Speaking of Lenin…

Apropos of the “Lenin lives forever” joke I told in my “Myers and the Faith Card” post the other day, the New York Times on Wednesday ran a story about a renewed debate in Russia about what to do with the Lenin mummy still displayed in the Mausoleum on Red Square. A top Putin aide has called for a decent burial; interestingly, his rationale is not respect for the deceased or “Christian ideals” (mentioned, in the same story, by filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov) but explicit condemnation of what Lenin stood for:

“Our country has been shaken by strife, but only a few people were held accountable for that in our lifetime,” said the aide, Georgi Poltavchenko. “I do not think it is fair that those who initiated the strife remain in the center of our state near the Kremlin.”

The counterargument was offered by Putin himself in 2001:

“Many people in this country associate their lives with the name of Lenin,” he said. “To take Lenin out and bury him would say to them that they have worshiped false values, that their lives were lived in vain.”

Is there anyone who thinks they hadn’t “worshiped false values”? It’s fascinating how much of human behavior, and particularly resistance to change, is driven by the fear of admitting that one has dedicated one’s life to serving false idols.

It’s unclear what Putin’s stance is at present. An interesting suggestion comes from Russian radical democrat Valeria Novodvorskaya:

Ms. Novodvorskaya suggested that the president could find it useful, at a time when he is being portrayed as an autocrat, to lead a catharsis of the Lenin phenomenon. “He is trying to be taken as a democrat in the eyes of the West,” she said. “He is also very fond of playing his comedies of national reconciliation.”

By the way, while I grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, I never once went to the Mausoleum; we had a class trip at school once, but I was out sick that day. (Honest, I was.) It’s difficult for a Westerner to imagine what the official Lenin cult was like in the Soviet Union, and particularly in Soviet schools, where Lenin portraits were everywhere and children got a steady diet of stories, poems and songs about “Grandfather Lenin.”

The Lenin of this cult was something of a cross between George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus Christ. (One children’s song contained the lines, “All the children in the world love Lenin,/Because Lenin dearly loved them all.”) When we had a school festival to celebrate the 175 anniversary of the birth of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, the program featured the reading of poems by Pushkin and poems about Lenin, and I think the latter outnumbered the former.

Neo-neocon has an excellent post on Lenin and other Communist mummies. However, a part of it focuses on the rather dubious anecdote that concludes the Times story:

No matter what Mr. Putin decides, there already are indications that time may ultimately do what no politician has yet achieved. The youngest Russian adults barely recall the Communist times, and some show little interest in looking back. “Lenin,” mused Natasha Zakharova, 23, as she walked off Red Square on Tuesday, admitting that she was not quite sure whose body she had just seen. “Was he a Communist?”

If Ms. Zakharova was born in 1982, she would have started school in 1989 — when the Soviet empire was still intact, and despite some reforms, Lenin was still officially revered. There’s no way she could have escaped Lenin completely. Assuming that the Times reporter, C.J. Chivers, was not pulling a Jayson Blair, I suspect Natasha was pulling his leg.

For real signs of the times, however, look at one of the photos accompanying the Times article:

The man the left side of the picture, standing in front of the Mausoleum, has a Nike tote bag; the woman passing by is carrying a JVC shopping bag. Is Lening spinning in his glass case?

Update: In the comments, Olga writes:

On the subject of Lenin and children, I’m reminded of another Soviet joke. A grade-school teacher is telling the kids about how much Lenin loved children. “One beautiful summer morning,” she says, “Grandpa Lenin was shaving outside his house. A small group of children walked by and shouted their greetings to him. ‘Oh, go !@#$ yourselves, children!’ Grandpa Lenin replied. He had a razor in his hand, he could’ve slit their throats, but he didn’t. That’s how fond Grandpa Lenin was of children!”

What’s stunning is that the black humor isn’t that far removed from the real-life absurdity of Lenin hagiography.

One purportedly true story that got included in a lot of textbooks and storybooks (and was also adapted into a poem by Alexander Tvardovsky) was “Lenin and the Stoveman.”

The story goes like this: In the early 1920s, when he is already the head of the Soviet state, Lenin is taking a stroll in the village where he has a summer home. He sees a man walking across a flower-bed and politely takes him to task for his bad manners. The man (who happens to be the local stoveman) tells him to go to hell. A passerby tells him, “Do you know who you just told off? That’s Lenin.” Terrified, the stoveman goes home and tells his wife what happened. They both expect him to get arrested at any moment. A week later, all of a sudden, a car with two official-looking guys in it shows up at the stoveman’s house and they tell him to come with them. He says good-bye to his wife, fully prepared for the worst. They bring him to Lenin’s house and then it turns out that Lenin only wants the stoveman to fix his stove. Oh, of course Lenin fully realized that the man would think he was getting arrested when he sent for him in that way — he just wanted to teach him a lesson in manners.

The stoveman is overjoyed, and the reader is supposed to be incredibly impressed by Lenin’s generosity. (“He could’ve slit their throats!”) It always struck me as amazing that no one saw the story as a damning indictment of the Soviet system: here was a man who thought he could disappear forever for cursing at the head of government!

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Speaking of Lenin…

  1. Olga

    “It’s fascinating how much of human behavior, and particularly resistance to change, is driven by the fear of admitting that one has dedicated one’s life to serving false idols.”

    Isn’t it, though? Sometimes I wonder if most problems in the world aren’t caused by people’s fear of cognitive dissonance. Maslow should have included its avoidance in his pyramid of basic needs. Above food and shelter and wa-a-ay below self-actualization.

    On the subject of Lenin and children, I’m reminded of another Soviet joke. A grade-school teacher is telling the kids about how much Lenin loved children. “One beautiful summer morning,” she says, “Grandpa Lenin was shaving outside his house. A small group of children walked by and shouted their greetings to him. ‘Oh, go !@#$ yourselves, children!’ Grandpa Lenin replied. He had a razor in his hand, he could’ve slit their throats, but he didn’t. That’s how fond Grandpa Lenin was of children!”

    But, you know, in view of the photo Cathy posted, there’s something to keeping him where he is, spinning in his glass box right in the middle of the defeated Socialism. (There was another Soviet slogan, in the 70s, something-something about “the victorious Socialism.”)

  2. thecobrasnose

    Maybe the body could be commercially sponsored somehow–leased out to Rage Against the Machine’s reunion tour or something. That is, if Che Gueverra’s corpse remains unavailable…

  3. Cathy Young

    Olga, great point about cognitive dissonance.

    cobra — LOL! Great idea. You should send it along to Putin.

  4. Russell

    They could always ship Lenin’s body to Seattle and put it on display next to the statue.

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