3 Lenin's Last Struggle

The first signs that Lenin was unwell became apparent in 1921 when he began to complain of headaches and exhaustion. Doctors could not diagnose the illness — it was as much the result of a mental breakdown as a physical one. For the past four years Lenin had been working virtually without a break for up to sixteen hours every day. The only real periods of rest had been in the summer of 1917, when he was on the run from Kerensky's government, and during the weeks of recuperation from Kaplan's assassination attempt in August 1918. The crisis of 1920—I had taken a heavy toll on Lenin's health. The physical symptoms of 'Lenin's rage', as Krupskaya once described it, sleeplessness and irritation, headaches and depressed exhaustion, returned to dog him during his bitter struggles with the Workers' Opposition and the revolts in the country at large. The Kronstadt rebels, the workers and the peasants, the Mensheviks, the SRs and the clergy, who were all arrested and shot in large numbers, became victims of his rage. By the summer of 1921, Lenin had once again emerged victorious; yet the signs of his mental exhaustion were clear for all to see. He showed lapses of memory, speech difficulties and erratic movements. Some doctors put it down to lead poisoning from Kaplan's two bullets, which were still lodged in Lenin's arm and neck (the one in his neck was surgically removed during the spring of 1922). But others suspected paralysis. Their suspicions were confirmed on 25 May 1922, when Lenin suffered his first major stroke, leaving his right side virtually paralysed and depriving him for a while of speech. Lenin now realized, in the words of his sister, Maria Ul'ianova, who was to nurse him until his death, 'that it was all finished for him'. He begged Stalin to give him poison so that he could kill himself. 'He doesn't want to live and can't live any longer,' Krupskaya told him. She had tried to give Lenin cyanide but lost her nerve, so the two of them had decided to ask Stalin instead as a 'firm and steely man devoid of sentimentality'. Although Stalin would later wish him dead, he refused to help him die; and the Politburo voted against it. For the moment, Lenin was more useful to Stalin alive.30

During the summer of 1922, as he recovered at his country house at Gorki, Lenin concerned himself with the question of his succession. This must have been a painful task for him since, like all dictators, he was fiercely jealous of his own power and evidently thought that no one else was good enough to inherit it. All Lenin's last writings make it clear that he favoured a collective leadership to succeed him. He was particularly afraid of the personal rivalry between Trotsky and Stalin, which he realized might split the party as he withdrew from the scene, and sought to forestall this by balancing the one against the other.

Both men had virtues in his eyes. Trotsky was a brilliant orator and administrator: he more than anyone had won the civil war. But his pride and arrogance — not to speak of his past as a Menshevik or his Jewish-intellectual looks — made him unpopular in the party (both the Military and the Workers' Oppositions had to a large extent been against him personally). Trotsky was not a natural 'comrade'. He would always rather be the general of his own army than a colonel in a collective command. It was this which gave him the position of an 'outsider' to the rank and file. Although a member of the Politburo, Trotsky had never held a party post. He rarely attended party meetings. Lenin's feelings towards Trotsky were summarized by Maria Ul'ianova: 'He did not feel sympathy for Trotsky — he had too many characteristics that made it extraordinarily hard to work collectively with him. But he was an industrious worker and a talented person, and for V I. that was the main thing, so he tried to keep him on board. Whether it was worth it is another question.'31

Stalin, by contrast, seemed at first much more suited to the needs of a collective leadership. During the civil war he had taken on himself a huge number of mundane jobs that no one else had wanted — he was the Commissar for Nationalities, the Commissar of Rabkrin, a member of the Revolutionary Military Council, of the Politburo and the Orgburo, and the Chairman of the Secretariat — with the result that he soon gained a reputation for modest and industrious mediocrity. Here was the 'grey blur' whom Sukhanov had described in 1917. All the party leaders made the same mistake of underestimating Stalin's potential power, and his ambition to exercise it, as a result of the patronage he had accrued from holding all these posts. Lenin was as guilty as the rest. For a man of such intolerance, he proved remarkably tolerant of Stalin's many sins, not least his growing rudeness towards himself, in the belief that he needed Stalin to maintain unity in the party. It was for this reason that, on Stalin's own urging, and apparently backed by Kamenev, he agreed to make Stalin the party's first General Secretary in April 1922. It was to prove a crucial appointment — one that enabled Stalin to come to power. Yet by the time Lenin came to realize this, and tried to have Stalin removed from the post, it was already too late.32

The key to Stalin's growing power was his control of the party apparatus in the provinces. As the Chairman of the Secretariat, and the only Politburo member in the Orgburo, he could promote his friends and dismiss opponents.

