Written by Vladimir Moss



     “By the end of 1922,” writes Niall Ferguson, “a new Russian Socialist Federal Republic extended from the Baltic to the Bering Straits. It, along with the far smaller Byelorussian, Transcaucasian and Far Eastern republics, made up the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Apart from a westward strip running from Helsinki down to Kishinev, remarkably little of the old Tsarist edifice had been lost – an astonishing outcome given the weakness of the Bolshevik position in the initial phase of the Revolution, and testament to the effectiveness of their ruthless tactics in the civil war. In effect, then, one Russian empire had simply been replaced by another. The 1926 census revealed that slightly less that 53 per cent of the citizens of the Soviet Union regarded themselves as of Russian nationality, though nearly 58 per cent gave Russian as the language they knew best or most often used.

     “Some cynics added that the political system had not changed much either; for what was Lenin if not a Red Tsar, wielding absolute power through the Politburo of the Russian Communist Party (which, crucially, maintained direct control over the parties in the other republics)? Yet that was to miss the vast change of ethos that separated the new empire from the old. Though there had been ‘terrible’ Tsars in Russia’s past, the empire established by Lenin and his confederates was the first to be based on terror itself since the short-lived tyranny of the Jacobins in revolutionary France. At the same time, for all the Bolsheviks’ obsession with Western revolutionary models, theirs was a revolution that looked east more than it looked west. Asked to characterize the Russian empire as it re-emerged under Lenin, most Western commentators would not have hesitated to use the word ‘Asiatic’. That was also Trotsky’s view: ‘Our Red Army,’ he argued, ‘constitutes an incomparably more powerful force in the Asiatic terrain of world politics that in European terrain.’ Significantly, ‘Asiatic’ was precisely the word Lenin had used to describe Stalin…”[1]

     After the Civil War, which left Russia in ruins and far more backward than it had been under Tsarism, the Bolsheviks decided to retreat somewhat from War Communism to a kind of State Capitalism which was called “the New Economic Policy” (NEP). According to Eric Hobsbawm, “NEP was brilliantly successful in restoring the Soviet economy from the ruin of 1920. By 1926 Soviet industrial production had more or less recovered its pre-war level, though this did not mean much. The USSR remained as overwhelmingly rural as in 1913 (82 per cent of the population in both cases), and indeed only 7.5 per cent were employed outside agriculture. What which mass of peasants wanted to sell to the cities; what it wanted to buy from them; how much of its income it wanted to save; and how many of the many millions who chose to feed themselves in the village rather than face city poverty wanted to leave the farms: this determined Russia’s economic future, for, apart from the state’s tax income, the country had no other available source of investment and labour. Leaving aside all political considerations, a continuation of NEP, modified or not, would at best produce a modest rate of industrialisation. Moreover, until there was a great deal more industrial development, there was little that the peasants could buy in the city to tempt them to see their surplus rather than to eat and drink it in the villages. This (known as the ‘scissors crisis’) was to be the noose that eventually strangled NEP. Sixty years later a similar but proletarian ‘scissors’ undermined Gorbachev’s perestroika. Why, Soviet workers were to argue, should they raise their productivity to earn higher wages unless the economy produced the consumer goods to buy with these higher wages? But how were these goods to be produced unless Soviet workers raised their productivity?

     “It was therefore never very likely that NEP – i.e. balanced economic growth based on a peasant market economy steered by the state which controlled its commanding heights – would prove a lasting strategy. For a regime committed to socialism the political arguments against it were in any case overwhelming. Would it not put the small forces committed to this new society at the mercy of petty commodity production and petty enterprise which would regenerate the capitalism just overthrown? And yet, what made the Bolshevik Party hesitate was the prospective cost of the alternative. It meant industrialisation by force: a second revolution, but this time not rising from below but imposed by state power from above.”[2]


     The man to lead this second revolution turned out to be Stalin, a Georgian bank robber and former seminarian who became the greatest mass murderer in history.

