On 21 January 1924, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, died aged only 53, having suffered three severe strokes.
‘Today I shot at Lenin’
On 30 August 1918, Vladimir Lenin survived an assassination attempt. His would-be killer, 28-year-old Fanny Kaplan, a Socialist Revolutionary, shot at him three times, hitting Lenin twice – in the jaw and the neck. Interrogated by the Cheka, the state’s secret police, Kaplan said, ‘Today I shot at Lenin. I did it on my own. I will not say from whom I obtained my revolver. I will give no details.’ She was executed on 3 September. Lenin survived but was weakened by his injuries which, less than six years later, contributed to his early death.
One of the bullets fired into Lenin by Kaplan was only removed in April 1922. The effect of his wounds, together with the strains of revolution, civil war, uprisings and forging a new country, took its toll on Lenin. His workload as head of state was enormous and in latter years he suffered increasingly from fatigue and headaches. He suffered his first stroke in May 1922 which deprived him of speech and impeded his movement. Six months later he returned to work, albeit on a lighter schedule.
In December 1922, while recuperating, Lenin wrote his ‘Testament’, in which he proposed changes to the structure of the party’s Central Committee and commented on its individual members, including Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin. His most severe criticism was reserved for Joseph Stalin whom he had in April 1922 appointed the party’s General Secretary. Lenin was regretting his haste, questioning the amount of authority placed in Stalin’s hands.
A second stroke followed in December 1922, obliging Lenin to retire from politics to his dacha in the village of Gorki, six miles south of Moscow, and where Stalin became a frequent visitor (pictured). Recuperating, Lenin had to learn to speak again and write with his left hand.
A third stroke in March 1923 left him bedridden and took away his ability to speak. Such was the pain experienced by Lenin during his final months, that he begged Stalin to obtain a dose of potassium cyanide to put him out of his misery. He specifically asked Stalin, probably because he knew that only Stalin, a man so devoid of any humanity, would be strong enough to do it. But even Stalin baulked at the thought of it and couldn’t bring himself to administer the fatal dose: ‘I do not have the strength to carry out Ilyich’s (Lenin) request and I have to decline this mission, however humane and necessary it might be.’
But, despite his apparent squeamishness, it was not beyond Stalin’s reach to have poisoned his former mentor, especially as his own position was at risk following Lenin’s damning indictment of him. Poisoning was one of Stalin’s favourite methods of dealing with his opponents and the suspicion has always remained. As Bukharin once described Stalin, ‘Koba (Stalin’s revolutionary nickname) is capable of anything.’
Vladimir Lenin died on 21 January 1924.
Stalin led the funeral arrangements, ensuring he maintained a high profile, acting as the lead pallbearer and chief mourner. Lenin lay in state for four days in Moscow’s House of Unions, during which time almost a million mourners paid their respects.
Trotsky, Stalin’s rival for power, who was recovering from illness near the Black Sea, missed the funeral – having been told the wrong date by the scheming Stalin.
The Cult of Lenin
Lenin’s brain was removed and kept in formaldehyde for two years before being sliced into 30,963 wafer-thin slices to be studied and examined in minute detail to work out how the brain of a genius worked. Lenin’s corpse was embalmed and placed in a wooden mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. In October 1930, he was placed in the marble and granite mausoleum that for 60 years became the ‘mecca’ of communism and where it still remains to this day.
Stalin instigated an era of deferential religious-like worship for the Great Leader of the Revolution in which Lenin’s image was seen everywhere and his memory held in reverential terms. In every town, statues were erected; his word was taken as gospel and unquestioned – the cult of Lenin had begun. Lenin himself would not have approved of this hero worship, once stating, ‘Wherever you look, they are writing about me. I consider this un-Marxist emphasis on the individual extremely harmful.’
But through his devotion to Lenin, Stalin was able to establish himself as Lenin’s pupil, the successor of Lenin’s great vision. To question Stalin was to doubt Lenin’s wisdom and thereby question the legitimacy of the revolution, an act of heresy not tolerated by the regime. Through Lenin, Stalin gained the initiative.
The era of Vladimir Lenin was at an end; the era of Joseph Stalin was about to begin. It was to last almost thirty years.
Learn more about Lenin, Stalin and the Russian Revolution in The Russian Revolution: History In An Hour.