Lenin's Testament

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Lenin's so-called Political Testament was actually a letter dictated secretly by Vladimir Ilich Lenin in late December 1922, which he intended to discuss at the Twelfth Party Congress in April 1923. The letter was initially known only to Lenin's wife Nadezhda Krupskaya and the two secretaries who took down its contents. Unfortunately, on March 10, 1923, Lenin suffered a stroke, which put an end to his active role in Soviet politics. It is widely believed that Krupskaya, fearing that its contents might cause further Party disunity, kept the testament under lock and key, until Lenin's death in January 1924. She then felt it safe enough to be read to delegates at the Thirteenth Congress. All those attending this Congress were sworn to keep the contents of the letter a secret. It was then suppressed in the Soviet Union, and so the document did not appear in English until 1926.

A number of versions are currently in circulation, each of which has been manipulated for political purposes, especially by those who wish to criticize Josef Stalin or show how positively Leon Trotsky was viewed by Lenin. Nevertheless it is clear that Lenin was concerned in the Testament with potential successors and that most of all he favored Trotsky rather than his actual successor Stalin. The Testament of December 29 indicates it clear that Lenin wanted to avoid an irreversible split in the Party and provides a balanced assessment of all prospective candidates. With regard to Trotsky, Lenin notes that "[as] his struggle against the CC [Central Committee] on the question of the People's Commissariat has already proved, [he] is distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present CC, but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work." Concerning Stalin, by contrast, Lenin points out that he "is too rude, and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a general secretary. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing (sic) another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, less capricious, and so forth." In a postscript dated March 5, 1923, Lenin criticizes Stalin for insulting Lenin's wife and adds that unless they receive a retraction and apology then "relations between us should be broken off." In relation to other members of the CC, Lenin points to the October episode in which Zinoviev and Kamenev objected to the idea of an immediate armed insurrection against the Provisional Government and also to Trotsky's Menshevik past, but he adds that neither should suffer any blame or personal consequence.

Lenin was therefore extremely worried about the degree of power Stalin had attained and thought this was dangerous for the future of the Party and Russia insofar as he was capable of abusing this power. He advocated that Stalin be removed from the post of general secretary. It is generally agreed by historians that Trotsky's failure to use the Testament was a major political mistake and an error that allowed Stalin to rise to power. But it is also conceded that Trotsky, in agreeing not to use it in this manner, was abiding by Lenin's wishes to avoid a split. Trotsky therefore put Party unity before his own ambitions.

See also: lenin, vladimir ilich; stalin, josef vissarionovich; trotsky, leon davidovich


Buranov, Yuri. (1994). Lenin's Will: Falsified and Forbidden. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Volkogonov, Dmitri. (1994). Lenin: A New Biography. New York: Free Press.

Wolfe, Bertram D. (1984). Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History. New York: Stein and Day.

Christopher Williams