A NEW HOME for a (very) OLD COMRADE?
After 81 years, Russians ponder whether
the time has finally come to bury Lenin.
By: Paul Quin-Judge
F ROM THE OUTSIDE, THE MAUSOLEUM STILL LOOKS IMPECCABLE, its brown marble and granite facade polished to a gleaming shine. But today Vladimir Lenin’s tomb is a site of only passing interest, and the gleam from its walls reflects the lights of the shops across Red Square: Louis Vuitton, Kenzo, Chanel. “The only Muscovites who come here are showing a visitor around’ says a policeman on duty near the tomb. “Always out-of- towners. You can tell from their clothes—like ours from about 15 years ago:’ The officer hasn’t been inside to see Lenin’s embalmed body since 1998. “I had just finished military service and came here with a friend. It was the thing you did then,” he says. “These days ..........just not interested.”
These days Lenin leaves most Russians cold. As a post-Soviet generation comes of age and consumerism is the rage, the father of the Bolshevik Revolution is irrelevant. “No one discusses Lenin, not even our teachers:’ says Serezha, 17, who was riding his mountain bike nearby. And yet nearly 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lenin’s body retains its place of honor in Red Square, where it has lain since 1924. Now Russia’s ruling elite is exhuming an old debate: whether to move Lenin’s body out of the mausoleum and bury it. Georgi Poltavchenko, an aide to President Vladimir Putin, recently called for Lenin—the cause, he said, of all of Russia’s troubles in the 20th century—to be removed. That was echoed by Nikita Mikhalkov, a Soviet-era film star who bemoaned the fact that “a corpse had been turned into a “pagan spectacle” for, as he put it, miners from the Arctic city of Vorkuta. While Putin avoids expressing a firm opinion on the issue, he’s probably too savvy to ignore the fact the tide is moving against Lenin.
To some intellectuals, Lenin’s corpse pales in comparison with the crises facing Russia, such as growing authoritarianism and Chechnya. “I hate Lenin,” says human-rights activist Lev Ponomarev. “But this latest idiocy doesn’t interest me. The state is re-building its repressive machinery, and we are discussing Lenin’s body:’ Yet the debate also is a window on changing attitudes among the ruling elite. Since Putin came to power, a new ideology has been taking shape that blends imperial nostalgia with the occasional careful nod to the Soviet Union’s greatness under Stalin. These days the Kremlin honor guard wears 1812-era uniforms, and attending Orthodox church services is a good career move. Even the Stalin-era national anthem is back. Lenin, a ruthless but austere revolutionary; an enemy of empires and religion, is out of fashion. Denouncing him allows members of the new elite to recast themselves as standard bearers of imperial nostalgia.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the two figures leading the push to move Lenin’s corpse want to distance themselves from their pasts. Poltavchenko spent his career in the KGB but now maintains he was always secretly religious—once a crime that would have landed him in a labor camp. Mikhalkov’s father Sergei established the family fortune by writing chilling verse about enemies of the people at the height of the Stalinist purges. And he composed the words to his country’s national anthem —three times. In 1944 he hailed the “Great Lenin” and Stalin. In 1977 he wrote out Stalin. And in 2000, when Putin revived the anthem, Sergei Mikhalkov replaced Lenin with fields and forests.
The government spends a reported $1.5 million a year to maintain the mummy. It’s not an obscene sum, and most Russians passing through Red Square aren’t clamoring to see Lenin moved, even if he commands little of their attention. People tend to walk or jog past the mausoleum; a young couple photographs each other in front of it, beer cans in hand. The Dikii family, visiting from Tambo¾ Russia, stops to talk to the policeman at the tomb. “So is he going to be buried?,” the father Vladimir, asks. With a laugh, the policeman explains that a hydraulic lift lowers the corpse into the ground every night to keep it cool. The family is impressed. They are all for keeping Lenin where he is. “He turned the country upside down,” Vladimir says. “People want to have a look at him.”
TIME Magazine, inc.
October 17, 2005. (Pg. 54)
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