A Farewell to Lenin: Stalin’s Litany of Vows

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author most recently of "The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century" (University of California Press, 2012).


lenin45Ninety years ago, on January 21, 1924, the founder of the Bolshevik party and of the Soviet Union, the undisputed coryphaeus of world communism, passed away. Lenin’s last year was nothing but an endless agony. Isolated in a mansion turned into a sanatorium of sorts, a former artistocratic residence located outside Moscow, Lenin was in fact a prisoner of  information strictly filtered by the Bolshevik leadership’s emissary, the Politburo member and the head of the party’s department of cadres, the Georgian-born revolutionary Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, known as Stalin, and also, for his close friends, as Koba.

In his “Letter to the Congress,” dictated in December 1922 and January 1923 to his secretary, Lydia Fotieva, Lenin requested Stalin’s replacement as general secretary. Politburo members read the document but decided to keep it secret. Lenin’s demands were ignored, denied, forgotten. The old leader’s power had vanished. Paeans were of course dedicated to him, he was lionized in poems and songs, his name was frantically chanted, but he had ceased to be the real decision-maker regarding the great strategic choices and bureaucratic appointments. By that moment, all the key institutions of the totalitarian system had been set in place and made to function in order to preserve the Bolsheviks’  absolute hold on power. In the following years, the epigones, and Stalin more than anybody else, did their utmost to radicalize them and to exacerbate the exclusionary, genocidal logic of  Leninism.

Lenin’s disciples preferred to maintain Stalin in a crucial position. With very few exceptions, they failed to realize that he who controls the cadres controls the party and thereby the whole system. When they became aware of this situation, it was tragically late. They had lost the battle. The Old Bolsheviks had been eliminated from crucial positions, politically emasculated, replaced by robot-like creatures totally subjugated by the supreme leader, the vozhd (the Bolshevik equivalent of what the Nazi would call the Fuhrer). Among those, some became utterly influential as members of Stalin’s entorurage: Lazar Kaganovich, Georgi Malenkov, Lev Mekhlis, and Nikolay Yezhov.

In 1929, Stalin unleashed the “revolution from above” and implemented Lev Trotsky’s militaristic program minus the proposals to observe a modicum of intra-party democracy. Lenin’s final opposition to the bureaucratic elephantiasis and his critique of the mendacious propaganda system were totally discarded. The Leninist creed was sacralized and mummified in order to legitimize the power appetite of a profitocratic nomenklatura, a parasytical caste claiming to represent the proletarian interests and values.

At the moment of Lenin’s demise, the party elite was beset by a well-camouflaged, yet fierce struggle between those who wanted to inherit his mantle. Stalin established an alliance with Lev Kamenev, the head of the Moscow party organization and Lenin’s deputy at helm of the Council of People’s Commissars, and with Grigory Zinoviev, the leader of the Petrograd  (soon to be baptized Leningrad) organization and chairman of the Third International, also known as the Comintern, a supra-national institution created in 1919 to promote Leninist revolutionary ideas globally.

Thus, a troika emerged made up of Lenin’s epigones: Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Stalin. They shared a common hostility to Lev Trotsky, a Politburo member, the first commander of the Red Army, and a firebrand revolutionary apostle. In his “Letter to the Congress,” in fact his political testament, Lenin had called Trotsky “the most brilliant member of the Central Committee.” The triumvirs hated Trotky’s revolutionary extravaganzas, his undisguised sense of superiority, and his presumed Bonapartist inclinations. As early as 1923, when Lenin was still alive, Zinoviev had launched a furious campaign in defense of  Bolshevism against the mortal peril, the extremely dangerous Trotskyist deviation. This was in fact a fabrication, a political chimera, a fantasy meant to vilify and demonize Trotsky. The Leninist cult found support also among the members of Nikolay Bukharin’s faction.

Bukharin, much younger than other Bolshevik luminaries, was the editor of  “Pravda” and widely seen as the paty’s main theorist. Trotsky’s alleged sins included his pre-1917 non-Bolshevism, his internationalist ardour perceived as irresponsibly adventurous, and a lack of trust in the capacity of the Soviet people to buld up socialism in one country. During those battles for power, Stalin postured as sober, modest, reliable, and non-vindictive. Zinoviev and Kamenev foolishly thought that they could control or at least guide him with their advice. They were dismally wrong. The troika disintegrated in 1925. Eleven year later, in the summer of 1936, Zinoviev and Kamenev were charged with surreal crimes, confessed their guilt, and were executed as “rabid dogs.” A former Menshevik, chief prosecutor Andrey Vyshinski, exulted in publicly humiliating these two former closest associates of the party’s founder.

leninStalinist mythologies: Lenin and Stalin, a painting by Aleksei Vasiliev.