     The rise to power of Stalin over the whole of Russia and over all his fellow-Bolsheviks is one of the mysteries of Soviet history. In particular, historians have been surprised why it should have been Stalin, and not the more striking Trotsky, who conquered in their famous struggle for power in the 1920s. The question could be put – misleadingly, as we shall see – as follows: how did Stalin, the most undistinguished of the leading Bolsheviks from an intellectual point of view, the uncharismatic bureaucratic plodder (an early nickname was “Comrade Filing-Cabinet”[3]) with little hold (in a personal sense) over his fellow Bolsheviks, the non-Russian, non-Slav, non-European ex-seminarian and bank robber, acquire, within ten years of the revolution, such ascendancy within the party and the nation that he could expel from both the party and the nation – Trotsky, the hero of 1905 and October and the Civil War, the brilliant writer and demagogue and courageous man of action, the dynamic, cultivated and popular European internationalist?

     As a provisional hypothesis to explain this fact we may apply to the Soviet situation the words of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War: “Inferior minds were as a rule more successful; aware of their own defects and of the intelligence of their opponents, to whom they felt themselves inferior in debate, and by whose versatility of intrigue they were afraid of being surprised, they struck boldly and at once. Their enemies despised them, were confident of detecting their plots, and thought it needless to effect by violence what they could achieve by their brains, and so were taken off their guard and destroyed.”

     In agreement with this hypothesis, there is plenty of evidence that Trotsky grossly underestimated Stalin, “the outstanding mediocrity of our Party”, as he said to Sklyansky. Boris Bazhanov, Stalin’s secretary during the mid-twenties, confirms Isaac Deutscher’s opinion that “Trotsky felt it beneath his dignity to cross swords with a man as intellectually undistinguished and personally contemptible as Stalin”[4]. Trotsky also felt it beneath his dignity to indulge in the kind of political skulduggery that Stalin excelled in, especially the tactic of “divide and conquer”. Stalin’s very obscurity, the stealthy but steady way in which he acquired power, lulled his opponents into inactivity.  Trotsky was like a hare, opening up a large lead very quickly but then sitting back and preening his whiskers, while Stalin the tortoise crept past him to the finishing-line. And indeed, we know that he was vain and arrogant, “treasuring his historic role”, in Lunacharsky’s words, in the looking-glass of his imagination. Stalin, too, was vain, but he hid this fault more carefully… In any case, Stalin was far more talented than Trotsky supposed. He was a skilled and tenacious guerilla fighter, bank-robber and organizer in the pre-revolutionary period; and during his numerous exiles and escapes from exile he acquired endurance, prudence and ingenuity. The Western leaders and diplomats who met him in the Second World War admired his toughness, realism and cleverness – sometimes even his supposed moral qualities![5] And he outmanoeuvred them time and again…

     He was a good judge of character, and could be attractive, strange as it may seem, to women, without ever being controlled by them. He knew several languages, had a fine voice, was thought to be a considerable poet, liked to instruct people in Shakespeare and art and music, and read voraciously in many subjects.[6]

     He could not match Trotsky in oratory, and yet this, too, he turned to his advantage, since it marked him out as a genuine proletarian, which Trotsky certainly was not:  in the eyes of rough Bolsheviks from the provinces, writes Sebag Montefiore, “his flat quiet public speaking was an asset, a great improvement on Trotsky’s oratorical wizardry. His very faults, the chip on the shoulder, the brutality and fits of irrational temper, were the Party’s faults. ‘He was not trusted but he was the man the Party trusted,’ admitted Bukharin. ‘He’s like the symbol of the Party, the lower strata trust him.’ But above all, reflected the future secret police chief, Beria, he was ‘supremely intelligent’, a political ‘genius’. However rude or charming he might be, ‘he dominated his entourage with his intelligence’.”[7]

     In fact, Trotsky was more impressed by Stalin than he liked to admit, and foresaw his triumph earlier than most. As Norman Davies writes, “Trotsky saw it coming: in 1924 he was correctly predicting that ‘the gravedigger of the Party of the Revolution’ would take over: ‘The dialectics of history have already hooked him and will raise him up. He is needed by all of them, by the tired radicals, by the bureaucrats, by the nepmen, by the kulaks [!], by the upstarts, by all the sneaks that are crawling out of the upturned soil of the revolution… He speaks their language, and knows how to lead them. Stalin will become the dictator of the USSR.’”[8]

