Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

The Death of a Bolshevik

Jan. 21, 1924

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.