Lenin’s Life After Death

By Marty Rogachefsky

Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov was born on April 22, 1870 into a well-educated family, which helped him to excel in school, where he eventually went on to study law. In 1891, he was expelled from his university for revolutionary thinking and later exiled to Siberia, where he adopted the pseudonym “Lenin.” During World War One, Lenin led a successful coup d’etat with the Bolshevik Party in 1917, which came to be known as the October Revolution. After the Revolution, he helped to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under the banner of communism and worked to transform Russia into a socialist state. Lenin died on January 24, 1924, reportedly of complications from a stroke he suffered two years earlier.

His body now rests in a mausoleum made of black and red, high-polished stone in Moscow’s Red Square. The body is open for viewing by the public, but heavily guarded by Kremlin security. When tourists enter the dark and cold crypt, they risk being hushed when speaking too loudly or shoved on by the guards when walking too slowly. Lenin lies in a small room, under a glass case, lit only by a red light in the center. Thousands of tourists and Lenin enthusiasts visit the tomb each day to pay their respects to the founder of the Soviet Union.

On December 20, 1923, Lenin fell severely sick from complications with his stroke. Joseph Stalin unofficially met with three other Politburo members, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, to decide what should be done when the leader of the revolution passed away. Stalin suggested that Lenin’s body be embalmed under the banner of Russian tradition. The other three members objected to the idea; however, the only tradition they had heard of that slightly resembled this was worship of the skeletal remains of saints in the Russian Orthodox Church. Stalin was attempting to draw on the religious zeal still embedded within the Russian people in order to perpetuate Lenin’s cult of personality.

Even the competition to find the best design for the mausoleum was highly politicized. Stalin used the contest as a means of getting artists thinking about ideas for communist art and architecture that would serve the state in the future. All 117 entries for the mausoleum were rejected in the end and a government commission invited AV Shchusev to recast the wooden mausoleum in stone under his own blueprint in 1939.

Stalin also began the tradition of giving speeches, greeting military parades, and observing civilian demonstrations from on top of Lenin’s mausoleum. During World War II, Lenin’s body was moved due to German advancement on Moscow. His body was placed on a train to the Siberian city of Tyumen on July 3, 1941, where it was stored for four years until Moscow was secured in March 1945. Most notably, Stalin stood atop the mausoleum on May 9, 1945 to greet Russian soldiers and celebrate the Soviet victory in World War II, symbolically showing the defeat of Nazi ideology by Marxism-Leninism. This was a tactic picked up by Stalin’s successors to make a public display of their adherence to Leninist principles and show their progress in fulfilling the goals of the revolution.

With the increasing trend towards de-Stalinization came the desire to have Stalin’s body removed from the Lenin’s mausoleum. Khrushchev considered Stalin’s burial next to Lenin as a breach of Lenin’s sanctity, which he stated ina special decree to the Twenty-Second Party Congress in October of 1961. Shortly following the speech, Khrushchev had Stalin’s body quietly removed from the mausoleum and buried near the Kremlin wall on October 31st of that year. Khrushchev had effectively used the cult of Lenin to further his own agenda of the de-Stalinization campaign.

The mausoleum remained relatively uncontroversial until the beginning of perestroika. While general secretaries continued to stand atop the mausoleum during parades and public events, there was little left to politicize about an issue that had been so widely abused in the past for political gain. Stalin had soaked clean the idea of attaching himself to Lenin to ensure stability, while Khrushchev had wiped the surface clean by using Lenin to denounce Stalin. Leonid Brezhnev appeared atop the mausoleum to celebrate Soviet astronauts accomplishing the task of being the first to circle the earth in a multi-seat spacecraft; however, this was merely out of tradition than an attempt to manipulate Lenin’s legacy for his own gain.

