Lenin’s Tomb

Considering the Soviet Union’s founder 100 years after his death

How should we assess the value of a great revolutionary figure? In the case of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, the box denoting his enduring appeal to the “great man” school of history clearly gets ticked. In a modern era where even infectious diseases are the subject of stultifying partisan conflict, he at least had the vision and the will to get things done. 

When in October 1917, Lenin, disguised in a gray wig and the costume of a Lutheran pastor, returned to Russia from his latest exile, power in that vast and troubled country was still divided in an uneasy alliance between a provisional government on the one hand and cells of ill-disciplined socialists and anarchists on the other. Without his undoubted organizational ability and fanatical belief in the cause, the revolution might well have descended into the same administrative stasis that had overcome its precursor eight months earlier. This same quality of singlemindedness on Lenin’s part may help to explain why there are those who continue today to venerate an individual so blissfully unencumbered by critical self-doubt, or by qualms about the wrenching human costs borne by others in the pursuit of his ideologically pristine goals.

The box denoting both unflinching resolve and the power of persuasion also gets ticked, therefore. It’s not perhaps necessary to linger in this context over the well-documented excesses of the 1917 revolution and consequent civil war, in which the consolidation of power in the hands of a few ultimately triumphed over such fuzzy concepts as the dictatorship of the proletariat, or of the desirability of representative government. We need only recall Lenin’s remark to the Red Guards posted at the door of the first (and, as it turned out, final) session of the All-Russian Assembly, which convened in January 1918 in order to discuss how executive power might best be distributed between locally elected councils of industrial workers, soldiers, and peasants, to get some of the flavor.

“Let them go on chattering as long as they like and then break up,” he said. “And tomorrow we won’t let a single one of them back in.”

Finally, also to be considered is Lenin’s continuing relevance to society a century after his death on January 21, 1924. Here, too, in at least one sense, he scores highly. Lenin’s concept of an utterly centralist and ruthlessly authoritarian approach to government would serve as the blueprint for several of the world’s subsequent tyrannical monsters, from Mao Zedong to Ruhollah Khomeini, from Ho Chi Minh to Robert Mugabe, to name just a few of the many examples available, and whose malign influence is far from extinct today. 

Set against this, it is a curious paradox that Lenin and his school are increasingly marginalized in Russia itself. While more than 2 million visitors a year still pay their respects to the Great Revolutionary Scout’s mummified corpse, which 32 years after the fall of the Soviet Union continues to lie in its somewhat sinister pillbox-like marble mausoleum on Red Square, the iconography of the Revolution and its leaders as a whole is confused. The demolition of Lenin statues both in Ukraine and elsewhere became something of a unifying pastime at around the time of the collapse of the USSR in 1991, when the citizens of the state’s second-largest city also voted by referendum to restore its original name of Saint Petersburg. In the immediate post-Soviet era, Lenin’s image similarly disappeared from Russia’s bank notes and postage stamps. People living in the former Soviet sphere of influence no longer risk getting a knock on their doors in the dead of night if they dare to criticize Lenin for his role in murdering Tsar Nicholas and his young family in July 1918. 

These represent profound changes to the acceptable notion of the way to view and venerate the Revolution since the more austere time of the Brezhnev regime of 1964 to 1982. I know this, because as a teenager I happened to be living in Moscow in the late 1960s, when for some years my father served as the British naval attaché to the Soviet Union. In those days, the founding fathers’ likenesses were everywhere, staring grimly out from huge gilt-framed posters in public squares, standing sentinel on the mastheads of newspapers, and fluttering on red banners hung from the tops of government buildings and private homes. While my friends back in England grew up with the Beatles and the Stones, I grew up with Marx and Lenin.

Virtually none of that same revolutionary ardor survives today. Even Vladimir Putin has given voice to the rising chorus of de-Leninization by seeking to blame him for his nation’s attritional war in Ukraine by having unnecessarily created that entity in the first place.

“The region was entirely created by Russia, or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia,” Putin explained, by way of a rationale of his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. “What was the point of transferring to the newly, often arbitrarily formed administrative units—the union republics—vast territories that had nothing to do with them?” 

