Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov on April 22, 1870, to an upper-middle class family in the Russian town of Simbirsk, on the Volga River. His father was an inspector of schools, and died in 1886. The next year his older brother, Alexander, was executed for taking part in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. After his brother's death, the young Vladimir took up his revolutionary ways.
While still a teenager, Lenin was expelled from college for taking part in a political demonstration. For several years he lived with relatives, studying law and reading revolutionary literature, especially the writings of Karl Marx, which predicted an imminent revolt by the working class, or proletariat, that would usher in a classless society. In 1891 he passed his law examinations, but his law practice quickly took a backseat to his revolutionary activity, as he began to make a name for himself within the world of Russian Marxism.
Lenin was arrested in 1895, sent to jail, and later exiled to Siberia, where he married Nadezhda Krupskaya, whom he had known in the St. Petersburg underground movement. During this period, the first Russian Marxist political party was founded, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, or Social Democrats. When his exile ended, in 1900, Lenin went abroad to Western Europe, where he was joined by Krupskaya, and began to publish a revolutionary newspaper, Iskra (The Spark), which fellow revolutionaries smuggled into Russia. Meanwhile, in 1903 the Social Democrats held their second Congress, in Brussels and London, and there the party split in two, forming a radical group, the Bolsheviks (Majority), and a more moderate group, the Mensheviks (Minority). Lenin, who advocated an elite group of revolutionaries rather than a larger, more broad-based party, took up leadership of the Bolsheviks.
Until 1917, Lenin and Krupskaya traveled around Europe, agitating and organizing for a revolution they believed to be inevitable. (During this time, he met Inessa Armand, a Bolshevik agitator who was to become his closest friend– and possibly his lover.) In Russia, Tsar Nicholas II's government survived the 1905 Revolution by agreeing to the formation of a representative body called the "Duma," but the stresses brought on by Russia's involvement in World War I proved too great for the struggling autocracy. In 1917, the Russian Revolution toppled the Tsarist government, and Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland, thanks to the intervention of the Germans, who allowed him to travel through the war zone in a sealed train. From March until November of 1917, Russia was ruled by a Provisional Government, which made plans for a democratically elected assembly. A number of miscalculations, however, along with the strain of continuing the war with Germany, paved the way for a Bolshevik coup in November of 1917.
Lenin led the new government, which quickly made peace with the Germans and conducted a bloody civil war against the "Whites," a loose collection of armies united only by their opposition to Bolshevism. Those fighting on the side of the government were known as the "Reds." After much violence, the Reds won, largely thanks to the work of Leon Trotsky, a former Menshevik, who organized the Red Army. In this struggle, Lenin ordered the use of brutal tactics, against Whites but also civilians, as he put into bloody practice the Marxist ideas of class warfare. The campaign became known as the "Red Terror", and saw the murders of thousands of Russian peasants, and the consignment of thousands more into concentration camps as "enemies of the revolution." Lenin's accompanying economic innovations then caused a terrible famine, in 1921, which killed nearly 5 million people.
By 1922, Lenin was the ruler of a united Russia, however wretched, which was renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. However, he suffered two strokes in 1922, and a third in 1923 that robbed him of the power of speech. He survived another year before passing away on January 21, 1924. He was succeeded by Joseph Stalin, whose influence Lenin had warned against before his death, and who would soon emerge as one of the bloodiest tyrants in the 20th century. Meanwhile, Lenin acquired the status of a secular saint, and his embalmed body was placed in Moscow's Red Square as a national shrine. His reputation survived, if only in the writings of Soviet propaganda, until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, when to criticize the founder of the communist state no longer constituted a crime.