Andrew Osborn









The Independent, 21st November 2005 12:44

Many Russians say it is time for the body of Lenin, father of the Bolshevik Revolution, to be taken from its Red Square mausoleum and buried. For others, this is sacrilege. By Andrew Osborn

On the fringe of a sprawling sombre cemetery in St Petersburg, an unsmiling metal-grey statue of Maria Ulyanova, mother of Vladimir Lenin, peers into the distance as if waiting for the return of her famous son.

The boy she gave birth to in 1870 may have laid the foundations of the world's largest superpower and been the first politician in history to put Marxism into practice, but in death he has turned out to be less potent.

Eighty-one years after his fatal stroke in 1924, his wish to be buried alongside his mother in St Petersburg's Volkovskoye Cemetery, resting place of writers, intellectuals and academics, remains controversially unfulfilled.

Instead, his painstakingly embalmed corpse, replete in its three-piece suit, continues to lie in what is purportedly a bullet-proof, blast-proof glass case in a mausoleum in Red Square in Moscow, 400 miles to the south. It is exactly where the tyrant who succeeded him (against Lenin's will), Joseph Stalin, decreed that he should be deposited.

Stalin judged rightly that the mausoleum would feed a cult of personality around Lenin, the father of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and boost the popularity and credibility of his own leadership by association. Yet 'Uncle Joe' died in 1953 and the glory days of Marxism-Leninism, let alone Stalinism, are long gone. Russia has turned its back on the ideology that Lenin propagated, many of the statues that were lovingly forged in his likeness and used to grace towns across the Soviet Union have been dismantled, and the Russian Communist Party today looks more like an enfeebled collection of pensioners than the vanguard of the revolution.

Yet still the curious and the reverential troop through the dimly lit macabre tomb in Moscow. And still Lenin's name and unearthly presence hover eerily above Red Square, Russia's spiritual and historic heart.

The question is, though, for how much longer? Calls for his corpse to be removed were first heard soon after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and gained added impetus in 1993 after troops loyal to the then president Boris Yeltsin stormed the Russian White House to crush Communist-nationalist opposition to democratic reforms.

Mr Yeltsin later delighted in taunting his vanquished ideological opponents with the threat that he would soon order Lenin's body to be reburied. Red Square should not 'resemble a cemetery,' he argued, and he proposed holding a nationwide referendum on the issue.

However, Communist resistance to such 'heresy' proved too great and even Yeltsin, a specialist in bruising brinkmanship, had to back down.

He contented himself with scrapping what was known as 'Sentry Post Number One' " the goose-stepping honour guard that symbolically and grandiosely protected the cadaver of the 'leader of the world proletariat'.

Since then debate about 'the red mummy' has sporadically flared, only to melt away just as quickly.

But now, as the 15th anniversary of the death of the Soviet Union nears, a debate about whether it is the right time to bury the body of the man who tried to bury capitalism has reignited with sudden and unexpected force.

It started when Georgy Poltavchenko, a prominent aide to President Vladimir Putin, unexpectedly said during a news conference that he felt it was time to close the mausoleum. 'Our country has been shaken by strife, but only few were held accountable for that in their lifetime,' he said.

'I don't think it's fair that those who initiated that strife remain in the centre of our state near the Kremlin.'

Mr Poltavchenko insisted that this opinion was strictly his own. but few Kremlin-friendly politicians dare to speak off the cuff, and his carefully chosen words looked very much like a trial balloon which was designed to test public opinion.

Since his outburst, most of Russia's great and good have told the country what they think, and many of them appear to favour the removal of Lenin from Red Square.

Those who back Lenin's relocation include Nikita Mikhailkov, arguably Russia's most famous living film director; the ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky; Patriarch Alexey II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church; Valentina Matvienko, powerful governor of St Petersburg; Lyuba Sliska, Putin ally and senior MP, and at least one government minister. The influential mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, is also on record as saying that he wants Lenin's body to be moved.

