In Moscow on the evening of January 21, 1924, shock and near-hysterical grief greets the news that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the radical socialist Bolshevik movement that toppled the czarist regime in 1917 and head of the first government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), had died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
Influenced early on by Karl Marx s seminal text Das Kapital, Lenin was radicalized further by the execution of his older brother, Alexander, for conspiring to kill Czar Alexander III in 1887. The brooding, fiercely intellectual Lenin married the principles of Marxist thought to his own theory of organization and the reality of Russian demographics, envisioning a group of elite professional revolutionaries, or a “vanguard of the proletariat,” who would first lead the agrarian masses of Russia to victory over the tyrannical czarist regime and eventually incite a worldwide revolution. He laid out this theory in his most famous treatise, What Is To Be Done?, in 1902. Lenin s insistence on the necessity of this vanguard led to a split in Russia s Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903 between his supporters?a small majority that was thereafter known as the Bolsheviks?and his opponents, the Mensheviks.
After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Lenin?then living in Switzerland?urged his Bolshevik supporters in Russia to turn the “imperialist” conflict into a civil war that would liberate the working classes from the yoke of the bourgeoisie and monarchy. With the success of the February Revolution and the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in March 1917, Lenin managed, with German help, to travel back to Russia, where he worked with his deputy, LÉon Trotsky, to orchestrate the Bolshevik seizure of power from the unsteady provisional government that November. Lenin declared an immediate armistice with the Central Powers and acted quickly to consolidate the power of the new Soviet state under his newly named Communist Party; to that end, in a brutal civil war, his supporters, the “Reds,” had to combat “White” rebellions that sprung up all over Russia.
In his six years in power, Lenin struggled with the difficulty of implementing his utopian vision within the borders of the Soviet state as well as the failure of his predicted international revolution to materialize. Together, Lenin and his circle of advisers, or Politburo?which included Trotsky, his faithful henchman during the civil war, and Joseph Stalin, the general secretary of the Communist Party?worked to ruthlessly and systematically destroy all opposition to Communist policies within the new U.S.S.R., proclaimed in 1922. Instruments in this repression included a newly created secret police, the Cheka, and the first of the gulags, or concentration camps, that Stalin would later put to even more deadly use.
Lenin suffered a stroke in May 1922; a second one, more debilitating, came in March of the following year, leaving him mute and effectively ending his political career. At the time of his death, The New York Times reported that “it is the general opinion that Lenin’s death will unify and strengthen the Communist Party as nothing else could do. No one who knows them both doubts that Trotsky and Stalin will bury the hatchet over his grave.” This would not be the case: Stalin worked quickly to control the situation, encouraging the deification of Lenin?who before his death had called for Stalin s dismissal?while simultaneously working to discredit (and eventually destoy) Trotsky and the rest of his rivals in the Politburo. By 1930, Stalin stood alone at the head of the Soviet state, with all the terrifying machinery Lenin s revolution had created at his disposal.