The Gorbachev years gave rise to a greater period of politicizing Lenin and the mausoleum. Mikhail Gorbachev was attracted to the flexibility and progressiveness of Lenin’s policies, but also knew that associating himself with Lenin could mean that his liberalizing policies would be more likely to win support among party stalwarts and the Russian people as a whole. Gorbachev frequently cited Lenin in speeches and talks in order to give an ideological basis to his shift in governing. He effectively used Stalin’s strategy to dismantle his policies.Gorbachev used the contemporary political debates surrounding Lenin’s mausoleum to attach himself with Lenin and Leninist ideology as well. With the beginning of perestroika came a more open call to remove Lenin from the mausoleum and have him buried. Gorbachev spoke out publicly against burying Lenin when he was general secretary. A Baltimore Sun article described Gorbachev as viewing the mausoleum as a “sacred site” and seeing it as “blasphemous to close it.” 9 In addition, he recycled the tactics of Stalin and Brezhnev by hosting funerals for high-ranking communists atop Lenin’s tomb. From the mausoleum, Gorbachev watched the annual May Day celebration with the Soviet elite as he was booed for changing parade rules to allow political activists and non-governmental organizations to march. 10

The fall of the Soviet Union brought an increase in criticism of Lenin’s legacy as well as a greater demand to have Lenin buried to symbolize the end of the communist era. Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, wanted the burial to occur, but could not find the political will to do so. Instead, he took marginal steps as part of a balanced approach to governing.

Despite the mounting support for the burial, Yeltsin ultimately failed to deliver, choosing instead to veer to the center as part of his campaign to win reelection. In April 1995, Yeltsin pandered to tradition and greeted the crowd who came to see the World War II Veterans parade from atop the mausoleum just like the Soviet leaders before him. Yeltsin faced several critics in the Kremlin, who said that he was standing on the symbol of tyranny of the old regime; however, the president wanted to win the votes of communist sympathizers in the upcoming presidential election a year later. 11

It was not until after the election and at the end of his second term that Yeltsin publicly declared that he wished for Lenin to be buried. While Yeltsin had always wanted to bury Lenin, his government did not yet have enough political will to convert thoughts into actions. A burial of Lenin would mean a symbolic end to the Soviet era, a truth that many Russians were not prepared to swallow. But with little time left in his presidency, Yeltsin finally told newspaper reporters in August of 1999 that he would bury Lenin at long last. 12 In an interview with Pravda, Yeltsin’s Chief of Staff mentioned that Lenin’s remains will be “definitely removed” and buried and reassured his interviewer that there would not be a public protest in response. 13

Until recently, Yeltin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, has dodged the issue of closing the Lenin mausoleum and burying the body. By choosing to stay away from the touchy subject, Putin elected to appeal to his base of moderate voters who were concerned more about political stability than ideological purity. For the first time in Russian history, Lenin’s mausoleum was seen as a source of instability rather than one of solidarity. Putin stayed away from the hot-button issue to win support rather than tamper with underlying animosities and nostalgia. His focus was on the economy and governing Russia instead of on petty topics that would court votes in the short-term, but divide the country in the long-run. He was following through on the prevailing issues of the time: economic growth and jobs. Lenin was not so much on the minds of voters as was financial insecurity.

Dmitry Medvedev took a similar stance to Putin, but public sentiment was mounting for burial. A public opinion poll conducted in February 2011 found that 60% were in favor of burial, while 30% were against it. At the same time, members of the United Russia Party began bringing up the topic again to give themselves greater public appeal during parliamentary elections. The Orthodox Church also began to back off of statements made in the 1990’s and began to advise refraining from hasty decision-making. A Kremlin rights council recommended to Medvedev that he bury Lenin’s body among a list of steps to distance Russia from its communist past. However, Medvedev stayed above the fray, choosing not to respond to the council’s recommendations. During the annual May 9th Victory Day parade, Medvedev and Putin elected to metaphorically separate themselves from the issue by standing on a podium in front of the mausoleum rather than on the mausoleum itself as in years past.

