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Vladimir Lenin

What it is:

Vladimir Illyic Ulyanov, also known as Vladimir Lenin, was the first leader of the Soviet Union and a key player in its October Revolution.

How it works (Example):

Born in 1870 as Vladimir Ulyanov, Lenin's revolutionary roots date to early in his life. In 1887, one of Lenin's brothers was hanged for participating in a terrorist attack on Tsar Alexander III. The authorities also banished his sister, Anna, who witnessed the attack. Lenin's brother was given several opportunities to recant his anarchist position against the tsar; he refused and was hanged. By several accounts, this was a turning point for Lenin.

Lenin espoused an extreme dislike for Tsarist rule in Russia. He thought society should be free of class distinction and people should be free to live their lives without being constrained by the virtual caste system that existed in Russia at the time.

He soon became involved in student protests and eventually got kicked out of college. He eventually got his degree in 1891 from St. Petersburg University. He worked for a couple of years but then became more interested in Marxist propaganda distribution, which got him arrested and sent to Siberia for 14 months.

In 1898, he married a socialist activist (Nadezhda Krupskaya) and traveled Europe. During this time, he started writing articles and books about the revolutionary movement and chose his famous alias (Lenin). In 1901, he wrote one of his most famous pamphlets, "What is to be done?" which was widely read throughout Russia and abroad. In the pamphlet, Lenin argued that what Russia really needed was an "elite revolutionary vanguard" to help the oppressed classes overthrow the government.

Specifically, Lenin felt that capitalists' habit of international trade was translating to higher wages in Russia and therefore quelling the appetite for revolution among workers. He argued that these markets had to be cut off.

What set Lenin apart from Prussian-German Karl Marx was that Lenin thought he could bring communism to the rest of the world by changing the way people looked at "the oppressed class." He argued that a "dictatorship for the proletariat" was necessary to make things happen; the poor and oppressed couldn't do it for themselves.

In the meantime, World War I was wrecking the Russian economy, which had a weak industrial infrastructure at the time. This led to the February Revolution of 1917, which overthrew Tsar Nicholas II. Lenin, who was living in Europe at the time, came back to Russia, madder than ever. He ran to Finland after a Bolshevik uprising, but then came back in October. His protests gathered massive support, leading to the arrest of the country's provisional government. He published his ideas for how governments should operate in his essay "State and Revolution." In it, Lenin called for government based on workers' councils, or "soviets," which were elected by the workers. It worked.

On November 8, Lenin became the premier of the Council of People's Commissars. He pushed for socializing the health care system, emancipating women, improving education (literacy was a big problem), and getting out of World War I. This last part caused Russia to give up large portions of its western front.

Not everybody was sold on Lenin, and there were plenty of uprisings. Lenin started responding to these disruptions by forming what was essentially a secret police force and persecuting and jailing members of opposing parties. Lenin began arguing that a single person should be in charge of each enterprise, which some felt conflicted with the idea that the workers were in charge of the means of production in Russia. Lenin argued that it was the most efficient way. In January 1918, an assassination attempt was made on Lenin while he rode in his car. The gunmen missed, but in August of that year, Fanya Kaplan, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, shot him twice after a meeting. Lenin barely survived, and he increased his efforts to eradicate the "enemies of the Revolution."

In 1922, he had at least 8,000 priests and workers executed after an uprising in a textile town. Civil war broke out in Russia, and supporters of various political movements fell into the mix. Foreign powers, including the U.S., France, Britain and Japan, also got involved. Lenin's side basically won the fight, which gave him the courage to try to spread the revolution west to Poland, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

In May 1922, Lenin had a stroke. Two more followed, leaving him bedridden by 1923. Lenin died in 1924 at age 53. The city of Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in his honor.

Why it Matters:

Lenin is a symbol of how ideals and reality are often two different things. Though he sought a different economic way of life for his people, in practice, that ideal did not prove sustainable. Regardless, he is one of many Russian men who questioned the sustainability and purpose of capitalism and became famous for it.