Of the many revolutionary ideologies percolating in late 19th-century Russia, Marxism garnered the most popularity. Karl Marx, a 19th- century German thinker, claimed to have unlocked the mechanisms of history. In his "Communist Manifesto" (Marxism and Communism are roughly synonymous) Marx declared that the development of human society was determined by class warfare. In an industrial society, he claimed, the triumph of the middle class, or bourgeoisie, inevitably led to the rise of a proletariat, or laboring class who supported their decadent ways. As wealth came to be concentrated in bourgeois hands, the working class would grow ever more impoverished, leading to a revolution and the establishment of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." In this utopian setting, all class distinctions would be abolished, as would national governments and religion, both of which Marx regarded as tools of bourgeois oppression. "The Communist Manifesto" closed with a great call for revolt: "let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!"

The 20th century would see countless crimes committed in the name of "revolution"; dozens of Marxist states now lie in ruins from Poland to Pyongyang; thus in our era, it is difficult to understand how such an ideology managed to achieve such a huge following among the educated classes. Even by the time Lenin was studying law, a scant five years after Marx's death, scholars had begun to discredit Marxism's intellectual framework. The theory's particular vision of the past as a record of class struggle had received scorn from historians for its oversimplicity; and the economic predictions made by Marx and his co-writer, Friedrich Engels–namely, that the industrial working class would grow ever poorer while the bourgeois grew richer–had been proven false by history itself. But the Communist idea retained its allure, largely through its claim to have discovered the "laws" of history at a time when it appeared that the brilliant light of science would soon illumine not only the natural world, but the human world as well. If Darwin could discover the laws of biology and evolution, and Freud could establish a system for the interpretation of dreams, then it seemed only logical that "scientific socialism" could provide a blueprint for the future of economic and political development.

Marx's scientific language, then, provided a rational patina for what was, at bottom, an irrational movement. Marxism, despite its intellectual pretensions, was a kind of a prophetic religion, an atheistic faith that predicted the future and, more importantly, promised ultimate triumph over the forces of evil. Like Christians awaiting the Second Coming, young Communists anticipated the "revolution," but while Christ promised a kingdom in heaven, Marxism prophesied a paradise here on earth–once the offending bourgeois had been dealt with, that is.

Russia–with its fierce piety, frenzied millennial sects, and strong revolutionary movements– provided fertile ground for the scientific mysticism of Marxism. The first notable Russian Marxists were Georgy Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod, who formed the Liberation of Labour group in 1883. When Lenin moved to St. Petersburg in 1891 and began to practice law, he soon found himself moving in Marxist circles–attending meetings, writing pamphlets, and as his command of the material became obvious, giving speeches. It was during this time that he met Nadezhda Krupskaya, a committed Marxist who would become his wife and life-long political ally.

From May to September of 1895, Lenin went abroad for the first time, making a tour of Europe in which he established valuable contacts among the Marxists living there. Notable among these was Plekhanov, the chief of the previous generation of Marxists, who met Lenin in Switzerland. Upon his return to Russia, Lenin threw himself into the movement with redoubled enthusiasm, working to help found a new organization, entitled–rather cumbrously–"Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class." However, his new group was infiltrated by a police agent–a common occurrence in Tsarist Russia, and a police swoop in December caught Lenin, and a number of his compatriots, in possession of illegal literature. His imprisonment in St. Petersburg jails would last more than a year, but conditions were far from harsh, and he was able to begin writing his first major work, entitled The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Then, in February of 1897, he was sentenced to three years exile in Siberia, the vast and frosty region that covered most of northern and eastern Russia.

Exile in the Tsarist era differed greatly from Siberian imprisonment under the Soviet regime that Lenin would found. Prisoners enjoyed a significant degree of freedom (escapes were common) and access to reading material, as well as the company of other revolutionaries. Sent to the town of Shushenskoye, which lay a few hundred miles north of the border with China, Lenin soon settled into a routine of writing and study, interrupted only by the arrival, in 1898, of Krupskaya, who had also been arrested and sentenced to exile. The two received permission to live in the same village on condition that they get married at once, and thus Lenin and Krupskaya were joined in matrimony on July 22, 1898–four months after the founding of the first Russian Marxist party, known as the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (the "Social Democrats"). Lenin's exile officially ended in 1900, but he had returned to St. Petersburg even before his scheduled release.

Popular pages: Vladimir Lenin