During the course of 1922 alone more than 10,000 provincial officials were appointed by the Orgburo and the Secretariat, most of them on Stalin's personal recommendation. They were to be his main supporters during the power struggle against Trotsky in 1922—3. Most of them came, like Stalin himself, from very humble backgrounds and had received little formal education. Mistrusting intellectuals such as Trotsky, they preferred to place their trust in Stalin's wisdom, with his simple calls for proletarian unity and Bolshevik discipline, when it came to matters of ideology.

Lenin had gone along with Stalin's growing powers of 'appointmentism' from Moscow as an antidote to the formation of provincial opposition factions (the Workers' Opposition, for example, remained strong in the Ukraine and Samara until 1923). As the Chairman of the Secretariat, Stalin spent much of his time rooting out potential troublemakers from the provincial party apparatus. He received monthly reports from the Cheka (renamed the GPU in 1922) on the activities of the provincial leaders. Boris Bazhanov, Stalin's personal secretary, recalls his habit of pacing up and down his large Kremlin office, puffing on his pipe, and then issuing the curt command to remove such and such a Party Secretary and send so and so to replace him. There were few party leaders, including members of the Politburo, whom Stalin did not have under surveillance by the end of 1922. Under the guise of enforcing Leninist orthodoxy, Stalin was thus able to gather information about all his rivals, including many things they would rather have kept secret, which he could use to secure their loyalty to himself.33

While Lenin recovered from his stroke Russia was ruled by the triumvirate — Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev — which had emerged as an anti-Trotsky bloc during the summer of 1922. The three met before party meetings to agree their strategy and instruct their followers on how to vote. Kamenev had long had a soft spot for Stalin: they had been together in exile in Siberia; and Stalin had sprung to his defence when Lenin tried to have him kicked out of the party for his opposition to the October coup. Kamenev had ambitions to lead the party and this had led him to side with Stalin against Trotsky, whom he considered the more serious threat. Since Trotsky was Kamenev's brother-in-law, this meant putting faction before family. As for Zinoviev, he had little love for Stalin. But his hatred for Trotsky was so all-consuming that he would have sided with the Devil so long as it secured his enemy's defeat. Both men thought they were using Stalin, whom they considered a mediocrity, to promote their own claims to the leadership. But Stalin was using them, and, once Trotsky had been defeated, he went on to destroy them.

By September Lenin had recovered and was back at work. He now became suspicious of Stalin's ambitions and in an effort to counteract his growing power proposed to appoint Trotsky as his deputy in Sovnarkom. Trotsky's followers have always argued that this would have made their hero Lenin's heir. But in fact the post was seen by many people as a minor one — power was concentrated in the party organs rather than the government ones — and no doubt for this reason Stalin was happy to vote for Lenin's resolution in the Politburo. Indeed it was Trotsky who was most opposed, writing on his voting slip: 'Categorically refuse'. He claimed that his objections were on the grounds that he had already criticized the post in principle when it had been introduced the previous May. Later he also claimed that he had turned the post down on the grounds that he was a Jew and that this might add fuel to the propaganda of the regime's enemies (see pages 803-4). But his refusal was probably as much because he thought it was beneath him to be merely a 'deputy chairman'.

This does not mean that Lenin shared this dim view of the Sovnarkom job. Nor does it mean that he offered it to Trotsky, in the words of Lenin's sister, as merely a 'diplomatic gesture' to compensate for the fact that 'Ilich was on Stalin's side.' Lenin had always placed a higher value on the work of Sovnarkom than on that of the party itself. Sovnarkom was Lenin's baby, it was where he focused all his energies, even to the point where, amazingly, he became ignorant of party life. 'I am admittedly not familiar with the scale of the Orgburo's "assignment" work,' he confessed to Stalin in October 1921. This was Lenin's tragedy. During his last months of active politics, as he came to grapple with the problem of the growing power of the leading party bodies, he increasingly looked to Sovnarkom as a means of dividing the power between the party and the state. Yet Sovnarkom, as Lenin's personal seat of power, was bound to decline as he became ill and withdrew from politics. Even with Trotsky standing in for him as chairman, it was almost certainly too late to halt the shift in power to the party organs in Stalin's hands, and Trotsky must have known this.34

