During the middle of the 19th Century agitation for an end to Russia's autocratic tsarist regime begins to grow. The state tries to crack down but some reform is inevitable. In 1861 about 20 million serfs are emancipated. Local government and the judicial system are reformed in 1864. Censorship is loosened. Communication systems and the military are modernised.
However, the reforms do not go far enough. Neither landowners nor peasants are satisfied. Activists call for greater levels of freedom and direct participation in government. During the 1870s senior officials become the targets of an assassination campaign. In 1881, the campaign reaches the very top when Tsar Alexander II is killed.
Following the assassination of the tsar, reform is wound back and repression ramped up, a reaction that only serves to broaden the movement for revolutionary change. More background.
Born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov on 22 April 1870 at Simbirsk (now called Ulyanovsk, after Lenin's birth name), on the Volga River, 700 km southeast of Moscow, in central European Russia. His family is well-to-do and cultured. Lenin is the third of six children and the second eldest son. His father, the director of public education for the province of Simbirsk, is an inducted member of the nobility. Lenin's mother is the daughter of a physician.
The young Lenin is a gifted student, graduating first in his class at high school.
1876 - Radicals within the revolutionary movement form the 'Land and Liberty' group, renaming the group the 'People's Will' in 1879.
1881 - The People's Will orchestrates the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.
1886 - Lenin's father dies on 24 January.
1887 - Lenin's eldest brother Aleksandr is involved in an attempt by the People's Will to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. The attempt fails and Aleksandr is arrested and executed.
Greatly affected by his brother's death, Lenin joins the People's Will.
Lenin enrols to study law at Kazan University, 170 km northeast of Simbirsk, in August. In December he takes part in a student demonstration against regulations at the university and is arrested. When it is discovered that he is the brother of an executed revolutionary he is expelled from university then banished by the police to his grandfather's estate at Kokushkino, 30 km east of Kazan.
At Kokushkino he continues to study law by correspondence with the Saint Petersburg University. He also reads much of the political literature circulating at the time, including the writing of the German philosopher Karl Marx.
In 1888 he is allowed to return to Kazan. In January 1889 he becomes a Marxist. In May 1889 Lenin's family moves to Samara, 170 km southeast of Simbirsk.
1891 - In November Lenin passes his law degree with first-class honours. He is admitted to the bar in 1892 and begins to practice law in Samara. However, much of his time is taken up with politics.
1893 - Lenin moves to Saint Petersburg in September. He works as a public defender while continuing to develop his skills as a political activist.
1894 - Nicholas II becomes tsar. He proves to be a weak and indecisive leader and prey to his advisors and courtiers.
The empire attempts to accelerate its economic development. However, while the production of minerals and metals soar, agricultural production stalls. Industrial growth also leads to the development of a sizable urban working class which, along with the rural peasantry, becomes increasingly restive about the standard of conditions at home and at work. Various political parties are formed.
1895 - A group of Saint Petersburg-based Marxists, including Lenin, form the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. The union attempts to support and educate the city's labour force. Among its members is Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, Lenin's future wife.
In December, the leaders of the union, including Lenin, are arrested. Lenin is jailed for 15 months then sent into exile in Siberia for three years.
He serves his time in the village of Shushenskoye in the southern Siberian province of Khakassia. He is joined by Nadezhda Krupskaya, who has also been sent into exile. The couple marry on 22 July 1898. They will have no children.
Lenin spends much of his time in exile reading and writing, producing the first of his many volumes on social and economic theory.
1900 - Lenin's term of exile ends in February. He travels to Switzerland then Munich in Germany. He will remain abroad until 1905.
Lenin becomes an editor of the radical Marxist newspaper 'Iskra' ('The Spark'). Iskra advocates the overthrow of the imperial governments of the time and seeks to unite Marxist groups across Europe. The first issue is published on 24 December 1900.
1901 - In December he adopts the pseudonym 'Lenin'. The name is believed to be a reference to the Lena River in southern Siberia.
1902 - Lenin publishes the pamphlet 'What Is to Be Done?' in March. The pamphlet sets out Lenin's ideas for a disciplined revolution led by a core of experienced professional activists, the so-called "vanguard of the proletariat."
"This struggle must be organised, according to 'all the rules of the art', by people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity," the pamphlet says.