     Montefiore writes: “Stalin impressed Trotsky, whose description reveals why he lost their struggle for power. ‘Stalin was very valuable behind the scenes,’ he wrote. ‘He did have the knack of convincing the average run of leaders, especially the provincials.’ He ‘wasn’t regarded as the official leader of the Party,’ says Sagirashvili, another Georgian Menshevik in Petrograd throughout 1917, but ‘everyone listened to what he had to say, including Lenin – he was a representative of the rank and file, one who expressed its real views and moods’, which were unknown to émigrés like Trotsky. Soso [Stalin] was the ‘unquestioned leader’ of the Caucasians. Lenin, says Sagirashvili, ‘felt that behind him stood countless leaders from the provinces’. While Trotsky was prancing on the stage at the Circus, Stalin was finding new allies such as the young man he had unceremoniously kicked off the Bureau, Molotov.”[9]

     There was another aspect to Trotsky’s vanity that placed him at a disadvantage in relation to Stalin. As Edmund Wilson has shown, he was a deeply committed believer in History, and in the ultimate triumph of international Socialism under History’s aegis.[10] But it was self-evident to him that such a great movement must have great leaders – educated, internationally minded men who had absorbed all the riches of bourgeois culture, decisive men of action who would jump to the forefront of the masses and be immediately accepted them. Lenin fitted this role, which is why Trotsky, from 1917 onward, accepted his leadership unquestioningly. But Stalin, the uncouth Asiatic, did not fit this role. Trotsky could not see how History could anoint him, of all people, to be the leader of the revolutionary movement. Perhaps this betrayed a certain lack of culture and historical knowledge on Trotsky’s part. After all, the ultimate victor in the great French revolution was the provincial, boorish Napoleon. Stalin, too, was a provincial – and he had studied Napoleon…

     Trotsky’s fanatical faith in History was indeed a major bonus at those moments when History seemed to be at her most active – in 1905 and 1917-21.[11] At such times fiery ardour, disregard of obstacles and the infirmities of men, firm faith in the goal and hope in its attainment, are at a premium. And these were the times when the plodding, cautious Stalin did not shine – although he did not lose ground, either.

     But in the ebb of revolutionary fervour, when History seemed to have hidden her face from her devotees, different qualities were required – patience above all. This was a quality possessed by Stalin, and these were the years – 1906-16 and 1921-27 – when he advanced most rapidly up the ladder of power. Moreover, he continued to show faith in his goddess even in the most difficult times, as during his Siberian exile during the First World War. “Even this fanatical Marxist,” writes Montefiore, “convinced that the progress of history would bring about revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat, must have sometimes doubted if he would ever return. Even Lenin doubted the Revolution, asking Krupskaya, ‘Will we ever live to see it?’ Yet Stalin never seems to have lost faith. ‘The Russian Revolution is as inevitable as the rising of the sun,’ he had written back in 1905 and he had not changed his view. ‘Can you prevent the sun from rising?’”[12]

     From 1922 onwards Trotsky frittered away the enormous advantage given him by his reputation as a war-leader by refusing to build up a political power-base, or appeal to the mass of the party against the growing centralization of power in the Politburo, or in any way to pander to the vanities and jealous susceptibilities of his colleagues. Thus he elicited their contempt by pointedly reading French novels while the Politburo was in session. Through his arrogance and lack of political circumspection, Trotsky made enemies easily – and one of the first was Stalin. Thus when, at the London Congress of 1907, Trotsky attacked the bank robberies that Stalin had organized on Lenin’s behalf, Stalin was hurt, later talking about Trotsky’s “beautiful uselessness”. Trotsky again embittered Stalin by attacking his conduct at Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) during the Civil War.

     Unfortunately for Trotsky, Stalin’s nature was not such as could shrug off personal insults. He was a bully; but, as Robert Service puts it, “he was an extremely sensitive bully”.[13] And that gave him the defining trait of his nature: vengefulness.

     Thus “at a boozy dinner, Kamenev asked everyone round the table to declare their greatest pleasure in life. Some cited women, others earnestly replied that it was the progress of dialectical materialism towards the workers’ paradise. Then Stalin answered: ‘My greatest pleasure is to choose one’s victim, prepared one’s plans minutely, slake an implacable vengeance, and then go to bed. There’s nothing sweeter in the world.’…”[14]


     This vengefulness is the critical element in Stalin’s character, the element that truly distinguishes him from his colleagues. Not that vengefulness was not characteristic of the whole revolutionary movement. But Stalin possessed it to a quite exceptional degree.