Lenin's suspicions of Stalin deepened when, in October, Stalin proposed to expel Trotsky from the Politburo as a punishment for his arrogant rejection of the Sovnarkom post. It became clear to Lenin, as he acquainted himself with the activities of the triumvirate, that it was acting like a ruling clique and intended to oust him from power. This was confirmed when Lenin discovered that as soon as he retired from the Politburo meetings, which he often had to leave early because of exhaustion, the triumvirate would pass vital resolutions which he would only learn about the next day. Lenin now ordered (on 8 December) that Politburo meetings were not to go on for more than three hours and that all matters left unresolved were to be put off to the following day. At the same time, or so Trotsky later claimed, Lenin approached him with an offer to join him in a 'bloc against bureaucracy', meaning a coalition against Stalin and his power base in the Orgburo. Trotsky's claim is credible. This, after all, was on the eve of Lenin's Testament, which was mainly concerned with the problem of Stalin and his hold on the bureaucracy. Trotsky had already criticized the party bureaucracy, Rabkrin and the Orgburo in particular. And we know that Lenin shared his opposition to Stalin on both foreign trade and the Georgian issue. In sum, it seems that towards mid-December Lenin and Trotsky were coming together against Stalin. And then suddenly, on the night of 15 December, Lenin suffered his second major stroke.35

Stalin at once took charge of Lenin's doctors and, on the pretext of speeding his recovery, obtained from the Central Committee an order giving him the power to keep him 'in isolation' from politics by restricting visitors and correspondence. 'Neither friends nor those around him', read a further order of the Politburo on 24 December, 'are allowed to tell Vladimir Ilich any political news, since this might cause him to reflect and get excited.' Confined to his wheelchair, and allowed to dictate for only '5 to 10 minutes a day', Lenin had become Stalin's prisoner. His two main secretaries, Nadezhda Alliluyeva (Stalin's wife) and Lydia Fotieva, reported to Stalin everything he said. Lenin was evidently unaware of this, as later events were to reveal. Stalin, meanwhile, made himself an expert on medicine, ordering textbooks to be sent to him. He became convinced that Lenin would soon die and increasingly showed open contempt towards him. 'Lenin kaput,' he told colleages in December. Stalin's words reached Lenin through Maria Ul'ianova. 'I have not died yet,' her brother informed her, 'but they, led by Stalin, have already buried me.' Although Stalin based his reputation on his special relationship with Lenin, his real feelings towards him were betrayed in 1924, when, having had to wait a whole year for him to waste away and die, he was heard to mutter: 'Couldn't even die like a real leader!' Actually, Lenin might have died much sooner. Towards the end of December he became so frustrated with the restrictions on his activities that he once again requested poison so that he could end his life. According to Fotieva, Stalin refused to supply the poison. But he no doubt soon came to regret it, since in the brief spells when he was allowed to work Lenin now dictated a series of notes for the forthcoming Party Congress in which he condemned Stalin's growing power and demanded his removal.36

These fragmentary notes, which later became known as Lenin's Testament, were dictated in brief spells — some of them by telephone to a stenographer who sat in the next room with a pair of earphones — between 23 December and 4 January. Lenin ordered them to be kept in the strictest secrecy, placing them in sealed envelopes to be opened only by himself or Krupskaya. But his senior secretaries were also spies for Stalin and they showed the notes to him.37 Throughout these last writings there is an overwhelming sense of despair at the way the revolution had turned out. Lenin's frenzied style, his hyperbole and obsessive repetition, betray a mind that was not just deteriorating through paralysis but was also tortured — perhaps by the realization that the single goal on which it had been fixed for the past four decades had now turned out a monstrous mistake. Throughout these last writings Lenin was haunted by Russia's cultural backwardness. It was as if he acknowledged, perhaps only to himself, that the Mensheviks had been right, that Russia was not ready for socialism since its masses lacked the education to take the place of the bourgeoisie, and that the attempt to speed up this process through the intervention of the state was bound to end up in tyranny. Was this what he meant when he warned that the Bolsheviks still needed to 'learn how to govern'?

Lenin's last notes were concerned with three main problems — with Stalin in each as the principal culprit. The first of these was the Georgian affair and the question of what sort of union treaty Russia should sign with the ethnic borderlands. Despite his own Georgian origins, Stalin was the foremost of those Bolsheviks whom Lenin had criticized during the civil war for their Great Russian chauvinism. Most of Stalin's supporters in the party were equally imperialist in their views. They equated the colonization of the borderlands, the Ukraine especially, by Russian workers, and the suppression of the native peasant population ('petty-bourgeois nationalists'), with the promotion of Communist power. As the Commissar for Nationalities, Stalin proposed in late September that the three non-Russian republics that had so far come into being (the Ukraine, Belorussia and Transcaucasia) should join Russia as no more than autonomous regions, leaving the lion's share of power to the federal government in Moscow. The 'autonomization plan', as Stalin's proposals came to be known, would have restored the 'Russia united and indivisible' of the Tsarist Empire. It was not at all what Lenin had envisaged when he had assigned to Stalin the task of drawing up the plans for a federal union. Lenin stressed the need to pacify what he saw as the justified historical grievances of the non-Russians against Russia by granting them the status of 'sovereign' republics (for the major ethnic groups) or 'autonomous' ones (for the smaller ones) with broad cultural freedoms and the formal right — for whatever that was worth — to secede from the union.