Stalin’s  funeral oration remains as an antological piece in the history of world communism. It was Koba’s opportunity to affirm himself publicly as the defunct leader’s genuine successor. Lenin’s cultic divinization became the foundation for the emerging communist logocracy. In this theocracy, Stalin acted as pontifex maximus, the only legitimate interpreter of the revolutionary gnosis. The myth of the infallible party, owner of truth, found its counterpart in the myth of the omniscient genius, the visionary leader inspired by the universally purifying, redemptive doctrine bequeathed by Lenin. Any attempt to undermine the ironclad unity of the party leadership represented a political crime and needed to be smashed ruthlessly. Factionalism was a lethal disease.

All these themes were saliently featured in Stalin’s oath delivered in that frigidly cold January in Moscow. That text contained, in embryo, the Stalinist gospel. In spite of its monotonous discursive repetitions, the litany evolved in a crescendo of quasi-mystical devotion. Each paragraph begins with the magical words: “Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us…” Lenin emerges from this hagiographic apotheosis as eternally alive, unperishable, immortal. Lenin has become the vivid presence of a fallacious, temporary absence. Medieval superstitions did thus triumph within a political and ideological movement proudly dedicated to materialist philosophical principles. One doesn’t need to endorse Isaac Deutscher’s approach to Bolshevism in order to agree with him that Stalinism was a blending of Marxism and primitive magic.

Far away from Moscow, undergoing medical treatment in the Caucasus, Leon Trotsky did not attend the funerals. The triumvirs telegraphed him that the ceremony could not be postponed until he could get back. In reality, they wanted to make sure that the symbolic transfer of the Leninist charisma would take place in the absence of the arch-rival, a political enemy that had to be compromised and neutralized.

For Stalin, Trotsky embodied the opposite of his own vision of the professional revolutionary: cosmopolite, multi-lingual, with immense literary and philosophical readings, a brilliant journalist, a masterful stylist, and an electrifying orateur. Antipodically situated, Dzhugashvili was dark, dull, somber, a taciturn introvert, pathologically suspicious of everyone and everything. Like Lenin, Trotsky belonged to an international fraternity of Central Europeans socialists. He had known Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and many others. He had read Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Lassale, and Marx in German. Yet, this superiority was misleading and did not help him in the terrible, unsparing competition with Stalin.  He committed a huge mistake by calling Dzhugasvili “the Central Committee’s most notorious mediocrity.” Narcissistic arrogance was Trotsky’s main weakness for which he was to finally pay with his life.

In his “Oath,” Stalin forcefully highlighted the themes that were to energize him in his endeavor to demonstrate that he outdid all his rivals in terms of deep dedication to Lenin’s desires:

“Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to hold high and guard the purity of the great title of member of the Party. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that we shall fulfill your behest with honor! … Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to guard and strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that we shall spare no effort to fulfill this behest with honor! Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to strengthen with all our might  the alliance of the workers and peasant. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that this behest, too, we shall fulfill with honor! Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to strengthen and extend the union of republics. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that this behest, too, we shall fulfill honor! Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to remain faithful to the principles of the Communist International. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that we shall not spare our lives to strengthen and extend the union of the working people of the whole world–the Communist International!” (see T. H. Rigby, editor, “Stalin”, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1966, p. 40). It is noteworthy that Stalin addresses Lenin in present tense, thus suggesting that, as a famous slogan put it, “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!”

Dzhugashvili’s funeral oration consecrated, codified, and petrified the hegemonic narrative about Lenin’s immortality. It became the premise for the new myth of Stalin’s boundless genius and allowed him to masquerade as the only legitimate interpreter of the infallible Leninist doctrine. In brief, as long as the movement follows the Leninist compass, its members will be able to distinguish between North and South, between good and evil, between the road to triumph and the path to disaster. The banner of Leninism is invincible, as Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Castro, Che Guevara, Dolores Ibarruri, Nicolae Ceausescu, etc. would have it.

There is a consensus among Stalin’s great biographers, from Boris Souvarine and Robert Conquest to Robert C. Tucker and Robert Service, that all these pledges, uttered with truly religious intensity, were later abandoned, betrayed, abjured. Yet, this does not mean that at the moment he delivered his farewell address, Stalin was lying. In his mind, most likely, he remained faithful, until his very last day, to the creed he proclaimed in that January of the great separation, to the mystical absolutism of the vanguard party, the predestined instrument Reason did invent in order to achieve its goals in History and rescue humanity from the valley of tears.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author, most recently, of  ”The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century” (University of California Press), a book dedicated to the memory of Leszek Kolakowski, Tony Judt, and Robert C. Tucker. More on this book in the dialogue with Jamie Glazov.  

