Lenin's Testament

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Lenin's Testament is the name given to a document allegedly written by Vladimir Lenin in the last weeks of 1922 and the first week of 1923. In the testament, Lenin proposed changes to the structure of the Soviet governing bodies. Sensing his impending death, he also commented on the leading members of the Soviet Union to ensure its future. He suggested Joseph Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party's Central Committee.

Document history

Lenin wanted the testament to be read out at the XII Party Congress of the Russian Communist Party to be held in April 1923.[1] However, after Lenin's third stroke in March 1923 left him paralyzed and unable to speak, the testament was kept secret by his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, in hopes of Lenin's eventual recovery. Only after Lenin's death on January 21, 1924, did she turn the document over to the Communist Party Central Committee Secretariat and ask that it be made available to the delegates of the XIII Party Congress in May 1924.

Lenin's testament presented the ruling triumvirate or troika (Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev) with an uncomfortable dilemma. On the one hand, they would have preferred to suppress the testament since it was critical of all three of them as well as of their ally Nikolai Bukharin and their opponents Leon Trotsky and Georgy Pyatakov. (Although Lenin's comments were damaging to all Communist leaders, Joseph Stalin stood to lose the most since the only practical suggestion in the testament was to remove him from the position of the General Secretary of the Party's Central Committee.)

On the other hand, the leadership dared not go directly against Lenin's wishes so soon after his death, especially with his widow insisting on having them carried out. The leadership was also in the middle of a factional struggle over the control of the Party, the ruling faction itself consisting of loosely allied groups that would soon part ways, which would have made a coverup difficult.

The final compromise proposed by the triumvirate at the Council of the Elders of the 13th Congress after Kamenev read out the text of the document was to make Lenin's testament available to the delegates on the following conditions (first made public in a pamphlet by Trotsky published in 1934 and confirmed by documents released during and after glasnost):

  • The testament would be read by representatives of the Party leadership to each regional delegation separately.
  • Making notes would not be allowed.
  • The testament would not be referred to during the plenary meeting of the Congress.

The proposal was adopted by a majority vote over Krupskaya's objections. As a result, the testament did not have the effect that Lenin had hoped for and Stalin retained his position as General Secretary.

Failure to make the document more widely available within the Party remained a point of contention during the struggle between the Left Opposition and the Stalin-Bukharin faction in 1924-1927. Under pressure from the opposition, Stalin had to read the testament again at the July 1926 Central Committee meeting.

An edited version of the testament was printed in December 1927 in a limited edition made available to 15th Party Congress delegates. The case for making the testament more widely available was undermined by the consensus within the Party leadership that it could not be printed publicly as it would have damaged the Party as a whole.

The text of the testament and the fact of its concealment soon became known in the West, especially after the circumstances surrounding the controversy were described by Max Eastman in Since Lenin Died (1925). The Soviet leadership denounced Eastman's account and used Party discipline[citation needed] to force Trotsky, then still a member of the Politburo, to write an article (see the quote from Bolshevik) denying Eastman's version of the events.

The full English language text of Lenin's testament was published as part of an article by Eastman that appeared in The New York Times in 1926.[2]

From the time Stalin consolidated his position as the unquestioned leader of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union in the late 1920s on, all references to Lenin's testament were considered anti-Soviet agitation and punishable as such. The denial of the existence of Lenin's testament remained one of the cornerstones of Soviet historiography until Stalin's death on March 5, 1953. After Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, the document was finally published officially by the Soviet government. The original letter is in a museum dedicated to Lenin.

Related documents

This term is not to be confused with "Lenin's Political Testament", a term used in Leninism to refer to a set of letters and articles dictated by Lenin during his illness which instruct how to continue the construction of the Soviet state. Traditionally it includes the following works.

  • A Letter to a Congress, "Письмо к съезду"
  • About Assigning of Legislative Functions to Gosplan, "О придании законодательных функций Госплану"
  • To the "Nationalities Issue" or about "Autonomization", "К 'вопросу о национальностях' или об 'автономизации' "
  • Pages from the Diary, "Странички из дневника"
  • About Cooperation, "О кооперации"
  • About Our Revolution, "О нашей революции"
  • How shall We Reorganise the Rabkrin, "Как нам реорганизовать Рабкрин"
  • Better Less but Better, "Лучше меньше, да лучше"

Contents of Lenin's Last Testament

The letter constitutes a critique of the Soviet government as it then stood, warning of dangers he anticipated and making suggestions for the future. Some of those suggestions include increasing the size of the Party's Central Committee, giving the State Planning Committee legislative powers and changing the nationalities policy which had been implemented by Stalin.

The criticism of Stalin and Trotsky:

Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution. Comrade Trotsky, on the other hand, as his struggle against the C.C. on the question of the People's Commissariat of Communications has already proved, is distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C., but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work.
These two qualities of the two outstanding leaders of the present C.C. can inadvertently lead to a split, and if our Party does not take steps to avert this, the split may come unexpectedly.

Lenin felt that Stalin had more power than he could handle and might be dangerous if allowed to succeed him. In a postscript written a few weeks later, Lenin recommended Stalin's removal from the position of General Secretary of the Party:

Stalin is too coarse and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing 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, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think that from the standpoint of safeguards against a split and from the standpoint of what I wrote above about the relationship between Stalin and Trotsky it is not a [minor] detail, but it is a detail which can assume decisive importance.

By power Trotsky argued Lenin meant administrative power rather than political influence within the Party and pointed out that Lenin had effectively accused Stalin of a lack of loyalty.

In the 30 December 1922 article "Nationalities Issue" or about "Autonomization" Lenin criticized the actions of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Grigoriy Ordzhonikidze, and Stalin in the "Georgian Affair", accusing them of "Great Russian chauvinism".

I think that a fatal role was played here by hurry and the administrative impetuousness of Stalin and also his infatuation with the renowned "social-nationalism". Infatuation in politics generally and usually plays the worst role.

Lenin also criticized other Politburo members. He wrote that

the October episode with Zinoviev and Kamenev [their opposition to seizing power in October 1917] was, of course, no accident, but neither can the blame for it be laid upon them personally, any more than non-Bolshevism can upon Trotsky.

Finally, he criticized two younger Bolshevik leaders, Bukharin and Pyatakov:

They are, in my opinion, the most outstanding figures (among the younger ones), and the following must be borne in mind about them: Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favorite of the whole Party, but his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with the great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectics, and, I think, never fully appreciated it).
As for Pyatakov, he is unquestionably a man of outstanding will and outstanding ability, but shows far too much zeal for administrating and the administrative side of the work to be relied upon in a serious political matter.
Both of these remarks, of course, are made only for the present, on the assumption that both these outstanding and devoted Party workers fail to find an occasion to enhance their knowledge and amend their one-sidedness.

One puzzling question is why Georgy Pyatakov is listed as one of the six major figures of the Communist Party in 1923. Pyatakov was a senior figure as deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council of the National Economy of the USSR, but he was not a major decision maker. The answer may be found in Louis Fischer's Life of Lenin where he writes that Pyatakov was a frequent visitor to Lenin's home while he was away from Moscow recuperating. The occasion of the visits was to play the piano selections that Lenin loved since Pyatakov was an accomplished pianist. This close and frequent contact at the time that Lenin composed the letter may be the answer.


  1. The New Cambridge Modern History, Volume XII. CUP Archive. p. 453. GGKEY:Q5W2KNWHCQB.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Eastman, Max (October 18, 1926). "Lenin's 'Testament' at Last Revealed". The New York Times: 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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