     It appeared early in his life. Thus Vershak writes: “Stalin’s comrades in the seminary circle say that soon after his expulsion [from Tiflis seminary], they were in turn expelled as the result of a denunciation by Stalin to the rector. He did not deny the accusation, but justified the deed by saying that the expelled students, having lost their right to become priests, would become good revolutionaries…”

     Again, in 1930 the Georgian Menshevik newspaper, Brdzolis Khhma, made an accusation that was first levelled against him by Martov in 1918: “From the earliest days of his activity among the workers, Djugashvili [Stalin] attracted attention by his intrigues against the outstanding Social Democratic leader, Sylvester Jibladze. He was warned but took no notice, continuing to spread slanders with the intention of discrediting the recognized representative of the local organization. Brought before a party tribunal, he was found guilty of unjust slander, and was unanimously excluded from the Tiflis organization.”

     Again, Iremashvili relates what Stalin said to him on the death of his first wife, Ekaterina: “This creature softened my stony heart. She is dead, and with her have died my last warm feelings for all human beings.” Iremashvili comments: “From the day he buried his wife, he indeed lost the last vestige of human feelings. His heart filled with the unutterably malicious hatred which his cruel father had already begun to engender in him while he was still a child. Ruthless with himself, he became ruthless with all people.”

     It would be unwise to discount the importance attached here to the death of Stalin’s first wife. Russian history provides us with a striking parallel: it was after the death of Tsar Ivan IV’s first wife, Anastasia Romanova, that he became “the Terrible”, cruel and rapacious to a paranoiac degree. Ivan’s decimation of the Russian boyars through his oprichnina in the 16th century bears a striking resemblance to Stalin’s of the Communist Party through the NKVD in the 1930s; and Stalin showed great interest in the Terrible Ivan.[15]

     While no purely psychological hypothesis can fully explain the extremes of evil that the Russian revolution threw up, it is legitimate to seek a partial explanation of the actions of a man like Stalin in his early childhood. Alan Bullock is sympathetic to the thesis, put forward by Erich Fromm, that Stalin, like Hitler, was a narcissist and a paranoid psychopath: “’Narcissism’ is a concept originally formulated by Freud in relation to early infancy, but one which is now accepted more broadly to describe a personality disorder in which the natural development of relationships to the external world has failed to take place. In such a state only the person himself, his needs, feelings and thoughts, everything and everybody pertaining to him are experienced as fully real, while everybody and everything else lacks reality or interest.

     “Fromm argues that some degree of narcissism can be considered an occupational illness among political leaders in proportion to their conviction of a providential mission and their claim to infallibility of judgement and a monopoly of power. When such claims are raised to the level demanded by a Hitler or a Stalin at the height of their power, any challenge will be perceived as a threat to their private image of themselves as much as to their public image, and they will react by going to any lengths to suppress it.

     “So far psychiatrists have paid much less attention to Stalin than to Hitler. Lack of evidence is part of the reason. There has been no parallel in the case of the Soviet Union to the capture of documents and interrogation of witnesses that followed the defeat of Germany. But more important is the striking contrast in temperament and style between the two men: the flamboyant Hitler, displaying a lack of restraint and extravagance of speech which for long made it difficult for many to take him seriously, in contrast to the reserved Stalin, who owed his rise to power to his success, not in exploiting, but in concealing his personality, and was underestimated for the opposite reason – because many failed to recognize his ambition and ruthlessness. Nor surprisingly, it is the first rather than the second who has caught the psychiatrists’ attention. All the more interesting then is the suggestion that underlying the contrast there was a common narcissistic obsession with themselves.

     “There is one other insight, which Stalin’s American biographer, Robert Tucker, has adopted from Karen Horney’s work on neurosis. He suggests that his father’s brutal treatment of Stalin, particularly the beatings which he inflicted on the boy, and on the boy’s mother in his presence, produced the basic anxiety, the sense of being isolated in a hostile world, which can lead a child to develop a neurotic personality. Searching for firm ground on which to build an inner security, someone who in his childhood had experienced such anxiety might naturally search for inner security by forming an idealistic image of himself and then adopting this as his true identity. ‘From then on his energies are invested in the increasing effort to prove the ideal self in action and gain others’ affirmation of it.’ In Stalin’s case, this fits his identification with the Caucasian outlaw-hero, whose name he assumed, and later with Lenin, the revolutionary hero, on whom he fashioned his own ‘revolutionary persona’, with the name of Stalin, ‘man of steel’, which echoed Lenin’s own pseudonym…