Stalin's plans were bitterly opposed by the Georgian Bolsheviks, whose attempts to build up their own fragile political base depended on the concession of these national rights. Already, in March 1922, Stalin and his fellow-Georgian, Ordzhonikidze, head of Moscow's Caucasian Bureau, had forced Georgia, much against its leaders' will, to merge with Armenia and Azerbaijan in a Transcauca-sian Federation. It seemed to Georgia's leaders that Stalin and his henchman were treating Georgia as their fiefdom and riding roughshod over them. They rejected the autonomization plan and threatened to resign if Moscow forced it through.*

* The opposition of the other republics was more circumspect: the Ukrainians refused to give their opinion on Stalin's proposals, while the Belorussians said that they would be guided by the Ukraine's decision.

It was at this point that Lenin intervened. To begin with he took Stalin's side. Although his proposals were undesirable — Lenin forced them to be dropped in favour of the federal union that later became known as the Soviet Union Treaty ratified in 1924 — the Georgians had been wrong to issue ultimatums and he told them so in an angry cable on 21 October. The next day the entire Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party resigned in protest. Nothing quite like it had ever happened before in the history of the party. From late November, however, when Lenin was generally beginning to turn against Stalin, his position changed. New evidence from Georgia made him think again. He despatched a fact-finding commission to Tiflis, headed by Dzerzhinsky and Rykov, from which he learned that during the course of an argument Ordzhonikidze had beaten up a prominent Georgian Bolshevik (who had called him a 'Stalinist arsehole'). Lenin was outraged. It confirmed his impressions of Stalin's growing rudeness and made him see the Georgian issue in a different light. In his notes to the Party Congress on 30—1 December he compared Stalin to an old-style Russian chauvinist, a 'rascal and a tyrant', who could only bully and subjugate small nations, such as Georgia, whereas what was needed from Russia's rulers was 'profound caution, sensitivity, and a readiness to compromise' with their legitimate national aspirations. Lenin even claimed that in a socialist federation the rights of 'oppressed nations', such as Georgia, should be greater than those of the 'oppressor nations' (i.e. Russia) so as to 'compensate for the inequality which obtains in actual practice'. On 8 January, in what was to be the final letter of his life, Lenin promised the Georgian opposition that he was following their cause 'with all my heart'.38

Lenin's second major concern in his Testament was to check the growing powers of the party's leading organs, which were now under Stalin's control. Two years earlier, when his own command had been supreme, Lenin had condemned the proposals of the Democratic Centralists for more democracy and glasnost in the party; but now that Stalin was the great dictator Lenin put forward similar plans. He proposed to democratize the Central Committee by adding 50 to 100 new members recruited from the ordinary workers and peasants in the lower organs of the party. To make the Politburo more accountable he also suggested that the Central Committee should have the right to attend all its meetings and to inspect its documents. Moreover, the Central Control Commission, merged with Rabkrin and streamlined to 300 or 400 conscious workers, should have the right to check the Politburo's powers. These proposals were a belated effort (similar in many ways to Gorbachev's perestroika) to bridge the widening gap between the party bosses and the rank and file, to make the leadership more democratic, more open and efficient, without loosening the party's overall grip on society.

The final issue of Lenin's last writings — and also by far the most explosive — was the question of the succession. In his notes of 24 December Lenin voiced his worry about a split between Trotsky and Stalin — it was partly for this reason that he had proposed to enlarge the size of the Central Committee — and, as if to underline his preference for a collective leadership, pointed out the faults of the major party leaders. Kamenev and Zinoviev were compromised by their stand against him in October. Bukharin was 'the favourite of the whole Party, but his theoretical views can only be classified as Marxist with reserve'. As for Trotsky, he 'was personally perhaps the most capable man in the present Central Committee, but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of work'. But it was for Stalin that Lenin's most devastating criticisms were reserved. Having become the General Secretary, he had 'accumulated unlimited power in his hands, and I am not sure that he will always know how to use this power with sufficient caution'. On 4 January Lenin added the following note:

Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings between Communists, becomes intolerable in a General Secretary. For this reason I suggest that the comrades think about a way to remove Stalin from that post and replace him with someone who has only one advantage over Comrade Stalin, namely greater tolerance, greater loyalty, greater courtesy and consideration to comrades, less capriciousness, etc.39

Lenin was making it clear that Stalin had to go.

