The man who would come to be known as Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov on April 22, 1870, in the Russian city of Simbirsk, which lay on the great River Volga. Like many revolutionaries, Lenin was born into relative prosperity: his father, Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov, was a university-educated civil servant, working as a government inspector of schools in the service of the Tsar, while his mother Maria was the daughter of a wealthy German doctor. The fourth of nine children, seven of whom survived childhood, Lenin enjoyed a comfortable, if hardly opulent, childhood as his father rose higher in government service, eventually receiving the title of "State Councilor," which gave him the right to be addressed as "Your Excellency." His sons, especially Lenin and his older brother Alexander, were expected to follow this career path when they completed their education.

The Russian Empire into which Lenin was born was a vast country, 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. The empire was a land of contradictions, modern in some ways and ancient in others. On the one hand, it was enjoying rapid industrialization, boasting an imposing army and a vibrant cultural life that included writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and composers like Tchaikovsky. On the other hand, Russia was governed by a divinely-chosen autocrat, without even a semblance of democratic or parliamentary rule, and a huge, pious, poverty-stricken peasantry–freed from serfdom only in the 1860s–lived in extreme discontent. Thus the intellectual ferment of Europe's 19th century served to open the eyes of many Russians to the suffering around them and the injustice of the strict control from above; a significant portion of the intellectual class, or "intelligentsia," embraced violent ideologies that advocated toppling the Tsars by force. In Lenin's youth, the Tsar was Alexander II; and even though this tsar was a reformist figure–it was he who had freed the serfs, and he now created elected bodies in a move toward a more democratic rule–he could not curb the growing resentment. Thus on March 13, 1881, a radical revolutionary's bomb killed this liberal monarch, and thereafter his son, Alexander III held the throne–though his reign constituted little improvement: this imposing, bearded man ruled Russia with an iron hand, "with faith in the power and right of autocracy."

Lenin was ten years old when Alexander II was killed in St. Petersburg's Winter Palace. At this point, the boy had not yet developed any obvious revolutionary sympathies, and as he entered adolescence his talent and devotion to his studies seemed to point him toward a university education and a successful professional career. But two events of the 1880s would alter his life path irrevocably. The first was the death of his father, from a heart attack, in January 1886. Ilya was still a young man, and his sudden demise seems to have shattered his son's religious faith–leaving him open to the quasi-religious allure of revolutionary movements. The second event came as an even worse shock–in March of 1887, when Lenin was nearly ready to go to university, his brother Alexander was arrested in St. Petersburg and accused of plotting to assassinate Alexander III with a bomb concealed in a medical encyclopedia. The news that Alexander was involved in revolutionary activity seems to have stunned everyone in the Ulyanov family, including Lenin. Even more shockingly, Alexander refused to plead his innocence, or even beg for mercy, which might have reduced his sentence from death to exile. Instead, he told the court that he considered revolutionary change "not only possible but even unavoidable," and that he was unafraid to die for the cause. He was convicted and hanged on March 20, 1887.

This constituted a great turning point in Lenin's young life. Thereafter, as his family came under surveillance by the Tsar's secret police and began to move around frequently, he devoted himself to discovering all he could about his executed brother's political convictions. He enrolled as a student at the university at Kazan, a large city upriver from Simbirsk, but he quickly became involved in subversive activity, and was expelled in December 1887 for taking part in student protests. Over the next five years, while his mother lived on a family estate in the more rural area of Kokushkino, Lenin worked toward becoming a lawyer, eventually receiving a law degree as an "external student" from St. Petersburg University in November 1891. During this time, he also immersed himself in revolutionary literature, beginning with Nikolay Chernyshevsky's political novel What Is To Be Done?, and continuing with the writings of the most influential philosopher of world revolution, Karl Marx.

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