The ethnically-mixed leader of the Bolsheviks, known for his stylish goatee and powerful forehead. Lenin (real name Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, 1870-1924) was, according to most accounts, actually rather uninterested in politics until one day when his brother was executed for participating in a failed plot to kill the Tsar. This was a breaking point in Lenin's life, and he quite literally devoted his life to the communist cause (he was known to work 14 hours a day or more). Of course, the authorities did not tolerate his agitation and anti-monarchist activity and he soon ended up in jail, then in Siberia, before finally fleeing the country and ending up living in Switzerland. His chance would finally come in 1917, when the Germans, hoping he'd cause havoc (but not thinking he'd actually succeed) allowed him to return to Russia. Ironically, while this did lead to German victory over Russia in World War I, it also led to the opposite happening 25 years later.
During Red October, Lenin led the overthrow of the government that overthrew Tsarist Russia, pulled Russia out of WWI and formed the world's first (allegedly—many Marxist theorists have denounced the USSR) socialist state (excluding the short-lived Paris Commune). This was not received well by many other rulers and governments and a lot of people in USSR itself, which led to foreign intervention and the Russian Civil War. As a result of this, most of Lenin's time as leader was spent at war. An assassination attempt resulted in his health deteriorating rapidly, until he was finally paralyzed by a series of strokes and forced to withdraw from politics. He died shortly after and was, against his wishes and that of his wife, mummified and interred in a mausoleum.
Although devastated by wars, coups, assassinations, famine, foreign intervention and a host of other ills, the Soviet Union nonetheless managed to recover near the end of Lenin's reign, and would grow into a superpower under his eventual successor, Josef Stalin. Lenin did not want Stalin to be his successor (or rather, he eventually came to oppose the idea), considering Stalin to be vulgar, chauvinistic and power-hungry, and considering Leon Trotsky to be a more worthy successor (though he was critical of all potential successors, just not nearly as much as he was critical of Stalin). Note that Lenin didn't actually want Stalin removed from the party as a whole, but only from its Central Committee.
Today, he has been somewhat overshadowed by his successors, and in media he usually doesn't appear personally; instead, one can often see his image on statues, posters, banners etc. in just about any communist setting. Incidentally, Lenin led a rather spartan life and was against any sort of Personality Cult being formed around him. Stalin, however, had different ideas and had Lenin's body mummified and put in a mausoleum and his image on just about everything related to the Communist Party or state.
Lenin was a prolific author, and his collected works consist of more than 40 volumes, each one a Door Stopper. The most famous works include What is to be Done?, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, The State and Revolution and the April Theses. For those interested in learning more about Lenin's political ideas, the basics can be found here.
It's possible to draw quite a few parallels between Lenin and Maximilien Robespierre, the (in)famous leader of the French Revolution.
Provides examples of:
Aloof Big Brother: He seemed to envy/admire his quiet, refined (and somewhat introverted) brother Alexander and tried his best to imitate him. Which just made his griefing more tragic (see You Killed My Father at the bottom).
A-Team Firing: Lenin tried his hand at hunting, but proved to be a horrible shot.
Doubles as I Don't Know Mortal Kombat. As Leon Trotsky put in his autobiography: "Just as brilliant strategists are generally bad chess players, political geniuses, which have great pulse and accurate look to their targets, are usually mediocre hunters".
Beam Me Up, Scotty!: He never used the term "useful idiots (of the West)". In fact, the earliest known usage in Western media is in a 1948 article in the social-democratic Italian paper L'Umanita - more than 20 years after Lenin's death.
He is the most often misquoted person in Russia. His famous line "The most important of arts is cinema" was later distorted with adding "and circus". He never said "Any cook can rule the country", but rather "We are not idealist who believe that a cook can rule the country". And there are many more.
In Russian Internet, a fake Lenin quote is used as a funny example of Beam Me Up, Scotty!: "The greatest problem with quotes on Internet is that people never bother to check their authenticity. V. I. Lenin".
The Chessmaster: Let's just say that Lenin was a very skilled - and ruthless - politician. He didn't sacrifice other Bolshevik leaders, though - unlike Stalin.
He was fully prepared to, and Trotsky actually executed a couple during the Russian Civil War. The only reason neither he nor Trotsky killed more is that the rest of the Old Bolsheviks were furious when they got the news and forced them to make sure it never happened again.
Cunning Linguist: He could speak Russian, German, English, French and possibly a few other languages (probably Finnish, since he spent some time posing as a Finnish worker in order to evade the Tsarist secret police). At one point he was fond of reading Latin classics, but gave up this pastime (and all his other leisure activities) so he could devote every waking hour to his political work.
