The Dying Time

Author: Lorne Patterson

It is the 10th of March, 1923. Russia has had revolutionary Government for less than five years. In that time, Lenin, head of the Bolshevik Party which claims the sole right to represent Russia's peoples, has fought a civil war with the deposed monarchists

(Government convalescent home, outside of Moscow, March 10, 1923)

Inessa, Inessa. Glorious, passionate Inessa, my lost Inessa!

I too tremble in the slow days of my dying, as you did. Since my stroke my tongue is become thick and betrays me, my hand become a child’s. Only in my mind can I say what I think, what I feel, and oh, Inessa, how I feel! Perhaps it would have been better if the assassin’s bullet had killed me, for this incapacity, this helplessness is worse than death!

When they think I do not hear, I am the ‘Old Man’ and no longer ‘Comrade Lenin’. Their pity for my humiliation is loathsome to me. But it is their ambition – yes, I see it though they think to hide it from me; from me! from me! – it is their ambition that tortures me. I see it in their eyes when they look at the thing curled uselessly before them. Who next? What next?
I fear, my love; I fear for my Revolution.

I can trust no one anymore, only faithful Nadia, and she has neither the strength nor spirit for this struggle. They isolate me, forbid me visitors, newspapers, letters, conversation if they could, all in the name of my good health! They tell me it is my doctor’s wishes, but I know whose hand writes those orders! Stalin, ‘man of steel’, he now calls himself.

My comrades of the Politburo think to use his labour, which they mock, while they reap the rewards of my victory. They laugh at his accent, his plodding theory, his dreary oratory. They look in the mirror and applaud themselves, while he toils amongst the apparatus; they look at each other to see who will step forward to claim my mantle and turn their backs to him in doing so.

But the fools do not know him as I know him, Inessa.

I discerned Koba – Koba he was in those days – from my exile, yes, from that long distance I could see his value to the Party. Even then he knew instinctively what we learnt from those who came before us: that revolution is born in blood, and mercy and bourgeois-morality, bourgeois-humanity, have no place in the hearts of the few prepared to make it. You understood that, didn’t you, beat of my heart, that revolutionary passion must be of ice as well as fire.

When reports were forwarded to me complaining of his behaviour, his intolerance and brutality, his hatred of Jews, and habituation with criminal classes, I read in the imperialist papers of the successful demonstrations he organised, of the disruption and demoralisation of our enemies. Our comrades were offended, but our enemies were wounded. He knew how to hate, did Koba. And he learned, Inessa, all the important lessons I taught him: of Russian history, Marxist theory, of the struggle against the Social Democrats and their moderation – the enemy within!; of Jacobinism, and the guillotine. That was his favourite expression in those years, ‘we learn, bit by bit we learn’.

How many times was I asked, ‘why do you waste time on him?’ Of course I refused to explain myself. When did opinion ever matter? If they could not understand it was not for them to know, though it was simple. Here was a comrade who would do the necessary work, the direct action. I tell you this, and more, Inessa, what is otherwise buried in the secret archives. If the inner troika demanded money be re-taken from the capitalists, Koba would carry out the expropriation; if we decided to inflict terror upon the servants of the regime, Koba would arrange the shooting, the bombing; when we decided it would further our aims, Koba agreed to act as provocateur.

Why then, after I had brought him into the Central Committee itself, did I sacrifice him, let Malinkovsky betray him to the Tsar’s agents? Koba thought he was too important to the Party to be cast aside, but he forgot that a comrade is only as valuable as he is useful, that there were others more valuable than he. He took that lesson with him to Siberia and hasn’t forgotten. Nor forgiven. When I recalled him in ’17, he seemed the same Koba, but I think Koba was left to perish in Siberia and it was Stalin who returned.


I can still hear Blok: ‘something is happening in the world’. We made Revolution that year out of nothing, Inessa. Though the Party claims change is brought about by historical progression, the truth is that Trotsky and I made the Revolution. Yes, myself and Lev Davidovich. Not the Party, not the socialists, not the peasants or workers or soldiers. Just two men who knew how to think and act – and Trotsky not even a Bolshevik! So strange. Of all those in Petrograd, I could rely only on Trotsky, a Menshevik near-enough, to act like a Bolshevik. Kamanev, Zinoviev, Stalin, I found them all squealing like Mensheviks.