     “The earliest recorded diagnosis of Stalin as paranoid appears to have been made in December 1927, when an international scientific conference met in Moscow. A leading Russian neuropathologist, Professor Vladimir Bekhterev from Leningrad, made a great impression on the foreign delegates and attracted the attention of Stalin, who asked Bekhterev to pay him a visit. After the interview (22 December 1927) Bekhterev told his assistant Mnukhin that Stalin was a typical case of severe paranoia [more precisely: “a paranoiac with a withered arm”] and that a dangerous man was now at the head of the Soviet Union. The fact that Bekhterev was suddenly taken ill and died while still in his hotel has inevitably led to the suspicion that Stalin had him poisoned. Whether this is true or not, when the report of Bekhterev’s diagnosis was repeated in Liternaturnaya Gazeta in September 1988, it was accepted as correct by a leading Soviet psychiatrist, Professor E.A. Lichko.”[16]

    And yet Donald Rayfield may be right that “psychopaths of Stalin’s order arise so rarely in history that forensic psychiatry has few insights to offer”.[17] In such cases, psychiatry needs to be supplemented with demonology…

     Stalin’s paranoid cruelty first manifested itself on a large scale in his suppression of his native Georgia’s independence in 1921. The fact that this was his native land did not inhibit him from calling for “the smashing of the hydra of nationalism” there, and burning out “the nationalist survivals with hot iron”. And in 1924 Stalin said of Jordania’s uprising: “All Georgia must be ploughed under.” Now the cruelty and desire to dominate that had been evident in him even as a child began to manifest itself more and more. Not for nothing did he say that the death of one man was a tragedy, but the death of a million – a mere statistic.

     After the death of Lenin the rivalry between Stalin and Trotsky became more intense, and for this period we have the invaluable testimony of Bazhanov. He says that Stalin’s sole concern during this period “was to outwit his colleagues and lay his hands on the reins of unrestricted power”. He accused Stalin of murdering Frunze and Sklyansky. And he says: “It was clear to me already in those early years that Stalin was a vindictive Asiatic, with fear, suspicion and revenge deeply embedded in his soul. I could tell from everything he said and left unsaid, his tastes, preferences and demeanour, that he would recoil from nothing, drive every issue to its absurd extreme and send me to their deaths without hesitation if they stood in his way.”

     Bazhanov considers Trotsky to have been potentially as ruthless as Stalin. But there was an important difference between the two kinds of ruthlessness. Trotsky’s was not a personally directed emotion but a kind of impersonal passion stemming directly from his faith in the revolution and in essence an extension of it. As Deutscher said (perhaps over-generously): “His judgement remained unclouded by any personal emotion against Stalin, and severely objective.” Stalin, on the other hand, had the great advantage of really hating his opponent. Deutscher suggests that Stalin must have had “better qualities and emotions, such as intellectual ambition and a degree of sympathy with the oppressed, without which no young man would ever join a persecuted revolutionary party”[18]. But he produces no evidence in support of this dubious statement. And even he had to admit that Stalin’s betrayal of the Warsaw rising in 1944 could have been motivated, not by political expediency, but by nothing else than “that unscrupulous rancour and insensible spite of which he had given so much proof in the great purges”.[19]

     But hatred and ambition, without intelligence, accomplishes little. And here we must revise the simplistic notion that Trotsky was intelligent and Stalin stupid. Lenin, for one, did not share this opinion, considering Stalin to be second only to Trotsky in ability among the members of the Politburo. Trotsky was a brilliant intellectual, one of the most acute judges of the national and international scene. Not for nothing did Deutscher call him a “prophet”. But he had his weaknesses apart from the vanity that we have already mentioned. Bazhanov says that he was naïve with the naïveté that comes from fanaticism. Lunacharsky said that he was a bad organizer. These two faults were linked to a third which may be called a kind of stupidity: his blindly optimistic faith in the infallibility of the party. As he wrote to Zinoviev: “The party in the last analysis is always right, because the party is the single historic instrument given to the proletariat for the solution of its fundamental problems… I know that one must not be right against the party.”

