The Road to Power.
Part One: Lenin moves to remove Stalin
[Early in 1923 it6 had become clear to the top leaders cognizant of the political situation that Stalin was literally packing the forthcoming Twelfth Congress, the highest authority in the Party, with delegates unswervingly loyal to him personally. Lenin became so alarmed by this trend of affairs that he] summoned me to his room in the Kremlin, spoke of the frightful growth of bureaucratism in our Soviet apparat [Note: The Communist word for political machine – C.M.] and of the need to find a solution for the problem. He suggested a special commission of the Central Committee and asked me to take an active part in it. I replied:
“Vladimir Ilyich, I am convinced that in the present fight against bureaucratism in the Soviet apparat we must no lose sight of what is going on: a very special selection of officials and specialists, Party members and non-partisans, in the Center and in the provinces, even for district and local Party offices, is taking place on the basis of loyalty to certain dominant Party personalities and ruling groups inside the Central Committee itself. Every time you attack a minor official, you run up against an important Party leader . . . I could not undertake the work under present circumstances.”
Lenin was thoughtful for a moment and –I am quoting him literally –said: “In other words, I am proposing a campaign against bureaucratism in the Soviet apparat and you are proposing to extend the fight to include the bureaucratism of the Party’s Orgburo?”
I laughed at the very unexpectedness of this, because no such finished formulation of the idea was in my mind at the time. I replied: “I suppose that’s it.”
“Very well, then,” Lenin retorted, “I propose a bloc.”
“It is a pleasure to form a bloc with a good man,” I said.
It was agreed that Lenin would initiate the proposal for this commission of the Central Committee to fight bureaucratism “in general” and in the Orgburo in particular. He promised to think over “further” organizational details of the matter. On that we parted. Two weeks passed. Lenin’s health became worse. Then his secretaries brought me his notes and letter on the national question. For months he was prostrate with arteriosclerosis and nothing could be done about our bloc against the bureaucratism of the Orgburo. Obviously, Lenin’s plan was directed against Stalin, although his name was not mentioned; it was in line with the train of thought Lenin expressed explicitly in his Testament.
[If by that time Stalin had the Central Control Commission, the Orgburo and the Secretariat in his grip, Zinoviev still held the plurality in the Politburo and in the Central Committee, by virtue of which he was the leading member of the triumvirate. The contest between him and Stalin, tacit and hidden by nonetheless vehement, was for the majority at the forthcoming Congress. Zinoviev had complete control of the Leningrad organization and his part Kamenev of the Moscow organization. These two most important Party centers needed only the support of a few other large Party centers to secure a majority of the Congress. This majority was necessary for the election of a Central Committee and the ratification of resolutions favorable to Zinoviev. But Zinoviev failed to secure that majority; most of the Party organizations outside of Leningrad and Moscow proved to be under the firm control of the General Secretary.
[Nevertheless Zinoviev was foolhardy enough to insist on taking Lenin’s place at the Twelfth Congress and assumed the role of Lenin’s successor by delivering the Political Report at its opening session. During the preparations for the Congress, with Lenin ill and unable to attend,] the most ticklish question was who should deliver this keynote address, which since the founding of the Party had always been Lenin’s prerogative. When the subject was broached in the Politburo, Stalin was the first to say, “The Political Report will of course be made by Comrade Trotsky.”
I did not want that, since it seemed to me equivalent to announcing my candidacy for the role of Lenin’s successor at a time when Lenin was fighting a grave illness. I replied approximately as follows: “This is an interim. Let us hope that Lenin will soon get well. In the meantime the report should be made, in keeping with his office, by the General Secretary. That will eliminate all grounds for idle speculations. Besides, you and I have serious differences on economic questions, and I am in the minority.”
“But suppose there were to be no differences?” Stalin asked, letting me understand that he was ready to go far I making concessions, i.e., to conclude a rotten compromise.
Kalenin intervened in this dialogue. “What differences?” he asked. “Your proposals always pass through the Politburo.”
I continued to insist on Stalin making the report.
“Under no circumstances,” he replied with demonstrative modesty. “The Party will not understand it. The report must be made by the most popular member of the Central Committee.”
[The matter was finally decided by Zinoviev’s majority in the Central Committee. That made it clearer to every Party member that Zinoviev was Lenin’s successor as head of the Party. With the delegates he controlled and the majority controlled by his junior partner in the triumvirate, he had every reason to expect an ovation the moment he appeared on the rostrum in the role of Number One Bolshevik to deliver the Political Report. But the General Secretary double-crossed his fellow-triumvir: Zinoviev was not greeted by the customary applause. He delivered his keynote address in virtually oppressive silence. The verdict of the delegates was clear: in this new role Zinoviev was an usurper.
[The Twelfth Congress, which lasted for the week between April 17 and 25, 1923 raised Stalin from junior to senior partnership of the triumvirate. Zinoviev’s plurality in the Central Committee and the Politburo were destroyed. Stalin gained control of both. But his most important achievement at the Twelfth Congress was I the Central Control Commission and the network of provincial control commissions. At the Eleventh Congress Stalin had become the secret boss of the Central Control Commission; the majority of its members were his men. But the provincial, county and local control commissions, many of them elected before he became General Secretary, were beyond his control. Stalin tackled the problem in characteristic fashion. On one pretext or another, cases subject to the jurisdiction of hostile control commissions and involving the interests of Stalin’s political machine were transferred for hearing wherever possible to the Central Control Commission; moreover, whenever it could be done without attracting too much notice, on one or another pretext, a number of hostile control commissions were simply abolished by the Central Control Commission. This, supplemented by organized conniving at provincial and regional conferences of the control commissions, produced fruitful results.
[The Party Collegium, made up of Central Control Commission members and especially created at this Congress to “try” and “liquidate” oppositionists, was made up entirely of Stalinists. The membership of the Central Control Commission itself was raised from 7 to 50, with 10 alternates –more high-placed offices with which to reward the faithful. Moreover, the new definitions of its functions and its actual activities transformed the Central Control Commission into a special OGPU for Communist Party members.
