90 years after his death, Russians care more about Lenin’s corpse than his vision
Another Vladimir Lenin anniversary approaches, but the figure responsible for one of history’s prime turning point has lost his resonance with most of those inside the country.
Unlike the majority of his life, his demise was neither fast-paced nor dramatic. For the last months of his life, Lenin had been bed-ridden following a series of cumulative strokes, and power was being divvied up behind his back, even as he gave orders from his opulent dacha. He would never see the true maturity of the state he helped conceive.
But that didn’t matter – by then he had done enough.
As well as establishing the world’s first Communist country, which would split the planet in two for the next seventy years, Lenin had created the blueprint for 20th century revolution, emulated to this day. In his death he achieved the sort of recognition for which the modern meaning of the word icon was invented.
Alongside Marx, Lenin is Communism.
In Soviet Russia, his personality cult was marked not only by its pervasiveness – with a statue in every major square of every city, and quotes learned from kindergarten – but also by a religious purity. From the peaceful visage displayed in a glass box and outwards to the rest of the country, Lenin was always the ideal Soviet Communism purportedly aspired to. Never mind that the man himself – who among his other actions, received money from Russia’s enemies in the middle of a war, and re-introduced private enterprise – committed as many, if not more, compromises as the ostensibly more earthly politicians that followed him.
Since the collapse of the USSR, this has done Lenin’s profile in Russia a disservice.
While the political, social and even stylistic legacy of the Soviet Union is imprinted on almost every part of social and private life to this day, in ways that are both overt and unconscious, the man who started it all seems irrelevant.
The idolatry of the Soviet era hollowed out Lenin. Everyone knows what he did, but asked on the street about what Lenin was like, and most would struggle to say anything (though undoubtedly the upper-middle-class-émigré-turned-peasant-leader was a more complex personality than many of his successors).
Meanwhile, even as many still hanker for the return of the USSR, few desire the austere, theoretical Communism that has become associated with Lenin. That vision, apart from never having been fulfilled in the first place, now gives off an air of a dry Complete Works piled on library shelf, and groups of ageing men discussing committee agendas wearing red flag pins of a defunct country.
Whenever Lenin is discussed among less committed students of Revolutionary Communism, serious analysis is usually diverted by the kitsch of his iconography, or even more often, his body.
The gruesomeness of the increasingly labored if valiant attempts by the special team of embalmers to stop the corpse from decomposing is a source of persistent fascination. Ironically, the man of ideas has become better known for his corporeal self.
The country’s leaders are also no more keen on Lenin themselves, if anything positioning themselves closer to the man whose execution he ordered, the infinitely less accomplished, but tragically dignified Nicholas II.
The Communist era they associate themselves with – and the ones the current leadership grew up in – is Leonid Brezhnev’s 1970s. Once commonly known as the Era of Stagnation, these have been rebranded the “prosperous 70s”, a corollary of a neat parallel of high oil prices and an unchanging political pageant.
But the bushy-browed and senile Brezhnev himself does not personally inspire anyone.
In fact, there is one Soviet-era specter that haunts the national consciousness. One that lurks in every conversation about Russia’s future, one that can still instantaneously divide a table of drinking partners, one whose very mention brings an unwitting shudder. His personality and aims are still clearly understood by every Russian, and his way of doing things – whatever the costs – still instinctively appeals to a huge subset of the country’s population.
For Russians, it is Joseph Stalin - and not Vladimir Lenin - that is the ultimate, resonant and relevant symbol of the Communist era.
Igor Ogorodnev, RT
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.