09 November 2017
Lenin’s Remains Remain
It’s not easy to bury the spirit of 1917.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Last week the government of Madagascar urged its citizens to stop dancing with corpses. The health ministry believes that the annual festival of Famadihana (“the turning of the bones”, in which the remains of dead relatives are dug up and paraded through the streets) is responsible for the regular outbreaks of plague on the island. A particularly severe outbreak is currently sweeping the capital Antananarivo. This time it isn’t the usual bubonic plague (spread by rats), but the even more deadly pneumonic plague (passed directly and thus rapidly from human to human). 124 deaths and 1297 cases have been reported since it began three months ago. An epidemic looms, but the government hopes that it will be avoided if the dead are buried and remain buried.
The Madagascan government, however, isn’t the only one troubled by problematic corpses which it fears are stopping the troubles of the past from remaining in the past but keeping them alive in the present to threaten the future.
Lenin’s embalmed body has been on display in a glass sarcophagus in a mausoleum on Red Square since his death in 1924, but last week the Kremlin considered a request that the Bolshevik leader’s corpse should be buried once and for all. The powers currently ruling Russia would like to put the country’s revolutionary past behind them, and sticking Lenin below ground at last – out of sight and out of mind – would be a good way of going about it.
The suggestion that Lenin should be interred has been made regularly since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, but this year it was particularly significant, coinciding as it did with preparations for this week’s centenary of the Russian revolution. Like much else this week, it shone a spotlight on the current regime’s ambivalence towards that particular episode in Russia’s history. Official events have been subdued; the centenary of the popular uprising which began the revolution has been marked but not exactly celebrated. President Putin expressed the wish that this week will “close the chapter on the dramatic events that divided our country and nation, and that it will become a symbol of overcoming this schism.” He expressed an admirable distaste for the destructions and divisions of violent revolution, and a sensible preference for peaceful and constructive evolution. But one could almost imagine the regime saying to the gathered crowds “Move along now. Nothing much to see here. Move along. Keep moving.”
Predictably enough, there was a military parade in Red Square, but even that was confusing. The parading soldiers in the photo published in The Times weren’t wearing contemporary uniforms – of course they weren’t, they were re-enacting history – but neither were they dressed for the revolutionary era. They were wearing World War II uniforms. They were in fact re-enacting not a moment from 1917, but a moment from 1941 when Russian soldiers marched in Red Square to honour the Revolution before they went off to fight Nazi Germany. A rather indirect approach. It was almost as if the organisers of last week’s parade wanted to hide the events of 1917 behind the more straightforward, unproblematic, patriotic and nationalistic events of 1941.
Why this ambivalence? President Putin presents himself as a man of the people, as the people’s leader, and indeed his approval ratings stand at over 80%; but the idea of popular uprisings and violent revolutions can have little appeal to a man whose critics say is a new Tsar, all powerful and immensely wealthy, holding court to a new elite of oligarchs as untouchable as the aristocrats of imperial, pre-revolutionary Russia. The Orthodox Church and the memory of the royal family have been rehabilitated – indeed the Romanovs have been canonised and are now saints. It’s easy to believe that the events of 1917 might keep the Russian establishment and the inhabitants of the Kremlin awake at night or at least give them nightmares when they’re asleep.
Putin’s opponents are the ones calling for popular protests and demonstrations to force him out of power and bring down his regime. One opposition movement, Artpodgotovka, was proscribed as an extremist group by a Russian court last week; a number of its members, suspected of planning a firebomb attack on government buildings, were arrested by the security services, and hundreds of people were arrested a few days later during an unauthorised demonstration near the Kremlin organised by the group. In the same week, opposition leader Alexander Navalny announced that he is suing President Putin over the Kremlin’s refusal to permit rallies by his supporters. Popular protests and demonstrations against President Putin and in favour of Navalny have indeed been suppressed.
Little wonder, then, that the powers that be in Moscow are worried about the bacilli of popular uprising and violent revolution which Lenin introduced into the country a hundred years ago and which his unburied body might still be keeping alive, just as the powers that be in Madagascar are worried about the plague bacilli which unburied bodies are reintroducing from the past to infect the present and poison the future.
As it happened, the recent request that Lenin be buried was denied: the Communist lobby, which insists that he remain above ground, is still invaluable to President Putin. But the day is sure to come (perhaps after the elections next March?) when the regime will feel sufficiently secure to put Lenin’s mouldering remains underground.
And that will leave the glass sarcophagus and the mausoleum vacant, waiting maybe for its next occupant, perhaps to be eventually occupied by a body already much displayed and well-known around the world, buff and trim from a lifetime’s devotion to martial arts, ice-hockey, fishing and horse-riding, the embalmer’s art now taking over from physical activity to preserve those famous biceps and pectorals for all eternity?
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