The Making of Lenin: The Beginning of Bolshevik Revolution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism—From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Vladimir Lenin was an essential cog in the Russian Revolution machine, perhaps one that the system could not have functioned without. Undeterred by the criticism he faced for his ideas and actions, how did he sow the seeds of another revolution in Russia?

Bolshevik protesters being dispersed by machine gun fire during the Russian revolution, 1917.
With the formation of the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions within the Socialist Democratic Party, seeds of revolution began to grow in the Soviet Union.
(Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Vladimir Lenin played a pivotal role in the formation of the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Socialist Democratic Party. He was later criticized by members of both the factions, who felt that he had a ‘siege mentality’ and was only interested in creating an authoritarian state. While Lenin was not really concerned by the comments of his adversaries on the subject of his mentality, it is, in fact, true that the underground activity and conspiracy that was prevalent in communism both before and after it was in power, fostered a distinctive mentality and worldview. To begin with, this fringe mentality of sorts came from the fact that revolutionaries had always been hunted. They were constantly involved in a chase with the imperial secret police, even when in exile. 

The Okhrana: The State’s Secret Police

The Okhrana, ‘guard department’, that had earlier been formed, was put into action after the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander. It was a secret police organization that was staffed by 20,000 individuals and, of course, used a large chunk of the budget. The fact that it was outside the jurisprudence of regular law meant that it was greatly feared, even though, ironically, its record was quite mild in comparison to the actions of the Bolshevik secret police that would come later. The figure of 17 people assassinated for political crimes in the 1880s seems to pale in comparison to the many people, including a prime minister, an education minister, and two ministers formerly in charge of the Okhrana, who were assassinated in the years to come.

The Okhrana infiltrated different revolutionary groups, including the disciplined and organized subsections of the Bolsheviks. There was, in fact, a point in time when the St. Petersburg leadership of five men comprised of four Okhrana agents. It was this awareness of constant peril and compromise that had the potential to create the ‘siege mentality’ amongst underground activists.

The secret police body was also active abroad, where about 5,000 estimated revolutionaries from the Russian Empire, including Lenin, were planning to overthrow Tsarism. 

Title page of the anti-Semitic work, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The infamous anti-Semitic text, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was thought to be a creation of the Okhrana.
(Image: Sergei Nilus (1862-1929)/Public domain)

The Okhrana was not above deploying psychological warfare operations, either, and frequently launched conspiracy theories. For instance, an infamous text, titled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, emerged in 1903, which proclaimed a global Jewish effort to take over the world. This scapegoating of the persecuted minority of the Jews, in order to divert dissatisfaction from the Romanovs, has long been suspected to have been birthed by Okhrana agents.

This text has lived on, disturbingly, into our own times as well. It was circulated worldwide after World War I, and was subject to adulation by the Nazis, cited by Hitler in Mein Kamph, and also reprinted by the American industrialist Henry Ford. It is still in circulation in some countries in the Middle East and was also produced as a TV series in Egypt. It serves as a classic example of how foul ideas live on, long after the men who produced them are gone. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Elements of Revolution: Underground Debates and More

The underground movement also housed a proud tradition of hosting vigorous debates,  a flowering function of the Marxist factions that had emerged in the west, who did not have to operate entirely in secret. The concept of holding fierce debates and remaining comrades, in the end, was considered a sign of strong character.

This ritualized culture of internal debate cultivated in the elite Bolsheviks a tradition of samokritika, ‘self-criticism’, a practice with religious roots, which was later developed by Stalin, taken up my Mao and also by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, and which still appears in China. It is thought to develop qualities of resilience and introspection essential for a revolutionary. 

The revolutionaries had adopted bohemian lifestyles, rejected traditional family models and therefore lived a life with a notorious mix of romance, jealousy, and secrecy. While living such radical lifestyles, there were a lot of differences among the revolutionaries of the time. What united them, however, was the sight of revolution around the corner. Was revolution really making its way back to Russia, though?

Learn more about communist culture.

More Revolution in Russia

After Lenin went into exile, industrial development continued rampantly in Russia, rising rapidly after having almost bottomed out. In 1905, a revolution started out unexpectedly in Russia, but it fizzled out nearly as soon as it had started. This was also the year when Lenin returned to Russia. He was too late to change the events of the revolution, and, disappointed, he returned back to exile.

When the empire was seeming to dissolve from the crisis in 1905, instead of reformations at the hand of the Tsar, the Russian Empire received a Siberian called Rasputin, who was called Mad Monk. The man was able to dominate the court of the Tsar because of his alleged supernatural abilities, which the Tsar and his wife believed could heal their ailing son. Rasputin’s influence continued to drag the empire down, and many future reform attempts couldn’t take off due to internal resistance, inefficiency, and the assassination of talented reformers.

The Seeds of Revolution under Lenin 

All this while Lenin was waiting in exile, where he continued to work on creating his new type of party for the next revolution in Russia. He felt that allying with the bourgeoisie in Russia would now be impossible, and the industrial proletariat should now ally with the peasantry, the masses of the Russian population. Promises of land through reform were enough to win over the peasants in what would be a tactical alliance in the longer term, given that the industrial proletariat was the ascendant class. 

In a time when other Marxists felt that Russia would require two stages in its development ( a middle-class democratic move, and then a move toward socialism), Lenin rejected this idea. He felt that Russia needed to jump head-first into Socialism.

Even when people felt that Russia was not ready for a Socialist revolution, Lenin felt that it was still part of a capitalist world, although not as advanced as Britain or the States, and perhaps the weakest link in the worldwide system. Revolt in Russia would spark a worldwide revolt.

In the face of contradicting comrades, Lenin single-mindedly stuck to his formula, even as moderate comrades tried to reconcile the factions. The split became permanent in 1912. Lenin denied the blame for the split, and instead pinned allegations on the Mensheviks. 

Lenin had sown the seeds of a crisis in the world system which he wished to use to his advantage for a revolution. The outbreak of the First World War, which shook the entire Western civilization, gave Lenin the perfect opportunity to employ his revolutionary strategy.

Learn more about the Russian Revolution.

Common Questions About Lenin and the Russian Revolution

Q: Who were the Okhrana?

Okhrana, the ‘guard department’, was the secret police service of the Soviet state which was deployed after Tsar Alexander was assassinated in 1881. Their main job was to hunt down revolutionaries, and Lenin was one of their primary targets.

Q: What were some elements of communist culture in Russia that kept the revolutionaries tied together?

The revolutionaries in Russia engaged in ferocious underground debates and engaged in sharp self-criticisms. They had adopted bohemian lifestyle and their world was surrounded by secrecy.
These elements kept various factions of revolutionaries, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks, tied together culturally.

Q: How did Lenin wish to take forward the revolution after initial attempts during his exile failed?

Lenin wished for the industrial proletariat to form a strategic alliance with the peasantry, the mass of Russia’s population. They would be easy to win over with promises of land reform. This was a tactical alliance, as the industrial proletariat were supposed to be the ascendant class.

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