Jacob Heilbrunn: Did Stalin Murder Lenin?

Roundup: Talking About History

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.

Did he do it? He would not be the first subordinate to seek to polish off his superior in an authoritarian system. History is replete with examples of a seemingly dutiful understudy scheming to remove his mentor.
I'm talking, of course, about Stalin and Lenin. The theory that Stalin sped along the demise of the old boy—who wasn't actually that old when he died, a mere fifty-four—has been around for decades. Now it is being revived. Last Friday, at the annual University of Maryland School of Medicine conference about the deaths of famous historical figures, the Russian historian Lev Lurie suggested that while Lenin was undoubtedly in poor health in the 1920s, Stalin hastened his death by having the Soviet leader poisoned. The convulsions Lenin suffered shortly before his death, Lurie says, are not consistent with the symptoms of the stroke he had experienced. If Lurie is right, it might turn Lenin into more of a martyr, at least in Russia. His specter continues to loom over the country. Almost instantly, the Bolsheviks transformed Lenin, whose corpse was embalmed and remains displayed in Moscow, into a cult figure, one that has outlived the regime itself. He serves as an important vestige of a neo-imperial past that postcommunist Russia apparently cannot afford to dispense with. What the historian Nina Tumarkin declared years ago in her scintillating book Lenin Lives! remains true today.
Certainly, Stalin had good reasons to hope Lenin would perish. It did not entirely escape Lenin's notice that the ambitious and young general secretary was taking control of the party machinery. Besides, as he complained in what has become known as his "testament," Lenin thought Stalin was "rude." Whether this would have translated into his demoting Stalin is another question. Lenin, after all, seemed to be complaining about bad manners. And Lenin himself was no shrinking violet when it came to taking out his enemies: he presided over the deaths of millions during the Russian Civil War and laid the foundations for the Gulag. Lenin's "Who Whom" question was no joking matter. It led to mass murder and totalitarian systems from Eastern Europe to China to Vietnam.
But unlike Stalin, Lenin does not seem to provide particular evidence of enjoying killing for its own sake...

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