[Having suffered defeat at the Twelfth Congress, Zinoviev tried to recoup his political fortunes by a deal with the top leaders. He wavered between two plans: (1) to reduce the Secretariat to its former status as a subsidiary of the Politburo, by depriving it of its self-aggrandized appointive powers; and (2) to “politicize” it, which meant establishing a special collegium of three members of the Politburo within it as its highest authority, these three to be Stalin, Trotsky and either Kamenev, Bukharin or Zinoviev. Some such combination, he felt, was indispensable to offset Stalin’s undue influence.
[He initiated his conferences on the matter in a cave new Kislovodsk, a famous Caucasian watering place, in September, 1923. Voroshilov, who was in Rostov at the time, received a telegraphic invitation form Zinoviev to attend. So did Stalin’s friend Ordzhonikidze. The others present were Zinoviev, Bukharin, Lachevich and Evdokimov. Zinoviev, who wrote down a summary of the views expressed at that conference in a letter addressed to Stalin and personally given by him to his best friend Ordzhonikidze for delivery to the addressee, revealed that:
Comrade Stalin . . . replied with a telegram in a coarse but friendly tone . . . Some time later he arrived and . . . we had several conversations. Finally it was decided that we would not touch the Secretariat, but, in order to coordinate organizational work with political activities, we wou8ld place three members of the Politburo in the Orgburo. This not very practical suggestion was made by Comrade Stalin, and we agreed to it . . . The three members of the Politburo were Comrades Trotsky, Bukharin and I. I attended the sessions of the Orgburo, I think, once or twice, Comrades Bukharin and Trotsky did not come even once. Nothing came of it all . . .
[Actually, all the hopeful Zinoviev had to do was to attend one or two meetings of the Orgburo, to realize the hopelessness of anyone not a member of the Stalin machine trying to “crash the gate” there; Trotsky and Bukharin had at least the foresight and imagination to stay away.
[Meantime, the revolutionary situation in Germany had come to a head. But the triumvirs and their allies in the Politburo were still too busy undermining the prestige of the over-popular Comrade Trotsky and knifing each other, to give more than an occasional perfunctory glance to the paramount problem of world revolution. The German comrades had standing order to work the level of the United Front tactic to the limit. Then Zinoviev convoked the enlarged Executive of the Comintern in Moscow, and from June 12th to the 24th the leaders of World Communism talked revolution.
[The desperate German masses –fifteen million of them in the towns, seven million of them in the country – backed the German section of the Comintern. But with Lenin paralyzed and speechless, with Trotsky hamstrung by Party discipline and rendered politically impotent by his isolation in the Politburo, the Comintern leaders in Moscow had nothing to say to the Communist leaders of Germany. No orders came through and nothing happened. During the fateful August of 1923, Stalin wrote the following lines to Zinoviev (the head of the Communist International) and Bukharin (the officially-acknowledged “chief theoretician of Communist after Lenin”)]:
Should the Communists at the present stage try to seize power without the Social-Democrats? Are they sufficiently ripe for that? That, in my opinion, is the question. When we seized power, we had in Russia such resources in reserve as (a) the promise of peace; (b) the slogan: the land to the peasants; (c) the support of the great majority of the working class; and (d) the sympathy of the peasantry. At the moment the German Communists have nothing of the kind. They have of course a Soviet country as neighbor, which we did not have; but what can we offer them? . . . Should the government in Germany topple over now, in a manner of speaking, and the Communists were to seize hold of it, they would end up in a crash. That is the “best” case. While at worst, they will be smashed to smithereens and thrown away back. The whole point is not that Brandler wants to “educate the masses” but that the bourgeoisie plus the Right Wing Social-Democrats is bound to turn such lessons –the demonstration – into a general battle (at present the odds are on their side) and exterminate them [the German Communists]. Of course the Fascists are not asleep; but it is to our advantage to let them attack first: that will rally the entire working class around the Communists (Germany is not Bulgaria). Besides, all our information indicates that in Germany Fascism is weak. In my opinion the Germans should be restrained and not spurred on.
[This opinion of the senior member of the triumvirate and secret boss of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was virtually an order to the head of the Communist International, who formulated his instruction to the German Communist Party accordingly. Like all such pronouncements, it was “secret” and “confidential” and not generally known at the time. Trotsky, unaware of Stalin’s secret “opinion” but very much aware of the seriousness of the German situation, urged that a flexible provisional date eight to ten weeks ahead be set at once for the German Insurrection and corresponding preparations be launched at once. But the majority of the Central Committee was in Stalin’s pocket.
[Brandler, who came to Moscow early in September for guidance and help, could not even get an interview with the leaders of the world revolution. After being shunted from office to office day after day and week after week, he finally secured an opportunity to air his knowledge and his views of the German situation in the presence of Stalin as well as Zinoviev. Their advice to Brandler was the same as the decision of the Comintern Executive of the previous June –form a workers’ government by entering the Social-Democratic government of Saxony. When Brandler balked he was told the purpose of th4e maneuver was the better to prepare for insurrection. Stalin countered further arguments with a peremptory order for immediate entry, and Zinoviev as head of the Comintern sent telegraphic orders to the Communist Party of Saxony to ente4r the Social-Democratic government at once. Moreover, Brandler himself was instructed to enter that government. He was thus confronted with the alternative of relinquishing leadership of the German Communist Party, if he did not obey. He bowed his head.
[The hasty preparations begun at the end of September were woefully inadequate and badly mismanaged. The German Communist Party had organized fighting detachments, the so-called Red Hundreds, in each Communist center, and held them in readiness for the signal to be given as a result of a conference to be held in Chemnitz on October 21st. The insurrection was to begin in Saxony. If it developed according to plan the Communist Party would lead it; if it did not, the Communist Party would disclaim any responsibility and hide behind the protective coloration of coalition with the Social Democrats, with whose aid it would attempt to stave off the inevitable reaction.
