Death of Lenin

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

On January 21, 1924 Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, the architect of the October Revolution and the “leader of the world’s proletariat,” died, having succumbed to complications from the three strokes that progressively robbed him of his faculties. He was not quite fifty-four. For more than a year before his death, the Communist Party and the Soviet government had soldiered on without him. Now the question was what purposes could the deceased leader serve.

The cult of Lenin, a fusion of political and religious ritual, was the answer. Inspired by both genuine reverence and a political desire to mobilize the masses around a potent symbol, the Politbiuro decided — against Lenin’s own wishes and those of his family — to embalm his body and place it in a sarcophagus inside a mausoleum for public viewing. The mausoleum, designed by A. V. Shchusev as a cube-like structure of gleaming red granite, was built on Red Square abutting onto the Kremlin wall. Here, the most prominent party, military and government leaders would stand to view parades passing by on the anniversary of the October Revolution, May Day and other special occasions. Images of Lenin’s stern visage soon appeared everywhere throughout the Soviet Union in stone and metal, on canvas, and in print. Lenin Corners, analogous to the icon corners of Orthodoxy, became a fixture of nearly every Soviet institution, and Lenin’s name graced thousands of collective and state farms, libraries, newspapers, streets and cities. Among the latter was the birthplace of the October Revolution which assumed the name of Leningrad on January 26, 1924.

Within the party itself, Lenin was revered almost as a Christ-like figure. The slogan “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live” typified the discourse of revolutionary immortality. In the struggle to assume Lenin’s mantle, Zinoviev, Stalin and Trotsky sought to enhance their own credentials and cast aspersions on their rivals by quoting selectively from Lenin’s massive oeuvres even while they invoked “Leninism” as a coherent body of doctrine. Thus, Stalin promoted “socialism in one country” as consistent with Lenin’s outlook, contrasting it with Trotsky’s pre-revolutionary theory of “permanent revolution.” For his part, Trotsky sought to prove his loyalty to Lenin as well as his own historic role as leader of the October Revolution. Each, in effect, invented his own Lenin to suit his purposes.

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