Lenin's father, Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov, was from a family of serfs; his ethnic origins remain unclear, with suggestions being made that he was Russian, Chuvash, Mordvin, or Kalmyk. Despite this lower-class background he had risen to middle-class status, studying physics and mathematics at Kazan Imperial University before teaching at the Penza Institute for the Nobility. Ilya married Maria Alexandrovna Blank in mid-1863. Well educated and from a relatively prosperous background, she was the daughter of a German–Swedish woman and a Russian Jewish physician who had converted to Christianity. It is likely that Lenin was unaware of his mother's Jewish ancestry, which was only discovered by his sister Anna after his death. Soon after their wedding, Ilya obtained a job in Nizhny Novgorod, rising to become Director of Primary Schools in the Simbirsk district six years later. Five years after that, he was promoted to Director of Public Schools for the province, overseeing the foundation of over 450 schools as a part of the government's plans for modernisation. His dedication to education earned him the Order of St. Vladimir, which bestowed on him the status of hereditary nobleman.
The couple had two children, Anna (born 1864) and Alexander (born 1868), before Lenin who gained the childhood nickname of "Volodya" was born in Simbirsk on 10 April 1870, and baptised several days later. They were followed by three more children, Olga (born 1871), Dmitry (born 1874), and Maria (born 1878). Two later siblings died in infancy. Ilya was a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church and baptised his children into it, although Maria a Lutheran by upbringing was largely indifferent to Christianity, a view that influenced her children.
Both parents were monarchists and liberal conservatives, being committed to the emancipation reform of 1861 introduced by the reformist Tsar Alexander II; they avoided political radicals and there is no evidence that the police ever put them under surveillance for subversive thought.Every summer they holidayed at a rural manor in Kokushkino. Among his siblings, Lenin was closest to his sister Olga, whom he often bossed around; he had an extremely competitive nature and could be destructive, but usually admitted his misbehaviour. A keen sportsman, he spent much of his free time outdoors or playing chess, and excelled at school, the disciplinarian and conservative Simbirsk Classical Gimnazia.
Ilya Ulyanov died of a brain haemorrhage in January 1886, when Lenin was 16. Subsequently, Lenin's behaviour became erratic and confrontational, and he soon renounced his belief in God. At the time, Lenin's elder brother Alexander was studying at Saint Petersburg University. Involved in political agitation against the absolute monarchy of the reactionary Tsar Alexander III, he studied the writings of banned leftists and organised anti-government protests.
He joined a revolutionary cell bent on assassinating the Tsar and was selected to construct a bomb. Before the attack could take place the conspirators were arrested and tried, and in May, his brother Alexander was executed by hanging. Despite the emotional trauma of his father's and brother's deaths, Lenin continued studying, graduated with a gold medal for exceptional performance, and decided to study law at Kazan University.
He was arrested in 1895 and dis¬patched to Siberia where he wrote his first major treatise, The Development of Capitalism in Russia. He was released in 1900 and left his homeland for a period of exile that stretched, with a brief break in 1905, for nearly two decades.
By the time Russian Marxists gathered for their Second Congress in Brussels and London in 1903, Lenin had emerged as one of the notables of the Russian revolutionary movement. He offered his fellow Marxists a blueprint for an underground party of revolutionary professionals; outvoted on this issue, he seized his victory over a lesser question to dub his faction the Bolsheviks (the majority). In 1912, after a decade of wrangling with Marxists of other temperaments and viewpoints, Lenin marched away from other notables in the loosely knit Russian Marxist movement and formally declared his faction to represent the true Russian Marxist party of the revolution.
Despite Lenin's dramatic step in 1912, he remained merely one of several respected leaders in Russian Marxist circles. He had let the opportunities presented by the revolution of 1905 slip by; Lenin returned to Russia, but it was the fiery young Leon Trotsky who had seized the reins of the St. Petersburg Soviet and ridden the chaotic political tide of 1905 to national prominence. Apart from Lenin's call for an elite party of dedicated professionals, he was marked off from his contemporaries by his interest (unusual for a Russian Marxist) in the peasantry as a revolutionary force. World War I opened the way, however, for Lenin's personal and political triumph.
