When Lenin died in 1924 from complications due to a previous stroke, few had heard of Josef Stalin. General Secretary since 1922 as none of the other Bolsheviks had wanted the job, Stalin (meaning “man of steel”) was constantly in the background. He was viewed by the Politburo as “a grey-blur” and he was quite literally unknown by the general public. The jobs he did were dull administrative tasks, and staying out of the limelight meant he had few enemies at this point. No one could have possibly suspected the power Stalin would wield in the years to come. Yet Stalin had ambition and was determined to become the next great leader of communist Russia.
Stalin had subtly and “secretively” begun the task of gaining power long before Lenin’s death. He used his supposedly “dull” job as General Secretary to find out every thing that was going on in the party, even tapping phone calls. His position enabled him to make sure that his supporters filled all posts below the Politburo in the communist hierarchy. He talked to ordinary people at the bottom of this hierarchy and by Lenin’s death he was on his way to gaining a huge regional level power base. Stalin also served on the Orgburo, which controlled the day-by-day organisation of the state, putting him in charge of small but significant tasks regarding the party and Russia. He was also able to appoint military officers loyal to him, who would be less loyal to other members of the party. Through these two roles he was able to learn, in great detail, how the party was run. He could see how people gained and lost power, and he used this knowledge to continue his rise.
After Lenin’s death he could finally take more drastic and public actions in his quest for power. Stalin led the Party in making sure that Lenin was treated like a hero of the people and personally took charge of all funeral arrangements. Stalin made his presence felt by attending all-important functions to show that he was in charge. Stalin also took the precaution of telling Trotsky the wrong date for the funeral making him look disrespectful in the eyes of the party. Stalin delivered the eulogy and helped carry the coffin, he organised the building of a Lenin museum and a Lenin library. An official photograph was created (a fake made by pasting two photos together) showing Lenin and Stalin sitting comfortably together. This picture was published in newspapers and displayed on posters everywhere.
Things were looking bright for Stalin to assume leadership of the Party, but he was unaware of Lenin’s uncomplimentary testament. Lenin had written his testament in 1922, in it he wrote down his thoughts on Stalin, Trotsky and the rest of the members of the Politburo. He thought it would help them plan better how to carry out the rest of the communist revolution. Lenin had seen right through Stalin and in his testament, released to the Politburo at his death he revealed exactly what he thought of him. He called him “rude” and said he had “unlimited authority”. He suggested that the other members of the Politburo replace him with someone more “tolerant, loyal, polite and more considerate of his comrades”. Though Lenin gave no final decision in his testament on who should take over as leader after his death, it is clear he favoured Stalin’s main rival Trotsky over Stalin. He said:
“Comrade Trotsky, on the other hand…is distinguished not only by his outstanding ability – He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present Central Committee, but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work.”
When Lenin’s testament was given to the Politburo and read aloud in a meeting on May 24th, Stalin’s hopes of becoming leader suddenly looked grim. Fortunately for Stalin a member of the Party spoke in his defensive, highlighting his role in organising Lenin’s funeral. The other members of the Politburo disliked the “ruthless” Trotsky and thought if given sole control he would establish a military dictatorship. This allowed Stalin to keep his job, going against Lenin’s will. The testament was never released to the public and it turned out to be the biggest mistake the remaining members of the Politburo would ever make.
With his position inside the party secure, Stalin began to solidify his power. He knew he’d have to be even more brutal and manipulative than he had previously thought to gain complete power. He had huge ambition and he was prepared to do anything possible to achieve his dream of being Lenin’s successor. His greatest adversary was Trotsky, who he battled on the direction the revolution should take, now that Lenin was dead. Trotsky wanted to spread the revolution around the world as Karl Marx had predicted. Stalin argued that the Party must protect and rebuild Russia first. The Politburo was divided into two groups: the “leftists”, those who wanted hard-core communism and a “permanent revolution”, and the “rightists”, those who favoured Lenin’s NEP (new economic policy). Up until Lenin’s death Stalin had remained neutral, so few were suspicious. Through what can only be described as “sheer cunning”, Stalin attacked the “leftists” by joining forces with the “rightists”, pretending to support N.E.P.
As the “rightists” disliked Trotsky a huge attack against him began, lead by Stalin. Stalin encouraged journalists to criticize Trotsky whenever possible. According to the media, he was no Leninist (Stalin’s new form of Marxism), but the father of “Trotskyism.” Trotsky was removed from the Politburo in between 1924-1925 and his fellow “leftists” Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1926. Thousands of Trotsky’s supporters were replaced by Stalin loyalists such as Voroshilov, Molotov and Kalinin, strengthening his position with pro-Stalin support within the Politburo. As a cruel twist Stalin then turned on his “allies” the “rightists” as, with his new support, he no longer needed the old Politburo members and had no time for Lenin’s N.E.P. The “rightists” were removed from the Politburo in 1929. By the time the original members of the Politburo had discovered Stalin’s plan it was far too late. Stalin was clearly paranoid of what they knew about Lenin’s testament, as he had Trotsky exiled (and later murdered by his secret police, the NKVD) and had the remaining members shot during the great purges of the 1930’s.
With the elimination of Trotsky and the other members of the Politburo by 1928 Stalin’s grip on the Soviet Union had become even tighter. In fact he had total control and was “supreme leader”. All he needed now was to re-enforce his position, making sure the Russian population knew he had absolute power. He felt powerful enough to call an end to N.E.P in 1928 and introduce five year plans to increase industry power. He continued to remove all people who opposed him, or through his “intense paranoia” he thought were against him. The country had become totalitarian and Stalin ruled by immense force and fear, just like the tsarist government. Matters were discussed in secret and people were taken away at night. He “inflicted huge amounts of suffering” on any one who argued against him and the Russian people as a whole, especially the peasants working on the farms growing food for the people. He used the state police, known as the Cheka as his main tool of enforcement. The name was short for the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Sabotage, and Speculation. This organization was created by Lenin to protect the communist dream from those who did not believe in the goals of the Party. Yet, Stalin targeted almost any one, even those who supported communism and the Party. Finally, he made sure there was no doubt in the Russian people’s minds by using powerful imagery and propaganda to make it appear that he was the “Lenin of his time” and the “true successor” to Lenin’s role.
In conclusion, it is clear that there was no single event that allowed Stalin to achieve his role as absolute leader of Russia. It was more a combination of factors resulting in a chain of events, together with Stalin’s harsh character and determined ambition that allowed him to take such complete control. However, if one main factor had to be isolated as the primary cause it would have to be the mistake of the other members of the Politburo not releasing Lenin’s testament. This allowed Stalin’s harsh character and brutal methods to go on relatively unnoticed and unchecked. Given these conditions it is very unlikely that circumstances would combine in such a way again, making it unlikely for such a leader to be able to arise in today’s Europe.