The death of Lenin

death of lenin
One of the last photographs of a frail Lenin, taken in 1923

The death of Lenin in January 1924 followed a long period of poor health, punctuated by a series of severe strokes. The causes and consequences of Lenin’s poor health have been a matter of some debate for historians. Whatever its origin, Lenin’s poor health forced him to wind back his involvement in politics. From mid 1922 Lenin mostly remained at home, where he was cared for by his wife Krupskaya and a small staff. Despite being housebound, Lenin remained alert to policy debates in the Politburo, continuing to communicate with Politburo members and officials. Stalin, having become very influential in his role as general secretary, exploited Lenin’s absence by continuing to build up support on both the Politburo and the party’s Central Committee. Much information was withheld from Lenin, on Stalin’s orders, purportedly ‘for the good of Comrade Lenin’s health’. The Central Committee even discussed printing a single edition of the Soviet newspaper Pravda, filled with fictional good news, to ease Lenin’s mind. The reality was that Stalin, who still feared Lenin despite his frail state, wanted him isolated.

In late 1922, aware that the end was close, Lenin dictated a series of documents, his ‘political testament’, to Krupskaya. Some of these Lenin wanted read aloud at the 12th Party Conference in mid-1923 but she kept it secret, hoping that he would recover. Others were strictly for the ears of those on the Politburo. In March 1923 Lenin suffered another severe stroke which effectively left him a vegetable, unable to move or speak. He died on January 21st 1924. Three days later the former Russian capital Petrograd was renamed ‘Leningrad’. The Soviet hierarchy ordered the embalming and public display of Lenin’s body. They would later also order the construction of various memorials including the massive Red Square mausoleum, again contrary to Lenin’s instructions. These were the first steps in the Lenin ‘cult of personality’ which would endure in the Soviet era.

Immediately after his death, Krupskaya passed Lenin’s testament onto the party secretariat so that it could be distributed at the 13th Party Conference in the middle of that year. Some of the documents offered negative assessments of many individuals, but they were particularly hard on Stalin:

Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail … but it is a detail which can assume decisive importance.

It was a telling damnation of Stalin who, if the document was exposed to all party members, would probably be forced to resign. However since Lenin’s testament was also critical of other Bolsheviks, Stalin rallied enough support to ensure that the testament received only limited distribution. For example, it was only read aloud to small groups of delegates, transcripts were not distributed and notes could not be taken. Printed versions were not permitted until 1926-7 and even then they were heavily edited. As a result of these measures the testament did not have the effect Lenin desired, and his recommendation to remove Stalin as secretary-general was not carried out.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The death of Lenin” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].