VI. Zinoviev, Trostsky and other romantic intellectuals despised Stalin quite openly. They knew he didn’t have a secondary school degree, he spoke Russian with an obviously unpolished, hopelessly provincial accent, and rarely mentioned Marx’s works, or indeed any books at all. His mustache was insufficiently trimmed most of the time; he had risen through the ranks acting like Lenin’s personal hired gun, killing and robbing for the boss’ sake until Lenin became the top leader; he was as indifferent public speaker; couldn’t play chess for his life. And he had been rewarded by Lenin with a post they described as that of “Comrade Card-Index.”
The other Politburo members soon learnt that they had much to fear from Stalin, too. As master bureaucrat in charge of the internal party operation, he was always surrounded by heaps of paperwork and roving minions moving clipped files to and fro, and he was in close contact with confidential information about both outsiders and insiders. Many knew of some of Lenin’s peccadilloes, or Bukharin’s, while others knew some of Trotsky’s; only Stalin appeared to know everything there was to know about all of them. And those things he ignored, his enemies didn’t know about, so his power was multiplied by the very opaqueness of his post, the daunting dullness of the never-ending archives of the party in the Kremlin and half a dozen other buildings in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In time, every other Central Committe member came to believe that Stalin was the only being on the face of Earth who could command such enormous trove of information in accordance with his wishes, and retrieve any incriminating detail whenever necessary; only Stalin understood that the main use of the Party files was to scare everyone into assuming that much: the worst possible case. All he had to do was roll his eyes when asked; make wried, informed faces when issues were raised that he might be privy to – or maybe he wouldn’t.
One thing he knew, and very few others knew, was that Lenin was dying quickly. He had always been a frail man with dreams of omnipotence, and his health had been giving way as he became all-powerful, to the point that some doctors didn’t expect him to survive longer than a few months by early 1922. Stalin was efficient in following Lenin’s orders that his health was the highest secret of the Soviet state, and he derived no little satisfaction from this imposed silence. He knew that Trotsky and Bukharin were fond of plotting subtly and slowly against each other, in the certainty that they had at least some years to position themselves in the shadow of Lenin, and grab all power when the big man decided to retire. He knew that they didn’t know that their plotting was falling behind schedule as Lenin had to cancel more and more official events, and take longer breaks to recover from his occasional bouts of activity.
When word of Lenin’s state eventually leaked out into the Politburo and, shortly thereafter, into the Central Committee and lower party organs, full-scale party strife started among different factions. Bets were placed on all Politburo members save for Stalin, who now was ironically considered too much of a bureaucrat to aspire to succession; and he was Georgian. What many didn’t realise was that a large section of the Bolshevik party preferred a gunman turned bureaucrat, also endowned with a favorable reputation as thoughtful field commander, to a Jew like Trotsky or Bukharin. Or any Jew, for that matter. Thus, as Lenin fell into a terminal state, Stalin noticed that all different factions had come to the conclusion that he was best-suited to become the next Soviet leader – at least for a while, until further factional competition gave way to a better-connected, more forceful personality who would push him aside. Despite Lenin’s last-minute objections, thoroughly ignored by all concerned including Trotsky, Stalin found himself the consensus candidate for leadership. They agreed that he was the least dangerous of all pretenders, particularly in view that he had never really been a pretender at all.
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