"The fact that the masses are spontaneously being drawn into the movement does not make the organisation of this struggle less necessary. On the contrary, it makes it more necessary. ...
"I assert: (1) that no revolutionary movement can endure without a stable organisation of leaders maintaining continuity; (2) that the broader the popular mass drawn spontaneously into the struggle ... the more urgent the need for such an organisation, and the more solid this organisation must be ... ; (3) that such an organisation must consist chiefly of people professionally engaged in revolutionary activity; (4) that in an autocratic state, the more we confine the membership of such an organisation to people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult will it be to unearth the organisation; and (5) the greater will be the number of people from the working class and from the other social classes who will be able to join the movement and perform active work in it."
1903 - Lenin takes his ideas for a disciplined revolution to the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party held in London. The congress of about 50 delegates is unable to reach a unanimous decision on the issue. When disagreement continues over membership and organisational matters, the party splits.
The majority (about 25 people) support Lenin. They come to be known as the Bolsheviks (the majority, after the Russian word for more or bigger). Those opposing Lenin (about 19 to 20 people) are called the Mensheviks (the minority, after the Russian word for less or smaller.) The two factions form an uneasy coalition.
The Bolsheviks will fund much of their early activity with the proceeds of criminal ventures like armed robberies and extortion rackets.
Following the split, Lenin surrenders editorial control of Iskra. He launches a second Marxist newspaper, 'Vperyod' ('Forward'), in January 1905.
Meanwhile, the continuation of the empire's expansionist foreign policy has disastrous consequences.
1904 - A war with Japan breaks out in Manchuria. Russia is defeated and forced to cede territory to the Japanese. The defeat shakes the confidence of the Russian people and leads to an uprising against the government.
1905 - The 'Revolution of 1905' breaks out in Saint Petersburg on 22 January when troops fire on protesters marching to the Winter Palace to present a petition to the tsar. Several hundred are killed. Unrest, including strikes and some armed uprisings, spreads across the country.
In Saint Petersburg, Moscow and other cities workers form "soviets" (democratically elected councils). Leon Trotsky, a member of the Menshevik faction, is president of the Saint Petersburg Soviet.
The mounting disorder forces the tsar to issue the 'October Manifesto' granting Russia a representative parliament (Duma) with full legislative authority and establishing basic civil rights. However, real power remains with the tsar and his non-elected Imperial Government.
By the end of the year order has been restored.
Lenin returns to Russia in November, after the tsar declares an amnesty for all political exiles living abroad.
1906 - The First Duma is elected in March. It calls for truly representative government and the expropriation of the estates of nobles. The demands are unacceptable to the regime and the Duma is dissolved.
1907 - The Second Duma is equally short-lived. It is dissolved in June. Changes to the electoral law giving more weight to the votes of the upper classes ensure that the Third Duma is more stable but less representative.
The work of government goes on. Reforms are introduced to break up peasant communes and establish private property. Russia enters a loose alliance with Britain and France, the so-called Triple Entente. The economy recovers and grows.
However, the reforms do not go far enough to save the regime. As dissent continues to simmer, the tsar seems indifferent to the predicament of his countrymen.
Lenin again goes abroad, first to Switzerland, then to Paris, then to Austria, then, when the First World War breaks out, back to Switzerland.
1912 - The Bolsheviks split completely from the Mensheviks. Lenin declares that the Bolsheviks are the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The first issue of the Bolshevik's newspaper 'Pravda' (Truth) is published in Russia in April.
1914 - The countdown to the First World War begins on 28 June with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
On 3 August Germany declares war on France. Britain in turn declares war on Germany on 14 August.
Russia backs Serbia and joins its Triple Entente allies (Britain and France) in the fight against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary).
The First World War has begun. It will prove to be a disaster for the tsar and his government.
Though numerically superior to their foes, the Russian forces are ill-equipped and ill-prepared. Millions are killed on the battlefields. The Imperial Government's inability to effectively manage the Russian war effort sees a drop in morale and a rise in the underlying mood of social dissent.
The deteriorating situation is compounded by a reversal in the country's economic fortunes and by bickering between the tsar, the government, the Duma, the bureaucracy and the military.