     It was because of this faith in the party – and in Lenin – that Trotsky accepted the ban on factionalism at the Tenth Party Congress in 1921. And yet he understood better than anybody what this “egocentralist” restriction of free speech within the party would lead to. As he had declared several years earlier: “The organization of the party takes the place of the party itself; the Central Committee takes the place of the organization; and finally the dictator takes the place of the Central Committee.”

     Why, then, did he not protest when he saw Stalin attaining supreme power by precisely these means, using his position as General Secretary to fill the party with men loyal to himself alone? Partly because, as we have seen, he underestimated Stalin. And partly because, after Lenin’s death in 1924, he did not want to appear to be stepping too eagerly into Lenin’s shoes. But mainly because he simply trusted in the party to get it right in the long run.

     This attitude of Trotsky’s persisted for a long time, even after he had been expelled from the country and the horrors of the First Five-Year-Plan had revealed the extent of Stalin’s “bureaucratic collectivist” heresy. As late as October, 1932, Trotsky refused to support a “Remove Stalin!” slogan because it might encourage counter-revolution. Instead, he proposed the formation of a Fourth International opposed to the Stalin-controlled Comintern – but only after Hitler (aided by the Comintern’s refusal to form a Popular Front with the other left-wing parties) had come to power in Germany. Even then he said that this new International should have jurisdiction only up to, but not beyond, the frontiers of the USSR. And it was only in October, 1933 that he declared that the Opposition should constitute a new party against the Bolshevik party within the country.

     It was not until the later 1930s that Trotsky began, in a letter to Angelica Balabanov, to rebel both against the Party and History herself: “History has to be taken as she is; but when she allows herself such extraordinary and filthy outrages [Stalin’s show-trials], one must fight back at her with one’s fists…”

     Stalin had no such ideological scruples, no agonies of a revolutionary conscience. He had the great good fortune – or good judgement – to become a follower of Lenin as early as 1903 and to stick to him, in spite of some disagreements, right up to the revolution. Not that he loved Lenin – he was delighted at the news of Lenin’s death, according to Bazhanov, whereas Trotsky fainted for two hours, according to Krupskaya. Nor was he a consistent Leninist thereafter, for all his propaganda to the contrary – Stalin’s career covers the most extraordinary range between extreme communism to near-convergence with capitalism, from the most strident Russian nationalism to the purest internationalism. What mattered to him was not ideological purity, but power; and while he did not underestimate the importance of ideology in the attainment and maintenance of power – in this respect Lenin trained him well, - he never mistook the means for the end.

     Thus he paid attention to organization – he was an excellent administrator – and to the shifting patterns of alliances within the party. He did not wear his heart on his sleeve, and was capable of the most studied hypocrisy in the manner of Shakespeare’s Richard III. In October, 1917 Trotsky had impetuously condemned Zinoviev and Kamenev “to the dustbin of history” for their refusal to back Lenin’s call for an immediate putsch; but Stalin held his fire. Thus he was able to use Zinoviev and Kamenev against Trotsky, and then, when his own power base had been established, destroy all three of them. This combination of hatred with prudence, cunning with caution, made him a formidable politician.


     Other objective aspects of the political situation in the mid-twenties favoured Stalin against Trotsky. As Deutscher points out, Trotsky’ doctrine of permanent revolution, while critical to the success of the October revolution, offended the self-confident complacency of the party. On the other hand, Stalin’s discovery (with Bukharin) of the slogan “Socialism in One Country” answered to the country’s pride in itself, its weariness with the failure of European revolution and its longing for stability. The fact that Stalin later stole so many pages out of Trotsky’s book – his emphasis on rapid industrialization, on militarization of the unions and on discipline within the party – does not contradict this thesis. In the early twenties, when Trotsky proposed these policies, the time was not yet ripe for their implementation; whereas in the late twenties and early thirties, when the New Economic Policy had run into the sands and political power was concentrated exclusively in Stalin’s hands, they could be embarked upon with some prospect of success – according to Stalin’s criteria, that is. 


