Saturday, January 27, 2024

This Day in Russian History (Lenin Final Rites Strengthen Stalin’s Hold on Power)

Jan. 27, 1924—The Moscow funeral of V.I. Lenin, who seven years before had led a small cadre of revolutionaries to seize power over a Russian population of 158,000,000, took on all the characteristics of a secular sanctification, with the city of Petrograd renamed in his honor and even a special mausoleum containing his carefully preserved body erected in a mere three days.

Braving temperatures 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, lines of mourners more than a mile long waited patiently to segue past his coffin.

Already signaling the credulous reporting he would display in downplaying the Soviet terror famine of the early 1930s, The New York Times’ Walter Duranty reported that the Lenin-related pageantry would lay “the foundation of a revival campaign to infuse new energy, enthusiasm, unity, and discipline in the Communist party.”

While acknowledging an attack by Lenin’s emerging successor, Joseph Stalin, on his rival, Leon Trotsky, the day of Lenin’s death, Duranty brushed it off, seeing potential for harmony in the offing:

“The best-informed people here are confident that Trotsky, Radek, and other insurgents will join hands with the ‘machine’ leaders, Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, over Lenin’s grave. If Trotsky gives no sign to the latter, they may make the first step toward reconciliation.”

No such “reconciliation” took place. Unity would be achieved by fear and capitulation.

This was more than the kind of mass grief that followed, for instance, the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy in the United States. 

This was a form of mass indoctrination, a means of smothering internal dissent about the meaning of Lenin’s life and the Soviet regime he had agitated, plotted, and fought to bring into being, and the beginning of what became a familiar sight for decades: 

The entombment of the Communist leader, performed against the express wishes of his family and several key Party leaders, reflected the wishes of Stalin, who—mindful of the traditional Russian Orthodox Church belief that a divine body would not deteriorate—used the last rites to position himself as Lenin’s successor and to help fashion his own “cult of personality.”

Somehow, architect Aleksei Shchusev managed to build this temporary mausoleum within the three days that Stalin allotted. Then he was asked to revise his plans twice more, with each revision producing a more grandiose structure.

What ordinary Russians couldn’t perceive over several decades was the sleight of hand needed to manufacture all this reverence. A phrase from The Wizard of Oz comes to mind: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb, published after the collapse of the USSR, noted that control room staffers supervised the optimal temperature and degradation of Lenin's corpse, and that beneath the mausoleum there was also a workout room for the guards, in which the reporter imagined "some pimply kid from Chelyabinsk doing squat thrusts."

In addition to successfully wrapping Stalin in Lenin’s mantle, the creation of Lenin as a revolutionary icon later served the purpose of Stalin’s opponents. The ceremony at Red Square substituted a revolutionary form of devotion for a religious one, with Lenin joining Karl Mark as the crucial icon.

With Stalin’s unmasking as a paranoid director of a police state a few years after his death in 1953, Lenin became the great “what-if” alternative for Communists who couldn’t abide any questioning of the legitimacy of the U.S.S.R.—or, according to Lenin biographer Christopher Read, “a ‘good’ Lenin, a democrat blown off course by Russian backwardness and the exigencies of the [Soviet] Civil War, as opposed to a ‘bad’ Stalin.”

Starting in spring 1922, three strokes had progressively undermined the Soviet leader’s health and, more important for the state he hoped to direct, limited his day-to-day control of Party affairs.

With his physical strength waning but his anxiety mounting, he sought to stave off a split between two of his closest associates, Stalin and Leon Trotsky, that might divide the Soviet leadership while he was alive and spark a succession struggle after his death.

Yet, though he chastised both men for behavioral traits that gave rise to tension in the ranks, he viewed Stalin—to whom he had often turned to implement his directives—as s figure who should be blocked from assuming ultimate authority in the state.

As Lenin grew feebler, he had attempted to curb Stalin’s increased accumulation of power by issuing in late December 1922 a “testament” to the Communist Party’s Central Committee. As General Secretary of the committee, he noted, Stalin now possessed “unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.”

A couple of weeks later, after Stalin had insulted Lenin’s wife, the ailing leader went further in an addendum to his report, observing that the younger man’s rudeness was intolerable in a party leader, and that the committee should “think about a way of removing Stalin from that post” and appoint somebody “more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.”

When Stalin’s death came in 1953, he joined his old chief in the mausoleum. But his period as an object of devotion was much shorter. 

After Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” to the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union denouncing his crimes, it was only a matter of time—five years, to be exact—before he was removed from Lenin’s tomb and re-buried in a far humbler resting place.

But the cult of Lenin remained intact for decades more. “Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live” became a longtime mantra of Soviet society, and even beyond, as the ubiquitous image of the international Communist movement at parades. Amid regimes that placed a premium on censorship, his works continued to be produced in mass quantity, year after dreary year.

There was far less distance than one might suspect between the current dictator of the sprawling Russian land mass named Vladimir and the one a century ago. (Lenin’s initials, V.I., stood for “Vladimir Ilich.” His surname was adopted as a pseudonym to evade the Czar’s secret police.)

Russia’s first kleptocratic ruler and the world’s first Marxist dictator embraced the same means to power: ruthless force that crushed opponents. 

Indeed, Vladimir Putin learned about the dark arts of poisoning, targeted assassinations, even striking at critics in foreign lands as a former lieutenant colonel of the KGB, a descendant agency of the Cheka, or Soviet state security police, set up by Lenin and under the direction of Felix Dzerzhinsky.

For a deeper, contemporary consideration of Lenin’s legacy—not just in the Soviet Union well into the glasnost era, but even among American right-wingers like Steve Bannon who emulate the Communist’s style of disruption if not his ideology—Cathy Young’s recent article from The Bulwark is well worth reading.

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