In a Russia Torn by Past, Some Come to Praise Lenin, Some to Bury Him
Russia's ongoing wrestling match with its tortured past took an unusually violent turn this week, when unknown bombers blew up a statue of the country's last czar, Nicholas II.
But it is Nicholas's nemesis, the man who ordered his death, Vladimir Lenin, who is attracting most attention at the center of a newly erupted row here. At stake is not his statue, but his all-too-physical presence: What's to be done with the mummified corpse that has been on display in Red Square since Lenin died 73 years ago?
President Yeltsin sparked the debate by throwing out the suggestion, in a casual conversation with newspaper editors, that "we should bury him [Lenin] according to his will, next to his mother in St. Petersburg ... perhaps not immediately, but by the end of this year, or the end of the century."
The mere idea sent the Communist opposition into a frenzied outrage. "We consider absolutely sacrilegious to interfere with that memorial in any way" fumed Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, which once made sacrilege an ideological principle. "It is inadmissible."
The opposition-dominated Duma, the lower house of parliament, suspended its normal work to debate motions condemning the proposed burial, and speakers - reared on Marxist "scientific materialism" - took a surprisingly supernatural view of earlier tomb disturbances. In 1941, for example, the day after Soviet archaeologists opened the mausoleum of the Mongol warlord Tamerlane in Uzbekistan, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Lenin has lain in a mausoleum beneath the Kremlin since he died in 1924. During Soviet times, visitors to the impressive red-and-black granite cube had to stand in line for hours to perform the pilgrimage incumbent on every out-of-towner.
Today the curious and the occasional faithful can walk in at will (although visiting hours have been cut back), so long as they remove their hats and don't open their mouths, to descend into a subterranean vault and proceed around the glass topped coffin. There, perhaps for all eternity, lies the world's most famous revolutionary in a dark blue suit, subtly lit in the hushed dimness and just back from the annual maintenance to his waxy form.
To many Russians, Lenin's revered presence seems something of an anachronism: The state that he founded, the Soviet Union, has vanished, and the ideology he preached has been discredited.
Mr. Yeltsin disbanded the mausoleum's honor guard and stopped paying for the mummy's annual upkeep in 1991. But the symbolism of burying communism along with Lenin's corpse is clearly still too strong for much of the country to countenance.
A recent opinion poll found that while nearly half the people think Lenin should be given a decent burial, a significant 38 percent were opposed to the idea, mostly older people, who have not done well under economic reforms.
Defenders of the mausoleum tend to argue in scientific and historical terms, steering clear of politics. "People come from all over the world to see the Egyptian mummies, and nobody worries about the Pharaohs' political views," says Alexei Abramov, who heads the charity that now pays for Lenin's annual checkup and immersion in a secret mummifying brew.
Supporters also rely on the fact that the entire Kremlin and Red Square complex was registered in 1990 by UNESCO as a part of the world's cultural heritage. To alter the ensemble by as much as one hair on Lenin's head, they claim, is forbidden.
Those who think Lenin should be buried now say it is mostly a question of laying him to rest in a decent Orthodox Christian fashion. But some also fear the mausoleum's political power. "It might become a tool to graduate a new generation in Bolshevik ideology," worries reformist Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova. "The Communists might use these architectural monuments to restore totalitarian ideology".
Few visitors on a recent spring morning seemed susceptible to such plots. "It is interesting to see, kind of like a museum" said Tatyana Pavlova, a visitor from St. Petersburg.
That idea would probably seem blasphemous to Leonid Nikolayevich, a sprightly septuagenarian who said he first filed past Lenin's body in 1939. For him, Lenin is another figure in the Russian pantheon. He had come that morning because it was the anniversary of his mother's birth, and by tradition, he had lit a candle in her memory before an icon in the Kazan Chapel. Then he had come to pay his respects to Lenin. In the mausoleum, he said, "I feel the same way as I do in church."
Some draw even bolder parallels between Christianity and the cult of Lenin. Threatening all manner of supernatural repercussions if his hero were disturbed, the writer Valentin Siderov came up with the ultimate nightmare for his enemies.
"If the democrats get their way and bury Lenin", he thundered, "then Lenin will be RESURRECTED!"