     Have we then succeeded in explaining why Stalin triumphed over Trotsky? Can we say that Stalin’s greater hatred, cunning, prudence and organizational ability, on the one hand, and Trotsky’s vanity, naiveté, on the other, were bound to lead to Stalin’s triumph in the conditions of war weariness, ideological cooling-off and party sclerosis that prevailed in the Soviet Union of the mid-1920s? In the present writer’s opinion we cannot say this, because the factors mentioned above do not help us to understand the extraordinary drama that took place over Lenin’s will in the critical years 1922-24, when Stalin was very nearly catapulted from power, and in which it is difficult not to see another, metaphysical factor entering into the situation…

     In April, 1922 Stalin became General Secretary, the critical platform for his rise to supreme power. In May, 1922 Lenin suffered his first stroke, thereby removing the main obstacle to Stalin’s exploiting the secretariat in his personal bid for power. Then, during the autumn of that year, while he was slowly recovering from his stroke, Lenin fell out for the first time with the man whom, in 1913, he had called “the wonderful Georgian”. The quarrel seems to have been over Georgia, which the Second Army, on instructions from Stalin, had invaded the previous year. Dzerzhinsky reported that Stalin’s underling, Ordzhonikidze, had committed brutalities there, and complaints also reached Lenin against Stalin. Lenin wanted Stalin to pay more attention to Georgian national sensitivities. But Stalin, who had been the Party’s expert on Nationalities for years, believed his countrymen should be kept on a close rein.

     But then, in December, 1922, came Lenin’s second stroke. Recovering somewhat, Lenin began to draw up a will, in which, while commenting on each member of the Politburo, he wrote: “Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has concentrated enormous power in his hands; and I am not sure that he always knows how to use that power with sufficient caution.” He also hinted at the possibility of a split between Trotsky and Stalin, which the party should act to avoid. Five days later, on December 30, he wrote: “I think that the hastiness and administrative clumsiness of Stalin played a fatal role here [in Georgia], and also his spite against the notorious ‘social chauvinism’. Spite in general plays the worst possible role in politics…”

     Fairly mild criticism, perhaps. But a quarrel between Stalin and Krupskaya led to a significant hardening in Lenin’s attitude in the few months remaining to him.[20] Thus on January 4, 1923, in a postscript to his will, he wrote (if it was he, and not Krupskaya, that wrote it): “Stalin is too rude, and this fault… becomes unbearable in the office of General Secretary. Therefore I propose to the comrades to find a way to remove Stalin from that position and appoint to it another man more patient, more loyal, more polite and more attentive to comrades, less capricious, etc.”

     Then, on March 4, there appeared in Pravda a blistering attack by Lenin on Stalin’s work as Commissar of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate. Deutscher wrote: “This was Lenin’s first, publicly delivered blow. Behind the scenes he prepared for a final attack at the twelfth party congress, convened for April; and he agreed with Trotsky on joint action. On 5 March, the day after Pravda had at last published his criticisms of Stalin’s Commissariat, he had a sharp exchange with Stalin. He then dictated a brief letter to Stalin, telling him that he ‘broke off’ all personal relations with him. The next day, 6 March, he wired a message to the leaders of the Georgian opposition, promising to take up their case at the congress: ‘I am with you in this matter with all my heart. I am outraged by the arrogance of Ordzhonikidze and the connivance of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky.’ He again communicated with Trotsky about their joint tactics in the Georgian business; and he briefed Kamenev who was to depart for Tiflis with a special commission of inquiry. Just in the middle of all these moves, on 9 March, he suffered the third attack of his illness, from which he was not to recover…”[21]

     There can be little doubt that if Lenin had survived, Stalin would have been sacked. There can be little doubt, either, that if he had died that March, and not ten months later, Stalin would still have been sacked. For then his will would have been opened at the twelfth congress in April, 1923. But Krupskaya scrupulously observed the instructions on Lenin’s will: “Open only after my death”, so the contents of the will were not made known until shortly before the fourteenth congress in May, 1924. By that time, however, Stalin had worked hard to create a bloc with Zinoviev and Kamenev against Trotsky. So when the matter came up before the Central Committee, Zinoviev and Kamenev spoke in favour of Stalin and against the publication of the will. Trotsky was silent, the vote was taken – and Stalin was saved. Three years later, Stalin was stronger than all three. In November, 1927 Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the party, and in December the Fifteenth Party Congress confirmed the decision…

     Bazhanov writes: “Trotsky’s position in 1923-4 was strong. If he had used the cards history had dealt him, Stalin could have been stopped. Of course Stalin was an accomplished schemer, but with the support Lenin had given him Trotsky could have lined up the party behind him if his temperament had not stood in the way. But he failed to understand the nature of the Party machine, Stalin’s use of it, and the full significance Stalin’s position as General Secretary had acquired by the time of the 13th Congress.”