[It was a typical Stalinist maneuver. He had behaved thus in October, 1917, in Russia, during the debates in the Bolshevik Central Committee, clandestinely supporting Zinoviev and Kamenev who were openly opposed to Lenin’s insistence on the insurrection, while keeping a sharp lookout to see which side was actually winning. In Russia it was of no importance where he stood on the issue of insurrection because he was not entrusted with preparing it. But in the German situation of 1923 he was the supreme boss.
[When at the Chemnitz Conference on October 21st the Saxon Social-Democrats turned down Brandler’s proposal for a general strike and an armed insurrection, Brandler gave the only signal he could give in keeping with his instructions from Stalin and Zinoviev; he called the revolution off. But this was not the first time that a revolution in Germany had been scheduled, called off and scheduled again. A revolutionary party straining at the leash for action cannot be expected to respond indefinitely with the regularity of a water faucet. Two days after the off signal from Chemnitz, the insurrection was on in Hamburg. All to no purpose. The fighters were leaderless and without an objective. The uprising petered out. What might have been a revolution became a senseless and criminal adventure. It was the first of a progressive series under Stalin’s leadership in the international arena, his first great rehearsal for his first capitulation to Hitler in 1933.
[The German failure found immediate repercussion in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The sincere Bolsheviks were perturbed; many of them insisted on more than the perfunctory accounting of performance by the Party leaders. They wanted to thrash the problems out in open debate. Their first demand therefore was the restoration of the right to form groupings within the Party, abolished by the Tenth Congress in 1921 during the crucial days of the Kronstadt Rebellion. The dissatisfaction with the rule of the triumvirate had been brewing ever since the Twelfth Congress, nor was it confined to the triumvirs; it was directed against the Central Committee as a whole. Forty-six prominent Bolsheviks, among them Pyatakov, Sapronov, Serebryakov, Preobrazhensky, Ossinky, Drobnis, Alsky, V.M. Smirnov, issued a statement in which they declared in part:
The regime which has been set up in the Party is utterly intolerable. It is destructive of initiative within the Party. It is replacing the Party with a political machine . . . which functions well enough when all goes well but which I inevitably misfires at moments of crisis and which threatens to prove its absolute bankruptcy in the face of the grave developments now impending. The present situation is due to the fact that the regime of factional dictatorship which developed objectively after the Tenth Congress has outlived its usefulness.
[The Forty-Six were not satisfied with the empty gestures of the September Plenum on “extending democracy” in the Party. Meetings of protest were organized and public agitation against the bureaucratic regime was carried on not only in Soviet institutions but even in Party organizations.
[In an effort to catalyze this growing movement of protest, which threatened to develop into a united opposition from the Left, Zinoviev on behalf of the triumvirate published an article in the November 7th issue of Pravda, on the sixth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which legalized the discussion by announcing the existence of “workers’ democracy” within the Party. At the same time, negotiations among the top leaders led finally to a resolution drafted in the Politburo and adopted by the Central Committee on December 5th, 1923, in which all such evils as bureaucracy, special privileges, and the like were condemned and the restoration of the rights to criticize and investigate and to have all offices filled through honest elections was solemnly promised. Trotsky, who had been ill since the beginning of November and therefore unable to participate in the general discussion, attached his signature to it along with all the other members of the Politburo and the Central Committee.
[The struggle at the top had been going on for well-nigh two years in such tight-lipped secrecy that the Party as a whole knew nothing about it and all but a handful of trusted initiates regarded Trotsky by and large as a loyal supporter of the reigning regime. He decided therefore to supplement his signature to the Central Committee Resolution of December 5th with a statement of his own position in which he frankly explained his misgivings about the dangers of bureaucracy, the possibilities of the political degeneration of the Bolshevik movement, called upon the youth to spurn passive obedience, careerism and servility, and drew the explicit inference that the new course outline in the Central Committee Resolution of December 5th should lead first of all to clear understanding by everyone “that henceforth no one should terrorize the Party.”
[The letter aroused a storm of indignation among the top leaders. Most bitter of all was Zinoviev, who, as Bukharin revealed in the course of a factional fight four years later, insisted on Trotsky’s arrest for the “treason” implicit in his “New Course” letter. Moreover, although the discussion had been sanctioned officially, the Central Control Commission worked full blast. So did the entire political machine of the General Secretary and the senior triumvir. The Thirteenth Party Congress, which met January 16th to 18th, 1924, to lay the groundwork for the forthcoming Thirteenth Party Congress, to be held in May, adopted a resolution on the basis of Stalin’s report which condemned the pro-democracy discussion and Trotsky’s role in the following words:
The opposition headed by Trotsky put forward the slogan of breaking up the Party apparat and attempted to transfer the center of gravity from the struggle against bureaucracy in the State apparat to the struggle against “bureaucracy” in the Party apparat. Such utterly baseless criticism and the downright attempt to discredit the Party apparat cannot, objectively speaking, lead to anything but the emancipation of the State apparat from Party influence . . .
and that was of course a “petty-bourgeois deviation.” Finally, the Politburo ordered the ailing Trotsky to take a cure in the Caucasus. It was a polite way –(in view of his popularity they were constrained to go easy with him) –of exiling him from the political center for the time being. The sick Trotsky hardly reached the Caucasus, when he received a telegram from Stalin that Lenin, whose health had been improving lately, had suddenly died.]
Politically, Stalin and I have long been in opposite and irreconcilable camps. But in certain circles it has become the rule to speak of my “hatred” of Stalin and to assume a priori that everything I write, not only about the Moscow dictator but about the U.S.S.R. as well, is inspired by that feeling. During the more than ten years of my present exile the Kremlin’s literary agents have systematically relieved themselves of the need to answer pertinently anything I write about the U.S.S.R. by conveniently alluding to my “hatred” of Stalin. The late Freud regarded this cheap sort of psychoanalysis most disapprovingly. Hatred is, after al l, a kind of personal bond. Yet Stalin and I have been separated by such fiery events as have consumed in flames and reduced to ashes anything personal, without leaving any residue whatever. In hatred there is an element of envy. Yet to me, in mind and feeling, Stalin’s unprecedented elevation represents the very deepest fall. Stalin is my enemy. But Hitler, too, is my enemy, and so is Mussolini, and so are many others. Today I bear as little “hatred” toward Stalin as toward Hitler, Franco, or the Mikado. Above all, I try to understand them, so that I may be better equipped to fight them. Generally speaking, in matters of historic import, personal hatred is a petty and contemptible feeling. It is not only degrading but blinding. Yet in the light of recent events on the world arena, as well as in the U.S.S.R., even many of my opponents have now become convinced that I was not so very blind: those very predictions of mine which seemed least likely have proved to be true.
