legitimacy of the regime after his death.
As part of this project of almost religious veneration, Lenin’s body was mummified and placed on display after a week of ceremonial and ritual.
In the years of Lenin’s incapacitation and after his death, different groups within the Communist Party struggled to take control of the Politburo, which was the ‘collective leadership’ of the party. This struggle involved opposing visions for the future of the Soviet state and clashing personal ambitions.
Lenin, in his final months, had been obsessed with maintaining the principle of ‘collective leadership’ as opposed to one-man rule, and unsuccessfully tried to have Joseph Stalin removed from his position of General Secretary.Stalin skilfully played the different factions against each other and built up his influence as the General Secretary of the Communist Party, steadily packing the Politburo with his supporters until in the late 1920s, he came to hold dictatorial power. His defeated rival, Leon Trotsky, who was expelled from the Communist Party in 1927, exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929, and in 1940 was murdered by an agent of Stalin in Mexico.
Katie McElvanney explores how events of the Russian Revolution and civil wars were reported within Russia and abroad, and how the press was used to inform, persuade, or even repress, the masses.
Collaborative Doctoral student Mike Carey looks at the ideologies of violence and violent practices driving the Russian Revolution and the civil war.