'It [his reburial] should be carried out within one year,' argues the colourful Mr Zhirinovsky, who although regarded as something of a joker in the West, commands real respect among Russia's political elite.

'People believe that they have parted company with Communist ideas. Just imagine Hitler lying in Germany, in the centre of Berlin. Who would believe then that the Germans had parted company with Nazism?'

Public opinion on the issue seems to have shifted too. An authoritative poll from the All-Russian Centre for Public Opinion Studies earlier this month showed that 52 per cent of Russians now believe that Lenin should be buried. In 1999, that figure was just 43 per cent.

Crucially, however, Mr Putin has thus far remained silent on the issue, preferring to see how the debate plays out.

In 2001, the last time he spoke publicly on the matter, Mr Putin said he was opposed to reburying Lenin because it might suggest that an entire generation of Soviet-minded people 'had lived in vain'. He also warned that such a move might disturb civil peace.

The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently echoed those fears, and other politicians have urged Mr Putin to tread carefully, none more vociferously than Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the modern-day Russian Communist Party.

Calling the reburial idea 'sacrilegious, irresponsible and provocative,' he has warned that his party will organise large-scale displays of civil disobedience if Lenin's body is disturbed.

'It defies the nation's history and common sense,' Mr Zyuganov said. He added: 'With their filthy hands and drunken heads they [Kremlin officials] are crawling into the sanctuary of the state. The desire to rake up the remains of the dead is a great sin and a sign of mental illness.'

The Communists flexed their muscles earlier this year when Mr Putin restructured Soviet-era social reforms, bringing hundreds of thousands of pensioners on to the streets to protest against the changes.

The Kremlin will be reluctant to have a repeat performance.

In an interview with The Independent, Olga Ulyanova, Lenin's 81-year- old niece, herself a Communist stalwart, says she wants her uncle to remain firmly in Red Square, close to the Kremlin Wall, beneath which the Soviet Union's brightest luminaries are buried.

'They are trying to torture Lenin. They want to rip him from his resting place,' she complained. 'They don't want people to come and visit him and bow down before him. They want people to forget about Lenin.'

Ms Ulyanova, who worked as a professor of science at Moscow University for many years and has written a book called Lenin's Relative, also strongly denied historians' claims and Lenin's widow's assertion that her uncle asked to be buried alongside his mother in St Petersburg. 'He died young. He was 53. He didn't have time to think about such things,' she said.

Nor, she added, was his current resting place un-Christian, an argument frequently used by those who campaign for his reburial. Though a confirmed atheist, Lenin's background was Russian Orthodox.

'He has already been buried once in a Christian fashion. He is currently lying three metres below the ground. He's not doing anyone any harm,' she said.

Ms Ulyanova claimed that 'big queues' of people continue to file past her uncle's open coffin.

That, however, is wishful thinking. Though more than 150 million people are estimated to have shuffled past Lenin's waxy features since the striking minimalist red and black granite and porphyry mausoleum was completed in 1929, the flood has ebbed substantially, and it is now mostly foreign tourists and curious out-of-towners who make the bizarre pilgrimage " in far fewer numbers.

The Communists who so violently oppose their idol being buried alongside his mother look rattled. They have begun to collect signatures for an anti-reburial petition in Revolution Square in Moscow, which is a stone's throw from the mausoleum itself. Ironically, though, the campaign has served to expose the Communists' modern-day weakness.

A recent visit to the campaign point by The Independent found a group of just over a dozen pensioners talking among themselves, complaining that an official Communist Party representative had yet to turn up.

Nor, they moaned, did they have any banners to brandish, let alone the petition documents themselves. When asked why they opposed Lenin's reburial, many of the pensioners regurgitated the Communist dogma that had been drummed into them in their youth.

