Two years ago, when Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms were...

Coping/Mortal Matters

September 09, 1991|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

Two years ago, when Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms were inspiring a new outspokenness in the Soviet Union, a Moscow theater director shocked Communist Party officials by proposing that Lenin's body be removed from its mausoleum on Red Square and given a traditional earth burial.

So far, that hasn't happened. But it may be only a matter of time.

After all, even two years ago it was hard to imagine the day when Russians would gather to topple the statues of Lenin and other icons of the Communist Party leaders. But in recent days, the world has been riveted by pictures of heroically proportioned bronze figures dangling precariously from cranes as they descend from their pedestals.

The Soviet Union was a secular state intent on wiping out memories of Russian Orthodox saints and determined to erase any dependence on the spiritual dimensions of life or death.

Thus the visual images of communist heroes -- and, in Lenin's case, his well-embalmed body -- played an important part in shoring up the government's legitimacy.

Lenin was so completely identified with the Communist Party and the government it established that his death created a perpetual succession crisis -- as reflected in the recent failed coup attempt. Because the Communist Party depended so heavily on Lenin, it could not let him go, either literally or figuratively.

Against the wishes of his widow, Lenin's body was carefully preserved -- the exact process has been the object of much speculation -- and placed in a granite mausoleum in front of the Kremlin wall. There, over the years, countless reverent pilgrims have filed through for a glimpse of his remains.

(A similar scene takes place in Beijing each day, where long linewait patiently to file through the spacious mausoleum to one side of Tiananmen Square, where Chairman Mao's body lies in state.)

As sociologist Michael C. Kearl says, "The tomb of Lenin serves as the cathedral of the Soviet state."

Kearl further notes that by devising this "cult of the dead," the Soviets were attempting to establish communism as the "religion of mankind" and that their efforts borrowed heavily from Christian martyrology.

For instance, by placing Lenin's body on public view, they could tap into ancient beliefs that associate the absence of decay with the aura of sainthood. The fact that Lenin's body is there for all to see would be taken by many as proof that he was worthy of homage.

The process of conferring immortality on Lenin was carried out in other ways as well. In his book, "Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams," David K. Shipler notes that a section of poems and stories about Lenin in a third-grade book was headed "Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live." Equally telling, he describes how Russian political humor, which usually spares no one its barbs, has traditionally stopped short of a laugh at Lenin's expense.

Now, however, with communism in disgrace, Lenin is no longer immortal.

While we Americans watch in fascination as the statues come down and the cults dissolve, it is impossible for us to know how deeply these scenes must touch Russians themselves. After three-quarters of a century, they are now burying a political system, repudiating its ideology and dismantling its visible symbols.

Soon, no doubt, we'll even see them bury Lenin.

Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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