On December 23, 1922, Joseph Stalin had a phone conversation with Nadezhda Krupskaya, Vladimir Lenin’s wife, in which he insulted her with a series of extremely rude comments. The incident was the last straw for Lenin, who was already against making Stalin his successor.
Relations between Stalin and Krupskaya had never been friendly. Some of the Cheka Emergency Security Committee members recalled one incident that started the opposition between the two. Krupskaya once complained to Stalin about Lenin paying too much attention to other women and asked that Lenin’s morality be put on the agenda of one of the Party Committee’s sessions. Stalin satisfied her request; however, he himself and many other Party members found the matter to be more entertaining than deserving of serious attention.
By then, Krupskaya was already an ageing, unattractive woman, while Lenin’s popularity with women was common knowledge, so Stalin jokingly suggested to Krupskaya to abstain from her excessive political work and to focus on mending her family life instead. To make things worse for Krupskaya, upon hearing about the story, Lenin himself couldn’t but laugh. The outraged Krupskaya thereafter became Stalin’s enemy, and she did her best to hold back his political advancement.
On December 15, 1922, as Lenin’s health was seriously deteriorating, the doctors forbade him from a high degree of involvement in political affairs. However, Krupskaya neglected doctors’ regulations and resumed writing notes to Lenin’s dictations, as he had requested. Weakened by excessive work, Lenin felt worse on December 23.
Stalin, outraged by Krupskaya having violated the doctors’ regulations, told her off during a phone conversation, to which Krupskaya retorted she knew better and her private life with Lenin was none of Stalin’s business. To that, Stalin responded with the following: “In bed you might know what is right and what is wrong – here we are talking about the Party, and its interests matter to me a lot more! Sleeping with the leader does not mean having the exclusive right to him. Lenin does not belong solely to you, but to the Party as well… even more!”\
According to other sources, Stalin was even ruder, saying “using the same bathroom” instead of “the same bed” or even calling Krupskaya a loose woman. As Lenin’s sister Maria recalled, “Krupskaya was extremely shattered by the conversation with Stalin; she was not herself, crying and rolling about on the floor.”
In the original text of the Letter to Congress – the major document regarding future Party’s activity, completed on December 23, 1922 – there was no mention of Stalin’s lack of fitness as leader. However, Krupskaya, who was practically the only one to have direct access to the sick Lenin and to influence his opinion, spun the phone incident in her favor and tried by all means to stop Stalin from becoming Lenin’s successor. She filed a complaint to the Politburo and told about Stalin’s rudeness to her husband.
Lenin, already worried about Stalin’s ability to wisely dispose of such vast power, on December 24, 1922, added the famous denunciation of Stalin’s character in his Letter to Congress: “Stalin is rude and this drawback, so tolerable among us communists, becomes intolerable for a General Secretary of the Party. This is why I am suggesting that the comrades reconsider Stalin’s appointment as secretary and look for another candidate.”
Lenin wrote a letter to Stalin demanding an apology to his wife and threatening to sever all relations with him if he refused. However, before Stalin had the chance to apologize, Lenin had another stroke and was unable to accept it.
After Lenin’s death Stalin started ignoring Krupskaya completely. It remains unclear how Stalin made Krupskaya move into the shadows. According to the British historian Robert Conquest, Stalin said to Krupskaya that if she didn’t stop criticizing him, the Party would announce that it was not her, but an old Bolshevik, Elena Stasova, who was Lenin’s real wife.
“You know that the Party can do that,” Stalin allegedly said.