Grim Relic

Monday, January 30, 2006

All over Russia and Ukraine you will find statues of a man responsible for a tragedy that afflicted the people of the onetime Soviet Union for 70 years. This monster inspired an even greater tragedy for the people of communist China because his heritage still dominates that vast land. It is an obscenity that the cadavers of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Mao Zedong are entombed in shrines open for public viewing.

China is still ruled by a Communist Party dictatorship, so it is understandable that Mao’s mummy lying in a glass container is still on show in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. But Russia is not ruled by a communist dictatorship. It is ruled as a quasi-democracy by quasi-democrat Vladimir Putin. So why is Lenin’s glass-enclosed mummy still on show in Moscow’s Red Square?

Some four decades ago, when there was still a Soviet Union, Yevgeny Yevtushenko published a famous poem titled “Stalin’s Heirs.” It was an invocation to the Soviet leadership to prevent a return to Stalinism. At the time, the embalmed corpse of Joseph Stalin, which had been lying in state in the Red Square mausoleum alongside Lenin’s embalmed body, was removed and reinterred in the Kremlin wall. Despite Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 anti-Stalin speech and the symbolic act of removing Stalin’s mummy from Lenin’s tomb, there was growing alarm, strikingly expressed by Yevtushenko’s poem, that the spirit of Stalin, who died in March 1953, was alive and well:

And I, appealing to our government,
petition them to double, and treble,
the sentries guarding this slab,
and stop Stalin from ever rising again,
and with Stalin, the past...

Yevtushenko’s poem concludes with this refrain:

While Stalin’s heirs still walk this Earth,
Stalin, I fancy, still lurks in the mausoleum.

So now it is time to ask why Lenin still lies in state in his dimly lit, air-conditioned shrine in Red Square. The New York Times reported that “the inevitable question has returned: should his body be moved?” The question was asked by Georgi Poltavchenko, a senior Putin aide: “Our country has been shaken by strife, but only a few people were held accountable for that in our lifetime. I do not think it is fair that those who initiated the strife remain in the center of our state near the Kremlin.”

In 1962 Khrushchev ordered Stalin’s remains removed from Lenin’s tomb, implying that Lenin’s remains were still sacred. But if Leninism had lost its importance in Russian political thought at the highest levels, if Russian public opinion abominated Lenin’s memory, the founder of the Soviet Union would have been reburied in some cemetery far away—as Boris Yeltsin reportedly once intended—in a symbolic act of desecration.

Think. Suppose a German provincial government were to announce the opening of a Hitler tomb in, say, Bavaria, and people lined up daily to see a wax museum replica of the founder of Nazism lying in state in his sarcophagus. Western public opinion would be outraged at so monstrous a celebration. Anytime a skinhead throws a firebomb in some German tenement peopled by Turkish immigrants or when a rightist party gets a big vote in Austria, a wave of apprehension about Hitler’s heirs swamps the media. But the Bolshevik who brought so much misery to the Russian people and imposed a proto-Stalinism (proto only because Lenin died in 1924) that enslaved a working class and a peasantry Lenin had pledged to liberate is still an object of veneration; lines still wait to enter the tomb. Is Lenin morally superior to Hitler?

Some years ago it was reported Yeltsin soon would order Lenin’s remains reburied in the Volkov Cemetery in St. Petersburg (the onetime Leningrad). It also was said that Yeltsin would soon remove the remains of other Soviet leaders—such as Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko—all now interred in the Kremlin wall, to Moscow’s Novodevichie Cemetery or wherever their families asked.

But nothing happened. Yeltsin, the Financial Times reported on May 10, 1996, “embraced the symbols and ceremonies of the Soviet era.” In fact, Yeltsin commemorated May 9, the anniversary of the Allied victory in the Second World War, with a speech delivered from atop the Lenin mausoleum while the red flag, with a star substituting for the old hammer and sickle, waved in the breeze.

If one thing is clearer today than ever before in Soviet history, it is that Lenin was an unscrupulous, inhuman revolutionary prepared to impose not only on czarist Russia but on all the world his messianic totalitarianism.

The late Dmitri Volkogonov, Lenin’s biographer who had full access to the Lenin archive, wrote:

An entire mechanism was put in place to manage Lenin’s embalmed body, which had become vitally necessary . . . for its effect on the psychology of the masses. For the Bolsheviks, it was one means of personifying the immortality of Lenin’s precepts, although on the eve of the 21st century, rather than serving as a testimony of the man’s greatness, it is instead a reminder of the depth of the country’s historic failure.

If Leninism were still not a powerful ideological force in Russia, Lenin’s remains, like Stalin’s, would have been removed years ago. Perhaps it is time for another poem, this one titled “Lenin’s Heirs,” with a new refrain:

While Lenin’s heirs still walk this Earth
Lenin, I fancy, may one day bask
in the glory of his renaissance.