Lenin failed to name a successor. The power struggle for the leadership of the Soviet Union began after he suffered his first stroke. Before the died, Lenin warned against Joseph Stalin as his successor and probably would have been successful in ousting him if he had not been incapacitated by the strokes. In his last will—issued in December 1924 and known as "Lenin's Statement”— Lenis said: "I propose to the comrades to find some way of removing Stalin from his position and appointing somebody else who differs in all respects...someone more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and considerate to his comrades, less capricious."

But Lenin became temporarily incapacitated after the stroke in May 1922, the unity of the Politburo fractured, and a troika (triumvirate) formed by Stalin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigoriy Zinov'yev assumed leadership in opposition to Trotsky. Lenin recovered late in 1922 and found fault with the troika, and particularly with Stalin. In Lenin's view, Stalin had used coercion to force non-Russian republics to join the Soviet Union, he was uncouth, and he was accumulating too much power through his office of general secretary. Although Lenin recommended that Stalin be removed from that position, the Politburo decided not to take action, and Stalin still was in office when Lenin died in January 1924.

After Lenin's death, Alexsei Rykov (executed 1938) and V.M Molotov were technically the leaders of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin, was the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Leon Trotsky was the Minister of War. Power in the party and the soviets was concentrated in the three-man triumverant of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, with Stalin calling the shots. As party secretary Stalin controlled appointees and used the position to install people loyal to him and launched a drive to enlist new Communist party members, diluting the power of Trotsky and other rivals.

See Separate Articles on Stalin

Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was one of the most charismatic and influential early Communist leaders. More popular than Lenin and a militant atheist and materialist, he was the confounder of the Bolsheviks party, the Bolsheviks propaganda minister, organizer of the Red Army and Lenin's right hand man and rival. His real name was Lev Bronstein.

Trotsky was born in 1879 in the Ukraine to Jewish parents named Bronstein. In 1900 he was sent to prison in Siberia. Two years later, at the age of 23, he escaped. He fled to Europe with a forged passport with the name Trotsky. His aim at that time was to wage a war of propaganda and wait for the right moment to lead a revolution in Russia. In 1905, Trotsky returned to Russia. He was exiled again and escaped. In 1917, when the Bolshevik Revolution began, he was in New York City, working as an editor for a Russian revolutionary magazine. He returned to Russia and became close with Lenin.

Trotsky was an intelligent and charismatic leader and an uplifting speaker credited with bringing many people to the Bolshevik cause with his oratorical skill. One former friend told the Los Angeles Times, "He was overflowing with talent. I've never heard a better speaker in my entire life—beautiful words, beautiful ideas, powerful locution. A brilliant man." Describing Trotsky's ability to verbally assault his enemies, George Bernard Shaw wrote, "When he cuts off his opponent's head, he holds it up to show there are no brains in it."

Books: “Trotsky “by Dmitri Volkogonov (Free Press, 1992); “In Defense of Authority” by Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky After the Bolshevik Revolution

After the Bolshevik Revolution, Trotsky became the commissar of foreign affairs and later became commissar of war. He was put charge of training a Red Army to firm up the shaky Communist grip on power against a host of enemies.

Trotsky shaped the Red Army into a formidable and credible military force. He was also a great military strategist and a tough leader. He once warned soldiers drafted into the Red Army that if they disobeyed their officers “nothing will remain of them but a wet spot.” He credited with making the decisions that won the Russian Civil War.

Trotsky was a strong supporter of a "Dictatorship of the Proletariat," collectivization of agriculture, state atheism and worldwide revolution. When the Bolsheviks thought about selling all the crown jewels, Trotsky had them inventoried for that purpose. The Communists ended up keeping the ones with most historical value. The remainder, including many valuable ones, were sold in 1927. Trotsky said: "Let the priests of all religious confessions tell of a paradise in the world beyond—we say we will create a true paradise for men of this earth."

Trotsky Outmaneuvered by Stalin

After Lenin's death in 1924, a power struggle ensued between Trotsky was Stalin for control of the party and thus the country. A dispute between Stalin and Trotsky over policy matters in 1927 led to Trotsky's expulsion from the Communist party and his exile from Russia in 1928. Stalin later regretted that he exiled his rival rather than execute him. With Trotsky out the picture Stalin became the supreme dictator of Soviet Russia.

