In the Hoover Institution Archives’s Volkogonov microfilm collection, there is a remarkable document dated March 23, 1923 from Joseph Stalin to the Politburo.[i] The document is two pages long and written in Stalin’s hand on his official letterhead as secretary of the central committee. In this “strictly secret” memo, Stalin states that “On Sunday March 17, Comrade Ulianova (N. K.) (Lenin’s wife) confidentially communicated to me ‘the request of Vladimir Ilich (Lenin) to Stalin’ that I, Stalin, take upon myself the responsibility to acquire and administer cyanide poison to Vladimir Ilich. In her conversation with me, she said that ‘Vladimir Ilich is “experiencing unbearable suffering’ and that ‘it makes no sense to keep on living’ and stubbornly insisted that I ‘not deny Ilich his request.” In view of the special insistence of Ulianova and that Ilich demanded my approval (Ilich twice called his wife to his office during our conversation and agitatedly demanded the ‘agreement of Stalin which meant that we had to interrupt our conversation twice), I did not consider it possible to say no, declaring ‘I request that Vladimir Ilich keep calm and he must believe that when it is necessary, I will without hesitation fulfill his request.’ Vladimir Ilich did indeed calm down. I must , however, declare, that I do not have the strength to fulfill the request of Vladimir Ilich and I must refuse this mission, no matter how humane and necessary and which I relate for the information of the members of the Politburo.
All Politburo members, including Lev Trotsky, signed that they had read the memo. One, Mikhail Tomsky, wrote by hand that “I presume that the ‘indecisiveness’ of Stalin is correct. It follows that the members of the Politburo should exchange their views in a strict order of secrecy. Without a secretary present.”
Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the uncontested leader of the Bolshevik state, suffered his first stroke in May of 1922, leaving him partially paralyzed. A second stroke followed in December, and a third stroke in March of 1923 required him to withdraw from public life. Lenin died on January 21, 1924, ten months after his request to Stalin. Throughout his lengthy illness, Lenin experienced periods of improvement, leading his doctors to maintain hope that his situation was not hopeless.
As Lenin faded from the leadership, Stalin allied himself with two of Lenin’s allies, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, to block the charismatic Trotsky. They reached agreements among themselves before Politburo meetings, thereby effectively excluding Trotsky from decision making. In fact, Stalin informed his allies about his meeting with Lenin first. In this undated “strictly secret” memo, he adds that Lenin’s wife could not bring herself to poison her husband and was therefore asking for his assistance. The emphatic joint reply of Zinoviev and Kamenev was “We cannot do this! Ferster (Lenin’s doctor) holds out hope. If only this were not happening. No, No, No!”
Years after his exile from Russia in 1929, Trotsky expressed the view that Stalin did indeed poison Lenin and that he did so, not for the “humane and necessary” reasons mentioned in his memo, but to protect himself. There are no accounts other than Trotsky’s of the Politburo discussion that followed Stalin’s March 23 memo. According to Trotsky, he and other Politburo members argued against assisting Lenin’s death, while Stalin took no position other than to emphasize Lenin’s desire to end his suffering. The Politburo did not vote, but everyone was left with the impression that there could be no further talk of administering Lenin poison.
If Stalin intended to poison Lenin, as Trotsky claimed, why would he inform the Politburo of Lenin’s request? A possible answer is that this would give Stalin the ideal alibi. If poison were detected in Lenin’s body, a reasonable conclusion would be that Lenin’s wife finally got the nerve to do it herself. Also, what would Stalin have to gain from poisoning the incapacitated Lenin? On December 25, 1922, Lenin dictated his final political testament in which he recommended that Stalin be removed from his position as general secretary of the central committee. Stalin was rude and was accumulating too much power. Especially troubling to Lenin was that Stalin had shouted at his wife in the foulest language in December of 1922. Lenin learned of this on March 5, 1923 and immediately wrote to him demanding that he apologize or else all relations between them would end. On the next day, the agitated Lenin suffered his third and final stroke. If Lenin’s condition were unexpectedly to improve enough to attend a politburo or central committee meeting, a proposal from him to remove Stalin would have surely been approved. A third issue with Trotsky’s charge is why Lenin would call for Stalin, with whom he had quarreled, to put him out of his misery? An inebriated Stalin himself recounted the incident in a meeting with writers in 1932: “Ilich understood that he was dying and he actually said to me, I do not know in jest or in earnest, but I will relate to you as a serious request, that I should I should obtain poison for him because he cannot ask his wife or sister. You are the most brutal member of the party.” According to one witness, Stalin spoke these words with a hint of pride.[ii]
We will never know the answer to the mystery: Did Stalin poison Lenin? What we do know is that no one should underestimate Stalin’s criminal instincts. On the evening of February 26, 1939, Lenin’s widow invited her friends to attend her seventieth birthday party. Stalin did not attend but he sent a cake. Later that evening, she was stricken with severe food poisoning and died the following morning. It was the grieving Stalin who carried her ashes at the funeral.[iii] It should also be remembered that by 1939, Stalin had executed almost half of the party leadership and almost one million ordinary citizens. Poisoning Lenin would have been consistent with his later actions.
[i] Dimitrii Antonovich Volkogonov Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, microfilm, collection.
[ii] V. Rogovin, The End Means the Beginning http://trst.narod.ru/rogovin/t7
[iii] Larissa Vasilieva, Kremlin Wives (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992), p.32.