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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Vladimir Lenin Dies, January 21, 1924

Today in 1924, Vladimir Lenin died. Statues of the revolutionary communist politician still stand in Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, testament to the impact he had on the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that had Lenin never lived, the 20th century would have been fundamentally different.

Lenin was born Vladimir Llyich Ulyanov in the town of Simbirsk, Russia in April, 1870. When he was 17, his brother Alexander was hanged for being part of a plot to assassinate Czar Alexander III. Lenin's sister Anna, who had been with Alexander at the time of his arrest, was sent into exile. Later, Soviet government biographers would claim that the death and imprisonment of two of his siblings made Lenin into a revolutionary bent on overthrowing not just the Czar's government, but capitalism worldwide.

Instead of joining one of the popular anarchist movements of the day, Lenin chose the path of Marxism, the political theories first put forth by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid-1800's. Marxism put forth the idea that communism is the last stage in a progression that includes feudalism, capitalism and socialism. Lenin adopted Marxist ideals and tried to spread them at Kazan University, which he attended. He was eventually arrested and expelled from the university, but continued to study on his own. He was multi-lingual, learning the classical languages of Latin and Greek as well as English, French and German. By 1891, he had acquired a license to practice law in Russia.

Lenin moved to St Petersburg in 1893 and instead of practicing law, became an active member of local groups interested in starting a revolution in the country. He was arrested two years later and was exiled to Siberia. While in exile, he married and wrote his first book, 'The Development of Capitalism in Russia'. When his exile ended in 1900, Lenin traveled extensively in Europe. It was during this time that he stopped using his surname and middle name and officially became Vladimir Lenin.

After two years of touring Europe, Lenin returned home to Russia and became active in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. The party split in 1903, with Lenin heading the Bolshevik faction. One of the reasons the split occurred was the pamphlet entitled "What is to be Done?", which Lenin authored. In it, he called for the creation of a revolutionary political party to oversee the actions of the working class. Up to that point, the idea of an over-arching national party that would oversee the local trade unions and other working class organizations had been largely rejected by the Labor Party. The Bolsheviks backed Lenin and his more radical ideas; the Mensheviks supported a more liberal, socialist movement.

By 1907, Lenin realized that it was no longer safe to remain in Czarist Russia. He once again traveled Europe, living in Finland and later Switzerland. He was in Europe when the First World War began in 1914, a war that he believed should have been turned into a struggle against the upper classes and royalty. He was devastated when the various socialist parties of Europe supported their nations' war goals.

In February, 1917, the government of Czar Nicholas II collapsed. This became known as the February Revolution. A new government was formed that consisted of both liberals and socialists who wanted to establish a democratically elected government. But the coalition was weak and had only limited control of the Russian Army, which was still mired in battle with Germany. Lenin saw this situation as the opportunity that he and his Bolsheviks had been waiting for. Unfortunately, he was stuck in Switzerland, a neutral country surrounded by nations at war. Eventually, however, the German government allowed Lenin to travel through that country by train in the hope that his arrival in Russia would help bring an end to the war on the Eastern Front.

With Lenin's arrival in St. Petersburg, the Bolsheviks became officially opposed to the provisional government. For their part, those who still supported the government tried to paint Lenin as a German spy. The charges could not be made to stick, but a failed Bolshevik uprising in July, 1917 made Lenin flee the country again and seek refuge in Finland. He continued to stir the pot of revolution in Russia, however, and by October of that year he returned to St. Petersburg and helped lead the overthrow of the provisional government. Though tenuous, the Soviets were now in power.

Lenin spoke of rural electrification, literacy programs and modernization of industry and agriculture, but his first order of business was to get Russia out of the First World War. In order to make this come about, Lenin had to agree to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, whose terms were humiliating to Russia. In the agreement, Russia lost her claim to most of her non-Russian territories in Europe. She renounced her claims on the Baltic states, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and Finland. This amounted to one-third of her population, half of her industrial might and nine-tenths of her coal mines. Some of these areas would be re-gained and the treaty would be nullified by the German surrender in November 1918, but for the time being the treaty was a disaster.

Elections were held for the newly-formed Russian Constituent Assembly soon after the Revolution, but when the Bolsheviks lost most of the seats in the body, they shut it down. It never re-convened. This marked the beginning of the dissolution of all political dissent in the Soviet Union. Lenin ordered the imprisonment of the leaders of the various political parties; others just disappeared. The Bolsheviks created a secret police force, the Checka, whose main job was to squash any person or group deemed to be "counter-revolutionary".

Lenin survived two assassination attempts during 1918, one of which left bullets stuck in his shoulder and lung. Considered too dangerous to remove, they remained in his body for the rest of his life and are considered by some to be the cause of his future health problems.

Almost as soon as the Bolsheviks came to power, a civil war broke out in Russia. The two main forces were the Red Army, who were communists, and the White Army, who were traditionalists intent on re-establishing the monarchy or at least removing the communists from power. The US, Japan, France and Great Britain all sent troops to help bolster the White Army, but their contributions did little. The Red Army was better organized and by 1920, the Whites were all but defeated. Small battles continued for several years, but the communists were in firm control of the nation.

During the civil war, it is estimated that 200,000 people were executed by the communists. Some were political opponents; others were farmers who resisted what Lenin called "war communism", which was nothing more than outright seizure of anything the communists needed for the war effort. One of the biggest proponents of this purge was a man named Josef Stalin, who expounded on the positive effects of "open and systematic mass terror". Lenin himself was no bystander to these killings; he issued orders concerning public hangings and the systematic execution of those considered to be upper class. Thus began more than 70 years of Soviet government brutality against its own citizens.

In 1922, at the age of 52, Lenin had his first stroke. He had a second in December of that year and a third in March, 1923. This final stroke left him bedridden, a condition that would remain with him for the rest of his life. After his first stroke, he dictated his thoughts concerning the Soviet government and criticized most of the high-ranking officials in it. He was especially hard on Josef Stalin; he even went so far as to suggest that he be removed from his office. After Lenin died on January 21, 1924 at the age of 53 from a fourth stroke, his wife mailed the documents to the central committee with the instructions that they be read at the next Party Congress. This never happened, and Joseph Stalin eventually became the iron-fisted leader of the Soviet Union. During his reign of terror, tens of millions of Soviet citizens were killed by their own government.

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