     And yet there was more to it than that. The vital factor, which depended neither on psychology nor on politics, was the timing of Lenin’s strokes, and above all the fact that the last stroke incapacitated him without immediately killing him. Was this a product of blind Chance? Or History’s choice of Stalin? Or God’s judgement on apostate Russia? For a believer in the true God there is only one possible answer to this question. God acted now as He had acted in seventh-century Byzantium when He allowed the cruel tyrant Phocas to murder the good Emperor Maurice and ascend the throne. “One contemporary,” writes Alexander Dvorkin, “cites the story of a certain man who cried out to God: ‘Why did You send Your people such a blood-thirsty wolf?’ And the Lord replied to him: ‘I tried to find someone worse than Phocas, so as to punish the people for its self-will, but was unable. But from now on don’t you question the judgements of God…’”[22]


[1] Ferguson, The War of the World, pp. 158-159.

[2] Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, London: Abacus, 1994, pp. 379-380.

[3] Richard Overy, The Dictators, London: Penguin Books, 2005, p. 9.

[4] Bazhanov, “Stalin Closely Observed”, in G. Urban (ed.), Stalinism, Maurice Temple Smith, 1982; Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky: 1929-1940, Oxford University Press, 1963.

[5] Jonathan Fenby, Alliance, London: Pocket Books, 2006, p. 16.

[6] According to Overy, “in the 1930s his library counted 40,000 volumes. He wrote extensively both before 1917 and in the 1920s, works and speeches that ran to thirteen volumes when they were published” (op. cit., p. 9).

[7] Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, London: Phoenix, 2004, p. 50.

[8] Davies, Europe, London: Pimlico, 1997, p. 960.

[9] Montefiore, Young Stalin, London: Phoenix, 2007, pp. 333-334.

[10] Wilson, To the Finland Station, London: Fontana, 1940.

[11] Bertram Wolff, Three Who Made a Revolution.

[12] Montefiore, Young Stalin, p. 305.

[13] Service, Stalin, London: Pan, 2004, p. 247.

[14] Montefiore, Young Stalin, p. 309.

[15]Stalin took a great interest in Eisenstein's film "Ivan the Terrible". Once he said to Molotov about it: "Ivan the Terrible was very cruel. You can show that he was cruel, but it is necessary to show why it was necessary to be cruel. One of Ivan the Terrible's mistakes was that he did cut off the five big feudal families. If he had annihilated these five feudal families, there would have been no Time of Troubles. But Ivan the Terrible would kill someone and then spent a long time repenting and praying about it. God hindered him in this matter... It was necessary to be more decisive." (Rossijskaia Gazeta (The Russian Newspaper), January 25, 2012).

[16] Bullock, op. cit., pp. 10-12, 401.

[17] Rayfield, “A Georgian Caliban”, Review of Stalin, vol. I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin, Literary Review, November, 2014, p. 25.

[18] Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, p. 455.

[19] Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography, Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 524. This spite may have been linked with the defeat that the Poles inflicted on the Red Army near Warsaw in 1920, for which Stalin bore a definite responsibility.

[20] It appears that the Politburo had banned Lenin from working more than ten minutes a day, which led to the quarrel with Krupskaya and then with Lenin himself. “Stalin’s row with Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, outraged Lenin’s bourgeois sentiments. But Stalin thought it was entirely consistent with Party culture. ‘Why should I stand on my hindlegs for her? To sleep with Lenin does not mean you understand Marxism-Leninism. Just because she used the same toilet as Lenin…‘ This led to some classic Stalin jokes, in which he warned Krupskaya that if she did not obey, the Central Committee would appoint someone else as Lenin’s wife. That is a very Bolshevik concept. His disrespect for Krupskaya was probably not helped by her complaints about Lenin’s flirtations with his assistants, including Yelena Stasova, the one whom Stalin threatened to promote to ‘wife’” (Montefiore, Stalin, p. 37).

[21] Deutscher, Stalin, pp. 252-253.

[22] Dvorkin, Ocherki po Istorii Vselenskoj Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi (Sketches on the History of the Universal Orthodox Church), Nizhni-Novgorod, 2006, p. 439.

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