Lenin opposes Russian involvement in the "imperialist" war. He believes that the real enemy is the capitalist system, that the guns should be turned on the system's overlords, and the imperialist war transformed into civil war.
1916 - Strikes break out in some Russian cities. The countryside becomes increasingly restive. Soldiers become increasingly insubordinate and begin to desert. The tsar appears ever more isolated and ever more a captive of his courtiers. The Russian establishment teeters on the verge of collapse.
1917 - The strikes and riots intensify, reaching the tipping-point in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) on 7 March when troops called out to quell a spontaneous uprising refuse to fire on the crowd and, in some cases, join the protest.
On 12 March two leadership groups emerge - the Executive Committee of the Duma and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies.
On 15 March the Executive Committee organises a Provisional Government. Later the same day delegates from the new government meet with Tsar Nicholas. Advised that he has lost the support of his people, the tsar abdicates in favour of his brother, Grand Duke Michael. When Michael refuses to accept the throne the long rule of the Russian tsars comes to an end.
While the Provisional Government takes ostensible control, the Petrograd Soviet remains a significant force, advising soldiers and sailors to obey orders only if they do not conflict with the Soviet's decrees.
The Petrograd Soviet is made up of elected representatives from the city's factories and barracks. It is dominated by moderates from the Socialist Revolutionary Party and by the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks are on the outer, forming an opposition.
The Provisional Government is led by a moderate socialist, Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerensky, and composed of moderates and liberals from the establishment. It has a reformist agenda, introducing freedom of speech and equal legal rights, and plans to establish a bourgeois democracy in Russia.
However, despite its agenda and its actions, popular support quickly leaks from the government. The government's reluctance to address social welfare and land reform issues causes popular resentment. Its failure to withdraw Russia from the First World War seals its fate.
Anarchy begins to spread. Workers start to take control of factories. Peasants begin to seize land and kill landowners. Soldiers start to mutiny. Russia is becoming ungovernable.
Lenin, believing Russia has reached a critical point for the onset of revolution, attempts to return home.
The French and Italian governments refuse to allow him passage across their borders. The Germans, however, hope the return of anti-war socialists will undermine Russia's war effort. They provide Lenin and 27 other Bolsheviks with safe transport along a northern route, though Germany, Sweden and Finland. As well as granting Lenin safe passage, Germany also supplies the Bolsheviks with financial aid.
Lenin arrives in Petrograd on 16 April. Leon Trotsky also returns to Russia after a period abroad. Trotsky, a former Menshevik, shifts his allegiance and joins the Bolsheviks.
On 17 April Lenin publishes the 'April Theses'. The theses calls for an end to Russian involvement in the war, the withdrawal of support for the Provisional Government and the transfer of power to the soviets. It calls for the abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy, the confiscation of all landed estates, and the union of all banks in the country into a single national bank.
Lenin's rhetoric wins over other Bolshevik leaders, wins converts from other revolutionary parties and inspires a spontaneous popular uprising against the Provisional Government in Petrograd in July, the so-called 'July Days'.
Caught off-guard, the government is in danger of collapse. However, the Bolshevik's have also been taken by surprise and the Petrograd Soviet refuses to act. After order is restored the Bolsheviks are outlawed and Trotsky jailed. Arrest warrants are issued for Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders. Lenin flees to Finland.
The exile is short. The ban on the Bolsheviks is relaxed when the government calls on all hands to put down a coup attempt by the army's commander-in-chief.
By September the Bolsheviks control the Petrograd and Moscow soviets. Trotsky is chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks are in a position to seize government.
Lenin returns to Petrograd in October and urges the Bolshevik leaders to support an armed uprising. The Bolsheviks are assured of support by the Petrograd garrison, which has been won over by Trotsky.
The 'Bolshevik Revolution' begins on 6 November and is over the following day. The Provisional Government has been routed and Petrograd captured with barely a shot being fired. Moscow falls on 15 November. (By the old Julian calendar the uprising began on 24 October and is therefore also known as the 'October Revolution'.)
The soviets are declared to be the governing bodies of the new Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The Congress of Soviets, made up of deputies from the soviets, acts as a type of government. Executive power rests with the Council of People's Commissars, headed by Lenin. Trotsky is commissar of foreign affairs. A rather dour apparatchik named Joseph Stalin is made commissar of nationalities.
