STEALING LENIN'S CROWN
THE STRUGGLE FOR POWER
Lenin held no formal position within the Bolshevik Party or the new state. He was the leader of the Bolsheviks just because he always had been, solely by dint of his own personal authority. There was no specific job that a pretender to Lenin's mantle could aspire to.
Lenin was the mastermind of the Russian Revolution, and his successor Stalin transformed the Soviet Union into a socialist superpower. Stalin portrayed himself as Lenin's most loyal disciple and as his natural heir. But the truth is that the dying Lenin tried desperately to remove Stalin from office.
On 30 August, 1918, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of Soviet Russia, gave a speech to workers at the Mikhelson factory in Moscow. As he was walking back to his car a young woman named Fanny Kaplan shot him three times in the neck. While his life hung in the balance, the delicate question of the succession arose. Who would lead the country if Lenin died? And how would a leader be chosen?
THE PROBLEM OF THE SUCCESSION
In the event Lenin recovered and returned to work. Over the next three years, as the Bolsheviks fought and won a bitter civil war with the enemies of the Revolution, an obvious candidate for the post-Lenin leadership emerged. Leon Trotsky, architect of the Red Army, was the only man in the Bolshevik elite who could argue with Lenin on equal intellectual terms. One of the lesser lights in the inner circle was the brooding Joseph Stalin, whose only obvious skill was his talent for organisation. He held the unglamorous post of general secretary, a role which involved appointing all the lower-level party functionaries. He fulfilled this function well, but also used it to his own ends. Party members understood that it was to Stalin alone that they owed their living.
Lenin's fragile health grew worse while he was in power, and in 1922 he suffered two strokes. After the second stroke, he decided to name an heir. But he saw no-one worthy to wear his crown. So instead he wrote a critique of all of his senior comrades, including Trotsky, hoping that the chastened Bolshevik leaders would respond by instituting some form of collective leadership. The harshest words in 'Lenin's Testament' were reserved for Stalin.
Lenin instructed his secretary to hide the document until it could be read out at the next Party Congress. But Lenin's secretaries were reporting everything he did or said directly to Stalin (one of them was Stalin's own wife). Stalin knew that if Lenin's assessment of him became widely known, his political career would be over. In March 1923, Lenin had a blazing row with Stalin. He learned that during his illness Stalin had called Lenin's wife and subjected her to a torrent of abuse for allowing Lenin to dictate a few letters. Stalin claimed his only motivation
(Lenin wrote: 'Stalin is too crude, and this defect, which is entirely acceptable in relationships among us as Communists, becomes intolerable in a general secretary. I therefore propose to comrades that they find a way of removing him from this job, and appointing someone who is more tolerant, more loyal, more considerate to comrades, less capricious…')
was a comradely concern for Lenin's health, but he knew that any pronouncement from Lenin now was liable to be damaging to his own interests. Lenin was outraged and dashed off a note demanding that Stalin apologise or relations between them would be at an end.
Stalin was appalled. 'This isn't Lenin speaking, it's his illness', he said, though he must have feared that the game was up. But to Stalin's immense good fortune, Lenin's seething rage brought on a crippling third stroke. It left him barely able to move, and he could not speak at all except in unconnected words: 'Look... congress...Oh hell! Oh hell!' It was Lenin's political life, not Stalin's, that came to an abrupt end.
When the Twelfth Party Congress took place in April 1923, Lenin's closest comrades decided not to make public the leader's criticisms of them. Lenin himself was too ill to insist. So Stalin's authority and powerbase remained intact. He waited impatiently for Lenin to die, and even took to reading medical books to find out how long the old man might hang on. When Lenin eventually expired in January 1924, he launched his bid for power. He mobilised the party faithful to outmanoeuvre Trotsky and other rivals, and by 1928 he was the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union. In the 1930s he unleashed the Great Terror, in which millions of innocent people perished.
Could the Terror have been avoided if Stalin had been removed, according to Lenin's last wishes? Probably not. Political violence was always a Bolshevik method, and the slaughter of rivals was a Russian tradition going back to Ivan the Terrible and beyond. Lenin himself had no qualms about liquidating his enemies, and had used the attempt on his life as a pretext for a bloody purge of political opponents: 'Hang them a hundred to a batch,' he said. With hindsight, this 'Red Terror' looks like a dress rehearsal for Stalin's campaign of state-sponsored mass murder. In this respect at least, Stalin was Lenin's truest disciple.