After Lenin's death, two conflicting schools of thought about the future of the Soviet Union arose in party debates. Left-wing communists believed that world revolution was essential to the survival of socialism in the economically backward Soviet Union. Trotsky, one of the primary proponents of this position, called for Soviet support of a permanent world revolutionary movement. As for domestic policy, the left wing advocated the rapid development of the economy and the creation of a socialist society. In contrast to these militant communists, the right wing of the party, recognizing that world revolution was unlikely in the immediate future, favored the gradual development of the Soviet Union.

Against this backdrop of contrasting perceptions of the Soviet future, t he Kamenev-Zinov'yev-Stalin troika, successfully maneuvered against Trotsky and engineered his removal as commissar of war in 1925. In the meantime, Stalin gradually consolidated his power base and, when he had sufficient strength, broke with Kamenev and Zinov'yev. Belatedly recognizing Stalin's political power, Kamenev and Zinov'yev made amends with Trotsky in order to join against their former partner. But Stalin countered their attacks on his position with his well-timed formulation of the theory of "socialism in one country", distanced Stalin from the left and won support from Bukharin and the party's right wing. With this support, Stalin ousted the leaders of the "Left Opposition" from their positions in 1926 and 1927 and forced Trotsky into exile in 1928.

Trotsky called Stalin’s bureaucrats the gravediggers of the Bolshevik Revolution. Part of Trotsky's problem was his belief that his superior intellect and charisma would win out over Stalin's crass heavy handiness.

Trotsky's Exile in Mexico

In 1937, Trotsky, accompanied by a few hundred followers, settled into a comfortable mansion in Mexico City that was guarded by dozens of bodyguards. Here he raised rabbits and plotted his return. Trotsky had been invited to the Mexican capital by the Mexican painter Diego Rivera.

Trotsky condemned the Stalin regime from the Mexico City villa. Among his literary attacks were “Stalin's Crimes”, “The Real Situation in Russia”, “The Stalinist School of Falsification” and an unfinished "autobiography" called “Stalin”.

Stalin reportedly stationed hundreds of secret police in Mexico City to keep on eye on Trotsky and make plans to assassinate him after he had been sentenced to death in absentia in a Moscow purge trial in 1937.

Trotsky's Assassination

Leon Trotsky—the last of Stalin's old rivals— was accused of masterminding conspiracies against Stalin from abroad. He was murdered in Mexico in 1940, presumably on the orders of the NKVD, in an attack with an ice ax. The 60-year-old Trotsky died 26 hours after the attack from damage to his brain caused from 3-inch hole in his skull made with the ice ax.

Trotsky was assassinated on August 20, 1940 after feeding his rabbits in his fortified mansion outside of Mexico City. He just escaped an assassination attempt three months before in which 20 men dressed in fake police and military uniforms assaulted his mansion with incendiary bombs, dynamite bombs and 73 machine bullets. Trotsky and his wife survived by hiding under their bed. The plot was reportedly arranged by the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siquiros.

Trotsky's assassin, Jaime Ramón Mercader del Rio Hernandez, was a passionate Spanish Stalinist who had managed to infiltrate Trotsky's inner circle by seducing one of Trotsky's followers who helped the assassin gain the confidence of Trotsky's security men. On the day of the murder, Trotsky welcomed Hernandez into his study to read an article Hernandez had written. Inside a raincoat clutched against his chest, Hernandez carried a mountaineering ice ax.

Hernandez later confessed: "I put my raincoat on the table on purpose so that I could take out the ice ax which I had in the pocket...I took the “piolet “out of my raincoat, took it in my fist, and, closing my eyes, I gave him a tremendous blow on the head...The man screamed in such a way that I will never forget as long as I live. His scream was Aaaaaa!...very long, infinitely long, and it still seems to me as if that scream were piecing my brain..."