Lenin's resolve was further strengthened at the start of March, when he learned about an incident which had taken place between Stalin and Krupskaya several weeks before but which had been kept secret from him. On 21 December Lenin had dictated to Krupskaya a letter to Trotsky congratulating him on his successful tactics in the battle against Stalin over the foreign trade monopoly. Stalin's informers told him of the letter, which he seized upon as evidence of Lenin's 'bloc' with Trotsky against him. The next day he telephoned Krupskaya and, as she herself put it, subjected her 'to a storm of coarse abuse', claiming she had broken the party's rules on Lenin's health (although the doctors had authorized her dictation), and threatening to start an investigation of her by the Central Control Commission. When she put the phone down, Krupskaya apparently went pale, sobbed hysterically and rolled around on the floor. Stalin's reign of terror had begun. When Lenin was finally told about this incident, on 5 March, he dictated a letter to Stalin demanding that he should apologize for his 'rudeness' or else risk a 'breach of relations between us'. Stalin, who had become completely arrogant with power, could hardly mask his contempt for the dying Lenin in his ungracious reply.* Krupskaya, he reminded him, 'is not just your wife but my old Party comrade'. In their 'conversation' he had not been 'rude' and the whole incident was 'nothing more than a silly misunderstanding ... However, if you consider that for the preservation of "relations" I should "take back" the above words, I can take them back, although I fail to understand what all this is supposed to be about, or where I am at "fault", or what, exactly, is wanted of me.'40

Lenin was devastated by the incident. He became ill overnight. One of his doctors described his condition on 6 March: 'Vladimir Ilich lay there with a look of dismay, a frightened expression on his face, his eyes sad with an inquiring look, tears running down his face. Vladimir Ilich became agitated, tried to speak, but the words would not come to him and he could only say: "Oh hell, oh hell. The old illness has come back." ' Three days later Lenin suffered his third major stroke. It robbed him of the power to speak and thus to contribute to politics. Until his death, ten months later, he could only utter single syllables: 'vot-vot' ('here-here') and 's'ezi-s'ezi ('congress-congress').41

In May Lenin was moved to Gorki, where a team of doctors was placed at his disposal. On fine days he would sit outside. There a nephew found him one day 'sitting in his wheelchair in a white summer shirt with an open collar . .. A rather old cap covered his head and the right arm lay somewhat unnaturally on his lap. [He] hardly noticed me even though I stood quite plainly in the middle of the clearing.' Krupskaya read to him — Gorky and Tolstoy gave him the most comfort — and strove in vain to teach him how to speak. By September, with the help of a cane and a pair of orthopaedic shoes, he was just able to walk again. Sometimes he pushed his wheelchair round the grounds. He began to read papers sent from Moscow and, with Krupskaya's help, learned to write a little with his left hand. Bukharin visited in the autumn and, as he later told Boris Nikolaevsky, found Lenin deeply worried about who was to succeed him and about the articles he could not write. But there was no question of him ever returning to politics. Lenin, the politician, was already dead.42

* * * Getting Lenin out of the way was just what Stalin needed. Through his spies Stalin had learned of Lenin's secret letter to the Twelfth Party Congress. If he was to survive in office, he had to prevent it from being read out there. On 9 March Stalin used his power as the General Secretary to put off the Congress from mid-March until mid-April. Trotsky, although he stood to gain most from Stalin's likely downfall at the Congress, readily agreed to its delay. He even reassured Kamenev that, whilst he agreed 'with Lenin in substance' (i.e. on the Georgian question and party reform), he was 'for preserving the status quo' and 'against removing Stalin' provided there was a 'radical change' of policies. Trotsky concluded with the hope that: 'There should be no more intrigues but honest co-operation.' The outcome of this 'rotten compromise' — just what Lenin had warned him not to make — was that the Party Congress witnessed Stalin's triumph rather than his final defeat. Lenin's notes on the nationality question and the reform of the party were distributed among the delegates, discussed, and then dismissed by the leadership. Most of the delegates, in any case, probably shared the view expressed by Stalin that at a time when unity was needed in the party above all else there was no need to waste time discussing democracy. The urge to silence Trotsky, and all criticism of the Politburo, was in itself a crucial factor in Stalin's rise to power.43 Lenin's notes on the question of the succession, including his demand that Stalin be removed, were not read out at the Congress and remained suppressed until 1956.*

* It was not published until 1989.

