Vladimir Lenin: The Shaping of a Revolutionary (Part I)

German Federal Archives [Public domain]

Another excerpt from my forthcoming book, this one from the chapter covering the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Narodnaya Volya (from a previous post) would play another pivotal role in the fate of Russia and its revolutionary future.  A young student named Alexander Ulyanov soon fell under the group’s sway and in 1887 was arrested for involvement in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III.  Refusing to ask for clemency, Alexander was hanged (Salisbury 1977; Krausz 2015).

Alexander Ulyanov was the older brother of Vladimir Ulyanov – later known as Vladimir Lenin.  Vladimir and the rest of the family did not know of Alexander’s revolutionary activities until his arrest.  The death of Alexander deeply affected Vladimir who up to that point had shown little interest in politics, much less revolution.  As one chronicler of Lenin’s path as a revolutionary stated:

Some critics have tried to find cruelty, single-mindedness, egocentricity, or ultraism in the record of Vladimir’s early years.  It does not stand up in the objective evidence of those who knew him.  This was no rebel, no iconoclast, no youthful messiah.  Vladimir was by all accounts as normal and pleasant a youngster as any parents could have desired (Salisbury 1977). 

In fact, those who knew him later in life said that Lenin was not motivated by power but by genuine conviction. Combined with his boundless energy and “iron will,” this gave him tremendous charisma.  Compared to Trotsky and Stalin, he was considered to have the least dictatorial personality, taking the time to try to educate and persuade (Krausz 2015).   

The Ulyanov boys had grown up in a middle class rural environment.  Their father was educated in math and physics and enjoyed a career as a local school inspector.  He was a liberal reformer who had supported Alexander II.  He and his wife provided an intellectually stimulating environment for their children, encouraging reading and games, and instilling reformist values (Salisbury 1977). 

By all objective measures, the boys enjoyed a relatively stable and happy home life.  Vladimir was known as a smart, rambunctious and playful youngster who liked music and chess.  His brother, on the other hand, was solemn, studious and compassionate but Vladimir idolized him, often seeking to emulate him.

Alexander eventually left home to go to university in St. Petersburg.  His journey to radicalization was not uncommon for idealistic youths of the time.  Having grown up rather insulated in the provinces, upon arriving in the big city, Alexander witnessed the deplorable conditions of workers as well as brutal crackdowns by the police on demonstrations.  In fact, he had participated in a demonstration just weeks before his arrest that had been handled particularly violently by the authorities (Salisbury 1977). 

Vladimir was devastated by his brother’s death and the sudden shunning of the family by others in their community (Krausz 2015).  Witnesses describe a young man having trouble expressing his grief:  “It was notable that in all the accounts no member of Vladimir’s family, none of his friends, offers any remark or expression made by Vladimir in those days in Simbirsk.  Change there was.  Everyone noticed that.  The gay, laughing boy, full of tease and jokes and high spirits, overnight became serious, thoughtful, gloomy.” (Salisbury 1977)

The effects were still visible four years later in 1891 when Vladimir went to St. Petersburg to take his law exams.  While there, he looked up one of his brother’s close friends, S.F. Oldenburg: 

[Vladimir] asked many questions about his brother, especially his scientific work.  Oldenburg remembered Vladimir as ‘gloomy and silent,’ and said he obviously suffered deeply over his brother’s death.  (Salisbury 1977).

The lingering effects of Alexander’s demise would be seen in Vladimir’s now single-minded focus on revolutionary politics.  By 1893, after practicing law successfully for around 18 months, he began immersing himself in revolutionary studies.  He was already under surveillance and barred from government employment (Krausz 2015; Salisbury 1977). His mother disapproved and wanted him to become a farmer, but she would help to support him financially throughout his career, including during his stints of exile and emigration (Krausz 2015). 

As part of his revolutionary education, he repeatedly read What is to Be Done? (Salisbury 1977) and later acknowledged Chernyshevsky to be second only to Marx in influence (Szamuely 1974). 

Lenin, however, rejected the use of terrorism and instead advocated a strong centrally controlled movement of dedicated and professional revolutionaries who acted as secret conspirators.

To be continued.


  1. Salisbury, Harrison E.  Black Night, White Snow:  Russia’s Revolutions 1905 – 1917.  De Capo Press. New York, NY. 1977;
  2. Krausz, Tamas. Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography. Monthly Review Press. New York, NY. 2015;
  3. Szamuely, Tibor. The Russian Tradition. Fontana Press. 1974.

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