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When Lenin died in January 1924, Bolshevik mystery displaced the last traces of historical truth. The wing of the Communist Party gathering around Stalin created a cult of Lenin, made sacred his image, and pickled his remains.
It is hard to say now which influences of the past weighed most heavily on the ideologists and embalmers who formed the Immortalization Committee. The Byzantine legacy and its yearning for a heaven on earth was, for Stalin, the ex-seminarian of Tiflis, unavoidable. Lenin is laid out under glass looking very much like the Orthodox priests entombed in the catacombs of Kiev.
But the idea to preserve Lenin for eternal inspection and worship also goes back to the Pharaohs. The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Luxor in 1922 remained a worldwide sensation for years to come with every new find. Yuri Steklov, who led the embalming effort, compared Lenin’s gargantuan funeral to those of “the founders of great states in ancient times.” When the mausoleum itself opened to the public in August 1924, one account in the Soviet press compared the achievement to that of the great architects of Egypt.1
The tomb’s design comes directly from the modernist spirit. Kazimir Malevich, the master painter and theorist who would suffer unbearable abuse under Stalin, pushed a Cubist model as the only suitable form for the tomb: “The point of view that Lenin’s death is not death, that he is alive and eternal, is symbolized in a new object, taking as its form the cube. The cube is no longer a geometric body. It is a new object with which we try to portray eternity, to create a new set of circumstances, with which we can maintain Lenin’s eternal life, defeating death.” Malevich, with an anticipatory trace of Marin County crystal-worship, even suggested that believers keep a small cube at home “as a reminder of the eternal, constant lesson of Leninism.”
In a perversion of the Orthodox faith it overwhelmed, the Lenin cult thrived on mystery and kitsch. Lenin’s brain, reputedly much larger than average, was sliced up and preserved at Moscow’s Institute of the Brain and became a source of wonder. His winterized Rolls-Royce is a centerpiece display at the Lenin Museum on Red Square. Images of Lenin, humorless and yellowed, loomed in every office and schoolroom as the required icon. Mandatory classes in Marxist-Leninist scienceare slowly disappearing from the main urban universities, but to this day most Soviet children learn to read not with the help of Dick and Jane but rather “Baby Lenin” or “Grandpa Ilich.”
There have always been heretics opposed to the sacred Lenin: Nikolai Berdyaev’s The Origin of Russian Communism and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago are cornerstone texts of the apostate library. Streetlevel irreverence blossomed during Brezhnev’s reign of irony and rot. Moscow intellectuals referred privately to Lenin in his tomb as “kopchushka,” the smoked fish. A Moscow department store advertised a double bed as a bed “for three” because, after all, “Lenin is always with us.”
The spirit of heresy rose from the catacombs to public discourse, however, only three years after Gorbachev took power. Vasily Selyunin, a free-market economist, published “Sources,” an astonishing article in which he dared to link Lenin to the rise of forced labor camps and collectivization.2 “The idea,” Selyunin told me recently, “was to write a piece so that people would begin to realize that the system itself was stillborn, that we could not blame everything on the devil image of Stalin.”
The following spring, the theater director Mark Zakharov suggested on the popular television program Vzglyad (“View”) that Lenin’s remains be removed from the mausoleum and given the burial the family had requested in the first place. But like dowagers at a peep show, members of the Central Committee cried scandal. A few weeks later, the literary historian Yuri Karyakin repeated the proposal on an even grander scaleâ€”from the podium of the first session of the Congress of People’s Deputies.
Soon the debunking came in all forms, from ideological dissection to comic grotesque. Scholar-politicians such as Yuri Afanasyev, men who had grown up in the Party’s ideological citadels and served the cult with brio for years, began calling Lenin a criminal, a tyrant, a fool. Local governments toppled statues of the great man everywhere from Tartu to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. A former guard at Lenin’s tomb writing in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (“The Independent Newspaper”) revealed that in the mausoleum’s basement there is a control room to monitor Lenin’s “body temperature” and a gym where KGB troops can pump iron before standing watch in the cold. Argumenti i Fakti (“Arguments and Facts”) recounted in clinical detail how when Lenin’s corpse was evacuated from Moscow during the war it somehow became covered with bacteria. A dim-witted caretaker “treated” the body by pouring scalding-hot water over it, causing a massive case of boils. The body, as the paper put it, “never regained its shape.” And so on.
The final grace note to the August coup and its aftermath came when the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, told a session of the Congress that now that the Communist Party and hard-line ideology were dead perhaps it was time to bury Lenin. Gorbachev, even if he had been inclined to object as a matter of faith or habit, had no leverage to stand in the way. The newspaper Izvestia ran a front-page poll showing that the vast majority of citizens supported Sobchak’s proposal.
The mystery had ended, and, with it, the regime.
The return of history began with Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin in 1956 and ended, at least poetically, with Sobchak’s uncontested proposal to bury the tattered god-on-earth. Without a full assessment of the past, real reform, much less democratic revolution, was impossible. This return of history to intellectual and political life was the foundation for all that has happened in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. No other modern society had ever done more to suppress, to manipulate, its own history, and sustained the effort for so long.
