The Russian Empire of the late 19th century was the world's largest contiguous land empire, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, and encompassing a sixth of the world's landmass within its borders. This was the Russia into which Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was born. It was a place where modernity and the ancient world were in conflict, as rapid industrialization and a vibrant cultural life coexisted with a huge, pious, poverty-stricken peasantry, ruled by the Tsar, a divine-right autocrat, without even a semblance of democratic or parliamentary rule. The breath of incipient reform stirred in Lenin's youth, as Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs and created local elected bodies, planning to move his country toward a more democratic form of government. But on March 13, 1881, Alexander II lost his life to the bomb of a radical revolutionary. In his place ruled his son, the imposing, bearded Alexander III, who ruled Russia with an iron hand.
The intermixing of modern ideas with medieval oppression in Russia made the country an ideal incubator for revolutionary politics. Countless ideologies percolated among the members of the intellectual classes, or "intelligentsia," ranging from anarchism to agrarian populism, but of all of these, Marxism contained the most appeal. This ideology was named for the 19th-century German thinker Karl Marx, who claimed, in The Communist Manifesto , to have unlocked the "scientific" mechanisms of history–which, it declared, could be used to predict the future development of society. Maintaining that class struggle was the motivating force behind all of human history, Marx anticipated an imminent manifestation of this struggle in the form of a world-wide revolution by the victims of industrialization, the urban working class, or proletariat. This revolution would topple the rule of the middle classes, or bourgeoisie, and lead, essentially, to utopia, in which all class distinctions would be abolished, along with national governments and religion, both of which Marx regarded as oppressive.
Of course, Marxism's attraction did not lie in its historical or economic accuracy. Historians rejected its simplistic vision of the past as a record of endless class struggle, and the theory's economic predictions–namely, that the bourgeoisie could only grow richer at the expense of the working class, thus pitting the two classes against one another–failed to come to pass. Indeed, the capitalist system seemed only to grow more prosperous and more stable. Nevertheless, many followers of the theory maintained a quasi-religious faith in Marx's prophetic ability, and the idea retained its allure. It promised of an earthly paradise, and for the Russian intellectuals who had sloughed off their Christian faith, that seemed a dream worth pursuing.
But Lenin and his fellow Marxists would have never had the opportunity to put their ideas into practice had it not been for World War I, the ruinous struggle (1914-1918) that pitted Russia, Britain, and France (and eventually the U.S.) against Germany and Austro-Hungary. It was the stresses of this conflict that exposed the weaknesses of the Russian state under the Tsars. Nicholas II was poorly suited for absolute power; his wife Alexandra, a German princess, had never enjoyed the public's trust, but suffered additional disfavor after the outbreak of war with her native Germany. Moreover, the Tsar and his wife had come to rely on a self-proclaimed holy man named Grigory Rasputin to help their hemophiliac son Alexis, and Rasputin gained much control over court appointments and government policy before disgruntled nobles had him assassinated in December of 1916. Thus by 1917 the Tsar and Tsarina had lost the people's loyalty, and in March of that year, protests and a mutiny among the royal troops forced Nicholas to abdicate, ushering in a period of disorder which Lenin and the Bolsheviks would use to their advantage.
Indeed, if the situation had not been as chaotic as it was, the Bolsheviks could never have come to power: essentially a small clique of intellectuals, they wielded little influence over the masses or the military. (Imagine the faculty of a small mid-western college taking over the government of the United States; this is the scale of the Bolsheviks' achievement.) Only with the Germans battering against the western frontier and the country in utter upheaval could Lenin's coup succeed, and only with the other European nations wearied by years of bloody conflict and anxious for compromise could their revolutionary government maintain their hold on power. Even so, the Bolshevik takeover of Russia ranks among the most remarkable feats in political history–and the most regrettable.