I needed them all. Stalin, for his ruthlessness and cunning and energy, and if he became my man again on my return, he proved more obedient than many who had sworn everlasting fidelity. But that was my mistake Inessa, and maybe it will be fatal: he was no one’s man anymore but his own.
Why did I promote him and protect him, especially from Trotsky who wished to put him in front of a revolutionary tribunal? Because I had no choice. Like so much else I did in those years I did because I had to, to keep my Revolution alive. Do you remember the letter I sent you in the summer of ’18? Civil war, world war, class war, wars of nationalism and independence, everywhere war and more war; even amongst the leading comrades, war. Do you remember how I told you I had to recall Stalin to Moscow to pacify Trotsky, to prevent Lev from sending his Red Army against him? As if we did not have enough enemies and too few regiments!

He was good in the south, Stalin, I said it then and I say it again. Crude but effective. Murder of his subordinates and mutiny against his superiors, but he accomplished his task as I knew he would, and if it cost us sixty thousand unnecessary casualties, what of it? Russia has always had numbers. But I did not tell you what he said after he murdered the White officers conscripted to us – yes, Inessa, murdered, though their death was inconsequential – ‘death’, he said, ‘solves all problems: no man, no problem.’

As now he waits upon my death. Patient is Koba, my Tartar from the southern mountains, for he knows I need time and time betrays me. Time! time! I have so little time left dear one, and so little strength for another battle I must win!
Do they think I cannot hear their whispers, that the gossip of the chatterers is not reported to me? Comrade Lenin brought him up; Comrade Lenin placed him in the Politburo; Comrade Lenin made him General-Secretary – let Comrade Lenin deal with him, he is Lenin’s responsibility.

The fools! The idle, useless careerists! What do they think I was doing during those years? We were threatened by capitalist armies on all sides – all sides! And Whites without and within looking to put a Romanov back on the throne and Comrade Lenin on the gallows. Hang Lenin as they hung his brother! Spies and counter-revolutionaries everywhere, class enemies waiting to aid them. Our country in ruins, in chaos: no food, no fuel, no supplies, no shelter, no money. No medicine even, and epidemic after epidemic. A time of iron and blood!

Failure was not to be considered; opposition not to be tolerated. Trotsky was right, we needed to put the fire of Red Terror into the bellies of our own doubters and waverers as much as we needed to break the resolve of those who opposed us. That was the message we sent in the execution of the Tsar: all or nothing.

Of course Stalin was unfit to run the Party machine! But who else was there to do the job? Only Sverdlov, and Sverdlov died. Stalin paid attention to detail and made the administration work while we kept the Revolution living, day by day, year to year. When did I have time to explore the dark places of his heart? When the capitalists and imperialists plotted against me? When the Socialist-Revolutionaries tried to overthrow me? When the assassin shot me? When my comrades argued against me, seeing too much compromise one day and too little the next, too little democracy but too much Thermidor?

Oh, friend of friends, my truest friend. I was so tired in those years, worn beyond exhaustion. Grieving, because death took you and robbed me of succour, of strength.

And now I am ill, so ill, and Stalin spins his web and binds me in chains of silk. To be incapacitated by the first of these dreadful afflictions a month, a mere month after I made him General-Secretary… And the Party? The Central Committee makes him responsible for overseeing my care, places responsibility for the Party directly in his hands! And the Politburo approves! Betrayed, by my body and by my Party!

He does not disguise his envy and ambition so carefully now, Inessa. He is more certain of himself, his power, his contempt more open. He dared call Nadezhda a whore! My Nadia, a whore! Threatened her for warning me of what he does. I tell you, his spies are everywhere and report all back to him.

I watch his manouvers and see what others do not see. He cloaks himself in collective leadership – no one will catch Stalin splitting the Party! – but his tactics are still the tactics of the underground: infiltration, expediency, dissimulation, and exploitation. Already he uses my words against me, who can no longer speak for himself: Lenin says… Lenin forbids… Lenin demands…We are his enemy this time! Me, my Party, my Revolution, and I fear he will destroy us if he can. Did Trotsky not warn us of the danger long ago? That the organisation of the Party would take the place of the Party, and the Central Committee the place of the organisation? We all forgot, even Lev. And what of the third part of the prophecy? Will Stalin be the dictator who takes the place of the Central Committee? Even now, I hear Radek joke that the dictatorship of the proletariat is being replaced by the dictatorship of the Secretariat.

