Moscow’s Red Square would shake with the rumble of tanks, artillery and faithful Communists of all ages and ethnicities in parade formation, marching from all over the vast empire which stretched from East Germany to the Baltics to the Pacific.
This year, it was rock music from a series of non-stop evening concerts all around the center of the Russian capital that shook the ground — the streets packed with people in a good mood, enjoying a long weekend of festivities, November 4-7. But this party (small “p”) was celebrating what, exactly?
There was a clue in signs on kiosks in the little markets selling souvenirs and food and gifts, hailing “Our national day of unity.” Unity?
“About four years ago, we changed this revolution celebration to a ‘Unity Day’ on November 4,” a former Moscow city employee told me during my visit to the Russian capital over the weekend. “No one wants to celebrate a revolution today,” she claims, “but unity for what and with whom? It’s unclear, and it’s difficult to celebrate with a moving date, but still we all like to have long weekends.” So, 100 years after the Bolsheviks tossed out the Russian provisional government in St Petersburg and moved everything to Moscow, what remains is not so much the Communist philosophy as the party (again, small “p”).
Moscow, November 5, 20176 - A Live rock concert draws crowds outside the Kremlin walls on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution.
Where Are The Communists?
The Party (capital “P”) is still a force in Russian politics, being the second largest in Russia’s state Duma (parliament), and they did have a march of their own down Moscow’s main thoroughfare to Red Square on November 7. Communists came from the world over (strong Italian contingent, for example), outnumbering the Russian members. Most had grey hair and long memories of times that for them were more certain than the quasi-capitalist free-for-all that is Russia today. “We have just become too Western,” one marcher told Russian TV.
Actually, there is more silence than comment or reflection about the Revolution today. While there is virtually no one around who remembers Lenin first-hand, everyone has a story about a friend or family member who had a run-in with the regime. “Everyone has a relative or friend who was arrested,” a well-placed Russian observer on his early 40’s tells me in Moscow. “For years we were forced to celebrate this revolution every year. We’re fed up with all this; the younger generation is very cynical.”
Indeed, the younger generation – being privy to a wider range of reading and interpretation of historic events than their parents or older siblings — may be confused. “In the Soviet Union, it was a clear-cut story: the peasants and workers revolted, they got rid of the Tsar, there were good guys and bad guys,” the observer continues. “That changed after Gorbachev came to power and Solzhenitsyn was speaking out. Now with all the articles and books about this period, it’s unclear what really happened…and why this guy is lying in Red Square. What’s he doing there?”
“This guy” is none other than the founder of the Revolution, Vladimir Ilyitch Ulianov — known to history by his nom de guerre, Lenin. Mummified on his death, his body has been sitting in a glass coffin-sarcophagus in a crypt three meters below the ground in the center of Red Square since January 27, 1924 — three days after Lenin’s death.
The current mausoleum itself was built over the crypt in 1930, and served as the reviewing stand for Communist dignitaries on the November 7 celebration. The area is also the burial site of other CP notables buried in Red Square – including America’s own John Reed, journalist author of Ten Days That Shook the World, his first-hand account of the Bolshevik takeover in 1917.
What Shall We Do With Lenin?
But the real issue is not the mausoleum…it is Lenin. Icon, godlike, focus of untold homages to the Russian capital, not unlike the relics of saints worshipped by faithful pilgrims. However, while there is still a powerful church behind those saints, non such powerful structure supports the diminutive revolutionary. Certainly not the current Kremlin. Certainly not people whose relatives suffered under Lenin’s ideology.
“Burial is too good for him,” says a Moscow cameraman whose grandfather was incarcerated for 30 years for reasons he believes were spurious at best, blatant anti-Semitism at worst. “They should burn the body and dump the ashes!”
“It’s just stupid having a body on display in the center of Moscow,” says a more sanguine younger female secretary. “No other country does this. Why should we?”
“He’s part of history — yes, an important part; it changed the world,” says a female lawyer. “But why do we have to have his body on display in Red Square today? Why can’t we bury him and put up a statue somewhere?” A statement that is reminiscent of the current U.S. discussions on Robert E. Lee and the Confederates…
Though the pagan nature of displaying Lenin’s body flies in the face of Russia’s current concern for Orthodoxy, it is at heart a political problem, this getting rid of the body. It forces the politician who shepherds the moving Lenin’s body to define a potentially uncomfortable ideology, to create a real break with the past, forge a new direction, potentially bifurcating his supporters. One cannot imagine Vladimir Putin risking this, though if someone can find a way to resolve the problem it is likely to be he.
His Family Doesn't Want Him
The easiest solution would be a family member’s coming along to take the body off the hands of the Russian state. But Lenin’s relatives apparently don’t want him or the hassle.
Russian newspaper Novi Vedomosti reporter Oleg Matveyev quoted a distant Lenin relative, Olga Dmitrievna Ulyanova: "I have repeatedly stated and will repeat once again that I am categorically against the reburial of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. There are no grounds for this. Even religious. The sarcophagus in which it lies is three meters below the ground level, which corresponds to burials according to Russian custom, and to the Orthodox canon." In other words, “leave him there.”
In an attempt to find a solution to Lenin’s final disposal, current Kremlin occupants dug up another theory: that the Revolutionary actually left word in his will that he wanted to be buried in Volkova Cemetary next to his mother. Olga Ulianov poo-poo’s this idea, too: "Attempts to prove that there is a will to be buried in the Volkov cemetery, are untenable. Such a document is not and could not be; in our family there has never been any talk on this topic. Vladimir Ilyich died at a fairly young age — at 53, and naturally thought more about life than about death. In addition, given the historical era in which Lenin lived, his nature, the character of a true revolutionary, I am sure he would not have written a will on this topic. Vladimir Ilyich was a very modest man, who took care of himself least of all.”
But in so doing, his legacy may be more one of creating a quandary than a global revolution.
Moscow, November 6, 2017 - Russians at a "Unity Day" market with live rock band in Revolution Square in central Moscow
Then there’s the idea promulgated by the Soviet Union’s first rock musician and modern cultural impressario, Stas Namin, in the immediate wake of the collapse of the USSR: take Lenin’s body on a world tour and show him off to everyone who had worshipped or demonized him. Charge admission. An interesting idea that could have taken off, given Namin’s own prodigious pedigree: Namin (“Namin,” German for “name,” Stas’s stage name) is the grandson of Anastas Mikoyan, the first and still longest-serving President of the USSR, Lenin’s hand-picked choice.
Could be an idea worth re-visiting.
Shellie Karabell, Contributor