It is difficult to explain Trotsky's conduct. At this crucial moment of the power struggle, when he could have won a major victory, he somehow engineered his own defeat. Among the forty members of the new Central Committee, elected at the Congress, he could count only three supporters. Perhaps, sensing his growing isolation, especially after Lenin's stroke, Trotsky had decided that his only hope lay in trying to appease the triumvirate. His memoirs are filled with the conviction that he had been brought down by a conspiracy of its three leaders. There was certainly a very real danger that, if he had opted to defy them, Trotsky would have been accused of 'factionalism' — and after 1921 this was a political death sentence. But there is also some truth in the claim that Trotsky lacked the stomach for a fight. There was an inner weakness to his character, one that stemmed from his pride. Faced with the prospect of defeat, Trotsky preferred not to compete. One of his oldest friends tells the story of a chess game in New York. Trotsky had challenged him to a game, 'evidently considering himself a good chess player'. But it turned out that he was weak and, having lost the game, went into a temper and refused to play another game.44 This small episode was typical of Trotsky: when he came up against a superior rival, one who was able to out-manaeuvre him, he chose to retreat and sulk in glorious isolation rather than lose face by trying to confront him on disadvantageous terms.

This was, in a sense, what Trotsky did next. Rather than fight Stalin in the highest party organs he took up the standard of the Bolshevik rank and file, posing as the champion of party democracy against the 'police regime' of the leadership. It was a desperate gamble — Trotsky was hardly known for his democratic habits and he ran the deadly risk of 'factionalism' — but then he was in desperate straits. On 8 October he addressed an Open Letter to the Central Committee in which he accused it of suppressing all democracy within the party:

The participation of the party masses in the actual formation of the party organization is becoming increasingly marginal. A peculiar secretarial psychology has been established in the past year or so, its main feature is the belief that the [party] secretary is capable of deciding every and any question, without even knowing the basic facts . . . There is a very broad stratum of party workers, both in the government and party apparatus, who completely abnegate their own party opinion, at least as expressed openly, as if assuming that it is the apparatus of the secretarial hierarchy which formulate party opinion and policy. Beneath this stratum of abstainers from opinion lies the broad party masses, for whom every decision already comes down in the form of a summons or command.

* The contents of the Testament were made known to the delegates of the Thirteenth Party Congress in 1924. Stalin offered to resign but his offer was rejected on the suggestion of Zinoviev to 'let bygones be bygones'. The conflict with Lenin was put down to a personal clash, with the implication that Lenin had been sick and not altogether sound in mind. None of these last writings was fully published in Russia during Stalin's lifetime, although fragments appeared in the party press during the 1920s. Trotsky and his followers made their contents well known in the West, however (Volkogonov, Stalin, ch. II).


Support for Trotsky came from the so-called 'Group of 46' — Antonov-Ovseenko, Piatakov and Preobrazhensky were the best known — who also wrote in protest to the Central Committee. The climate of fear in the party was such, they claimed, that even old comrades had become 'afraid to converse with one another'.43

Predictably, the party leadership accused Trotsky of instigating a dangerous 'platform' which could lead to the creation of an illegal 'faction' in the party. Without responding to his political criticisms, the Politburo issued a vicious personal attack on Trotsky on 19 October. Trotsky was arrogant, considered himself above the day-to-day work of the party, and acted by the maxim 'all or nothing' (i.e. 'Give me all or I'll give you nothing'). Four days later Trotsky addressed a defiant rebuttal of the charges of 'factionalism' to the Plenum of the Central Committee. On 26 October he appeared at the Plenum itself.

Until recently it was thought that Trotsky had not attended this crucial meeting. Deutscher and Broue, his two main biographers, both have him absent with the flu. But he did attend and, indeed, put up such a powerful defence that Bazhanov, Stalin's secretary, who was charged with transcribing Trotsky's speech, buried the records of it in his personal files. They were found there in 1990. Trotsky's speech was a passionate denial of the allegations of 'Bonapartism' which he claimed had been levelled against him. It was at this point that he raised the question of his Jewish roots. To prove that he lacked ambition Trotsky cited two occasions when he had turned down Lenin's offer of high office — once in October 1917 (Commissar of the Interior) and once again in September 1922 (Deputy Chairman of Sovnarkom)—on the grounds that it would not be wise, given the problem of anti-Semitism, to have a Jew in such a high post. On the first occasion Lenin had dismissed this as 'trivial'; but on the second 'he was in agreement with me'.46 Trotsky's implication was obvious: opposition to him in the party — and Lenin had acknowledged this — stemmed partly from the fact that he was a Jew. It was a tragic moment for Trotsky — not just as a politician but also as a man — that at this turning point in his life, standing condemned before the party, he should have to fall back on his Jewish roots. For a man who had never felt himself a Jew, it was a mark of how alone he now was.

