Vladimir Lenin Dies

Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, who used 160 pseudonyms, the most famous being Lenin, woke up at 10:30 a.m. on the day he was to die.

About 18 months earlier, he had suffered a massive stroke and never fully recovered, so 10:30 was not so late for the old revolutionary to rise. He had some coffee, but it did not take, and he went back to bed. By evening Lenin was running a high fever, as Oxford historian Robert Service recounts in Lenin: A Biography. Lenin's Bolshevik buddy Nikolai Bukharin was there at the end: "When I ran into Ilich's room, full of doctors and stacked with medicines, Ilich let out a last sigh ... Ilich, Ilich was no more."

The cause of death remains uncertain—some say it was syphilis; others say an operation to remove a bullet from his neck damaged him. (He had been shot in 1918 by a young anarchist who was herself promptly shot.) One theory among good communists was that Lenin, who was just 53, had simply worked himself to death; he had driven himself hard, especially for a son of such a prosperous family. (One of his grandfathers had been a landowner with personal control over 40 peasant families.)

Lenin's early death opened the way for the horrors of Stalin. Would Lenin have stopped them? The latest scholarship reminds us that Leninism was a brutal philosophy. As historian Hélène d'Encausse wrote in her 2001 biography, "On the threshold of death, Lenin had hardly changed": he never backed away from the one-party, one-ideology, fiercely self-protecting state. When asked once why a group of political foes needed killing, Lenin had replied, "Don't you understand that if we do not shoot these few leaders we may be placed in a position where we would need to shoot 10,000 workers?" But Stalin would turn out to be a man with no qualms about murdering 10,000—or 10 million. Lenin had criticized Stalin, who had become General Secretary in 1922, for "concentrat[ing] unlimited power in his hands." He had no idea just how much power Stalin would wield after that January eve.

First, on 14 January 1918, in Petrograd, after a speech, assassins ambushed Lenin in his automobile; he and Fritz Platten were in the back seat when assassins began shooting, and "Platten grabbed Lenin by the head and pushed him down . . . Platten's hand was covered in blood, having been grazed by a bullet as he was shielding Lenin".

Second, on 30 August 1918, the Socialist Revolutionary Fanya Kaplan approached Lenin after a speech; at his automobile, whilst he rested a foot upon the running board, in speaking with a woman, Kaplan called to Lenin, and, as he turned to face her in reply, she shot him three times. The first bullet struck an arm, the second bullet struck his jaw and neck, and the third bullet missed him — and wounded the woman with whom he was speaking; the wounds felled him, unconscious. Fearing in-hospital assassins, Lenin was delivered to his Kremlin apartment; physicians decided against removing the bullets — lest the surgery endanger his recovery, which proved slow.
To the public, Pravda ridiculed Fanya Kaplan as a failed, latter-day Charlotte Corday (a murderess of Jean-Paul Marat) who could not derail the Russian Revolution, reassuring readers that, immediately after surviving the assassination: "Lenin, shot through twice, with pierced lungs spilling blood, refuses help and goes on his own. The next morning, still threatened with death, he reads papers, listens, learns, and observes to see that the engine of the locomotive that carries us towards global revolution has not stopped working. . . ."; despite unharmed lungs, the neck wound did spill blood into a lung.

The Russian public remained ignorant of the true physical gravity of the wounded Soviet Head of State; other than panegyric of immortality (viz. the cult of personality), they knew nothing about either the (second) failed assassination, the assassin, Fanya Kaplan, or of Lenin's health. Historian Richard Pipes reports that "the impression one gains . . . is that the Bolsheviks deliberately underplayed the event to convince the public that, whatever happened to Lenin, they were firmly in control". Moreover, in a letter to his wife (7 September 1918), Leonid Borisovich Krasin, a Tsarist and Soviet régime diplomat, describes the public atmosphere and social response to the failed assassination on 30 August, and Lenin's survival:
As it happens, the attempt to kill Lenin has made him much more popular than he was. One hears a great many people, who are far from having any sympathy with the Bolsheviks, saying that it would be an absolute disaster if Lenin had succumbed to his wounds, as it was first thought he would. And they are quite right, for, in the midst of all this chaos and confusion, he is the backbone of the new body politic, the main support on which everything rests.

From having survived a second assassination originated the cult of personality, that Lenin, per his intellectual origins and pedigree, disliked and discouraged as superstition revived; nevertheless, his health, as a fifty-three-year-old man, declined from the effects of two bullet wounds, later aggravated by three strokes, culminating in his death.

On January 21, 1924 Vladimir Il'ich Lenin, the architect of the October Revolution and the "leader of the world's proletariat," died, having succumbed to complications from the three strokes that progressively robbed him of his faculties. He was not quite fifty-four. For more than a year before his death, the Communist Party and the Soviet government had soldiered on without him. Now the question was what purposes could the deceased leader serve.

The cult of Lenin, a fusion of political and religious ritual, was the answer. Inspired by both genuine reverence and a political desire to mobilize the masses around a potent symbol, the Politbiuro decided -- against Lenin's own wishes and those of his family -- to embalm his body and place it in a sarcophagus inside a mausoleum for public viewing. The mausoleum, designed by A. V. Shchusev as a cube-like structure of gleaming red granite, was built on Red Square abutting onto the Kremlin wall. Here, the most prominent party, military and government leaders would stand to view parades passing by on the anniversary of the October Revolution, May Day and other special occasions. Images of Lenin's stern visage soon appeared everywhere throughout the Soviet Union in stone and metal, on canvas, and in print. Lenin Corners, analogous to the icon corners of Orthodoxy, became a fixture of nearly every Soviet institution, and Lenin's name graced thousands of collective and state farms, libraries, newspapers, streets and cities. Among the latter was the birthplace of the October Revolution which assumed the name of Leningrad on January 26, 1924.

Within the party itself, Lenin was revered almost as a Christ-like figure. The slogan "Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live" typified the discourse of revolutionary immortality. In the struggle to assume Lenin's mantle, Zinoviev, Stalin and Trotsky sought to enhance their own credentials and cast aspersions on their rivals by quoting selectively from Lenin's massive oeuvres even while they invoked "Leninism" as a coherent body of doctrine. Thus, Stalin promoted "socialism in one country" as consistent with Lenin's outlook, contrasting it with Trotsky's pre-revolutionary theory of "permanent revolution." For his part, Trotsky sought to prove his loyalty to Lenin as well as his own historic role as leader of the October Revolution. Each, in effect, invented his own Lenin to suit his purposes.