Lenin's childhood home in Simbirsk
Lenin's father, Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov, was from a family of serfs; his ethnic origins remain unclear, with suggestions being made that he was Russian, Chuvash, Mordvin, or Kalmyk. Despite this lower-class background he had risen to middle-class status, studying physics and mathematics at Kazan Imperial University before teaching at the Penza Institute for the Nobility. Ilya married Maria Alexandrovna Blank in mid-1863. Well educated and from a relatively prosperous background, she was the daughter of a German–Swedish mother and a Russian Jewish father who had converted to Christianity and worked as a physician. It is likely that Lenin was unaware of his mother's half-Jewish ancestry, which was only discovered by his sister Anna after his death. Soon after their wedding, Ilya obtained a job in Nizhny Novgorod, rising to become Director of Primary Schools in the Simbirsk district six years later. Five years after that, he was promoted to Director of Public Schools for the province, overseeing the foundation of over 450 schools as a part of the government's plans for modernisation. His dedication to education earned him the Order of St. Vladimir, which bestowed on him the status of hereditary nobleman.
An image of Lenin at the age of three
Lenin was born in Simbirsk on 22 April 1870 and baptised several days later; as a child, he gained the nickname of "Volodya," a dimunitive of Vladimir. He was one of eight children, having two older siblings, Anna (born 1864) and Alexander (born 1866). They were followed by three more children, Olga (born 1871), Dmitry (born 1874), and Maria (born 1878). Two later siblings died in infancy. Ilya was a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church and baptised his children into it, although Maria—a Lutheran by upbringing—was largely indifferent to Christianity, a view that influenced her children.
Both parents were monarchists and liberal conservatives, being committed to the emancipation reform of 1861 introduced by the reformist Tsar Alexander II; they avoided political radicals and there is no evidence that the police ever put them under surveillance for subversive thought. Every summer they holidayed at a rural manor in Kokushkino. Among his siblings, Lenin was closest to his sister Olga, whom he often bossed around; he had an extremely competitive nature and could be destructive, but usually admitted his misbehaviour. A keen sportsman, he spent much of his free time outdoors or playing chess, and excelled at school, the disciplinarian and conservative Simbirsk Classical Gimnazia.
In January 1886, when Lenin was 16, his father died of a brain haemorrhage. Subsequently, his behaviour became erratic and confrontational and he renounced his belief in God. At the time, Lenin's elder brother Alexander—whom he affectionately knew as Sasha—was studying at Saint Petersburg University. Involved in political agitation against the absolute monarchy of the reactionary Tsar Alexander III, Alexander studied the writings of banned leftists and organised anti-government protests. He joined a revolutionary cell bent on assassinating the Tsar and was selected to construct a bomb. Before the attack could take place the conspirators were arrested and tried, and in May, Alexander was executed by hanging. Despite the emotional trauma of his father's and brother's deaths, Lenin continued studying, graduated with a gold medal for exceptional performance, and decided to study law at Kazan University.
University and political radicalisation: 1887–1893
Upon entering Kazan University in August 1887, Lenin moved into a nearby flat. There, he joined a zemlyachestvo, a form of university society that represented the men of a particular region. This group elected him as its representative to the university's zemlyachestvo council, and in December, he took part in a demonstration against government restrictions that banned student societies. The police arrested Lenin and accused him of being a ringleader in the demonstration; he was expelled from the university, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs exiled him to his family's Kokushkino estate. There, he read voraciously, becoming enamoured with Nikolay Chernyshevsky's 1863 pro-revolutionary novel What Is To Be Done?.
Lenin's mother was concerned by her son's radicalisation, and was instrumental in convincing the Interior Ministry to allow him to return to the city of Kazan, but not the university. On his return, he joined Nikolai Fedoseev's revolutionary circle, through which he discovered Karl Marx's 1867 book Capital. This sparked his interest in Marxism, a socio-political theory that argued that society developed in stages, that this development resulted from class struggle, and that capitalist society would ultimately give way to socialist society and then communist society. Wary of his political views, Lenin's mother bought a country estate in Alakaevka village, Samara Oblast, in the hope that her son would turn his attention to agriculture. He had little interest in farm management, and his mother soon sold the land, keeping the house as a summer home.
In September 1889, the Ulyanov family moved to the city of Samara, where Lenin joined Alexei Sklyarenko's socialist discussion circle. There, Lenin fully embraced Marxism and produced a Russian language translation of Marx and Friedrich Engels's 1848 political pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto. He began to read the works of the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, agreeing with Plekhanov's argument that Russia was moving from feudalism to capitalism and so socialism would be implemented by the proletariat, or urban working class, rather than the peasantry. This Marxist perspective contrasted with the view of the agrarian-socialist Narodnik movement, which held that the peasantry could establish socialism in Russia by forming peasant communes, thereby bypassing capitalism. This Narodnik view developed in the 1860s with the People's Freedom Party and was then dominant within the Russian revolutionary movement. Lenin rejected the premise of the agrarian-socialist argument, but was influenced by agrarian-socialists like Pyotr Tkachev and Sergei Nechaev, and befriended several Narodniks.
In May 1890, Maria—who retained societal influence as the widow of a nobleman—persuaded the authorities to allow Lenin to take his exams externally at the University of St Petersburg, where he obtained the equivalent of a first-class degree with honours. The graduation celebrations were marred when his sister Olga died of typhoid. Lenin remained in Samara for several years, working first as a legal assistant for a regional court and then for a local lawyer. He devoted much time to radical politics, remaining active in Sklyarenko's group and formulating ideas about how Marxism applied to Russia. Inspired by Plekhanov's work, Lenin collected data on Russian society, using it to support a Marxist interpretation of societal development and counter the claims of the Narodniks. He wrote a paper on peasant economics; it was rejected by the liberal journal Russian Thought.