They joke! The Revolution is under siege and they make jokes!

I planned, carefully, as carefully as Stalin plans. I prepared a case against him where he had over-reached himself, and drew up a letter for the Congress – a bombshell! I would have broken him Inessa, publically broken him, and then quietly sent him to one of the camps in the far north, the special camps where we deal with counter-revolutionaries and subversives. But he slipped through my numb fingers, ordered the Congress postponed. Then another attack, this awful finger of God, and it is my tongue that is silenced, not his, and I am left to writhe in my fear!

And how I fear, for who can I rely on to be my voice? Zinoviev, my ambitious comrade-in-exile? Always, when the crisis comes, a strikebreaker. Kamanev? Zinoviev’s sheep. Stalin will use him as I used him, to keep his brother-in-law Trotsky whom he detests, off-balance. Already there are signs of a concordance between the three. Bukharin, whom I called favorite of the Party? A thinker, he will hesitate where he should act. Even Dzerzhinsky, my resolute Jacobin, sword of the Revolution and settler of accounts, sides with Stalin in this. But Felix is servant of the Party, not its master.

Trotsky, Trotsky, only Trotsky, so brilliant and so flawed!

Who else is more capable, more fierce, more committed? Who else excites such envy and resentment? I fear his passion will betray me Inessa, that he will be seduced by the drama of the fight, become entangled in its correctness, while Stalin remembers the lesson I taught him long ago, that it is only the victory that is important. Stalin remembers all, while I can do no more but wait and endure.

In my heart of hearts, Inessa, I fear the vengeance of the God I have pulled down. That this body that imprisons me is Hell, and Stalin the wrath of God sent to torment me with fear, my love, fear for what is to come!

Help – oh…the devil…. devil…evi helped, if it… devil…

Lenin never regained more than monsyllabic speech after his strokes of March 5 and 10. He died from a final stroke on January 21, 1924, after long illness and isolation.

Inessa Armand, Lenin’s mistress, died from cholera in 1920.

Nadezhda Konstantinova Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, died suddenly in the Kremlin Clinic in February 1939. Suspicion remains that she was murdered on Stalin’s orders.

‘Formidable’ Dzerzhinsky, head of both the Secret Police and People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, died of a heart attack from over-work in 1926. Zinoviev and Kamanev, despite briefly making common cause with Trotsky, were easily out-manouvered by Stalin and expelled from the Party for ‘factionalism’; both were arrested and executed for ‘counter-revolutionary conspiracy’ during the period in the mid-1930’s known as ‘the Great Terror’. Bukharin’s arrest, trial, and execution in 1937-38, also for ‘counter-revolutionary conspiracy’, marked the climax of the Great Terror. By the time of the Eighteenth Congress in March 1939, Lenin’s Party had been virtually eradicated.

Trotsky, for reasons best known to himself, failed to act against Stalin at the Twelfth Party Congress of April 1923. The Congress re-confirmed Stalin as General-Secretary. When the publication of Lenin’s condemnatory letter – his ‘Testament’ – was put to a Politburo vote soon after, Trotsky’s was the only voice in favour. He was expelled from the Party in the power struggle following Lenin’s death, later to be exiled from Russia, and finally, assassinated, on Stalin’s orders, in Mexico, 1940 – other than Stalin himself, last of Lenin’s Politburo.

Stalin pursued Lenin’s policies to their logical extremes, to his own ends: permitting no rivals to stand against the Party; permitting no factions within the Party; employing Lenin’s Criminal Code as a tool of judicial destruction; and utilising Lenin’s political police, the Cheka and its successors, as an organisation unanswerable to the Party, to the Soviet Constitution, or to the people, and his personal instrument for Terror. Within fifteen years of Lenin’s death, the man Trotsky once dismissed as ‘the Party’s most outstanding mediocrity’ had become absolute ruler of the Soviet State.

On March 1, 1953, an ailing and paranoid Stalin suffered a massive brain haemorrhage. For thirteen crucial hours he was deprived of medical assistance. Having lingered for another three days, he finally died, in great agony. It remains uncertain whether he was murdered, or simply left to die by subordinates too afraid to approach him.