Dark Messiah: Despite the questionable (to say the least) things he did to achieve his goals, Lenin was and still is a hero to many people throughout the world, and particularly in Russia. Before The Great Politics Mess-Up he was even more popular, and became an almost Christ-like figure to most revolutionary leftists.
Day of the Jackboot: The overthrow of the Provisional Government, if it wasn't this at the time, soon turned into this.
Deader Than Disco: All attempts to build a communist society (as described by Marx) in the 20th century ultimately failed. The vast majority were based on the Marxist-Leninist model. Therefore, it's not surprising that Lenin's popularity plummeted after the fall of the USSR, particularly in Eastern Europe.
Lenin's reputation outside the USSR has always been a polarizing issue. Marxism and socialism were once viable political ideas (socialism to a large extent still is outside of the United States), while elements of Marxist theory and terminology (base, superstructure, ideology, etc.) have remained within even American academia. However, Marx explicitly stated that Russia was not a viable candidate for communism (the Russian state was neither an industrial power nor a democracy, thus disqualifying Russia as the site of the first Marxist revolution), which made Lenin a polarizing figure during the brief period in which Marxist movements were active. Communists, socialists, anti-monarchists, and all other factions had varying degrees of loyalty to Marxism, with some groups idolizing Lenin himself and others accusing him of Nice Job Breaking It, Hero. The "Marxist-Leninist" model began with Lenin, but the term was attached to any idea or policy Stalin developed that clearly ran contrary to prior published works, to the point of turning into a Memetic Mutation.
Dead Guy on Display: As mentioned before, Lenin's body was preserved via a secret chemical process and put on display at Red Square in Moscow.
Egopolis: As mentioned above, Lenin's personality cult was implemented by Stalin. Lenin himself was strictly against all forms of hero-worship.
The Empire: Stamped out the remnants ofone,created another. Lenin's Soviet Union and the one remembered are somewhat different, however — the USSR of the 1920s was "the three Russias" (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus) and territories that would later be divided and renamed, largely in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Armenia, etc.). Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were under Soviet control and named as SSRs in the 1940s. The Eastern Bloc (nations not not extensions of the Soviet Union but not formal Soviet Socialist Republics) emerged after World War II.
Friend to All Children: Lenin genuinely liked kids (in a non-perverted way) and would sometimes spend hours playing with them. Some people believe this is because he regretted never having any children of his own.
Full-Circle Revolution: Maybe. Lenin's regime ended up creating a new ruling class, and a police state that was in many (though not all) ways even more repressive than the Tsarist one (and the short-lived Provisional government). For this reason, some scholars see the USSR as a bizarre continuation of Tsarist Russia, though Stalin receives more credit for that effect than Lenin. On the other hand, there were many changes in the country's culture, economic system, foreign policy etc. - it certainly developed its own cultural identity. One thing's for sure, though: Lenin's actions ultimately failed to create a communist society as described by Marx and Engels.
Heinz Hybrid: As stated above, he was of mixed Kalmyk, Tatar, German, Jewish, and Swedish descent.
He Who Fights Monsters/Cycle of Revenge: The Bolsheviks abolished the death penalty soon after they came to power, but as soon as the civil war broke out, it was reinstated. Soon after their enemies began the White Terror, the Bolsheviks answered with a Red Terror (at least that's how they justified it). As time went on, the Bolshevik regime became more and more despotic. Finally, Lenin's government ended up fighting rebelling peasants and sailors - the very people they were supposed to represent.
The death penalty had already been abolished by the February government, though they allowed it for soldiers at the front. The Bolsheviks merely confirmed that position (since they declared an armistice, the soldiers thing was irrelevant), but abolished it shortly after over much protest. Lenin had publicly opposed the death penalty throughout his career, but he had also consistently advocated violent revolution, so along with how quickly he reimplemented it, he was probably against it only as long as the other side were the ones using it.
It's a complicated matter. The death penalty was abolished again in 1920, except in those areas under martial law. Over the next several decades, the death penalty in the USSR was alternately permitted and prohibited, sometimes in very quick succession. Interestingly, Stalin abolished it from 1947-1950, but the population of the USSR had taken a bit of a dip after World War Two.
Historical Hero Upgrade: In Soviet media, and to a lesser extent in modern Russian media. Not to mention the number of Russians who still like him. For much of the 20th Century he was highly admired as a national liberator in China, India, Vietnam and different parts of the world.
Iconic Outfit: Traditionally depicted wearing a suit, a dark-red necktie and a newsboy cap.
I Have Many Names: His real name is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. "Lenin" was just one of several aliases he used. When he was a kid, Lenin was called Volodya (a diminutive of "Vladimir").
His role as the founder of the USSR then inspired "revolutionary" names derived from either his real name or from Lenin.