Putin then proceeded to answer his own question. “There is an explanation. After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks’ main goal was to stay in power at all costs, absolutely at all costs,” he said. “They did everything for this purpose,” including satisfying “any demands and wishes of the nationalists within the country.” Putin concluded, “Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He was its creator and architect.”

Perhaps the most charitable interpretation of Lenin’s ultimate claim to be taken seriously, let alone revered, as a heroic revolutionary icon of the 20th century is that he was sincerely moved in his messianic view of the world by the abject misery of the vast majority of his people under tsarism. More specifically, he lamented the industrialized slaughter of the Great War, in which the Russian Empire suffered an estimated 5.5 million casualties in addition to some 3 million soldiers taken prisoner and a further 500,000 missing in action. These were figures that might have exercised even the most inert of minds, let alone one that married genuine revulsion at the human sacrifice of war with a seething redistributionist fervor.

Lenin was well aware of the immediate social trauma and dislocation inherent in his strategy in terms of the violent oppression of dissent, but unlike others in the socialist camp he was prepared to accept this as the necessary cost of change. The problem of course lies in the increasingly elastic definition of the word “immediate,” an interval which might be said to have encompassed the entire history of the Soviet Union, and which arguably persists even today in the seemingly eternal cycle of reform and regression that characterizes Russian life.

But perhaps Lenin’s real legacy to our modern society, both in the West and in the state Vladimir Putin rules with such tsar-like pretension, lies in the continuing delusion that a central government may properly interest itself in every aspect of our lives, down to the smallest details of how we gather, communicate, worship, and educate our children. Surely one of the observable truths of the whole, protracted COVID ordeal—a distortion of the Founders’ original ideal largely dependent upon the apathy of the majority and the epidemic of national self-hatred that remains the great throughline of our media class, it being the only way in which they can square their sense of superiority with their country’s position in the world. These factors may today be glimpsed at work in the United States, and elsewhere in the West, just as they were in the Russian Empire of more than a century ago.

In that same context, there remains an all-too tangible symbol of the Great Scout himself visible from where I write this in central Seattle. Readers may already be familiar with some of the municipal follies of America’s so-called Emerald City, whose downtown core has passed in recent years from one characterized by its pleasant waterfront vistas, proverbial for its backdrop of snow-capped mountains and sparkling lakes, to something more like one imagines central Berlin to have been after a particularly hard night in April 1945. But you may not be aware that set amongst this debris stands an arresting, 16-foot high bronze statue of Lenin himself.

Originally on display in Communist Czechoslovakia and transported to these parts in 1995 by an enterprising local academic (who alas died before actually seeing his acquisition in place), it sits here today, sometimes adorned by a garland of flowers or an outsize sculpted burrito provided by a neighboring Mexican restaurant, or by one of several other hippy-whimsical additions by local residents. I make no pretense of a scientifically precise survey, but over the last Thanksgiving weekend I took the opportunity to enquire of several passing pedestrians what, if anything, the image on display meant to them.

“He’s such an inspiration. I mean, he really cared about his people, not just exploiting their labor.” That’s how 24-year-old Leann, in her floor-length 1940s-era dress and matching fox-fur stole, summed it up. A young man named Milan, who like Lenin is Prague-born, told me: “I like it because it reminds me of an important part of history. Lenin did a lot that was right for the people, and Stalin screwed it all up afterwards.” Another individual who told me his name (if he was a “he”) was Nemo (“Omen backwards”, he elaborated) stopped and surveyed the statue for some moments when I asked his opinion of it.

“Yeah, it seems weird, but it’s harmless,” he commented at length. “I quite like the look of it. It’s different, it’s interesting,” he continued. Nemo managed to look quite striking himself, dressed as he was in a Seattle Seahawks football jersey, shorts, and a pair of ripped-up fishnet stockings. Then came his final summation.

“It’s a bit of fun, isn’t it? I mean no one cares about the man anymore.” He paused for further reflection. “But now I think of it, wasn’t he the guy who kicked the s*** out of America in Vietnam? Good for him. Why shouldn’t the people who won the war be allowed to p*** on the losers?”

And that, quite possibly to Lenin’s own sardonic amusement, is how we live here today.

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