'He was the leader of the world proletariat. He is our figurehead, the embodiment of all our ideas. A decree from the Soviet government ordered that he should be placed there. He founded a government for workers and peasants,' said Valeria Grigorievna, 78, who is a former headmistress.

'Yes, and it wasn't a government for the rich or businessmen, people who call themselves oligarchs like today,' interjected another female pensioner with passion.

Ms Grigorievna said: 'Lenin and Stalin built socialism but now capitalism has been returned. Everything has been destroyed. Our health care system, our education system and our living standards. Millions of people have been cast into poverty.'

One Communist pensioner who declined to give his name warned that social unrest would ensue if Lenin was moved.

'Today society is divided, but if they succeed in removing Lenin it will be even more divided. It would be a short-sighted move. It [the mausoleum] is our history. It's not just Lenin who is lying there.'

For Communists, the mausoleum is a temple, and Lenin, who receives a special bath of chemicals every 18 months to keep him looking fresh, a secular saint. Though many visitors come away thinking they have seen something akin to a Madame Tussauds wax dummy, Soviet-era protocol, which is still strictly enforced, demands that visitors must file past in reverential silence.

St Petersburg's Volkovskoye Cemetery, the place where Lenin said he wanted to be buried, is very different. Lenin's family plot, close to a busy road and and a row of hulking factories, carries an air of neglect. The graves and statues of his mother, Maria, two of his sisters and one of his brothers-in-law rest on an elevated, low-slung Soviet-era granite plinth. Bordered by larch and sycamore trees, some of the slabs have worked loose, the tomb shows signs of cheap makeshift repairs, and on the day when The Independent visited the cemetery was all but deserted.

Four red carnations and a wreath lay at the foot of Lenin's mother's grave. With her hair severely scraped back, Maria Ulyanova is portrayed pulling a shawl around her shoulders. Her thin, unsmiling lips are pursed as she stares expectantly into the distance.

There appears to be no obvious place for her famous son's body and if he was laid to rest alongside his mother it is clear that the entire tomb would have to be reworked.

Talk of the reburial of Lenin at the cemetery, at an official level, is not welcome. When asked how it would cope with Lenin's body if it were transferred there, the graveyard's director becomes angry before storming off.

'President Putin said three or four years ago that he won't be reburied for now. In time everything will fall into place. I don't want to discuss the issue any further.' A woman burying her husband nearby says that the director is afraid 'lest his opinion deviate from the authorities' '.

Passers-by are more open in expressing their views. Two women closely studying the statue of Lenin's mother believe that it is time he was laid to rest properly. 'It's natural that he should be here. His mother played a large role in his life. Orthodox tradition decrees that he should be buried,' said Maria Khaidova, a teacher. 'It will only happen when this generation disappears, though.'

The other woman, who declined to be identified, repeated a superstition that has long haunted post-Soviet Russia.

'Russia will only move on and leave the past and all the problems of the past behind when Lenin is properly buried. That's what people say. Why do we need that awful mummy?'

The unburied icon

Lenin died in 1924 after a series of strokes, although speculation that he really died from syphilis has refused to go away.

His body was stripped of its internal organs before being embalmed and his brain removed and sliced into more than 30,000 colour-coded parts in a Soviet attempt to discover the secret of his genius. Results were inconclusive. His grey matter still resides in a Moscow institute.

The body of Joseph Stalin was also embalmed and between 1953 and 1961 lay next to Lenin's in the mausoleum until Nikita Khrushchev ordered it removed and buried by the Kremlin Wall as part of his de-Stalinisation campaign.

Lenin wears a waterproof suit under his clothing that holds in the embalming fluid. The precise recipe for the fluid is as closely guarded a secret as the recipe for Coca-Cola. His hands and head are bathed in fluid twice a week.

In Soviet times there was widespread disbelief that the body was actually Lenin's and there were constant rumours that someone had managed to detonate a hand grenade in the mausoleum.

New clothes " including a trademark white spotted tie " are ordered for Lenin every three years.