The Autumn of the Patriarch

In 1920, three years after the Bolsheviks seized power, Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and H. G. Wells all made trips to Moscow (separately). Maxim Gorky, a personal friend of Lenin arranged a meeting between them and Lenin. Each author was shown only the selective segments of the Soviet life, and each wrote about his experiences thoroughly. (In above photo, Lenin meets with Wells on 6 October 1920 in his Kremlin office).

By 1920, 50-year old Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin was a tired old man. Years of hardship home and abroad, mental strains from chaotic revolution, government and civil war and wounds from the attempted assassinations reduced him. In May and December 1922, he suffered two strokes, which paralyzed him. The next March, he suffered the third stroke that rendered him mute and wheelchair-ridden. He retired to his country estate at Gorki, where his wife read him Jack London’s books (he was Lenin’s favorite author). “Love of Life” was left unfinished when Lenin died in January 1924.

“Come back and see what we have done in ten years,” said Lenin to Wells. But in his own megalomaniacal way, Lenin proved to be his own undoing. After his first stroke, Lenin dictated a document so harshly critical of all of his potential successors that it was in nobody’s interest to publicize it. Soon Stalin would take advantage of Lenin’s inability to speak or move; he would pay frequent visits to Lenin who was almost a vegetable, to portray a false image of him as close to Lenin.

Wells predicted that Lenin’s Bolshevism might be replaced by a new ideology and a dictatorship worse than Lenin’s that could spread outside of the Soviet Russia. In a sense he was prophetic. Yet, history would hardly be different if Lenin had lived longer. It was Lenin who created the first camps and purges; Lenin who set off artificial famine as a political weapon; Lenin who disbanded the last vestiges of democratic government, the Constituent Assembly, and devised the Communist Party as the apex of a totalitarian structure; Lenin who first waged war on the intelligentsia and on religious believers. His self-proclaimed “man of letters” paved the way not merely for his successors but for Mao, for Hitler, for Pol Pot.

Lenin’s illness was largely suppressed from the Russian people. Most of the pictures published in his final days were official-looking photos taken years before. The photo below, of Lenin with his sister and doctor, taken by his gardener was his last. It was published only after the Soviet Union collapsed in Dmitri Volkogonov’s Lenin: A New Biography.