The Making of Lenin: The Early Life of The Russian Communist Leader

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism—From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Lenin holds iconic prominence in the history of communism. The fact that Lenin was immersed in the world of revolution quite early in life is perhaps one of the reasons why he was propelled to such prominence. The question to be considered is: Why did he start early?

Statue of Vladimir Lenin in 
modern-day Russia.
Vladimir Lenin influenced the communist revolution to such an extent that members of
the communist youth organization of the Soviet Union were inspired to emulate him.
(Image: Vinokurov Kirill/Shutterstock)

In the days of the Soviet Union, the communist youth organization used to parade young children in red neckties. The youngest wore a striking red five-pointed star, with what seemed like an angel’s face in the middle. The face had cascading curling hair and an enigmatic smile. This face belonged to baby Lenin. Such was his omniscience in the story of communism that communist youth in the Soviet Union were encouraged to become future Lenins, to emulate his behavior from childhood. Lenin is one of the most important revolutionaries, totally dedicated to the political program of revolt, second perhaps only to Marx and Engels.

Learn more about Marx and Engels.

Lenin’s Early Life

To begin, the man we now know as Lenin was not actually born as Lenin. Lenin was a political pseudonym, a code name he took on much later in life. His given name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. Born in 1870 in Simbirsk, a small town on the Volga river in Central Russia, Ulyanov belonged to a middle-class family marked with the characteristic qualities of the intelligentsia. Ulyanov was of Tatar and Kalmyk descent on his father’s side, in addition to Russian. He also had German Lutheran, Swedish, and Jewish roots on his mother’s side. His father was a modest school inspector, who had managed to reach the status of lower nobility because of his years of faithful state service. This fact becomes a lot more interesting when we consider that Lenin’s grandfather was originally a serf, or a tailor of serf origins, marking the striking social advancement of the family. In any case, the Ulyanovs had, in some ways, an outsider status, as their education and cultured family life set them apart.  

The Seeds of Revolution

Young Lenin had to go through two tragedies that shook his world. The first of these was the demise of his father, who had essentially worked himself to death. The young Vladimir Ilyich started to harbor resentment against the state structure and the traditional authority paradigm, which he held responsible for overtaxing his father’s health, driving him into an early grave.

The second event, however, was even grimmer for Vladimir: the execution of his beloved and admired elder brother, Aleksandr. A student at St. Petersburg, Aleksandr was executed by the government in 1887 as a terrorist, as he belonged to a revolutionary group that was planning to kill Tsar Alexander III, in a similar way to how the Tsar’s father had been assassinated by populists.

Not only did this event steal a family member, but it also ostracized the Ulyanov family, and former friends and acquaintances now began to shun them as tarnished outcasts.

With this, Ulyanov rejected the liberal school of thought and denounced traditional religion. He single-mindedly dedicated himself to radical, revolutionary politics. Vladimir immersed himself in Chernyshevsky’s novel, What Is to Be Done?, which he believed reshaped him and changed his life.

His acquaintances saw that he lived in the ways of the revolution around the clock. He read many books, and by 1889, was an avowed Marxist. Even so, the marks of Russian radicalism left behind by the populists and nihilists remained with him and continued to influence his brand of Marxism.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Early Radical Activities

Although there are stories that suggest that Lenin had been a Marxist when his brother was executed, historian Orlando Figes claims that he became a Marxist much later, and despite his turn to Marxism, “remained infused with the Jacobin spirit of the terrorists and their belief in the overwhelming importance of the seizure of power”. 

Lenin’s radical activities led to him being expelled from the Kazan Imperial University. Despite that, he was able to finish his law degree and work as a public defender. At the same time, he was secretly involved in revolutionary politics. 

Lenin traveled to Switzerland in 1895 to meet Georgi Plekhanov, who was leading the Russian Marxists at the time, though Lenin would go on to eventually displace him in terms of prominence after 1900. Lenin then continued on his way to Paris, where he wished to make a pilgrimage at the site of the Paris Commune. In Russia, he continued his underground revolutionary activism with the Social Democratic Party, even as he remained under constant observation by police spies. 

Learn more about the Paris Commune of 1871.

Leninist Organization

Over the years, Lenin had fashioned himself in an extremely disciplined manner. He was extremely well organized, bordering on fanatical even, though his neatness was not applicable to his clothing, which he famously neglected. He required total silence in his surroundings when he was working.

Quite against the commonly adopted bohemian lifestyles of revolutionaries of the time, Lenin did not smoke and drank very little. He took great care of his body, exercising regularly to keep himself ‘ready’. He seemed to be attempting to sharpen himself into a machine, one devoted to creating a revolution. In the process, he was not afraid of suppressing his human emotions. In fact, he confessed that he did not listen to music often as it made him sentimental. 

However harsh these character traits sound, they did not, at all, make him a marginal figure. In fact, his friends and followers instead saw him as having a hypnotic influence, one of immense certainty. They felt his influence to such an extent that he became their guru, nicknamed Starik, or Old Man, even at the young age of 25. 

Other Striking Attributes

His stark discipline was not the only striking attribute that Lenin possessed. He had a bald head, which was in sharp contrast with his well-groomed beard, which gave him a constant look of concentration and dynamism. According to his acquaintances, Marxism was not simply a conviction for him, it had morphed into a religion. Even the famous Marxist, Leon Trotsky, felt that to Lenin, a human was not an end in himself, but merely a means to an end. 

Vladimir Lenin seated at his desk.
Lenin’s bald head drew a striking contrast to his well-groomed beard,
evoking a look of determination and seriousness.
(Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

There were instances when Lenin’s dispassionate perspective towards life went to the extent of shocking even his fellow revolutionaries. For instance, during the 1891–92 famine that ravaged the Russian Empire, especially in the Volga region, Lenin disagreed with influential activists and writers, such as the famous novelist Leo Tolstoy, who organized voluntary relief efforts given the government’s slow and inefficient response. Lenin explained his dissent, claiming that famines were not accidents, rather, an absolute and inevitable result of industrialization and capitalism. Famines were bound to happen in order to curtail the growth of universal misery. 

Despite often shocking his comrades to the core at this grim calculation, and at many other instances of his calculative, mechanical behavior, Lenin remained firm in his deliberate hardness. 

Learn more about revolutionary Russias.

Common Questions About Vladimir Lenin

Q: Who was Vladimir Lenin?

Vladimir Lenin, born as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, was a lawyer, and went on to become the leader of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution.

Q: What events led to Vladimir Lenin’s shift to Marxism?

Although some people suspect Lenin was already a Marxist before these events occurred, most historians agree that it was the death of his father, and subsequently the execution of his brother, which turned Lenin to Marxism.

Q: What were some of Lenin’s striking physical features?

Lenin had a bald head and a well-groomed beard, a detail which created an air of intense concentration and dynamism around him. Ironically, his keen organizational skills were never extended to his clothing, and he was infamous for his disheveled clothes.

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