From Death Comes New Life

To say that the Bolsheviks had firmly established themselves as the leaders of Russia following the events of the October revolution is a vast overestimate of their position. The revolution of 1917 raged on for many years, following the initial push for control, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks struggled to make the transformation from revolutionaries to rulers. It is one thing to rally the people behind a noble cause and to promise them everything they desire in the future in return for their support now, but it is a whole new beast to bring all of those promises into fruition upon the realization of the initial goal. And the Bolsheviks, like every new contender for power, were faced with a major dilemma in making this transition.

In the midst of all the chaos and panic of the unrest that plagued all of Russia in the first decades of the 20th century, the Bolsheviks had made many promises to a great variety of people in order to obtain the necessary backing to take control from, first the Tsar, but later the Provisional Government. However, when Lenin’s revolution finally broke through and gave him the power he had been craving for so long, these promises proved very difficult to keep, and as a result, many of those same supporters that had revolted alongside the Bolsheviks now sought to tear them down. This prompted a massive counter-revolutionary wave that threatened to wash away everything that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had worked so hard to achieve, but miraculously, they were able to weather the storm that had crushed so many before them by successfully transitioning to rulers.

Amidst internal and borderland threats from the plethora of counter-revolutionary groups, most namely the White army, Lenin initially sought to make good on as many of his promises as he could. Lenin felt that his only hope of transitioning from a revolutionary to a ruler was to obtain a complete monopoly of power but had the sense to know that this idea would not fly with the people who had just escaped this means of ruling under the Tsar. So he began his campaign of upholding promises by allowing some non-Bolshevik presence, a few left SR’s for the most part, in his first attempt at government. Additionally, he retained the ministerial bureaucracy but dressed it up to create the illusion of proletarian involvement thereby fulfilling the promise of incorporating the lower levels of society into the political structure, at least in the eyes of the workers and peasants. Lenin even made efforts to bring about land reform, establish the idea of self-determination for other nationalities, erase the former class structure, and promote “democratic” elections in the Constituent Assembly, among other things. But despite these efforts, many people still felt their prayers had not been answered and saw through Lenin’s fairly insincere attempts at repaying his revolutionary backing for their support in gaining his power, and as a result Lenin was forced to use alternative methods to establish himself as the new ruler. (Freeze, Russia A History)

Lenin and the Bolshevik’s second phase on the road to becoming rulers began with the removal of the non-Bolsheviks from political office and the disbanding of the Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks realized that the concessions that were necessary to keep the promises of the revolution would be detrimental to the already precarious Bolshevik regime and instead turned to force to establish themselves. The counter-revolutionaries were crushed by censorship and force, and was largely due to a lack of unity and incompetence among the various groups vying to overthrown the Bolsheviks. Lenin then established Cheka which, under Feliks Dzerzhinskii, forcibly brought Russia to accept the Bolsheviks as the new rulers at any cost. This major switch in Bolshevik philosophy, from a group opposed to terrorism and violence to one that uses it in excess, highlights the Bolshevik shift from revolutionaries to rulers. (Freeze, Russia A History)

Lenin's embalmed body
Lenin’s embalmed body (Daily Mail)

Much more took place between this point and Lenin’s death in 1924, however, it was at this point that the Bolsheviks had truly separated themselves from the term revolutionaries. And, interestingly enough, I believe that it was Lenin’s death that solidifies the Bolsheviks as rulers. When Lenin passed away, an almost cult-like following developed and Lenin was portrayed almost as a god. People from all around the country visited the embalmed body and statues and memorials sprung up in all parts of Russia. And this worship was used by the likely Bolshevik candidates to succeed Lenin, namely Stalin and Trotsky, to boost the power of the Bolsheviks and eventually propel them into the dictatorship that followed. These efforts can clearly be seen in two pieces from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. In the first excerpt, the birth of the Lenin cult from his death is highlighted as are Stalin and Trotsky’s’ efforts to use this event to further their aspirations of power as well as to discredit their opponents. This can be seen in more detail in Stalin’s address on the death of Lenin. Stalin fuels the idea of Lenin as a hero and visionary and calls the people to stand behind him in order to ensure that Lenin’s dreams are still brought about and don’t die along with him. Stalin does a phenomenal job of using the peoples infatuation with Lenin to ensure that the Bolsheviks, and more importantly himself, retain power even after the loss of Lenin which truly establishes the Bolsheviks as rulers.

Just as an interesting side note, it was actually Stalin’s idea to have Lenin embalmed and placed in a sarcophagus for public viewing, despite the wishes of Lenin’s family and Lenin himself to be buried. Originally, Stalin hoped to freeze Lenin’s body in a specially designed super-freezer, but the body began to deteriorate before its completion so Stalin ‘recruited’, with force, a group of scientists to develop an embalming procedure to prevent Lenin’s body from ever deteriorating. The issue with this was that, at this point in history, there were no methods for preserving a body to the standards that Stalin had in mind, and thus it was a monumental discovery for the field of science when these scientists eventually succeeded. The story behind their work is really interesting and I suggest listening to this video that discusses the scientific bases for their work as well as the story behind it, which was developed into a stage play. Additionally, there is a full article about this event from the Jewish World Review.

 

Citations:

von Geldern, James. Seventeen Moment in Soviet History, “Death of Lenin.” Last modified 2013. Accessed September 22, 2013. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1924death&Year=1924.

I. V. Stalin, Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1952-1955), Vol. VI, pp. 47-53.

“Keeping the Russian Revolution Alive.” Science FridayRecorded March 19 2010. Cast Roller. Web, http://castroller.com/podcasts/NprScienceFriday/1528520.

Jewish World Review, “Lenin looks better than the day he died, his embalmer brags.” Last modified 2004. Accessed September 22, 2013. http://www.jewishworldreview.com/0304/lenin.asp.

Daily Mail Online, “Russia ‘preparing to bury Lenin’ after displaying the former communist leader’s embalmed body in mausoleum for 88 years Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2157008/Russia-preparing-bury-Lenin-displaying-communist-leaders-embalmed-body-mausoleum-88-years.html

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia A History. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009. 291-318. Print.

3 Replies to “From Death Comes New Life”

  1. I completely agree that Lenin’s death is was what solidified the Bolsheviks as the ruling power in Russia in 1924. His death brought about a sort of religious following to the party for a period and several Soviet leaders (namely Stalin) would use Lenin’s name and image to elevate themselves to power. Well researched article I really liked the paragraph at the the end about the details of preserving Lenin’s body.

  2. Considering the reputation that the Soviet Union garnered for being such a strict regime, it is not all that surprising to see that they first started to use these forceful tactics very early on. This set the tone for basically the entire length the government was in power. They really left themselves no other choice though by over promising and under achieving. Rather than admit that they were unfit for rule and had been too ambitious they turned to whatever means necessary to retain their fragile hold on the country.

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