Connection to Russia's past

There is growing pressure to bury Lenin's body, which lies in a glass coffin in Red Square

April 30, 2006|By DAVID HOLLEY | DAVID HOLLEY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Nikita Muchnik, a student who sells cell phones at a department store near the Kremlin, doesn't much care whether the embalmed body of Vladimir I. Lenin stays in its airtight glass coffin in Red Square or is banished from its place of honor. In his mind, the Soviet founder has sunk to the level of a cynically exploited tourist attraction, a kind of real-life Madame Tussaud wax figure.

"I don't think it's a particularly good thing that he's lying where he is, and I don't find it particularly pleasant to walk past there," said Muchnik, 18. "But those people who were affected by communism feel strongly about it. ... He's good for tourists. It's good for making money, but it strikes me as a bit immoral."

Yet Lenin, who died more than eight decades ago, is a potent symbol for older Russians. Some associate him with equality, social benefits and job security. To others, he symbolizes repression, terror and dictatorship. After all, Lenin's tomb, upon which generations of Communist leaders stood to review military parades, was a trademark of the Soviet era.

Now a fresh wave of pressure is building for Russia to make a decisive psychological break with its past by burying the revolutionary who so drastically influenced the 20th century. But authorities know it isn't that easy to put Lenin six feet under. Even former President Boris N. Yeltsin at the height of his post-Soviet powers succeeded only in banishing the goose-stepping guards in front of the dark red stone mausoleum.

Ruling party lawmaker Andrei Isayev, along with many others who want the body and mausoleum gone from the square, says the continued honor paid to Lenin is undercutting Russia's efforts to modernize and democratize.

"I belong to the group that believes the damage done by Lenin to our country and our society is immeasurably greater than any good he may have done," Isayev said. "He is completely out of sync with the reality of today's Russia."

Isayev predicted that in time Lenin would be removed from the square. "The right moment has to be chosen," he added. "This has to be done at a time when society embraces this with maximum calm."

Polls show that Russians are gradually moving toward the idea that Lenin should be buried. A survey late last year by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that 52 percent of respondents favored burying Lenin, up from 43 percent in 1999, whereas 22 percent said he should stay in the mausoleum.

Displayed formally in a suit and tie, the body is so perfect and yet unreal that some visitors suspect it really is a wax figure, but those involved in its upkeep say there is nothing artificial about it.

The body has been preserved using a secret chemical solution and sophisticated equipment to control temperature and humidity inside the sealed coffin, said Yuri Denisov-Nikolsky, deputy director of the organization in charge of the body.

Contrary to visitors' impressions, cosmetics are not used, Denisov-Nikolsky said. "Using fiber optics, several dozen beams of light are projected onto Lenin's body," he said. "These lights have filters that create the illusion of a particular color of the skin. So it's with the help of these technological methods that we are able to achieve a skin color that more or less resembles that of a human being."

Those battling on both sides of the burial debate accept the body as real.

Latest to jump into the fray is the Institute of Russian History, part of the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences, which issued a statement this month condemning Lenin and his successor, Josef Stalin, saying they bore the "main personal responsibility" for decades of Communist repression and terror.

Russia can progress on the path of democratic development, it said, only by rejecting Communist icons Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin and Stalin, whom it described as symbols of "Red Terror and the export of socialist revolutions." The history institute called for the mausoleum to be torn down and for Lenin's body to be given to the Communist Party to do with it as it pleases.

"If a mausoleum with Hitler's remains existed in Berlin, wouldn't that intimidate other countries and peoples? Or would it be considered acceptable?" said Vladimir Lavrov, the acting director of the institute.

Politicians hoping to burnish Russia's democratic credentials have tried to get Lenin's body out of the square since 1989, when Yuri Karyakin, a former dissident elected to a new Soviet parliament, shocked his colleagues by proposing such action.

The current wave of efforts to get Lenin out of the square began in September, when Georgy Poltavchenko, a senior aide to President Vladimir V. Putin, called for the body to be buried and for the remains of all those interred along the Kremlin wall to be moved.

"Many people have wreaked havoc in our country, but only a few of them were held accountable for these troubles when they were alive," he said. "It seems to me that it is not very fair that those who initiated these troubles are located by the Kremlin, at the very center of the state."

During his 8 1/2 years as president, Yeltsin repeatedly called for Lenin to be buried. But, concerned about widespread opposition, he never used his power to simply do it.

At a 2001 news conference, Putin expressed caution on the issue, saying it would be a mistake to move Lenin immediately but implying that he might eventually back the idea.

But in his next breath, Putin predicted that as time passed, public attitudes toward Lenin would change.

David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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