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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.
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 …