Writing in the Moscow Times, Alexei Bayer reminds us that despite the dictatorial power wielded by Vladimir Putin, the lunatic Lenin still lies in a tomb on Red Square. Putin could remove him with the stroke of a pen but he doesn’t, which means he wants him to stay. And that says all you need to know about the prospects for real progress in Putin’s Russia.
During the Soviet era, Vladimir Lenin’s mausoleum was the focal point of Red Square. It sat right in the middle of the square and was watched over by a military guard that changed at the stroke of the huge Kremlin clock in an elaborate goose-stepping ceremony.
It was the center of the country’s political life, too — the only place where the average Russian saw his leaders in the flesh. The Politburo reviewed twice-yearly marches of their loyal citizens while standing, quite literally, upon the founder of the Soviet state.
Communism was supposed to be the creed of the future, but its prophet lay mummified in a pyramid harking back to ancient Egypt or Persia. (The word “mausoleum” comes from Mausolus, the Persian satrap of Caria from the fourth century B.C.) The long line of waiting visitors matched the countless other lines snaking outside stores across the Soviet Union, as people hoped to buy chronically scarce food and consumer goods.
Writer Sergei Dovlatov put it best when he claimed that so many places in the Soviet Union stank so badly because the country’s main corpse had never been properly buried.
In modern times, the mausoleum has been eclipsed by other attractions on Red Square, including the rebuilt Iversky Gate — it was blown up by the Bolsheviks — and the old GUM department store, transformed from a grim showcase of Soviet economic failures into a mall of overpriced Western boutiques.
In winter, when a skating rink sponsored by clothing designer Bosco di Ciliegi opened on Red Square, the mausoleum looked somehow diminished and shunted aside.
This parallels the fate of its occupant. While passions still rage around Josef Stalin and attempts are being made to revive his reputation or place his portraits on Moscow streets, Lenin’s monuments dot the Russian landscape without much controversy. No one seems to care, even though there is much to the thesis that Stalin merely put Lenin’s ideas into practice.
Lenin may be irrelevant, and the 140th anniversary of his birth may pass almost unnoticed on April 22, but his embalmed body still occupies the mausoleum. A team of highly trained professionals is still employed on a full-time basis to keep his remains in fine fettle.
Calls to give Lenin a decent burial have been heard for years. Even those who consider the man to be a criminal and a monster object to using his body as a kind of macabre, circus-like attraction for out-of-towners. More to the point, however, is that preserving a shrine to the founder of Soviet communism — along with the mini-cemetery for Soviet-era luminaries just behind the mausoleum — is completely inconsistent with the values of a new, democratic Russia. How can the country move forward and find its place in the community of nations if after two decades it hasn’t yet been able to rid itself of such embarrassing and destructive symbols of its past?
The problem, however, is deeper and stems from the generally ad-hoc nature of the Bolshevik regime. When Lenin died in January 1924, his cohorts couldn’t figure out what to do with his body. Ignoring his express wish to be buried near his mother in St. Petersburg, they decided to pretend he didn’t die completely and that he was still present — at least in the flesh. Apparently, even today the Russian government can’t find a better solution.