1922-24 - Lenin's Death and Stalin's Rise
Lenin suffered his first stroke on May 26, 1922. He recovered and was able to resume work, though only on a limited scale. In December 1922 he again became ill. Although he lived for another 13 months, until January 21, 1924, his party and the Soviet government had actually run without his leadership since the end of 1922.
After the Russian leader died on January 24, 1924, the official cause of death was listed as arteriosclerosis, but rumors have persisted over the ensuing years that it was a cover up.
In the two years before he died, Lenin had three debilitating strokes. Lenin did not have some of the traditional risk factors for strokes. He did not have untreated high blood pressure. He did not smoke and would not tolerate smoking in his presence. He drank only occasionally and exercised regularly. He did not have symptoms of a brain infection, nor did he have a brain tumor.
Officially, Lenin died of arteriosclerosis, but only eight of 27 doctors who treated him were willing to put their names to the death certificate. Among those who refused to sign were his two personal doctors.
The discovery that a committee of Soviet doctors prescribed the medicine Salvarsan, an arsenic-based treatment that is used only to treat syphilis, was a strong indication that his doctors knew the true nature of his disease. According to Israeli researchers, Lenin’s crippling neurosyphilis caused massive brain damage and dementia in the last two years of his life and had an impact on ensuing events in his country.
Lenin might have inherited a tendency to develop extremely high cholesterol, causing the severe blockage of his blood vessels that led to his stroke.
Poison was the most likely immediate cause of Lenin’s death. The most likely perpetrator? Stalin.
Stalin, well aware of Lenin’s intentions to remove him, sent a top-secret note to the Politburo in 1923 claiming that Lenin himself asked to be put out of his misery. The note said: “On Saturday, March 17th in the strictest secrecy Comrade Krupskaya told me of ‘Vladimir Ilyich’s request to Stalin,’ namely that I, Stalin, should take the responsibility for finding and administering to Lenin a dose of potassium cyanide. I felt it impossible to refuse him, and declared: ‘I would like Vladimir Ilyich to be reassured and to believe that when it is necessary I will fulfill his demand without hesitation.’”
The enemies of Bolshevism hoped that Soviet state would collapse after death of Lenin, but party carried on. An important innovation which attracted little attention at the time was the establishment of the post of General Secretary of the party's Central Committee, and the selection, on Lenin's suggestion, of Joseph Stalin to fill it. No one foresaw the consequences of this appointment, which occurred on April 2, 1922. The most important of the tasks of the secretariat were to streamline the party organization, paralyze internal opposition, and see to it that only loyal men were appointed to political, and even nonpolitical, jobs. These tasks and the jurisdiction of the secretariat were the source of the power which soon overwhelmed that of the Central Committee itself. From that point on, the ascendancy of Stalin, a man hitherto known only in party circles, proceeded rapidly.
Stalin understood that in a highly centralized state controlled by the party the General Secretary would be a key man after Lenin's death. Meanwhile the position enabled Stalin to work assiduously and in the dark gathering a band of henchmen who would be loyal to him because he appointed them and could dismiss them.
When Lenin fell ill, two months after Stalin's appointment to the new post, a group of three Bolshevik leaders emerged as a collective successor to the leader: Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin. In the beginning, the most influential among the triumvirate was not Stalin but Zinoviev. ". . . The only conceivable succession to Lenin, temporarily ill or definitely removed, was a Directory of the top Party leaders, members and alternates of the Politburo and the Central Committee. . . .
But actually a variant of this took place. The succession passed to a triumvirate, of which Zinoviev was the leader, Kamenev his alternate and Stalin the junior partner. Zinoviev thus became, for better or for worse, Lenin's successor by virtue of his plurality inside the Politburo.
To many Communists in Russia, Trotsky appeared the logical successor to Lenin; but this did not accord with personal relationships within the party. Of the seven members of the Politburo, Lenin was ill ; Trotsky was alone in his opinion that he was the natural successor to Lenin, a wide- spread opinion outside the Party machine that made him the most feared and hated fellow-member inside the Politburo and among the Party wheel-horses.
Neither Zinoviev nor Kamenev had the qualifications needed in a single supreme leader. In theoretical and political respects, both Zinoviev and Kamenev were probably superior to Stalin. But they both lacked that thing called character.
There ensued a struggle between the two ambitious and capable men, Stalin and Trotsky. The feud between them, which had started years before and which now assumed bitter forms, filled the history of the Communist party for the next 5 years. Personal animosity took on ideological attire; divergencies on important political issues emerged; "Trotskyism" and "Stalinism" developed into two opposing Communist philosophies and strategies.
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