Putin’s appointment of Medinsky may be an underlying indication that he wishes for Lenin to be buried, but does not want to risk the political fallout from the still powerful communist bloc. Medinsky has co-founded and long belonged to an organization that tries to rename Soviet-era monuments. Putin almost certainly knew of this and wished for him to reignite public debate on the issue to get a sense of the public sentiment. An online poll hosted by United Russia found that 74% of voters wanted Lenin to be buried in January 2011. United Russia had long touted the results of this poll as reason to bury Lenin; however, it should be noted that the poll was offered on a website called “goodbyelenin.ru” and that the webpage reminds voters that Lenin and his family never wanted a mausoleum erected in his name. This has led to charges of “grave digging” by members of the Communist Party, who also criticized the poll for being skewed. Now that Medinsky has floated the test balloon, those against Lenin’s burial have weighed in on the website, bringing the total down to 60.5% for and 39.5% against burying the body. While this poll is unscientific and biased, it remains the most up-to-date way of gauging the sentiment of the people of Russia on what has now become a national debate.

Works Cited:

BBC History. (n.d.). Vladimir Lenin (1870 – 1924). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/lenin_vladimir.shtml
Brackman, Roman. The Secret File of Joseph Stalin: A Hidden Life. Portland: Frank Cass Publishers , 2005. 157. eBook. .
Ibid, 204.
Ibid, 42.
Brackman, Roman. The Secret File of Joseph Stalin: A Hidden Life. Portland: Frank Cass Publishers , 2005. 161. eBook. .
Rosenburg, Jennifer. About.com, “Body of Stalin Removed from Lenin’s Tomb .” Accessed August 7, 2012. http://history1900s.about.com/od/worldleaders/a/stalinembalm.htm.
Ibid.
“Brezhnev Attempted to Advance Soviet Goals Through Detente; Soviet Leader Used Consensus in Politburo on Domestic Issues.” New York Times [New York] 11 Nov 1982, n. pag. Web. 8 Aug. 2012. .
Shane, Scott. “Ubiquitous Lenin statues stay, Gorbachev decrees.” Baltimore Sun [Baltimore] 14 Oct 1990, n. pag. Web. 8 Aug. 2012. .
Montaigne, Fen. ” Gorbachev, aides jeered on May Day/Soviet elite booed off Lenin’s tomb after rules changed for yearly event.” Houston Chronicle 2 May 1990, Star Edition Section A, Page 1, 2. Print. .
Erlanger, S. (1995, Apr 29). Yeltsin to stand atop lenin’s tomb for parade. New York Times, pp. A.5-A.5. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/430119727?accountid=11072
Harrigan, S. (1999, Jul 13). Yeltsin vows to bury lenin once and for all. Cable News Network. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/WORLD/europe/9907/13/lenin.burial/
Hearst, D. (1999, Aug 3). News world news lenin to be buried at last – official. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/1999/aug/04/davidhearst
Novosti, R. (2011, May 24). Orthodox church warns of hasty decisions over lenin reburial. Eurasian Review. Retrieved from http://www.eurasiareview.com/24052011-orthodox-church-warns-of-hasty-decisions-over-lenin-reburial/
Ibid.
Hannon, L. (Performer) (2011). Russia celebrates victory over nazi germany with vast parade [Web series episode]. In China Daily Online News. China Daily. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/2011-05/10/content_12529280.htm
Ibid.
Culture minister wants to bury lenin. (2012, June 14). United Press International. Retrieved from http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2012/06/14/Culture-minister-wants-to-bury-Lenin/UPI-53901339692692/
Culture minister wants to bury lenin. (2012, June 14). United Press International. Retrieved from http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2012/06/14/Culture-minister-wants-to-bury-Lenin/UPI-53901339692692/
United Russia. (n.d.). Do you support the idea of dumping the body of vi lenin?. Retrieved from http://goodbyelenin.ru/index/results

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