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  • 11bravo

    Booooorrrrr – rrrriiiing!!

    • Demetrius Minneapolis

      Are you serious? Really? Have you ever heard the phrase “know your enemy”? If you read the article, it gives you an inkling of the mindset of a dictator who murdered millions and may I point out the similarities to one Barrack Hussein Obama. Excellent article, thoroughly enjoyed it.

      • 11bravo

        I already know thy enemy; I was hoping to learn something NEW!
        That’s all. Besides, he didn’t get much into the mass slaughter stuff for those who need to learn.

        • Ace

          Who was responsible for the massive death toll in the USSR when Stalin was the indisputable, unopposable dictator of the USSR? I get the impression that “mass slaughter” is a slippery term you use to avoid addressing the crimes of Stalin. Teach us, O Infantryman.

          • 11bravo

            The article didn’t get much into the “mass slaughter”. He was more into the henchmen and the genesis, and just like why Lanza shot up Sandyhook – I don’t care – it louses up the point of communism The purges in China, and the Ukrainian “famine”.

    • guest

      You are not going to read every article of your favorite magazines due to time constraints. You are not going to think they are all home runs.

      I think Demetrius is right about “know your enemy”.

      Also I think a die hard Leftists will experience significant nay painful cognitive dissonance in reading this article. That alone should tell you the power of truth and how important this article is.

      This truth about how the Politburo treated one another and their motives is to a Leftist was the Sword of Shannara was to the Warlock Lord.

      Okay the Sword of Shannara was a ripoff of Tolkein. Point is the Warlock was defeated not by fancy footwork or the great warrior swordsmanship of Shea Ohmsford. He was defeated by the truth. So yeah that is somewhat hokey. But it has truth to it. You need force oft times to defeat evil. But you cannot defeat evil with sheer force for any appreciable amount of time. So the truth needs to be known and this article does it.

    • Bamaguje

      Spoken like a low-info ignoramus

  • http://www.clarespark.com/ Clare Spark

    Important historical piece, that seems to join fascism and Marxist-Leninism as envisioned by Stalin. I see them as more distinct than the author, having different orientations to the Enlightenment.

  • Crassus

    Compared to Lenin, Stalin was a lamb.

    –V. Molotov

    • ADM64

      Although I wouldn’t go quite that far, there is a lot of truth in this observation: every major aspect of the Stalinist state was in accordance with Leninist policy and Lenin was utterly ruthless. The only difference between him and Stalin was that Stalin also killed other communists, whereas Lenin tended to let them speak their mind and only took action if they continued to oppose a decision once made. It is not that much of a difference. The fundamental nature of the state Lenin created was flawed and deeply immoral, and nothing in its Stalinist version was at odds with Lenin’s ideas.

      • Bamaguje

        If even Lenin could see that Stalin was going to be a disaster, and wanted him removed; then I beg to disagree – Lenin was much better.
        May be I’m wrong, but I doubt that Lenin would have presided over the mass deportations and executions of millions of ordinary folks like Stalin did.

        • ADM64

          It all comes down to what sort of disaster Lenin foresaw. If he saw Stalin being a disaster for the people in the Communist Party (which is what I suspect he was worried about), it is a very different thing than foreseeing that Stalin would be a disaster for Russia. There is no evidence that Lenin had any problem killing lots of ordinary Russians and he was on record as having little if any sympathy for what he called bourgeois socialists (i.e. the ones who were squeamish about violence), so I think my interpretation is likely the correct one. Moreover, if Lenin had real foresight, he would have recognized that communism would have been a disaster because it could only be implemented at the point of a gun. Of course, if he had been able to foresee that, he would not have been a communist in the first place! In my opinion, areas where Lenin appeared to show some flexibility e.g. the New Economic Policy, a somewhat less imperial outlook vis-à-vis Russia’s historic territory and nationalities, and the like, were merely tactical and pragmatic concessions to the extreme conditions in which he found himself in.

          • reader

            To put it in a few words, Lenin was a head of the mafia with a particularly nasty ideology, which he did not even care about, when it was on his way to seizing or retaining power. NEP was nothing other than a tactical retreat to semi-free market economy in order to prevent local anti-bolshevik insurrections at Tambov, Kronshtadt, etc, from spreading and toppling Lenin’s regime. I think that Felshtinsky did an excellent job describing his rise and fall:

            http://www.amazon.com/Lenin-His-Comrades-Bolsheviks-1917-1924/dp/1929631952

          • ADM64

            I agree with you on this and thought I’d made the same point.

