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Vladimir Lenin

Lenin's Legacy

Consolidation and the Last Years

Study & Essay

Trotsky had been traveling in the Caucasus when Lenin died, and Stalin telegraphed him and said that because the funeral would be held immediately, he would not be able to return to Moscow in time; he might as well remain where he was. Thus by forcing Trotsky's absence, Stalin created a situation of powerful symbolism. Meanwhile, the cult of Lenin sprang up immediately; his followers embalmed his body and placed it in Moscow's Red Square where it quickly became a shrine. Stalin constituted the moving force behind this "deification" of Lenin, despite the fact that the death threw his career into crisis: Lenin's Testament, calling for Stalin's removal from office, was read at the next Central Committee meeting. This meeting would decide Stalin's fate: if his rivals chose to obey the testament and demand him ousted, Stalin would not have enough support to retain his political power. But Trotsky remained silent and Kamenev and Zinoviev came to Stalin's defense–and so he kept his post as General Secretary. The following year, 1924, marks the beginning of Stalin's rise to power. By 1930, he would stand alone, as supreme leader of Russia; by 1940, at his orders, all the other men on Lenin's Politburo would be dead.

Stalin's regime would prove one of the bloodiest in recorded history, famine and terror killed millions of people; millions more found themselves consigned to imprisonment in the terrifying Siberian gulags. Later, when the Soviet Union publicized Stalin's crimes, in the 1950s, the officials would claim that he had perverted Leninism, had betrayed Lenin's initial vision of a socialist utopia. But these statements contained little truth: while Lenin turned his back on Stalin at the end of his life, Stalin remained a fairly faithful disciple of the Soviet Union's founder. The terrors, murders, and famines of the 1930s merely served to build on and intensify what Lenin had begun during the Revolution. Both men brutally liquidated the peasantry; both imprisoned their political enemies in concentration camps; both created large- scale famines. Lenin had prepared a dark and bloody path to Stalin's subsequent terrors.

In the decades after his death, the Soviet Union would hold up Lenin's writings as works of philosophical genius, but this glorification constituted nothing more than empty propaganda: Lenin was not a great intellectual. Indeed, all of the Bolsheviks' claims to powerful intellectualism ultimately rang false: no great mind could have embraced unquestioningly the mishmash of contradictions and lies that was Marxism. But Lenin made up for his average intelligence with a tireless energy, an indomitable will, and a native political genius. These traits enabled him and his clique to exploit the events of 1917 in a way that none of their contemporaries would have believed possible–and to make themselves, against all odds, masters of Russia. Lenin, more than anyone else, laid the foundations for a state so rugged that it would endure for seventy years–and so powerful that it would eventually challenge the United States for world supremacy. It is this achievement that insures Lenin his place among the most significant figures of the century.

But significance does not equal greatness. Certainly, Lenin possessed, and acted upon, a great vision: ever an idealist, he seems, more than Stalin, to have truly believed in the necessity of the Revolution to cleanse Russia of the evils of Tsardom and debilitating poverty. Like his brother Alexander, whose death set him on the road to radicalism, he perceived that his country, and the world as a whole, contained glaring imperfections and injustices. However, when it came to actually alleviating these flaws and building his own utopia, Lenin willingly–even eagerly–turned to murder, terror, and brutal repression. Having abandoned religion as a young man, he quickly renounced all notions of morality as well, calling it "bourgeois"; from his point of view, and from that of all the Bolsheviks, the ends justified the means. They were convinced that when Marx's "scientific" predictions of revolution came true, their bloody actions would find vindication. But history has not been so kind–to the Bolsheviks or their victims.

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