Russia can't seem to bury its past Relics: Divided Russia can't decide on its new pantheon of heroes. Some want to bury Lenin's mummy, while others bombed a recent statue of Czar Nicholas II.

Sun Journal

April 19, 1997|By Susan Sachs | Susan Sachs,NEWSDAY

MOSCOW -- After 73 years of being injected with chemicals, bathed in artificial light and ogled by millions, it shouldn't come as a surprise: The corpse of Lenin returned from its annual touch-up this month with a bandage on the right thumb.

That evidence of physical atrophy is not the only insult to the father of the Soviet state, whose mummified remains and copper-colored mausoleum on Red Square are once again at the center of a battle over symbols and memory.

Six years after dismantling the Communist system and embarking on the road to capitalism, Russia remains a nation in search of consensus over where it is headed and what it should become.

President Boris N. Yeltsin, reinvigorated after his own brush with death, recently let slip his view that, by the end of this year or at the latest by the end of the century, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin should finally be buried, probably in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) among his family.

The suggestion predictably set off protests from the opposition-dominated lower house of parliament, the State Duma, and from die-hard Communists who have never forgiven Yeltsin for discarding other Soviet symbols -- among them, the hammer-and-sickle flag and the "Internationale."

"It's our history, our sacred place, our pride," says 70-year-old Alexei Abramov, who heads the Lenin Mausoleum Fund, which collects private donations for the upkeep of the tomb.

For the unreconstructed Communists like Abramov, Lenin's body is infused not just with preservatives but with all the embattled mythology of Soviet history.

"When the fascists were attacking Moscow in the Second World War, our young warriors took their oath to the Red Army in front of the mausoleum. They swore that if necessary they would protect the mausoleum with their bodies," Abramov says.

"How could those soldiers of 1941 have imagined that all these years later, the site would be attacked from the rear by their own sons, grandsons and even the president?"

During the Soviet years, cosmonauts visited the mausoleum before rocketing into space. Children in the red bandannas of the Pioneers took their oaths in front of it. Schoolbooks gushed over it as an architectural and cultural wonder of the world.

Feelings run no less strong on the other side of the issue. Let the Communists lease the tomb and its contents from the state so they can "worship and perform their rituals there," wrote commentator Lev Timofeyev recently in the Russian-language Moscow News.

"Some mystics say that Russia can't recover while that unburied corpse still lies in the main square of the capital," he added. "In fact, it's the reverse. This unhappy body would have found its peace in the ground long ago if only our society had rejected the 'great lie' that [Lenin] launched upon it."

There are no longer lines of people snaking through the vast space of Red Square in wait for their turn to descend into the dimly lighted room to view Lenin. Yeltsin slashed the federal maintenance budget for the mummy in 1991. He removed the smart-stepping mausoleum honor guard in 1993, when he first proposed and then backed down from a plan to bury Lenin.

But a crew of scientists still takes loving care of the body, adhering to Soviet-style secrecy about the embalming formula and, lately, about what might be wrong with Lenin's bandaged thumb.

"We don't intend to go into the details of our work," says Valery Bykov, director of the Institute for Biological Structures that works on Lenin's body as well as techniques for food preservation. "One reason is that it's a commercial secret. And the other is that, as the Bible says, we don't take the name of Lenin in vain."

On the five mornings a week the tomb is open to the public, there is a small, steady procession of visitors.

Last week, an army officer's wife named Svetlana emerged from visit to the tomb with a dreamy smile on her face. She said she was not only moved, but energized by the sight of the stern-faced Lenin, lying on his back in a neat black suit just as he has done since soon after he died in 1924.

"This was a person who did something for us!" Svetlana said. "He should stay here just as he is. Our children should see him and know what a great country we once lived in."

But attitudes toward Lenin's corpse seem to split along the same fault line that divides Russian society.

For those who have made it in the new Russia, embracing Western values and lifestyles, such relics hold no magic.

"I don't care about Lenin," said Georgi Georgiev, a young English-speaking Russian who works in a foreign-owned executive search company, "as long as his body is able to attract tourists with their dollars."

Lenin's unburied body is not the only unfinished business of Russia's post-Soviet transformation.

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