These introductory lines pro domo sua are all the more necessary, since I am about to broach a particularly trying theme. I have endeavored to give a general characterization of Stalin on the basis of close observation of him and a painstaking study of his biography. I do not deny that the portrait which emerges from that is somber and even sinister. But I challenge anyone else to try to substitute another, more human figure back of these facts that have shocked the imagination of mankind during the last few years –the mass “purges,” the unprecedented accusations, the fantastic trials, the extermination of a whole revolutionary generation, and finally, the latest maneuvers on the international arena. Now I am about to adduce a few rather unusual facts, supplemented by certain thoughts and suspicions, from the story of how a provincial revolutionist became the dictator of a great country. These thoughts and suspicions have not come to me full-blown. They matured slowly, and whenever they occurred to me in the past, brushed them aside as the product of an excessive mistrustfulness. But the Moscow trials –which revealed an infernal hive of intrigues, forgeries, falsifications, surreptitious poisonings and murders back of the Kremlin dictator –have cast a sinister light on the preceding years. I began to ask myself with growing insistency: What was Stalin’s actual role at the time of Lenin’s illness? Did not the disciple do something to expedite his master’s death?
I realize more than anyone else the monstrosity of such suspicion. But that cannot be helped, when it follows from the circumstances, the facts and Stalin’s very character. In 1922, the apprehensive Lenin had warned: “That cook will prepared nothing but peppery dishes.” They proved to be not only peppery but poisoned, and not only figuratively but literally so. Two years ago [probably 1937 C.M.] I wrote down for the first time the facts which in their day (1923-24) were known to no more than seven or eight persons, and then only in part. Of that number, besides myself, only Stalin and Molotov are still among the living. But these two –even allowing that Molotov was among the initiated, of which I am not certain –have no motives for confessing that which I am now about to tell. I should add that every fact I mention, every reference and quotation, can be substantiated either by official Soviet publications or by documents preserved in my archives. I had occasion to give oral and written explanations before Dr. John Dewey’s commission investigating the Moscow trials, and not a single one of the hundreds of documents what I presented was ever impugned.
The iconography, rich in quantity (we say nothing about quality), produced in the last few years, invariably portrays Lenin in Stalin’s company. They sit side by side, take counsel together, gaze upon each other in friendly fashion. The obtrusiveness of this motif, reiterated in paintings, in sculpture, on the screen, is dictated by the desire to make the people forget the fact that the last period of Lenin’s life was filled with intense conflict between him and Stalin, which culminated in a complete break between them. As always, there was nothing in any way personal about Lenin’s hostility toward Stalin. Undoubtedly he valued certain of Stalin’s traits very highly, his firmness of character, his persistence, even his ruthlessness and conniving, attributes indispensable in struggle and consequently at Party Headquarters. But as time went on, Stalin took increasing advantage of the opportunities his post presented for recruiting people personally devoted to him and for revenging himself upon his opponents. Having become in 1919 the head of the People’s Commissariat of Inspection, [Note: Another name for the Commissariat of Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, for which Rabkrin is the Russian portmanteau word – C.M.] Stalin gradually transformed it into an instrument of favoritism and intrigues. He turned the Party’s General Secretariat into an inexhaustible fountainhead of favors and dispensations. He had likewise misused for personal ends his position as member of the Orgburo and the Politburo. A personal motive could be discerned in all of his actions. Little by little Lenin became convinced that certain of Stalin’s traits, multiplied by the political machine, were directly harmful to the Party. From that matured his decision to remove Stalin from the machine and thereby transform him into a rank and file member of the Central Committee. In present-day U.S.S.R. Lenin’s letters of that time constitute the most tabu of all writings. Fortunately, copies and photostats of a number of them are in my archives, and some of them I have already published.
Lenin’s health took a sudden turn for the worse towards the end of 1921. The first stroke came in May of the following year. For two months he was unable either to move, to speak or to write. Beginning with July, he began to convalesce slowly. In October he returned from the country to the Kremlin and took up his work again. He was literally shaken by the spread of bureaucracy, arbitrariness and intrigues in the institutions of the Party and the Government. In December he opened fire against Stalin’s persecutions along the line of the nationalities policy, especially as enforced by him in Georgia, where the authority of the General Secretary was openly defied. He came out against Stalin on the question of foreign trade monopoly and was preparing for the forthcoming Party Congress an address which Lenin’s secretaries, quoting his own words, called ‘a bombshell against Stalin.” On January 23rd, to the great trepidation of the General Secretary, he proposed a project for organizing a control commission of workers [Note: Not to be confused with the Central Control Commission, already functioning then. – C.M.] that would check the power of the bureaucracy. “Let us speak frankly,” wrote Lenin on March 2nd, “the Commissariat of Inspection does not today enjoy the slightest authority . . . There is no worse institution among us than our People’s Commissariat of Inspection . . .” and the like. At the head of the Inspection was Stalin. He well understood the implications of such language.
Part 2: Lenin dies, Stalin wins
In the middle of December, 1922, Lenin’s health again took a turn for the worse. He was obliged to absent himself from conferences, keeping in touch with the Central Committee by means of notes and telephonograms. Stalin at once tried to capitalize on this situation, hiding from Lenin much of the information which was concentrating in the Party Secretariat. Measures of blockade were instituted against persons closest to Lenin. Krupskaya did whatever she could to shield the sick man from hostile jolts by the Secretariat. But Lenin knew how to piece together a complete picture of the situation from stray and scarcely perceptible indications. “Shield him from worries!” the doctors insisted. It was easier said than done. Chained to his bed, isolated from the outside world, Lenin was aflame with alarm and indignation. His chief course of worry was Stalin. The behavior of the General Secretary became bolder as the reports of physicians about Lenin’s health became less favorable. In those days Stalin was morose, his pipe firmly clenched between his teeth, a sinister gleam in his jaundiced eyes, snarling back instead of answering. His fate was at stake. He had made up his mind to overcome all obstacles. That was when the final break between him and Lenin took place.