        • Drakken

          Anyway you cut it, there were one way or another going to be a lot of people sent to the gulags, for commis always eat each other sooner or later. Stalin just understood human nature better than Lenin did.

        • Roy_Cam

          Read “The Black Book of Communism” and you will see that Lenin did preside over mass deportations and executions of millions of ordinary folk.

  • Roy_Cam

    Lenin had three major enemies:, the ex-political allies of the left, eg socialist, social democrats, etc.; the ex-members of the Empire- eg, Ukraine, etc;, the “Greens”- an alliance of peasants who had already taken land from the major landholders, the kulaks.

    Many know about the Red (Bolshevik) Army, the White (Imperial) Army, but few have heard about the essentially peasant army composed of peasants, and defectors from the Red and White.

    The Green Army arose out of Lenin’s brutal treatment of these peasants, a policy that Stalin resumed, and did not originate.

    Lenin killed just as many people as Stalin in the Ukraine. He basically gave up because he needed to. But all that was after killing about 8 million people directly or through starvation as land and food, the very clothes on children’s backs, all of it confiscated.

    Stalin was, simply put by Whittaker Chambers, the fulfillment of the communist system’s evil, NOT a deviation.

    Simply put- Stalin subjected communists to communism, completing its development.

    Kruschev and the rest- they said not a thing about the millions of regular, non-communist Russians killed. Stalin’s only crime was his brutal treatment of communists.

    Unbelievable.

    • reader

      I’m certainly no fan of Lenin’s but this is just nonsense. The numbers don’t add up. There was no way that Lenin killed 8 million people in Ukraine. For all intents and purposes, Lenin was isolated as early as in 1922, and Golodomor, Collectivization and Industrialization did not begin until late twenties – early thirties. Read Solzhenitsyn, who was definitely NOT a Lenin’s shill.

      • Roy_Cam

        Well, check out the “Black Book of Communism”. Maybe it was 6 million, but it was millions. They don’t agree with you.

        • reader

          Yeah, I’m very familiar. I’m also very familiar with the time-lines and players. I can’t believe that you’re commenting on the subject without even opening the GULAG Archipelago.

          • Roy_Cam

            Read it when it came out almost 40 years ago.

            There is a lot more information, a lot of records available now, that were not available when Solzhenitsyn wrote the “Gulag”.

            Stood right next to him in a bookstore on Telegraph Ave. Couldn’t believe my eyes.

          • reader

            Here’s a bit of available information: Lenin was dead by the end of January 1924. By credible accounts, he was removed from power and isolated in a Moscow suburb of Gorki by 1922. That’s when NEP was still in effect after the Red Army’s defeated at Warsaw in 1920 and consequent anti-bolshevik revolts at Tambov, Kroshtadt and a few other places. In 1918 Ukraine was occupied by Reichswehr, and, in 1919-1920, she saw all kinds of hosilities, certainly resulting in murders and atrocities – but nowhere near the scale you’re talking about. 8 million people constitute about a third of Ukrainian population at the time. No way.

          • Roy_Cam

            I’ll get back to you on this when I find the tally page in “Black Book”…..

            You should read it. It’s the best summary of Red terror.

          • reader

            You’re preaching to the choir. But you’re running a risk of discrediting yourself by lumping and mixing up factual info. Yes, Lenin was a murderous thug who ordered teenage girls to be taken hostage and executed mercilessly, but he could not possibly kill 8 million people in Ukraine.

          • Roy_Cam

            “Black Book of Communism” is the most detailed, documented book on Red Terror.

            Your comments reflect the fact that you simply are only incompletely informed.

            As I said, I will find the page with the compilation of the murders and deaths and get back to you.

  • canitary

    Correction , It is 61 one years since Stalin died{march1953}

  • edlancey

    Oh so orotund

    Ps I’m sure Stalin was no dullard or idiot

    • Drakken

      What made Stalin so dangerous was he understood and used to his benefit, human nature and used it like a cunning animal that he was, everybody mistook him for a dullard and he was anything but. That is why anyone of the so called intellectual class always ended up in front of a wall, for they did not understand Stalin’s ruthless efficiency and it cost them their lives. Even Beria in the end got his.

  • antioli

    They certainly broke a lot of eggs but the omelet did not turn out to be tasty