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Before death, concern for the fate of the revolution / by Lelio La Porta

21 January 1924: amidst severe physical suffering, the Bolshevik leader elaborated some of his most important political reflections.

by Lelio La Porta - Monday 22 January 2024 - 359 letture

21 January 1924: amidst severe physical suffering the Bolshevik leader elaborated some of his most important political reflections. Before his death, concern for the fate of the revolution

Lenin was just 52 years old when, towards the end of 1921, his health began to show clear signs of failing. In April of the following year he underwent surgery to extract one of the bullets from which he had been hit during the assassination attempt on 30 August 1918. In May 1922, the first brain attack occurred, which semi-paralysed him and prevented him from taking an active part in political life. In December the situation worsened to the point that he was forced into isolation far from Moscow. On 9 March 1923, a stroke reduced him to communicating through a few monosyllables, the comprehension of which became problematic for those assisting him.

When he was taken to Gor’kij’s country villa on 15 May, the situation was already turning for the worse. He received visits from delegations of workers and peasants, but limited himself to answering them with friendly nods, and nothing more. On 21 October, he wanted to be taken by car to Moscow where he went to his study in the Kremlin; taken back to his country villa, he never moved again. His last public appearance was on 2 November when he was visited by a delegation of workers. His health gradually deteriorated until, on 21st January 1924, as a consequence of a new apoplectic attack, he passed away at 6.50 pm.

At that time the work of the 2nd All-Union Congress of Soviets and the 11th Pan-Russian Congress of Soviets was in progress; on the very day of Lenin’s death, Zinov’ev had concluded the Presidium of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. Special sheets announcing the leader’s death were added to the edition of ’Pravda’ already in print. It was Zinov’ev himself, in an article published on 30 January, who recounted the journey made by the Bolshevik leaders to Gor’kij and the situation they found themselves in.

A group composed of Zinov’ev, Bucharin, Tomsky, Kalinin, Stalin and Kamenev left Moscow by sleigh; Rykov was ill and Trocky was in the Caucasus where, having heard that the funeral was to be held on 26 January (although it actually took place on the 27th), he decided not to return as he would not have made it to Moscow in time. Zinov’ev recalls that the night was freezing but clear: there was a moon. Lenin’s body was on a table surrounded by flowers and fir branches, in the same room where, in the summer of 1920, the leaders had gathered to decide on the advance on Warsaw. They paid their respects to the body and returned to Moscow to take part in a commemorative meeting of the Central Committee convened at two o’clock in the morning.

The group arrived at three o’clock. On 22 January, a message of funeral homage from the Central Committee was published addressed to the party, to all workers in which Lenin’s most important contributions to Marxist theory were highlighted. On 23 January the newspapers did not come out and the next day ’Pravda’ published only tributes and memorial articles. Lenin’s body was displayed in the Hall of Columns in the Palace of Trade Unions and to pay their respects almost 900,000 people subjected themselves to the merciless cold of those Moscow days.

There is a proverb that says Moscow does not believe in tears; yet, according to the chronicles and documents, the people’s grief in those days appeared real, deep and genuine. On 26 January, a solemn session of the Second Congress of All-Union Soviets was held at which the top Bolshevik leaders took the floor, including Stalin. His speech was set on the double plane of apologia for the leader, as far as the content was concerned, and church-like antiphony, as far as the form was concerned. The tones must have shaken the emotional chords of the listeners in no small measure, contributing decisively to the warmth of an environment set in terms of the most rigorous seriousness and austerity.

At the same session, Kalinin, on behalf of the Pan-Russian (Pan-Soviet) Central Executive Committee, proposed changing the name of Petersburg to Leningrad; the proposal was approved without debate. Other proposals were also approved en bloc: the day of Lenin’s death was to become a day of national mourning; monuments were to be erected to him in the major Soviet cities; an edition of his selected works was to be published; and the construction of a Mausoleum under the Kremlin walls between the communal graves of the revolutionary fighters was approved, in which Lenin’s embalmed body was to be kept for visitors to pay their respects.

On 27 January at 9 am, Stalin, Zinov’ev and six workers carried Lenin’s body out of the Trade Union Palace where it was taken by Kalinin, Kamenev, Kursky, four workers and a peasant to be carried in procession through Red Square. At four o’clock in the afternoon, Stalin, Zi-nov’ev, Kamenev, Molotov, Bucharin, Rudzutak, Tomsky and Dzerzinsky took the coffin and laid it in a tomb built in front of the Kremlin walls and soon to be replaced by the Mausoleum.

Between December 1922 and March 1923 Lenin had produced some of the most interesting political reflections of his entire oeuvre. Some of the assumptions of the revolution were no longer valid. There had been no great European revolution. The socialist economy still had no basis. So, all wrong? Exactly the opposite, the Bolshevik leader replied, as 1917 had represented the revolutionary abandonment of a war from which a new state had been born: this had been the real world turning point.

Other problems: the immense tasks before the new state and the misery, also cultural, of the people. Moreover, after the first months of hyperactivity, Lenin noticed a certain bureaucratisation of the state apparatus, almost a return to the past: in short, the old state had been ’just anointed with Soviet oil’. The remedy continued to be, according to Lenin, Nep.

But the real cause of concern for the Bolshevik leader was the contrast at the top of the party, with the possibility of a split. For this reason, between December 1922 and January 1923, he dictated some notes that would constitute the Letter to the Congress (here proposed under the title of Lenin’s Testament) in which, in addition to subjecting all the major leaders of the Bolshevik Party to lucid judgments (all were reproached with an excess of authoritarianism, to Trockij ’self-confidence’ to Bucharin, moreover the ’favourite of the whole party’, a lack of understanding of dialectics), he identified the deepening contrasts between Stalin and Trockij as the real problem.

It is not out of place to recall that our very own Gramsci, on 14 October 1926, a few days before he was arrested by the fascists, wrote, on behalf of the political bureau of the Communist Party of Poland, a letter to the Soviet leadership (To the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, sent to Togliatti, then in Moscow) in which he pointed out how the conflict between the Stalinist majority and the Trockian minority ran the risk of calling into question the achievements of the Soviet October.

Lenin concluded his letter with a harsh judgement of Stalin as ’too coarse’ and not very tolerant of his comrades. In short, it is possible to think that if Lenin had been allowed to attend the 12th Congress those present would have witnessed a head-on clash between him and Stalin; but this was not to be and we know what course the history of the USSR took.

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