The former Soviet diplomat Dmitrievsky, who is very friendly toward Stalin, tells about this dramatic episode as it was bandied about in the General Secretary’s entourage:
When Krupskaya, of whom he was thoroughly sick because of her constant annoyances, telephoned him in the country once more for some information, Stalin . . . upbraided her in the most outrageous language. Krupskaya, all in tears, immediately ran to complain to Lenin. Lenin’s nerves, already strained to the breaking point by the intrigues, could not hold out any longer. Krupskaya hastened to send Lenin’s letter to Stalin . . . “But you know Vladimir Ilyich,” Krupskaya said triumphally to Kamenev. “He would never have ventured to break off personal relations, if he had not thought it necessary to crush Stalin politically.”
Krupskaya did really say that, but far from “triumphantly”; on the contrary, t5hat thoroughly sincere and sensitive woman was frightfully apprehensive and worried by what had taken place. It is not true that she “complained” about Stalin: on the contrary, as far as she was able, she played the part of a shock-absorber. But in reply to Lenin’s persistent questioning, she could not tell him more than she had been told by the Secretariat, and Stalin concealed the most important matters. The letter about the break, or rather the note of several lines dictated on the 6th of March to a trusted stenographer, announced dryly the severance of “all personal and comradely relations with Stalin.” That note, the last surviving Lenin document, is at the same time the final summation of his relation with Stalin. Then came the hardest stroke of all and loss of speech.
A year later, when Lenin was already embalmed in his mausoleum, the responsibility for the break, as is clearly apparent in Dmitrievsky’s story, was openly placed on Krupskaya. Stalin accused her of “intrigues” against himself. The notorious Yaroslavsky, who usually carried on Stalin’s dubious errands, said in July, 1026, at a session of the Central Committee: “They sank so low that they dared to come to the sick Lenin with their complaints of having been hurt by Stalin. How disgraceful –to complicate policy on such major issues with personal matters!” Now “they” was Krupskaya. She was being vengefully punished for Lenin’s affronts against Stalin. Krupskaya, for her part, told me about Lenin’s deep distrust of Stalin during the last period of his life. “Volodya was saying: ‘He’ (Krupskaya did not call him by name, but nodded her head in the direction of Stalin’s apartment) “ ‘is devoid of the most elementary honesty, the most simply human honesty . . .’”
The so-called Lenin “Testament” –that is, his last advice on how to organize the Party leadership –was written in two installments during his second illness; on December 25th, 1922, and on January 4th, 1923. “Stalin, having become General Secretary,” declares the Testament, “has concentrated enormous power in his hands, and I am not sure that he always knows how to use that power with sufficient caution.” Ten days later this restrained formula seemed insufficient to Lenin, and he added a postscript: “I propose to the comrades to find a way to remove Stalin from that position and appoint to it another man,” who would be, “more loyal, more courteous and more considerate to comrades, less capricious, etc.” Lenin tried to express his estimate of Stalin in as inoffensive language as possible. Yet he did broach the subject of removing Stalin from the one post that could give him power.
After all that had taken place during the preceding months, the Testament could not have been a surprise to Stalin. Nevertheless he took it as a cruel blow. When he first read the text –which Krupskaya had transmitted to him for the forthcoming Party Congress –in the presence of his secretary Mekhlia, later the political chief of the Red Army, and of the prominent Soviet politician Syrtsov, who has since disappeared from the scene, he broke out into billingsgate against Lenin that gave vent to his true feelings about his “master” in those days. Bazhanov, another former secretary of Stalin’s, has described the session of the Central Committee at which Kamenev first made the Testament known.
“Terrible embarrassment paralyzed all those present. Stalin sitting on the steps of the praesidium’s rostrum, felt small and miserable. I studied him closely: notwithstanding his self-possession and show of calm, it was clearly evident that his fate was at stake . . .” Radek, who sat beside me at that memorable session, leaned over with the words: “Now they won’t dare to go against you.” He had in mind two places in the letter: one, which characterized me as “the most gifted man in the present Central Committee,” and the other, which demanded Stalin’s removal in view of his rudeness disloyalty and tendency to misuse power. I told Radek: “On the contrary, now they will have to see it through to the bitter end, and moreover as quickly as possible.” Actually, the Testament not only failed to terminate the internal struggle, which was what Lenin wanted, but, on the contrary, intensified it to a feverish pitch. Stalin could no longer doubt that Lenin’s return to activity would mean the political death of the General Secretary. And conversely: only Lenin’s death could clear the way for Stalin.
During Lenin’s second illness, toward the end of February, 1923, at a meeting of the Politburo members Zinoviev, Kamenev and the author of these lines, Stalin informed us, after the departure of the secretary, that Lenin had suddenly called him in and had asked him for poison. Lenin was again losing the faculty of speech, considered his situation hopeless, foresaw the approach of a new stroke, did not trust his physicians, whom he had no difficulty catching in contradictions. His mind was perfectly clear and he suffered unendurably. I was able to follow the course of Lenin’s illness day by day through the physician we had in common, Doctor Guetier, who was also a family friend of ours.
“Is it possible, Fedor Alexandrovich, that this is the end?” my wife and I would ask him time and again.
“That cannot be said at all. Vladimir Ilyich can get on his feet again, He has a powerful constitution.”
“And his mental faculties?”
“Basically, they will remain untouched. Not every note, perhaps, will keep its former purity, but the virtuoso will remain a virtuoso.”
We continued to hope. Yet here I was unexpectedly confronted with the disclosure that Lenin, who seemed the very incarnation of the will to live, was seeking poison for himself. What must have been his inward state!
