Did he do it? He would not be the first subordinate to seek to polish off his superior in an authoritarian system. History is replete with examples of a seemingly dutiful understudy scheming to remove his mentor.
I'm talking, of course, about Stalin and Lenin. The theory that Stalin sped along the demise of the old boy—who wasn't actually that old when he died, a mere fifty-four—has been around for decades. Now it is being revived. Last Friday, at the annual University of Maryland School of Medicine conference about the deaths of famous historical figures, the Russian historian Lev Lurie suggested that while Lenin was undoubtedly in poor health in the 1920s, Stalin hastened his death by having the Soviet leader poisoned. The convulsions Lenin suffered shortly before his death, Lurie says, are not consistent with the symptoms of the stroke he had experienced. If Lurie is right, it might turn Lenin into more of a martyr, at least in Russia. His specter continues to loom over the country. Almost instantly, the Bolsheviks transformed Lenin, whose corpse was embalmed and remains displayed in Moscow, into a cult figure, one that has outlived the regime itself. He serves as an important vestige of a neo-imperial past that postcommunist Russia apparently cannot afford to dispense with. What the historian Nina Tumarkin declared years ago in her scintillating book Lenin Lives! remains true today.
Certainly, Stalin had good reasons to hope Lenin would perish. It did not entirely escape Lenin's notice that the ambitious and young general secretary was taking control of the party machinery. Besides, as he complained in what has become known as his "testament," Lenin thought Stalin was "rude." Whether this would have translated into his demoting Stalin is another question. Lenin, after all, seemed to be complaining about bad manners. And Lenin himself was no shrinking violet when it came to taking out his enemies: he presided over the deaths of millions during the Russian Civil War and laid the foundations for the Gulag. Lenin's "Who Whom" question was no joking matter. It led to mass murder and totalitarian systems from Eastern Europe to China to Vietnam.
But unlike Stalin, Lenin does not seem to provide particular evidence of enjoying killing for its own sake. To Lenin applies the old line about loving humanity but despising individual humans. Stalin, by contrast, was a Georgian who relished feuds for their own sake. He seemed to take a lascivious pleasure in pitting his subordinates against one another, whether it was accusing them of plotting to subvert his leadership or simply forcing them to engage in endless drinking bouts while he mocked them. Stalin had no shortage of ways of rubbing out his real or perceived opponents, ranging from mass executions to more indirect methods—in his memoirs, Anton-Antonov Ovseyenko recounts, among other things, Stalin's proclivity for ordering medical operations that somehow ended fatally. But under Stalin's stewardship, the Soviet Union—the NKVD—became the supreme practicioner in the diabolical black arts of injecting victims with harmful potions. The NKVD has its own laboratory, which was revealed at the last major purge trial when its former director, Genrikh Yagoda, was accused in 1938 of having sought to use it to poison Stalin and other Bolshevik worthies. Today, Russia continues to enjoy a particular proficiency in this singular line of work, which is presumably why Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident and former FSB officer, had the misfortune to find himself ingesting polonium-210 in a fatal cup of tea in London in 2006.
Might the Soviet experiment, as it was known, have turned out differently in the event of Lenin's ruling the Soviet Union for several more decades? Could he have made a go of the enterprise? Would Trotsky and Bukharin have been promoted rather than Stalin, and would a kinder, gentler Soviet Union have emerged?
Historians, particularly revisionist ones such as Stephen F. Cohen, have long argued that the Soviet Union could have taken a more moderate path—that it is its own form of determinism to argue that Stalinism was preordained. In addition, Stalin, as Simon Montefiore argues in his biography of the generalissimo, may have gotten a bum rap. Generations of historians sympathetic to Trotsky, himself not averse to terror and violence (see: Kronstadt), have tried to present Stalin as something of an intellectual deadhead, but he turns out to have been an avid reader and keen student of history. So the notion that he was merely the faceless bureaucrat next to the brilliantly coruscating Trotsky may not be quite right.
In any case, the Trotsky vs. Stalin conundrum, if that is even what it is, can never be resolved (though Stalin did as much as he could to resolve it by having his rival brutally murdered in Mexico City, with not poison but, rather, an ice pick). The preponderance of the evidence suggests that communist regimes based on Leninist principles quickly devolved into totalitarian societies. Still, to satisfy historical curiosity if nothing else, it is probably worth probing whether Lenin himself became the most prominent victim of the very regime he had helped to construct. Lurie suggests that it would be simplicity itself to examine Lenin's brain and discover the truth. It would not be the first time that a criminal has preserved the evidence of his own crime.