Trotsky's emotional appeal made little impression on the delegates — most of whom had been picked by Stalin. By 102 votes to two the Plenum passed a motion of censure against Trotsky for engaging in 'factionalism'. Kamenev and Zinoviev pressed for Trotsky to be expelled from the party; but Stalin, always eager to appear as the voice of moderation, thought this was unwise and the motion was rejected.47 Stalin, in any case, had no need to hurry. Trotsky was finished as a major force and his expulsion from the party — which finally came in 1927 — could await its time. The one man capable of stopping Stalin had now been removed.

* * * The public had not been told that Lenin was dying. Right until the end the press continued to report that he was recovering from a grave illness — one from which any mortal man would have died. By inventing this 'miracle recovery' the regime sought to keep alive the cult of Lenin upon which it now increasingly depended for its own sense of legitimacy. The term 'Leninism' was used for the first time in 1923: the triumvirate sought to present themselves as its true defenders against Trotsky, the 'anti-Leninist'. The same year saw work commence on the first edition of his collected works (the Leninskii shornik), the holy scriptures of this orthodoxy, and the establishment of the Lenin Institute (formally opened in 1924), complete with an archive, a library and a museum of Leninania. There was a spate of hagiographies whose main aim was to create myths and legends — Lenin as a poor peasant, or a worker, Lenin as the lover of animals and children, Lenin as the tireless worker for the people's happiness — which might help to make the regime more popular. It was also from this time that huge portraits of Lenin began to appear on the facades of public buildings — one Moscow park even had a 'living portrait' of him made up of bedding plants — while inside many factories and offices there were 'Lenin Corners' with approved photographs and artefacts to illustrate his achievements.48 As Lenin the man died, so Lenin the God was born. His private life was nationalized. It became a sacred institution to consecrate the Stalinist regime.

Lenin died on 21 January 1924. At 4 p.m. he had a massive stroke, fell into a deep coma and died shortly before 7 p.m. Apart from his family and attendant doctors, the only witness to his death was Bukharin. In 1937, pleading for his own life, he claimed that Lenin had 'died in my arms'.49

The announcement was made by Kalinin the next day to the delegates of the Eleventh Soviet Congress, which was then in session. There were screams and sobbing noises from the hall. Perhaps because of its unexpectedness, the public showed signs of genuine grief: theatres and shops closed down for a week; portraits of Lenin, draped in red and black ribbons, were displayed in many windows; peasants came to his rest home at Gorki to pay their last respects; thousands of mourners braved the arctic temperatures to line the streets of Moscow from the Paveletsky Station to the Hall of Columns, where Lenin's body was brought to lie in state. Over the next three days half a million people queued for several hours to file past the bier. Thousands of wreaths and mournful declarations were sent by schools and factories, regiments and naval ships, towns and villages throughout Russia. Later, in the months following the funeral, there was a mad rush to erect monuments and statues of Lenin (one in Volgograd had Lenin standing on top of a giant screw), and to rename streets and institutions after him. Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. Whole factories pledged to join the party — one agitator said that this 'would be the best wreath on the coffin of the deceased leader' — and in the weeks following his death 100,000 proletarians were signed up in this so-called 'Lenin enrolment'. Many Western journalists saw this 'national mourning' as a 'post-mortem vote of confidence' in the regime. Others saw it as a cathartic release of collective grief after so many years of human suffering. People sobbed hysterically, hundreds fainted, in a way that defies rational explanation. Perhaps it shows that the cult of Lenin had already cast its spell: that however much they may have hated his regime the people still loved the 'Good Lenin', just as in the old days they had despised the boyars but loved the 'Father Tsar'.

Lenin's funeral took place on the following Sunday in arctic temperatures of minus 35° centigrade. Stalin led the guards of honour who carried the open coffin from the Hall of Columns to Red Square, where it was placed on a wooden platform. The Bolshoi Theatre orchestra played Chopin's Funeral March, followed by the old revolutionary hymn, 'You Fell Victim', and the Internationale. Then, for six hours, column after column, in all an estimated half a million people, marched past the coffin in gloomy silence, lowering their banners as they passed. At precisely 4 p.m., as the coffin was slowly lowered into the vault, sirens and factory whistles, cannons and guns, were sounded across Russia, as if letting out a huge national wail. On the radio there was a single message: 'Stand up, comrades, Ilich is being lowered into his grave.' Then there was silence and everything stopped — trains, ships, factories — until the radio broadcast once again: 'Lenin has died — but Leninism lives!'

