Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin died on January 21st 1924. The death of Lenin followed a period of poor health, in the wake of an unsuccessful assassination attempt (August 1918) and several severe strokes in 1920-21.
The causes of Lenin’s declining health have been a matter of some debate for historians. The August 1918 attempt on Lenin’s life undoubtedly had an impact. Others have suggested syphilis or a congenital illness may have been been responsible.
Whatever its origins, Lenin’s incapacity forced him to wind back his involvement in politics. From mid-1922, Lenin remained mostly at home where he was cared for by his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and a small staff.
Despite being physically incapacitated, Lenin remained alert and closely followed political events and policy debates in the Politburo. He continued to communicate with other Politburo members and party officials.
During this period, Joseph Stalin, now gathering influence as the party’s general secretary, took advantage of Lenin’s absence by building up support, both in the Politburo and the party’s Central Committee.
A great deal of information was withheld from Lenin on Stalin’s orders. This was done purportedly “for the good of Comrade Lenin’s health”, though Stalin undoubtedly benefited by concealing certain developments from his leader.
At one point, the Central Committee even discussed printing a single edition of the Soviet newspaper Pravda, filled with fictional good news, to aid his recovery.
In late 1922, aware that the end was close, Lenin delivered a series of dictated speeches to Krupskaya, who transcribed them according to his wishes. These transcriptions became known as Lenin’s ‘political testament‘.
Lenin wanted some of his testament to be read aloud at the 12th Party Conference in mid-1923 – but Krupskaya kept it secret, perhaps hoping that he would recover sufficiently. Other statements were strictly for the ears of the Politburo.
In March 1923, Lenin suffered another severe stroke that left him unable to move or speak. He died on January 21st 1924.
Cult of personality
The commemorations and building of a cult of personality began almost immediately, almost certainly on the orders of Stalin.
Three days after his death, the former Russian capital was renamed ‘Leningrad’. The Soviet government ordered the embalming and public display of Lenin’s body, against the wishes of both Lenin and his wife. They would later also order the construction of various memorials including the massive Red Square mausoleum, again contrary to Lenin’s instructions.
Immediately after his death, Krupskaya passed Lenin’s testament onto the secretariat, asking for it to be distributed at the 13th Party Conference in May. Some of the statements contained pointed criticisms 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.”
Impact of testament
Lenin’s assessment of Stalin was damning. If the document was exposed to all party members, Stalin may well have been pressured to resign.
Since Lenin’s testament was also critical of other Bolsheviks, however, Stalin was able to rally enough support to ensure it 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 hoped for. His recommendation to remove Stalin as secretary-general was not considered in time and, as a consequence, never carried out.
1. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin died in January 1924, following years of poor health after his August 1918 assassination attempt and a series of strokes.
2. In his final years, Lenin was largely housebound and unable to participate in government or party business, though he stayed alert and in touch through letters and telegraphs.
3. Lenin’s marginalisation during this period allowed Stalin, who was actually in charge of his care, to acquire and accumulate support within the party hierarchy.
4. Before his death, Lenin transcribed a series of statements that became known as his ‘political testament’. They were critical of several Bolshevik leaders, particularly Stalin.
5. Lenin’s testament was eventually released to the party but due to Stalin’s manipulation, most of his wishes were never carried through.