For more than six decades, glorious military parades and throngs of solemn Soviet citizens passed by Moscow’s Red Square mausoleum where Vladimir Lenin’s mummified corpse lies under glass. Then history passed him by – and now, nearing the 15th anniversary of the death of the Soviet Union, a debate is brewing about whether it’s time to bury the body of the man who tried to bury capitalism.
The debate isn’t new. What’s different this time are the intriguing hints that Russian President Vladimir Putin is agreeable to a burial. He’s often accused of taking Russia back to old Soviet ways, and removing the father of the Soviet Union from public display could be a way of deflecting the criticism.
The aura of the mausoleum has been dimming for years. The goose-stepping honour guards are gone. The long lines of devoted pilgrims have given way to small knots of visitors, largely foreign tourists, entering the austere, dark red stone structure. In the minute or less before finger-snapping guards usher them out, they see a suit-clad corpse on its back, its goateed face rouged.
It’s so well preserved after 81 years under glass that some wonder whether it’s a dummy. At the last military parade in Red Square, a reviewing stand blocked the six-tier mausoleum from sight, which may have been an early warning that authorities were rethinking its presence.
This autumn the debate went public when Georgy Poltavchenko, a prominent aide to Putin, unexpectedly told a news conference: Our country has been shaken by strife, but only few were held accountable for that in their lifetime. I don’t think it’s fair that those who initiated that strife remain in the centre of our state near the Kremlin.”
Poltavchenko said his opinion was strictly personal, but in the tightly controlled culture of the Kremlin, officials rarely sound off without purpose. His comments were seen as a way of testing public reaction to an idea that Putin might want to execute.
That belief was reinforced two weeks ago when St Petersburg governor Valentina Matviyenko, seen as close to Putin, renewed the call, saying “we’re not Egyptians”.
Egyptian mummification is, of course, ancient history, and in modern times, embalming for permanent public display is a predominantly communist affair: China’s Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Kim Il Sung of North Korea. In those countries, burying them simply isn’t up for discussion but in post-Soviet Russia, the taboo is gone. Yet reaction has been both predictable and surprising. The Communist Party, still popular among Russia’s poor and elderly, was outraged.
“It defies the nation’s history and common sense,” party leader Gennady Zyuganov said. “With their filthy hands and drunken heads, they are crawling into the sanctuary of the state.”
The Communists’ ire was stoked further by last month’s pomp-filled reburial of General Anton Denikin, a general who fought against the Red Army during Russia’s civil war, and whom authorities now cast as a patriot. But Lenin’s ideological enemies have also demurred on Lenin.
“This matter shouldn’t be stirred up,” Dmitry Mitrokhin, deputy head of the liberal Yabloko party, was quoted as saying in the newspaper Gazeta. “Even if he is buried with all honours … all the same, it will be provocative.”
Putin himself has played to pro-Soviet public sentiment with moves such as restoring the Soviet melody to the new Russian anthem. In 2001, Putin said burying Lenin would suggest Soviets “had lived in vain”, but he may now want to undermine the Communists and portray them as a party in thrall to discredited ideas. Burial, however, could be risky given growing resentment over the fraying of the Soviet social safety net.
In the past year, unprecedented mass demonstrations have broken out against Putin’s move to eliminate many Soviet-era privileges of the elderly and World War II veterans and, this month, millions of public workers struck for a day to protest bare-bones salaries.
While Putin himself is constitutionally barred from running in the 2008 presidential election, he is widely expected to try to anoint a successor and so his legacy will be very much a campaign issue.
An opinion poll released last month by the Levada Analytical Centre said 40% of the 1600 Russians surveyed the previous week believe Lenin’s body should remain in the mausoleum and 51% think it should be buried. No margin of error was given. Last year, a survey by VTsIOM found that at least one-quarter of Russians still regard Lenin as having moved Russia forward. That minority’s loyalty to him is intense.
“They should leave him in the mausoleum, at least until our generation dies out … he brought us justice,” declared 75-year-old Valentina Vasilyeva, who was standing near the mausoleum trying to peddle defunct Soviet-era bank notes to tourists.
The ironies are strong. Lenin himself wanted to be buried next to his mother in St Petersburg but his successor, Josef Stalin, ordered him put on display, apparently to create a cult which he could harness. Stalin’s body lay next to Lenin’s from his death in 1953 until eight years later, when Nikita Khrushchev, on a campaign against the dictator’s murderous legacy, had him buried along the Kremlin wall where most other Soviet leaders also lie.
Another irony is that, although Lenin was a vehement atheist, many supporters of burial use the argument that having a body on display is unfitting for a Christian country. Russian-born Svetlana Boym, whose book The Future Of Nostalgia studied Communist symbols and post-Communist countries’ sense of history, suggested that the calls to inter Lenin are not aimed at burying Communism but at stifling discussion of a painful era.
“It’s very curious to me. Not an attempt to deal with the Soviet past, but an attempt to re-Christianise Lenin,” she said.
Whatever the ideology, the mausoleum is a tourist draw, as Moscow investment banker Igor Yurgens noted, reversing Matviyenko’s “Egyptians” remark.
“I think it shouldn’t be touched,” Gazeta quoted him as saying. “It’s a tourist point, as curious an object as the pyramid of Cheops in Egypt.””