Political parties like the Mensheviks that have opposed the Bolsheviks are banned.
General elections are held for a new parliament. The Bolsheviks get only about 25% of the vote, way behind the Social Revolutionary Party, which receives about 40%. When the subsequent parliament refuses to endorse a system of government based on the soviets, Lenin orders it to be dissolved. A new constitution is drafted by the Bolsheviks and approved by the Congress of Soviets.
The republic is proclaimed a dictatorship of the proletariat based on the will of the elected soviets. The Vecheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage, also known as the Cheka) is set up in December to silence dissent.
Private ownership of land is abolished, the expropriation of factories by workers and of land by peasants is ratified, banks are nationalised, courts are replaced by revolutionary tribunals, church and state are separated, atheism replaces doctrinal religion, the press is censored.
The 'Red Army' is established 28 January 1918. Trotsky, as commissar of war, is placed in charge. In order to protect the government from any invasion from the west, the capital is moved from the vulnerably located Petrograd to Moscow on 10 March 1918.
1918 - The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party is renamed the Russian Communist Party. Henceforth the Bolsheviks are known as Communists.
Russia signs a treaty with Germany on 3 March 1918 and withdraws from the First World War. Peace has been bought, but at a great cost. Russia loses Poland, the Baltic lands, Finland, Ukraine and a portion of the Caucasus.
Between 1.7 million and three million Russian soldiers have been killed in the war. Between 1.5 million and three million Russian civilians have died.
The treaty is not popular with all members of the Council of People's Commissars. The Left Social Revolutionary Party walks out and begins organising against the Bolsheviks.
Anticommunist resistance to the revolution begins to build in southern Russia and Siberia. It soon escalates into a full-scale civil war, with the anticommunist 'White Army' pitted against the Communists.
International apprehension about the revolution is magnified when foreign loans taken by the tsarist regime and Provisional Government are repudiated and foreign properties in Russia are nationalised.
Even after the First World War ends on 11 November the Allies continue to back the Whites.
In order to deprive the Whites of a figurehead, Tsar Nicholas and his entire immediate family are executed by the Communists in July.
Other potential opponents are harassed. Members of the former establishment are stripped of their civil rights. Non-Bolshevik members of the former Russian Social Democratic Labour Party are persecuted.
On 30 August, Fanya Kaplan, a member of the Left Social Revolutionaries, attempts to assassinate Lenin. He is seriously injured, with two bullet wounds, but survives.
In response, the so-called 'Red Terror' is unleashed. Between 50,000 and 200,000 suspected "enemies of the state" are executed by the Vecheka, with the purge continuing into 1921. Tens of thousands more die in prison.
The Communists face further challenges in surrounding states given up under the treaty that ended Russian's involvement in the First World War (Poland, the Baltic lands, Finland and Ukraine) and which they now seek to reoccupy.
Belarus is overpowered in January 1919, Ukraine in March 1919, Azerbaydzhan in April 1920, Armenia in November 1920 and Georgia in March 1921. The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) remain independent, as does Finland. Following a failed attempt to capture territory in Russia, Poland successfully fights to defend its borders.
1919 - In a move to aid the spread of the revolution beyond Russia's borders, Lenin establishes the Communist International (Comintern) in March.
1920 - By the end of the year the White Russians have been defeated. But the war has taken a massive toll. Between one and two million middle and upper-class Russians have fled the country.
About two million Red and White army soldiers have died from violence or disease. Both armies have engaged in massive human rights abuses, including the execution of large numbers of suspected enemies.
About two million civilians have died during the war. They are soon joined by millions of others as the severe 'War Communism' polices introduced by Lenin during the conflict begin to bite.
Industry has been nationalised and placed under the control of administrators in Moscow. Workers' committees have been replaced by expert managers. The requisitioning of grain to feed the cities has led to famine in the countryside. Between 1921 and 1922 about five million Russians starve to death.
Industrial production has fallen. Inflation is on the rise. Freedom of speech has been curtailed. The promise of government by elected soviets has been betrayed. New discontent begins to brew.
Late in 1920, industrial workers start to strike and peasants begin to rise.
1921 - In February, sailors at the naval base at Kronshtadt (near Petrograd) rebel. The rebellion, which is quickly put down, signals to the Communists that their policies need loosening.