Just Friends: Lenin's relationship with Inessa Armand, a French communist and feminist, is still unclear. There were rumors of an affair, but nothing is known for certain. There are less well known and certainly more unfounded rumours about his relationship with Trotsky.
King on His Deathbed: He ended up like this eventually, especially as his health started deteriorating and he began to suffer dementia. As Lenin was what held the Bolshevik leaders together, a power struggle soon ensued. Stalin, being the most ruthless and manipulative among them, eventually won.
He felt guilty about listening to music - he felt it made him too mellow and distracted him from the serious business of Revolution. ("You have to beat people's little heads, beat mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people.")
Manipulative Bastard: He demanded that all socialist parties and workers in every country should protest against their governments and demand they cease hostilities during World War One, even declaring those didn't were enemies of the revolution, and eventually plotted to have the Russian ones executed. But he didn't do this because he was a pacifist, or even because he was against the war; he believed, instead, that the governments - being corrupt, capitalist bourgeois types - would never agree to such demands, and eventually take violent repressive measures against the protesters. His hope was that each country would devolve into civil war and violent revolution, but he spun it like he thought the protesters he was appealing to wouldn't be brutally martyred, as he hoped they would.
Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: The above colossally failed because of this. He could not understand that the Western democracies (such as Britain, France, Italy, Greece, and the US) would react using kid gloves compared to the Tsarists. While the Germans took the bait hook, line, and sinker and a lot of other places were deeply uncomfortable with the rise of socialist revolutionaries (particularly Italy, which took a sharp turn to the right), civil war and revolution fell stillborn outside of the Russian Empire itself.
Not So Different: From the czars. Lenin ended up being just as (arguably more) oppressive as the man he ordered to be executed.
Occupiers Out of Our Country: The Germans especially, but all Western "imperialist" democracies (many of whom did indeed send troops to fight in the Russian Civil War).
Pet the Dog: Lenin was outspoken in his criticism of antisemitism. A lot of it was because he associated it with Tsarism, though. He was the first leader to recognize the independence of Ireland and also made revolutionary Russia the first country to legalize homosexuality.
Posthumous Character: Although he only lived for seven years of the USSR's existence, he became the dominant figure in its propaganda for decades (only briefly being overshadowed by Stalin).
In the west (particularly the United States), most people associate Stalin with the USSR, not Lenin. The effect is much more pronounced in former SSRs and Eastern Bloc nations, where there was much more Lenin iconography.
Reign of Terror: The Red Terror, which began towards the end of 1918. It officially lasted less than two months, but large-scale repressions continued up to 1922. Many, many people were shot without proper trial, sent to labor camps, imprisoned or forcibly deported. The Whites, a collection of loosely allied (and even rival) monarchist generals conducting their own insurrections, organized a number of terror campaigns individually smaller than the Red one, with varying motives and degrees of ruthlessness. These campaigns usually targeted ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Jews. Smaller-scale mass killings were also conducted by foreign intervention troops, and the Finnish government carried out mass reprisals against the Bolsheviks' allies in Finland. It's important to stress that most of these terror campaigns (White or Red) were premeditated and systematic.
The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Interestingly, the revolution itself was almost bloodless, to the point that some historians call it a coup. The ensuing civil war and actions that came after the Bolsheviks took power, however, were anything but civilized.
Lenin would have argued that said terrors and civil war were part and parcel of the revolution, since the point was to transform the country and not simply change the leadership.
Rousing Speech: "All power to the Soviets!" being his most famous slogan.
Ironically, he had no intention of ever giving the Soviets any power. The Soviets were mostly made up of Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, his greatest opponents.
It's not quite as jovial as the trope implies: the czar had committed Russia to war, but the state was in no way ready to fight. Casualties were catastrophic and famine entrenched, so much so that despite leaving the war early, Russia's total casualties are two million more than the total for the entire British Empire, and that's using the conservative estimates. The Bolshevik slogan was Peace, Land, and Bread.
Take That: To his opponent in a very meaningful way by changing his name. His opponent (real name Georgi Plekhanov) called himself Volgin in honor to the Volga River. In response, Vladimir called himself Lenin in honor to the Lena River, which has more water, is longer and flows in the opposite direction. However, this did not make Volgin his Arch-Enemy, and Lenin actually credited (and praised) him in his efforts for socialism.
Team Dad: Lenin managed to keep the other Bolshevik leaders - many of whom were ruthless, backstabbing and/or domineering types (Stalin and Trotsky are prime examples) - working towards a common goal, most of the time. By contrast, the White movement lacked such a figure and thus often suffered due to internal bickering.
Tough Act to Follow: The figure to whom every Communist leader is inevitably compared, for better or worse, although Stalin is better remembered in the west.
