To Bury or Not to Bury

Today’s NY Times once again raises the question of what to do with V. I. Lenin, whose body remains mummified in his mausoleum on Red Square. The debate reared its head after a senior Putin aid, Georgii Poltavchenko remarked, “Our contry has been shaken by strife, but only a few people were held accountable for that in out lifetime. I do not think it is fair that those who initiated the strife remain in the center of out state near the Kremlin.”

This question seems to come up every so often. Yelstin wanted to bury him in the 1990s as a way to symbolize the transition from the old regime to the new one. The effort failed. It was seen as too soon. Too many people attached their lives and their national pride to Lenin. Putin has refused to move forward on burying him, rightly observing, “Many people in this country associate their lives with the name of Lenin. To take Lenin out and bury him would say to them that they have worshiped false values, that their lives were lived in vain.” Given the pageantry and recreation the Putin Administration put on for the 60th Anniversary of the Great Patriotic War (WWII for Russians for all those who don’t know), complete with banners of Lenin, Stalin and other Soviet imagery, Lenin as a symbol still has a place in post-Soviet Russia.

The truth of Putin’s remarks and the complexity in how Russians construct a historical memory of the Soviet period is what makes me frustrated with articles such as this in the NY Times. There is a tendency in the Western media to place the meaning of a figure like in Lenin in a binary of Communists vs. “Reformers”. One need only look at who is quoted in this story: Gennady Ziuganov, the head of the Communist Party, and prominent film director, Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt by the Sun, ?????????? ???????, and the Barber of Siberia, ????????? ?????????, among others). Both give a new name to rhetorical hyperbole. Ziuganov: “Raising this issue smells of provocation and illiteracy,” adding that the people who call for Lenin’s removal as those “who do not know the country’s history and stretch out their dirty hands and muddy ideas to the national necropolis.” Mikhalkov: “Vast funds are being squandered on a pagan show. If we advocate Christian ideals, we must fulfill the will of the deceased.”

I’m afraid, the issue is much more complicated than that. We would know this if more Russians were asked what they think of not only Lenin but the fact that his statue continues to be prominently displayed all over Moscow. The biggest towers across the street from metro Oktiabrskaia. The Soviet Union and its legacy remains a contentious issue for some. But for many it is viewed with an understandable ambivalence. It simultaneously figures as the best of times and the worst of times. There is nostalgia for many aspects the Soviet times, especially (and rather ironically because it is frequently associated with stagnation) for the Brezhnev period. I think what Lenin stands for is changing in Russia. For better or for worse, he is becoming more like Peter the Great: a firm and decisive, but necessary ruler who thrust Russia into modernity. But that is historical memory for you. A new historical narrative emerges at the moment of forgetting. Even the Lenins of the world can find their place in the genealogy of the present.

(photo: Associated Press)