The outbreak of hostilities found the Russian exile in Cracow, a city in Austrian Galicia. The authorities promptly interned him as an enemy alien. Austrian and Polish Socialists, most of whom Lenin later marked as bitter enemies, interceded with Vienna to release Lenin from prison, and he departed for Switzerland. He remained there until early 1917. From the first, Lenin elaborated a position on the war that was foreshadowed by his pre-1914 writings. Marxist revolutionaries, he maintained, ought not to seek to prevent war or to limit it; rather they must use the dislocation a great war was likely to bring in order to pull down the existing order. Even more dramatically, he advocated the defeat of the tsarist armies as the first step toward revolution in Russia. Such an extreme position found few supporters; even Trotsky, who viewed the conflict in the same general way, would not support Lenin's manifestos at the Zimmerwald (September 1915) and Kienthal (April 1916) gatherings of international Socialist leaders. In early 1917 Lenin told a Swiss youth group that they, not he, might be the ones to witness "the decisive struggles of the coming revolution."
Word of bread riots in March soon gave way to exhilarating news that the monarchy had fallen. Lenin succeeded, only after an agonizing delay of a month, in getting back to Petrograd by way of Germany and Scandinavia. His trip through Germany in the famous "sealed train" gave his foes in Russia powerful evidence to use in condemning Lenin as a German agent. The weight of recent scholarship (Zeman, Senn, Rabinowitch) supports the view that Lenin received German financial aid during 1917 and probably in earlier years. But the Germans were spending lavish
amounts of cash to support a broad range of potential saboteurs of the Russian war effort. There is no evidence to indicate Lenin pursued anything other than his own plans, although he was doubtless delighted to use any aid Berlin chose to supply.
Even before Lenin returned to Russia, he assaulted the provisional government and lashed out at Russian Marxists, including some of his own Bolsheviks, who backed the provisional government's policy of continuing the war. Lenin called for accelerating and deepening the March Revolution, pushing bourgeois elements and moderate Socialists aside. He offered land to the peasants, the vast group that the provisional government had asked to remain patient until orderly land reform could take place, probably after the war.
After an abortive effort in the so-called July days, Lenin led his Bolshevik party (then renamed the Communist party) to power in November 1917. Trotsky, a newly hatched Bolshevik, served as his leading lieutenant. Both Lenin and Trotsky anticipated that a Russian revolution would spark comparable upheavals in the other warring nations, in particular in Germany. This would, at the least, bring the belligerents to a Russian-sponsored peace conference. Perhaps, they went on to dream, it would mean workers' governments elsewhere rushing to aid the beleaguered Bolsheviks, a small workers' party in the midst of an underdeveloped peasant nation.
When Russian calls for a peace conference drew no response, Lenin and Trotsky began negotiations with the Central Powers alone in mid-December at Brest-Litovsk. Lenin was quicker than his younger colleague to abandon the dream of a German revolution. The generals who dominated German foreign policy insisted on a victors' peace, featuring territorial expansion in eastern Europe at Russia s expense. Trotsky's delaying tactics and his dramatic declaration of "no war, no peace' failed by mid-February. German armies drove eastward in an eleven-day push, unopposed by any organized Russian military force. And Lenin stepped in to accept Berlin's terms. Debo suggests that Lenin had deliberately distanced himself from Trotsky s flam-boyant approach to the peace talks; and, in the end, he won over Trotsky and the leading lights of the Communist party to peace. It was close to peace at any price, and it left revolutions in Central Europe to rise or fall on their own. But it saved the Russian Revolution from an early demise at the hands of the German army.
Between the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, and the armistice of November 11, Lenin continued his policy of survival at any cost. He quietly accepted German thrusts into the Ukraine and Finland, beyond anything permitted by Brest- Litovsk. At the same time, Lenin and Trotsky, then commissar of war, spoke of getting help from "the brigands of French imperialism" to fight "German brigands." By summer the greater danger seemed to come from the Entente, whose members were landing troops in northern Russia and at Vladivostok. In August Lenin spoke of calling on "the German imperialist vultures" for help in fighting off these Anglo-French and Japanese-American assaults.
The November armistice deprived revolutionary Russia of the chance to maneuver between the opposing camps. The next stage of Lenin's career saw him consumed by the ordeal of civil war, already under way by early 1918. There several Entente nations offered support in varying degrees to anti-Communist White forces. The fate of the revolution was contested on the battlefield until the close of 1920.
Lenin had little time thereafter to shape the future of his Soviet republic. In early 1921 he launched the "New Economic Policy," reversing the radical policy of agrarian and industrial expropriations that had been applied during the civil war. At the close of his life, he showed signs of dissatisfaction with the fruits of the revolution: the bureaucratic dictatorship that Communist party rule had established, the bullying of non-Russian ethnic groups represented by the armed takeover of the independent Georgian republic in 1921. Beginning in early 1922 the revolution's founder suffered a series of disabling strokes. He died, still a relatively young man of fifty-four, in Moscow on January 21, 1924.