I recall how extraordinary, enigmatic and out of tune with the circumstances Stalin’s face seemed to me. The request he was transmitting to us was tragic; yet a sickly smile was transfixed on his face, as on a mask. We were not unfamiliar with the discrepancy between his facial expression and his speech. But this time it was utterly unsufferable. The horror of it was enhanced by Stalin’s failure to express any opinion about Lenin’s request, as if he were waiting to see what others would say: did he want to catch the overtones of our reaction to it, without committing himself? Or did he have some hidden thoughts of his own? . . . I see before me the pale and silent Kamenev, who sincerely loved Lenin, and Zinoviev, bewildered, as always at difficult moments. Had they known about Lenin’s request even before the session? Or had Stalin sprung this as a surprise on his allies in the triumvirate as well as on me?
“Naturally, we cannot even consider carrying out this request!” I exclaimed. “Guetier has not lost hope. Lenin can still recover.”
“I told him all that,” Stalin replied, not without a touch of annoyance. “But he wouldn’t listen to reason. The Old Man is suffering. He says he want to have the poison at hand . . . he’ll use it only when he is convinced that his condition is hopeless.”
“Anyway, it’s out of the question,” I insisted –this time, I think, with Zinoviev’s support. “He might succumb to a passing mood and take the irrevocable step.”
“The Old Man is suffering.” Stalin repeated, staring vaguely past us and, as before, saying nothing one way or the other. A line of thought parallel to the conversation but not quite in consonance with it must have been running through his mind.
It is possible of course, that subsequent events have influenced certain details of my recollection, though, as a general rule, I have learned to trust my memory. However, this episode is one of those that leave an indelible imprint on one’s consciousness for all time. Moreover, upon my return home, I told it in detail to my wife. And ever since, each time I mentally review this scene, I cannot help repeating to myself: Stalin’s behavior, his whole manner, was baffling and sinister. What does the man want? And why doesn’t he take that insidious smile off his mask? . . . No vote was taken, since this was not a formal conference, but we parted with the implicit understanding that we could not even consider sending poison to Lenin.
Here naturally arises the question: how and why did Lenin, who at the time was extremely suspicious of Stalin, turn to him with such a request, which on the face of it, presupposed the highest degree of personal confidence? A mere month before he made this request to Stalin, Lenin had written his pitiless postscript to the Testament. Several days after making this request, he broke off all personal relations with him. Stalin himself could not have failed to ask himself the question: why did Lenin turn to him of all people? The answer is simple: Lenin saw in Stalin the only man who would grant his tragic request, since he was directly interested in doing so. With his faultless instinct, the sick man guessed what was going on in the Kremlin and outside its walls and how Stalin really felt about him. Lenin did even have to review the list of his closest comrades in order to say to himself that no one except Stalin would do him this “favor.” At the same time, it is possible that he wanted to test Stalin: just how eager would the chef of the peppery dishes be to take advantage of this opportunity? In those days Lenin thought not only of death but of the fate of the Party. Lenin’s revolutionary nerve was undoubtedly the last of his nerves to surrender to death.
When still a very young man in prison, Koba would surreptitiously incite hotheaded Caucasians against his opponents, which usually ended in a beating and on one occasion even a murder. As the years passed by, he perfected his technique. The monopolistic political machine of the Party, combined with the totalitarian machine of the Sate, opened to him possibilities which even such of his predecessors as Caesar Borgia could not have imagined. The office in which the investigators of the OGPU carry on their super-inquisitorial questioning is connected by a microphone with Stalin’s office. The unseen Joseph Djugashvili, a pipe in his teeth, listens greedily to the dialogue outlined by himself, rubs his hands and laughs soundlessly. More than ten years before the notorious Moscow trials he had confessed to Kamenev and Dzerzhinsky over a bottle of wine one summer night on the balcony of a summer resort that his highest delight in life was to keep a keen eye on an enemy, prepare everything painstakingly, mercilessly revenge himself, and then go to sleep. Later he avenged himself on a whole generation of Bolsheviks! There is no reason here to return to the Moscow judicial frame-ups. The judgement they were accorded in their day was both authoritative and exhaustive.
[Note: The Case of Leon Trotsky: Report of the Hearings on The Charges Made Against Him In The Moscow Trials: By the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry, John Dewey, Chairman, and others: Harper & Brothers: New York & London” 1937, 617 pp. Not Guilty: Report of the Commission of Inquiry Into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials: By John Dewey, Chairman, and others: Harper & Brothers: New York & London: 1938: 422 pp.]
But in order to understand the real Stalin and the manner of his behavior during the days of Lenin’s illness and death, it is necessary to shed light on certain episodes of the last big trial staged in March, 1938.
A special place in the prisoner’s dock was occupied by Henry Yagoda, who had worked in the Cheka and the OGPU for sixteen years, at first as an assistant chief, later as the head, and all the time in close contact with the General Secretary as his most trusted aid in the fight against the Opposition. The system of confessions to crimes that had never been committed is Yagoda’s handiwork, if not his brainchild. In 1933 Stalin rewarded Yagoda with the Order of Lenin, in 1935 elevated him to the rank of General Commissar of State Defense, that is, Marshal of the Political Police, only two days after the talented Tukhachevsky was elevated to the rank of Marshal of the Red Army. In Yagoda’s person a nonentity was elevated, known as such to all land held in contempt by all. The old revolutionists must have exchanged looks of indignation. Even in the submissive Politburo an attempt was made to oppose this. But some secret bound Stalin to Yagoda –apparently, forever. Yet the mysterious bond was mysteriously broken. During the great “purge” Stalin decided to liquidate at the same time his fellow-culprit who knew too much. In April, 1927, Yagoda was arrested. As always, Stalin thus achieved several supplementary advantages: for the promise of a pardon, Yagoda assumed at the trial personal guilt for crimes rumor has ascribed to Stalin. Of course, the promise was not kept: Yagoda was executed, in order the better to prove Stalin’s irreconcilability in matters of law and morals.
