Yeltsin and the mausoleum

Issue 

By Boris Kagarlitsky

MOSCOW — Why should Yeltsin want to bury Lenin? Rhetoric aside, this question has a quite literal meaning. For more than 70 years, the body of the first Soviet leader has lain embalmed and on public display in a mausoleum on Red Square. Now Russian President Boris Yeltsin wants the corpse removed and buried.

But as a good democrat, Yeltsin has suggested that the fate of the Bolshevik leader's remains should first be put to a national referendum.

Political commentators have not been taken in by the reasons, along the lines of "affront to Russia's Christian traditions", which the president has cited for his initiative.

Instead they have explained — in suitably rapt tones — the artful ploy which Yeltsin has conceived, involving a plan to provoke the "red" parliament or Duma. The next stage, we are to believe, will come when the communist-nationalist majority in the Duma responds with some ill-judged move. The president will then face down the deputies in another cathartic public confrontation.

Like many of Yeltsin's supposedly masterful steps, this one on closer scrutiny turns out to be quite bumble-footed. A referendum on burying Lenin? Communists and financiers alike express outrage at the idea.

And indeed, it is hard for the authorities to explain why, at a time when there is supposedly no money for wages and investments, billions of roubles should be thrown away on a poll that is neither urgent nor especially important.

Could Yeltsin even bring out enough of his supporters to win a referendum? It is possible — with the help of almost the entire media — to explain to people that if they fail to turn out and vote the right way, the terrible Communist Zyuganov will come to power and civil war will ensue. But it is beyond even a media monopoly to show that the same consequences will follow if a corpse remains on Red Square.

Meanwhile, the mobilisation of the Communist electorate — the people who really do care about the corpse — would be highly effective. A referendum defeat, even on a secondary question, would be a severe blow to the Yeltsin regime — a steep price for a political adventure, especially since the authorities have long realised that the Duma Communists are, on the whole, quite inoffensive.

Someone in the Kremlin, if not Yeltsin, must be smart enough to discern all this. The fact that the provocation was launched anyway suggests that there is more to the threats against the Lenin mausoleum than an ill-conceived political show.

In the same way as daring feats are often performed out of fear, many political initiatives have their origins in a lack of self-confidence. Among the president's admirers, there are those who blurt out the secret: Lenin has to be buried in order for the Communist ideology to be defeated! A lack of faith in the future and in their own actions, together with a subconscious fear of the return of communism, gives these people no peace.

If "red" ideas are spreading in Russian society, that is not, of course, the work of the mummy, but the result of people's own experience. Ideas cannot be buried, since the social relationships that give rise to them do not disappear. But this is obvious only to the rational mind. The subconscious has laws of its own.

The authorities cannot close the gap between the "new Russians" and the mass of the population, or limit exploitation, and neither do they wish to. But they feel the need to carry out a symbolic act of purification, punishing the mummy for everything.

Lenin's presence clearly allows the new tenant of the Kremlin no peace. Yeltsin has to be the only leader, the only positive hero. Lenin, even dead, remains a rival. Lenin and Yeltsin occupy, as it were, one and the same space.

At the subconscious level, this is a persistent torment for the present authorities and their ideologues. It explains a striking Freudian slip heard recently from television presenter Yevgeny Kiselev: "Lenin, that is, Yeltsin ..."

Stalin was untroubled by the presence of Lenin on Red Square, because Stalin considered himself a "living Lenin", the "Lenin of today". On key public occasions, Stalin and later Soviet leaders were to be seen on top of the mausoleum, reviewing well-regulated streams of "the masses".

The mausoleum as both tomb and reviewing stand had a profound symbolic meaning. The Soviet leaders turned Lenin's body, like his actions when alive, into a pedestal for themselves. They rested on him at the same time as they trampled him underfoot. Yeltsin cannot use Leninist symbolism for his own aggrandisement, and is therefore uncomfortable with Lenin's presence. The best spot on Red Square is already occupied!

Once Lenin has been buried, Yeltsin has made clear, the mausoleum will be demolished. At least to the rational mind, there is no logic in this pledge. If there is any need to bury Lenin, that can be done inside the mausoleum; the glass case can be replaced with a closed sarcophagus or gravestone. However, Russia's rulers are not interested in the question of the body, but of the spirit.

Our leaders, however much they talk about democracy, remain pupils of Stalin, and are quite Byzantine in their ways. Hence their love of political intrigue and their fixation with symbols. But the main thing is that a totalitarian consciousness demands power over the past. This is impossible so long as material evidence remains of another, ideologically incorrect history.

The Soviet leaders demolished architectural relics from the past precisely because they were trying to remake history. The present authorities curse Bolshevism and "Soviet totalitarianism", but their own actions are cast in the same mould.

As well as everything else, the Lenin mausoleum is an architectural masterpiece, an outstanding example of 1920s constructivism. Moscow has only a few buildings from the Soviet period with unquestionable architectural value, and the mausoleum is one of them. The people who have been forced to recognise this include even Yevgeny Kiselev, the present regime's leading propagandist.

On his program Itogi, Kiselev tried to apologise for Yeltsin, saying that the president had been misunderstood, and that there was no question of demolition. However, demolition is very much on the agenda. Or can the words "remove" and "liquidate" have some other meaning when applied to a building?

In this context, it is quite unimportant how we regard Lenin as a political figure. Numerous palaces and public monuments, beginning with the pyramid of Cheops, were erected for unsavoury individuals. The squares of European cities are crammed with statues of people who shed rivers of blood.

But monuments and palaces have a remarkable ability to take on an independent significance. They define the appearance of cities, and are an important element in the history of art.

In recent times, the word "vandalism" has been slipped into Russian political parlance. For some reason, it is used as a synonym for "terrorism", though its real meaning is quite different. Demolishing the mausoleum would be an act of vandalism in the precise sense of the word.

Meanwhile, the most striking aspect of these developments has been the reaction of Russian intellectuals.

Yeltsin made his promise to demolish the mausoleum at a meeting of cultural figures. The usual corporate ethic of these people, not to speak of their aesthetic sense, should have made them protest. The hall, however, did not erupt in howls of indignation. Instead, there was a roar of applause. The hall was full of vandals.

The regime's intellectual friends once again showed themselves to be loyal servants of the state, with their rightful place not so much in the field of literature and the arts, as in the department of agitation and propaganda.

The story of the mausoleum is unlikely to have a happy ending. After pledging to raze the building, Yeltsin will be reluctant to be seen failing to meet his promise.

The call for a referendum is likely to be discreetly dropped; instead, a decree will be drawn up and signed. And so, Yeltsin himself will not get to lie in the mausoleum. Not even for a few years, like Stalin. And our president is now at an age where he would do well to think of such things.

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