To recall a life lived outside history and under the lie turns out to be as difficult as it is for a healed man trying to recall his pain. Even for older people in the Soviet Union it is almost impossible to remember clearly the absurdity of it all, the unreality, the mystery.
To regain the past, to see plain the nightmares of seventy years, is a nearly unbearable shock. Television now routinely shows documentary films about the slaughter of the Romanovs, the forced collectivization of the countryside, the purge trials. The “thick” journals and newspapers are crammed with the latest historical damage reports: how many shot and imprisoned; how many churches, mosques, and synagogues destroyed; how much plunder and waste. Under this avalanche of remembering, people protest boredom. But, really, it is the pain of remembering, the shock ofrecognition, that persecutes them. “Imagine being an adult and nearly all the truth you know about the world around you and outside your own country has to be absorbed in a matter of a year or two or three,” the philosopher Grigori Pomerants told me. “The entire country is still in a state of mass disorientation.”
When Gorbachev first raised the question of revealing the past in November 1987 in a major address on the seventieth anniversary of the revolution, he began with small doses of truth, a rhetorical tactic that had as much to do with the necessities of power as the sensibilities of the public. While the Politburo was holding long secret debates on how to approach the Revolution Day speech, Gorbachev had little choice but to play a game of maneuvering and euphemism. What later became known as the democratic opposition hardly existed. The broad range of pro-reform forces, from the former dissidents like Andrei Sakharov to the “informal” groups like Democratic Perestroika, all put their hopes in Gorbachev. That was where the power was. Operating in a political world almost completely dominated by the Communist Party, Gorbachev was faced with a Politburo in which the committed reformers were a minority of four: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Aleksandr Yakovlev. Boris Yeltsin, in fact, was dismissed as Moscow Party chief just before the speech when he jettisoned Kremlin protocol and launched a personal attack on the conservative leader Yegor Ligachev at a session of the Central Committee. Hard liners like Ligachev and moderate conservatives like Nikolai Ryzhkov were in the clear majority. “It would be foolish to think that the conservatives then were any less conservative than the people who led the August coup,” Shevardnadze told me.
In the first years of perestroika, Communist Party officials across the country were simply in no mood for full disclosure. A few months before Gorbachev’s speech, the local Communist Party boss in Magadan, a city that was the gateway to the notorious Kolyma camps in the Far East, told a group of visiting Western reporters that the issue of the Stalinist purges “does not exist here for us. There is no such question.”
“We lived through that period, and this page in history has been turned,” the official, Aleksandr Bogdanov, said. “It’s not necessary to speak constantly about that.”
Gorbachev understood the inherent perils of the system, remarking at one point, “The most expensive mistakes are political mistakes.” To lose completely the support of such dinosaurs as Bogdanov could have meant an immediate end to the Gorbachev era. Sobchak, in his engaging new memoir, writes that “a totalitarian system leaves behind it a minefield built into both the country’s social structure and the individual psychology of its citizens. And mines explode each time the system faces the danger of being dismantled and the country sees the prospect of genuine renewal.”
Despite the clear political perils, Gorbachev did push the Politburo hard on the question of filling in what he called the “blank spots” of historyâ€”even if he was prepared to fill in some blanks and not others. Yakovlev, who was the lead author of the speech, told me that many members of the Politburo tried to strike out a crucial phrase in which Gorbachev called Stalin’s acts criminal. Ligachev rang Gorbachev on the phone and said, in a rage, “This would mean canceling our entire lives. We are opening the way for people to spit on our history.” But the general secretary knew his prerogatives. The phrase remained. He spit on Stalinâ€”but carefully.
“To stay faithful to historical truth,” Gorbachev said in his address, “we have to see both Stalin’s indisputable contribution to the struggle for socialism, to the defense of its gains, as well as the gross political mistakes and the abuses committed by him and his circle, for which our people paid a heavy price and which had grave consequences for society.”
Especially if read now, this “balanced,” Aesopian language is repulsive. At the time, many historians in the West, including Richard Pipes and Adam Ulam, called the speech a huge disappointment, if not a sell-out. But even Yakovlev, a man justly regarded as the leadership’s singular figure of intellect and integrity, also carried off the same cynical, if politically necessary, act. The day after the speech, Yakovlev appeared at a press conference prepared to lie and feign outrage. Asked by a reporter whether Gorbachev was not holding back when he said that “thousands” rather than millions hadbeen killed in Stalin’s purges, Yakovlev said that such figures coming out in the West over the years “should be on the conscience of those who think them up.” And asked why Khrushchev’s “secret speech” had not yet been published in the Soviet Union, Yakovlev snapped, “What difference does it make to you? It has been published in the West!”
Most of the details here on the history of the origins of the Lenin cult come from Nina Tumarkin's excellent study, Lenin Lives!: The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Harvard University Press, 1983).↩
"Sources," Novy Mir, No. 5, 1988.↩