But exceedingly illuminating circumstances were made public at that trial.
According to the testimony of his secretary and confidant, Bulanov, Yagoda had a special poison chest, form which, as the need arose, he would obtain precious vials and entrust them to his agents with appropriate instructions. The chief of the AGPU, a former pharmacist, displayed exceptional interest in poisons. He had at his disposal several toxicologists for whom he organized a special laboratory, providing it with means without stint and without control. It is, of course, out of the question that Yagoda might have established such an enterprise for his own personal needs. Far from it. In this case, as in others, he was discharging his official functions. As a poisoner, he was merely instrumentum regni, even as old Locusta at Nero’s court –with this difference, that he had far outstripped his ignorant predecessor in matters of technique!
At Yagoda’s side in the prisoner’s dock sat four Kremlin physicians, charged with the murder of Maxim Gorky and of two Soviet cabinet ministers. “I confess that . . . I prescribed medicines unsuited to the given illness . . .” Thus “I was responsible for the untimely death of Maxim Gorky and Kuibyshev.” During the days of the trial, the basic background of which consisted of falsehood, the accusations, like the confessions of poisoning the aged and ailing writer, seemed phantasmagoric to me. Subsequent information and a more attentive analysis of he circumstances forced me to alter that judgment. Not everything in the trials was a lie. There were the poisoned and the poisoners. Not all the poisoners were sitting in the prisoners’ dock. The principal poisoner was conducting the trial by telephone.
Gorky was neither a conspirator nor a politician. He was a softhearted old man, a defender of the injured, a sentimental protester. Such had been his role during the early days of the October Revolution. During the first and second five-year plans famine, discontent and repressions reached the utmost limit. The courtiers protested. Even Stalin’s wife, Alliluyeva, protested. In that atmosphere Gorky constituted a serious menace. He corresponded with European writers, he was visited by foreigners, the injured complained to him, he molded public opinion. But, most important, it would have been impossible for him to acquiesce in the extermination, then being prepared, of the Old Bolsheviks, whom he had known intimately for many years. Gorky’s public protest against the frame-ups would have immediately broken the hypnotic spell of Stalin’s justice before the eyes of the world.
In no way was it possible to make him keep still. To arrest him, to exile him, not to say to shoot hi, was even less possible. The thought of hastening the liquidation of the sick Gorky through Yagoda “without bloodshed” must have seemed to the boss of the Kremlin as the only way out under the circumstances. Stalin’s mind is so constituted that such decisions occur to him with the impact of reflexes. Having accepted the assignment, Yagoda turned to his “own” physicians. He did not risk anything. Refusal, according to Dr. Levin’s own words, “would spell ruin for me and my family.” Moreover, “you will not excapte Yagoda anyhow. Yagoda is a man who does not stop at anything. He would get you even if you were underground.”
But why did not the authoritative and respected Kremlin physicians complain to members of the government, whom they knew well as their own patients? On Dr. Levin’s list of patients alone were twenty-four high-ranking officials, including members of the Politburo and of the council of People’s Commissars. The answer is, that Dr. Levin, like everyone else in and around the Kremlin, knew perfectly well whose agent Yagoda was. Dr. Levin submitted to Yagoda because he was powerless to oppose Stalin.
As for Gorky’s discontent, his efforts to go abroad, Stalin’s refusal to grant him a foreign passport –that was common knowledge in Moscow and was discussed in whispers. Suspicions that Stalin had somehow aided the destructive force of nature sprang up directly after the great writer’s death. A concomitant task of Yagoda’s trial was to clear Stalin of that suspicion. Hence, the repeated declarations by Yagoda, the physicians and the other accused that Gorky was “a close friend of Stalin’s,” “a trusted persons,” “a Stalinist,” fully approved of the “Leader’s” policy, spoke “with exceptional enthusiasm” of Stalin’s role. If only half of this were true, Yagoda would not have taken it upon himself to kill Gorky, and still less would have dared to entrust such a plot to a Kremlin physician, who could have destroyed him by simply telephoning Stalin.
Here is a single “detail” taken from a single trial. There were many trials, and no end of “details.” All of them bear Stalin’s ineradicable imprint. The work is basically his. Pacing up and down his office, he painstakingly considers sundry schemes wherewith he might reduce anyone who displeases him to the utmost degree of humiliation, to lying denunciations of his dearest intimates, to the most horrible betrayal of his own self. For him who fights back, in spite of everything, there is always a little vial. It is only Yagoda who has disappeared; his poison chest remains.
At the 1938 trial Stalin charged Bukharin, as if incidentally, with having prepared in 19118 an attempt on Lenin’s life. The naïve and ardent Bukharin venerated Lenin, loved him with the love of a child for its mother and, when he pertly opposed him in polemics, it was not otherwise than on his knees. Bukharin, “soft as wax,” to use Lenin’s expression, did not have and could not have had personal ambitious designs. If in the old days anyone had predicted that the time would come when Bukharin would be accused of an attempt on Lenin’s life, each of us, and above all Lenin, would have laughed and advised putting such a prophet in an insane asylum. Why then did Stalin resort to such a patently absurd accusation? Most likely this was his answer to Bukharin’s suspicions, carelessly expressed, with reference to Stalin himself. Generally, all the accusations are cut to this pattern. The basic elements of Stalin’s frame-ups are not the products of pure fantasy; they are derived from reality –for the most part, from either the deeds or designs of the chef of the peppery dishes himself. The same defensive-offensive “Stalin reflex,” which was so clearly revealed in the instance of Gorky’s death, disclosed its full force in the matter of Lenin’s death as well. In the first case, Yagoda paid with his life; in the second –Bukharin.
I imagine the course of affairs somewhat like this. Lenin asked for poison at the end of February, 1923. In the beginning of March he was again paralyzed. The medical prognosis at the time was cautiously unfavorable. Feeling more sure of himself, Stalin began to act as if Lenin were already dead. But the sick man fooled him. His powerful organism, supported by an inflexible will, reasserted itself. Toward winter Lenin began to improve slowly, to move around more freely; listened to reading and read himself; his faculty of speech began to come back to him. The findings of the physicians became increasingly more hopeful. Lenin’s recovery could not, of course, have prevented the supersedure of the Revolution by the bureaucratic reaction. Krupskaya had sound reasons for observing in 1926, “if Volodya were alive, he would now be in prison.”