Utopia Justifies the Means: Unlike Stalin, Lenin wasn't solely interested in power for its own sake, and never strayed from his ideals. This does not mean he didn't allow temporary retreats and concessions in order to cut losses, and by no means excuses the atrocities he directly ordered or were the results of his government's policies.
Violence Is the Only Option: In a Captain Obvious way, this was played straight by both the czar and his opponents — Lenin wasn't the first to grasp this fact, nor was he wrong. Terrorism had been tried by past revolutionary groups (to little to no success), the autocratic system in Russia was woefully outdatednote And the czar, at least, was going to fall at some point — the past century had been full of movements to end the czarist system., and the Russian state was ruthless in dispatching dissidents, meaning peaceful transition was simply not an option. Lenin's violence was an angry, passionate, destructive, gone-for-good, rip-it-all-down-and-set-fire-to-the-room overthrow of the class system through the anger of the disenfranchised and not an intellectual exercise in which the rich attempted communal life.note That happened. 1860s. The quote below doubles with invokedLess Disturbing in Context.
We must not depict socialism as if socialists will bring it to us on a plate all nicely dressed. That will never happen. Not a single problem of the class struggle has ever been solved in history except by violence. When violence is exercised by the working people, by the mass of exploited against the exploiters — then we are for it!
Context is key: by the time Lenin became a force to be reckoned with, Russia had been through multiple revolutionary movements, some more peaceful than others, but all ineffective. (Ask Dostoevsky.) To be successful, any revolutionary movement would have to be prepared for war with the Okhranka — the czar's protection force, who were not exactly nice guys — which meant accepting that violence was inevitable. Then there was the class divide in Russia, as serfdom continued in Russia long after it was abolished in Europe, and Lenin's "working people" would be roughly 90 percent of the population (i.e., anyone but the elite). It's not a call to random slaughter. Within the historical moment, what Lenin's saying is roughly this:
Socialism is revolution and revolutions are never pretty. We aim to dispatch an autocrat and his compatriots, who are guarded by the state police, and we know their methods of repression are brutal. Those who suffer most under the current system must be made angry at their exploitation by the higher classes, angry enough to demand their rights and rewrite the class system. We have seen the rise and fall of dissent, of communes, of a half-dozen movements that have never captured the masses because they failed to explain to the people the problems of structural inequity.
The Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks zig-zagged this trope to hell and back from 1904 through the Russian Civil War, with a Bilingual Bonus predicting the final use of the trope.
What Might Have Been: In contrast to his successor, Lenin seems to have been quite willing to make changes in the system when they weren't working, but died before he could make them. The 20th century could have had a very, very different history if Lenin had lived longer, but no one really knows how. Overlaps with Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act, as removing (or significantly altering) a communist Russia alters the conditions for World War II.
Alternately, had Lenin not been returned to Russia or had the Okhranka figured out sooner that the socialists were the most critical threat to the autocracy and stopped the Bolsheviks before it was too late. The czar's fall was inevitable, but when the czar fell, how much of the autocratic system would be disabled and what form of government Russia would develop afterward become open questions.
What the Hell, Hero?: Lenin and the Bolsheviks ultimately fulfilled their promise to get Russia out of the war by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Imperial Germany. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks had to give up a large amount of very valuable territory in the deal. Many Russians were aghast at the terms of the Treaty. The Bolsheviks managed to retake a fair amount of what they lost during the Russian Civil War, although several countries that were under Russian rule used the opportunity to become independent.
Workaholic: Said to be what ultimately killed him.
You Killed My Brother/It's Personal: One of the main motivators of his political activity was the execution of his brother Alexander (see Aloof Big Brother at the top). Before that, Vladimir was barely interested in politics. His father (household figure and extremely religious) had died the year before. The absence of his very strict authority, combined with the shock caused by his brother's political activity (no one would have guessed that the quiet and charming Alexander would turn out to be a Bomb Throwing Anarchist), set him in motion to reject religion and eventually join revolutionary circles (mainly to overthrow the system for killing his brother).
Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Terrorism was endogenous to Russian political life in the 19th and early 20th century, so every side (the czar, the revolutionaries, the west, the sub-factions of each group) had a chance to play this trope.
Works In Which Vladimir Lenin Appears Or Is Cited Include:
Old Major in Animal Farm is based partly on Lenin and partly on Karl Marx. His skull being put on display is a clear analog to Lenin's tomb.
Nicholas and Alexandra, an American historical drama from 1971.
A huge number of Soviet movies and documentaries, too numerous to mention here.
Likewise a huge number of unintentionally hilarious note or is it? Many are so naive it's hard to believe they aren't Stealth Parody. propaganda works depicting him as a brave young lad, playing with children from an orphanage, humbly standing in queue, etc. etc.