In his will Lenin had expressed the wish to be buried next to his mother's grave in Petrograd. That was also the wish of his family. But Stalin wanted to embalm the corpse. If he was to keep alive the cult of Lenin, if he was to prove that 'Leninism lives', there had to be a body on display, one which, like the relics of the saints, was immune to corruption. He forced his plan through the Politburo against the objections of Trotsky, Bukharin and Kamenev. The idea of the embalmment was pardy inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922. Lenin's funeral was compared in Lzvestiia to those of 'the founders of the great states in ancient times'. But it probably owed as much to Stalin's Byzantine interpretation of the Russian Orthodox rites. Trotsky, who was horrified by Stalin's plan, compared it to the religious cults of the Middle Ages: 'Earlier there were the relics of Sergius of Radonezh and Serafim of Sarov; now they want to replace these with the relics of Vladimir Ilich.' At first they tried to preserve Lenin's body by refrigeration. But it soon began to decompose. A special team of scientists (known as the Commission for Immortalization) was appointed on 26 February, five weeks after Lenin's death, with the task of finding an embalming fluid. After working round the clock for several weeks, the scientists finally came up with a formula said to contain glycerine, alcohol and other chemicals (its precise composition is still kept a secret). Lenin's pickled body was placed in a wooden crypt — later replaced by the granite mausoleum which exists today — by the Kremlin wall on Red Square. It was opened to the public in August 1924.50

Lenin's brain was removed from his body and transferred to the Lenin Institute. There it was studied by a team of scientists, charged with the task of discovering the 'substance of his genius'. They were to show that Lenin's brain represented a 'higher stage of human evolution'. It was sliced up into 30,000 segments, each stored between glass plates in carefully monitored conditions, so that future generations of scientists would be able to study it and discover its essential secrets. The brains of other 'undisputed geniuses' — Kirov, Kalinin, Gorky, Mayakovsky, Eisenstein and Stalin himself — were later added to this cerebral collection. They formed the beginnings of the Institute of the Brain, which still exists in Moscow today. In 1994 it publicized its final autopsy on Lenin: his was a perfectly average brain.51 Which just goes to show that ordinary brains can sometimes inspire extraordinary behaviour.

* * * What would have happened if Lenin had lived? Was Russia already set on the path of Stalinism? Or did the NEP and Lenin's last writings offer it a different departure? Historians should not really concern themselves with hypothetical questions. It is hard enough to establish what actually happened, let alone to prophesy what might (or in this case might not) have happened. But the consequences of Lenin's succession are perhaps large enough to warrant a few words of speculation. After all, so much of the history of the revolution has been written from the perspective of what happened inside Stalin's Russia that one may well ask whether there was any real alternative.

On the one hand it seems clear that the basic elements of the Stalinist regime — the one-party state, the system of terror and the cult of the personality — were all in place by 1924. The party apparatus was, for the most part, an obedient tool in Stalin's hands. The majority of its provincial bosses had been appointed by Stalin himself, as the head of the Orgburo, in the civil war. They shared his plebeian hatred for the specialists and the intelligentsia, were moved by his rhetoric of proletarian solidarity and Russian nationalism, and on most questions of ideology were willing to defer to their Great Leader. After all, they were the former subjects of the tsars. Lenin's last struggle for the 'democratic' reform of the party was never likely to succeed in its attempt to change this basic culture. His proposed reforms were purely bureaucratic, concerned only with the reform of the internal structure of the dictatorship, and as such were incapable of addressing the real problem of the NEP: the strained political relationship between the regime and society, the unconquered countryside in particular. Without a genuine democratization, without a basic change in the ruling attitudes of the Bolsheviks, the NEP was always doomed to fail. Economic freedom and dictatorship are incompatible in the long term.

On the other hand, there were fundamental differences between Lenin's regime and that of Stalin. Fewer people were murdered for a start. And, despite the ban on factions, the party still made room for comradely debate. Trotsky and Bukharin argued passionately with each other about the strategy of the NEP — the former favoured squeezing the foodstuffs from the peasantry whenever the breakdown of the market system threatened to slow down industrialization, whereas Bukharin was prepared to allow a slower pace of industrialization so as to maintain a market-based relationship with the peasantry — but these were still intellectual debates, both men were supporters of the NEP, and, despite their differences, neither would have dreamt of using these debates as a pretext to murder one another or to send their opponents to Siberia. Only Stalin was capable of this. He alone saw that Trotsky and Bukharin had become so blinded by their own political debates and rivalry that he could use the one to destroy the other.

In this sense Stalin's personal role was itself the crucial factor — as was, by his absence, Lenin's role as well. If Lenin's final stroke had not prevented him from speaking at the Congress in 1923, Stalin's name today would occupy a place only in the footnotes of Russian history books. But that 'if was, if you will, in the hands of providence, and this is history not theology.

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