Hernandez was captured, beaten, arrested, tried and convicted for murder but spared the death penalty. He was released from prison in 1960 and fled to Czechoslovakia, where he lived until his death. During his years in prison he became a kind of mystery man because he refused to reveal details of his past.


Nikolay Bukharin was a Bolshevik reformer who had been Lenin's protégé and was poised to take over the leadership of the Communist Party after Lenin's death and implement more humane programs based on Lenin's New Economic Policy.

A gifted painter and former journalist, Bukharin enjoyed reading Russian, European and American literature and wrote about issues economic with a sociological elements. Lenin once wrote that Bukharin was "rightly considered the favorite of the whole party."

After Lenin's death, Bukharin sided with Trotsky against Stalin, who labeled Bukharin and his follower rightists for wanting a mixed economy with state-run industry and market policies in agriculture. Under Stalin, Bukharin was politically defanged but remained influential in the Communist Party. He was executed under Stalin's orders in the purges of the 1930s after being accused of sabotage, espionage and assassination. Bukharin is generally regarded as the most prominent of the Bolshevik leaders killed in Stalinist purges in 1937 and 1938.

Stalin Becomes Leader of the Soviet Union

Debate over the future of the economy provided the background for Soviet leaders to contend for power in the years after Lenin's death in 1924. After an initial period of confusion and experimentation and by gradually consolidating his influence and isolating his rivals within the party, the Soviet Union came under the control of Stalin in 1927. Stalin became the sole leader of the Soviet Union by the end of the 1920s. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

After Lenin's death, two conflicting schools of thought about the future of the Soviet Union arose in party debates. Left-wing communists believed that world revolution was essential to the survival of socialism in the economically backward Soviet Union. In contrast to these militant communists, the right wing of the party, recognizing that world revolution was unlikely in the immediate future, favored the gradual development of the Soviet Union through continuation of pragmatic programs like the NEP. Yet even Bukharin, one of the major right-wing theoreticians, believed that socialism could not triumph in the Soviet Union without assistance from more economically advanced socialist countries.

Against this backdrop of contrasting perceptions of the Soviet future, the leading figures of the All-Union Communist Party competed for influence. The Kamenev-Zinov'yev-Stalin troika, although it supported the militant international program, successfully maneuvered against Trotsky. Stalin’s theory of "socialism in one country"—calling for construction of a socialist society in the Soviet Union regardless of the international situation—distanced Stalin from the left and won support from Bukharin and the party's right wing. With this support, Stalin ousted the leaders of the "Left Opposition" from their positions in 1926 and 1927 and forced Trotsky into exile in 1928. As the NEP era ended, open debate within the party became increasingly limited as Stalin gradually eliminated his opponents.


Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986 ) was another important figure in the early years of Communism. Described as "the best file clerk in the Soviet Union," he played a major role in foreign affairs under Stalin and had a cocktail and treaty named after him. His family name was Skryabin. Molotov means "sledgehammer."

Born in a village 800 kilometers from Moscow and educated in Kazan, Molotov took part in the Russian Revolution when he was a teenager. He helped Stalin found Pravda and was arrested and sent to Siberia. The son of Stalin's English translator, Victor Erofeyev, described Molotov as a "desiccated and boring man" who was "the only member of the Politburo who could have stated with some authority that Balzac had never written a novel called “Madame Bovary”...He likes long country walks, ice-skated, drank Narzan mineral water with a slice of lemon, and adored buckwheat kasha.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, Molotov rose steadily through the ranks of the Communist Party and the Soviet government. Stalin made him premier in 1930 and also severed as commissar of foreign affairs. He was especially active around the time of World War II. The non-aggression pact of 1939 between Germany and the Soviet Union was also called the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact.

Molotov was the only member of the Politburo that Stalin respected. Even so, Stalin arrested his wife and accused him of spying at the 19th Partly Congress in October 1952. After that Molotov was largely exiled to his desk, where he spent much of the day reading Soviet newspapers and Tass bulletins.

Finnish soldiers invented the Molotov cocktail in 1939 when they stuck vodka and rag-filled bottle in the exhaust of Soviet tanks. The soldiers named the home-made bombs after Molotov when he was the foreign minister of the Soviet Union.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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