Communist Civilization After the Death of Lenin

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, Soviet Russia continued to move toward the ideal communist civilization, trying to create a society as a unified mass. The creation of this machine required silencing all other voices that were deemed unreliable, insufficiently committed, or careerist and opportunist.

A bust of Lenin on a plinth.
After Lenin’s death, his busts and sculptures were seen everywhere in Soviet Russia.
(Image: George Bokeh/Shutterstock)

Cheka: The Soviet Regime’s Secret Police

The dictates and decrees of the Soviet regime were enforced by the feared political secret police, the Cheka. Created within a month of the Bolshevik seizure of power, it was renamed the OGPU or Joint State Political Directorate in 1924. Under the direction of the austere Polish radical Felix Dzerzhinsky, it sought out “enemies of the people,” including former socialist allies.

Several hundred intellectuals were arrested and deported on special so‐called “Philosophers’ Ships” or otherwise expelled, but these were the lucky ones. The Cheka initiated a system of concentration camps which later would grow into the Gulag camp system. It arrested clergy, for as Dzerzhinsky stated, “Communism and religion are mutually exclusive… only the Cheka is capable of destroying religion.” Through it all, Dzerzhinsky decreed that the Cheka men should have “cool heads, warm hearts, and clean hands.” But others saw the Cheka as cold‐blooded killers, fearsome in their black leather jackets and peaked hats, and carrying large pistols.

In these years, the Communist Party sought to grow, yet at the same time remain pure, to remain the dedicated vanguard Lenin had envisioned. This produced a cycle of mass party recruitment drives, followed by purges. “Purge” in this case meant taking away the memberships of those who were judged unreliable, or insufficiently committed, or careerist and opportunist.

In an attempt to further centralize his power, Lenin declared at the 10th party congress in 1921 that all factions of the party would be resolved. Bolshevik activists in general were wracked with anxiety about the increasingly bureaucratic character of their own movement, as it secured power.

Despite all these suppressions, revolutionary thinkers continued to voice their concerns about the future of these attempts. Several books, including Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, portrayed this era in Russian history.

Learn more about the communist manifesto and Das Kapital.

Lenin’s Death and Funeral

The death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924 was a major moment in Russian history. He had been nearly assassinated by Fanny Kaplan in 1918, which caused severe damage to his health. In 1922, he had a stroke, which cost him his ability to speak and move. He was not sure that after his death, anyone would be a true successor to him and continue the leadership of the Soviet regime.

A black and white photograph of Lenin in 1923, in a wheelchair.
Lenin lost his ability to move and speak after suffering strokes. (Image: M. I. Ulyanova (1878–1937)/Public domain)

He was particularly critical of Joseph Stalin, who he viewed as rude and crude. Lenin had told the party leaders to get rid of him. But Stalin was among the pallbearers at Lenin’s funeral. He allegedly misled Leon Trotsky about the time of the funeral, so Trotsky could not attend it.

Lenin’s body was mummified, although it was contrary to his wishes and even his wife’s. The party leaders wanted to preserve his body eternally. So, his mummified body was placed in a mausoleum outside the Kremlin.

One might think that this form of preserving Lenin’s memory is not reconcilable with the rejection of the eternal soul promoted by Marxist materialism. The Soviet regime justified this with the role of modern science in preserving Lenin’s body to emphasize that it has nothing to do with religion. The process of mummification was also performed by scientific methods and under the supervision of the secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky. Lenin’s brain was given to the Moscow Brain Institute to be studied as an example of a genius mind.

Later that summer, his body was put in a temporary structure for visitors to view. The permanent red granite mausoleum was not built until 1930, and Lenin’s mummification was renewed every other year. The mausoleum was also a form of stand on which the leaders stood to view parades. Lenin’s body, which still remains in the mausoleum, was reportedly visited by over 16 million people between 1924 and 1940.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Death of Lenin and the Creation of a Personality Cult

Photograph showing Lenin's Mausoleum outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia.
Lenin’s body was mummified and preserved in a mausoleum. (Image: Andrew Shiva/Public domain)

Following Lenin’s death, a personality cult was formed around him, which had already started before his death. Posters were published reading: “Even now, Lenin is more alive than all the living”, and “Lenin is always with us.” Pictures of Lenin would be placed along with other icons and saints, including Christ, in designated areas at homes called Lenin corners. The members of the mass youth organization wore Lenin badges, and statues of Lenin were erected everywhere.  

This personality cult was particularly useful for one person to assume the role of a high priest and expand his political power. Stalin delivered a speech that was more similar to a religious chant:

“In leaving us, Comrade Lenin ordered us to hold high and keep pure the great title of member of the party. We vow to thee, Comrade Lenin, that we shall honorably fulfill this thy commandment…. In leaving us, Comrade Lenin ordered us to guard the unity of our party like the apple of our eye. We vow to thee, Comrade Lenin, that we shall fulfill this, thy commandment too…. In leaving us, Comrade Lenin ordered us to guard and strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat. We vow to thee, Comrade Lenin, that without sparing our strength, we shall honorably fulfill this, thy commandment too.”

The death of Lenin was the end of an era created by the climb of communism to power in Russia. Communism and its ideal human civilization continued to evolve under the rule of Joseph Stalin and expanded to other parts of Europe and Asia.

Learn more about the making of Lenin.

Common Questions about Communist Civilization After the Death of Lenin

Q: When did Lenin die?

Lenin died on January 21, 1924. His health had diminished after the assassination attempted by Fanny Kaplan. He had several strokes and lost his ability to speak and move.

Q: Who was Fanny Kaplan?

Fanny Kaplan was a revolutionary who tried to assassinate Vladimir Lenin. She thought that Lenin had betrayed her party.

Q: What did Vladimir Lenin declare in the 10th party congress?

Lenin declared the resolution of all party factions in the 10th party congress. His goal was to centralize his power.

Q: What happened to Vladimir Lenin’s body?

Lenin’s body was mummified after his death. His brain was given to the Moscow Brain Institute to be studied as a brain belonging to a genius.

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