For Stalin himself it was not a question of the general course of development, but rather of his own fate: either he could manage at once, this very day, to become the boss of the political machine and hence of the Party and of the country, or he would be relegated to a third-rate role for the rest of his life. Stalin was after power, all of it, come what may. He already had a firm grip on it. His goal was near, but the danger emanating from Lenin was even nearer. At this time Stalin must have made up his mind that it was imperative to act without delay. Everywhere he had accomplices whose fate was completely bound to his. At his side was the pharmacist Yagoda. Whether Stalin sent the poison to Lenin with the hint that the physicians had left no hope for his recovery or whether he resorted to more direct means I do not know. But I am firmly convinced that Stalin could not have waited passively when his fate hung by a thread and the decision depended on a small, very small motion of his hand.
Some time after the middle of January, 1924, I left for Sukhum, in the Caucasus, to try to get rid of a dogged, mysterious infection, the nature of which still remains a mystery to my physicians. The news of Lenin’s death reached me en route. According to a widely disseminated version, I lost power because I was not present at Lenin’s funeral. This explanation can hardly be taken seriously. But the fact of my absence at the mourning ceremonies caused many of my friends serious misgivings. In a letter from my oldest son, who was then nearing eighteen, there was a note of youthful despair: I should have come at any price! Such were my intentions, too. The coded telegram about Lenin’s death found my wife and me at the railway station in Tiflis. I immediately sent a coded note by direct wire to the Kremlin: “I deem it necessary to return to Moscow. When is the funeral?” The reply came from Moscow in about an hour: “The funeral will take place on Saturday. You will not be able to return in time. The Politburo thinks that because of the state of your health you must proceed to Sukhum. Stalin.” I did not feel that I should request postponement of the funeral for my sake alone. Only in Sukhum, lying under blankets on the verandah of a sanatorium, did I learn that the funeral had been changed to Sunday. The circumstances connected with the previous setting and ultimate changing of the date of the funeral are so involved that they cannot be clarified in a few lines. Stalin maneuvered, deceiving not only me but, so it appears, also his allies in the triumvirate. In distinction from Zinoviev, who approach every question from the standpoint of its immediate effectiveness as agitation, Stalin was guided in his risky maneuvers by more tangible considerations. He might have feared that I would connect Lenin’s death with last year’s conversation about poison, would ask the doctors whether poisoning was involved, and demand a special autopsy. It was, therefore, safer in all respects to keep me away until after the body had been embalmed, the viscera cremated and a post- mortem examination inspired by such suspicions no longer feasible.
When I asked the physicians in Moscow about the immediate cause of Lenin’s death, which they had not expected, they were at a loss to account for it. I did not bother to question Krupskaya, who had written a very warm letter to me at Sukhum, which questions on that theme. I did not renew personal relations with Zinoviev and Kamenev until two years later, after they had broken with Stalin. They obviously avoided all discussion concerning the circumstances of Lenin’s death, answering in monosyllables and avoiding my eyes. Did they know anything or were they merely suspicious? Anyway, they had been so closely involved with Stalin during the preceding three years that they could not help being apprehensive lest the shadow of suspicion should fall on them as well.
Over Lenin’s bier Stalin read from a scrap of paper his oath of fealty to his master’s legacy, couched in the style of the homilectics he had studied at the Tiflis theological seminary. In those days that oath was scarcely noticed. Today it is in all the textbooks, having superseded the Ten Commandments.
[In Leaving us, Comrade Lenin commanded us to hold high and pure the great calling of Party Member. We swear to Thee, Comrade Lenin, to honor Thy command.
In leaving us, Comrade Lenin commanded us to keep the unity of our Party as the apple of our eye. We swear to Thee, Comrade Lenin, to honor Thy command.
In leaving us, Comrade Lenin ordered us to maintain and strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat. We swear to Thee, Comrade Lenin, to exert our full strength in honoring Thy command.
In leaving us, Comrade Lenin ordered us to strengthen with all our might the union of workers and peasants. We swear to Thee, Comrade Lenin, to honor Thy command.
In leaving us, Comrade Lenin ordered us to strengthen and expand the Union of the Republics. We swear to Thee, Comrade Lenin, to honor Thy command.
In leaving us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to be faithful to the Communist International. We swear to Thee, Comrade Lenin, that we shall dedicate our lives to the enlargement and reinforcement of the union of the workers of the whole world, the Communist International.]
The names of Nero and Caesar Borgia have been mentioned more than once with reference to the Moscow trials and the latest developments on the international scene. Since these old ghosts are being invoked, it is fitting, it seems to me, to speak of a super-Nero and a super-Borgia, so modest, almost naïve, seem the crimes of that era in comparison with the exploits of our own times. It is possible however to discern a more profound historical significance in purely personal analogies. The customs of the declining Roman Empire were formed during the transition from slavery to feudalism, from paganism to Christianity. The epoch of the Renaissance marked the transition from feudal to bourgeois society, from Catholicism to Protestantism and Liberalism. In both instances the old morality had managed to spend itself before the new one was formed.
Now again we are living during the transition from one system to another, in an epoch of the greatest social crisis, which, as always, is accompanied by the crisis in morals. The old has been shaken to its foundations. The new has scarcely begun to emerge. When the roof has collapsed, the doors and windows fallen off their hinges, the house is bleak and hard to live in. Today gusty draughts are blowing across our entire planet. All the traditional principles of morality are increasingly worse off, not only those emanating from Stalin.
But historical explanation is not a justification. Nero, too, was a product of his epoch. Yet after he perished his statues were smashed and his name was scraped off everything. The vengeance of history is more terrible than the vengeance of the most powerful General Secretary. I venture to think, that this is consoling.