Lenin argues for a New Economic Policy to wind back some of the measures introduced during the Civil War. The requisitioning of grain is halted and peasants are allowed to dispose of their produce as they wish. Small-scale industry is denationalised. The policy works. Industry and agriculture stabilise and recover. Standards of living improve.
1922 - A period of political consolidation now begins. Potential rivals to the Communists are exiled. Lenin denounces the formation of factions within the Communist Party. Local soviets are brought to heal. The party is purged of its less committed members.
The Vecheka is abolished early in the year. It is replaced by the State Political Directorate (Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Pravlenie - GPU) and integrated into the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennykh Del - NKVD). The NKVD is the forerunner of the KGB and will become infamous as the chief prosecutor of Joseph Stalin's reign of terror during the 1930s.
Lenin suffers a stroke on 26 May. A troika (triumvirate) composed of Stalin, Lev B. Kamenev and Grigorii V. Zinoviev assumes leadership.
Lenin recovers after three months and reasserts control. On 15 December he suffers a second stroke.
On 30 December the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a union of the Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian and Transcaucasian republics, is established. While the constituent states have a degree of cultural autonomy, political authority resides in Moscow.
1923 - In letters that come to be known as his 'Last Testament', Lenin cautions the Communists about the danger of factions within the party "acquiring excessive importance" and precipitating a split. Lenin says that relations between Stalin and Trotsky present the greatest risk and that the party should take steps to avert any unexpected "indiscretion."
"Comrade Stalin, having become general secretary, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution," Lenin writes.
"Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a general secretary.
"That is why I suggest the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc..
"This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think ... it is not a detail, or it is a detail which can assume decisive importance."
However, the party takes no action. Stalin remains as general secretary.
Lenin also criticises Stalin for using coercion to force non-Russian republics to join the Soviet Union, saying he has behaved like a "vulgar Great-Russian bully."
"I think that Stalin's haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious 'nationalist-socialism' played a fatal role here," Lenin writes. "In politics spite generally plays the basest of roles."
The Testament also points to the need for an overhaul of the state bureaucracy.
"We took over the old machinery of state from the tsar and the bourgeoisie and that now, with the onset of peace and the satisfaction of the minimum requirements against famine, all our work must be directed towards improving the administrative machinery," Lenin writes.
On 9 March Lenin suffers a third stroke that leaves him without the ability to speak.
1924 - Lenin dies from a fourth stroke on 21 January 1924 at Gorki, near Moscow. Contrary to his wishes, his body is embalmed and placed on public display in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square.
Petrograd is renamed Leningrad in his honour.
Communist Party leaders begin to jostle for the top position. By the end of the decade Stalin has emerged as the supreme leader of the Soviet Union.
It can seem surprising that the Russian revolutionaries of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century ever managed to achieve anything, let alone one of the biggest social upheavals in the history of the world. They did appear to spend an inordinate amount of time either developing their own theories or forensically deconstructing those of opposing ideological camps. And none more so than Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Imperialism as "the final stage of capitalism." The need for a bourgeoisie revolution to precede a proletariat revolution, or not. How to establish a "vanguard of the proletariat" to work for a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. State capitalism. Socialism. Revisionism. Gradualism. Productionism. Absolutism. Economism. Dogmatism. Doctrinairism. Primitiveness. Theoretical struggle.
It's all so eye-glazingly dull.
Perhaps that was one of the keys to Lenin's "success." He was never one to say in a couple of words what could be elaborated on over a couple of thousand. Better still, how about elaboration and obfuscation over 20,000 words? How about 200,000? It's possible that Lenin, the Russian polemicist par excellence, simply bored his ideological opponents into submission.
After he had cleared the theoretical landscape, Lenin found himself with a once in a lifetime opportunity to test out his ideas in the real world using real-life people. It's then, of course, that it all started to go horribly wrong. It was the revolution that launched a thousand isms and a series of murderous regimes. Nearly 100 years later, Russia, and the world, still hasn't fully recovered from the experiment.
- Russia - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series
- Lenin at Spartacus Educational
- Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism: Richard Pipes Interview
- Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism: Nina Tumarkin Interview
- A Fresh Look at Lenin
- Lenin Internet Archive
- Lenin Library