Burying Lenin

The revolution entombed

The Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow was first designed by the architect Aleksei Shchusev in 1924. Even outside of Russia, its image is fairly familiar: some kind of cross between geometric modernism and a primeval ziggurat. What is seldom remembered today, however, is that Shchusev had to design and redesign the building more than once. Of course, the public display of Ulianov’s corpse was originally intended to only last a few weeks.

An exceptionally cold winter (Lenin died in January) helped preserve the Bolshevik leader’s remains longer than expected. Despite Lenin’s explicit request that his body be cremated and buried next to that of his mother, the new Soviet administration began making more permanent arrangements.

Soviet architect Aleksei Shchusev

Vladimir Paperny offered a fairly memorable explanation for this fact in his book Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin. He suggested that a transition was then underway between the two dominant cultural attitudes that define Russian-Soviet history:

Culture One [Bolshevik, avant-garde culture] wanted to burn its limbs [Shklovskii (1919)], wash memory from its soul, kill its old [Maiakovskii (1915)], and eat its children — all this as an attempt to free itself from the ballast that was interfering with its surge into the future. In Culture Two [Stalinist, realist culture], the future was postponed indefinitely. The future became even more beautiful and desirable [the architect Krasin (1937)], and the movement forward was even more joyous [state prosecutor Vyshinskii (1938)], but there did not seem to be an end in sight to that movement — the movement had become an end in itself.

[Stalinism’s] movement “forward, ever forward” changed nothing: The…goal was still the same; therefore, there was no way to determine whether this was movement or rest…Movement in Culture Two became tantamount to immobility, and the future to eternity…The history of the building of the Lenin Mausoleum is a good example of how culture’s idea of the longevity…changed. In Culture One, the idea of a mausoleum evoked a temporary structure, one that was needed “in order to grant all those who wish to, and who cannot come to Moscow for the day of the funeral, a chance to bid farewell to their beloved leader.” Culture Two had no intention of bidding farewell to the beloved leader. The temporary wooden mausoleum erected in 1924 was replaced first by a more solid wooden structure [six months later], and then, in 1930, by one of stone built to last.

Clearly, the different materials implemented in the construction of each version reflect different anticipated durations. The first was to be fleeting, the second durable, the third eternal. While the second is still, like the first, only made of wood, its form already appealed to eternity. Planks and crossbeams combined into regular geometric slabs, beyond real space and time. The upper half meanwhile ascends in pyramidal fashion, evoking that same mute permanence one feels before the ancient pharaohs’ tombs.

Lenin’s memory still haunts today’s Left. Just as the post-1991 Restoration in Moscow could not bring itself to finally lay his corpse to rest, neither can the contemporary Left bring itself to discard the legacy of October 1917. Even in rejecting Lenin or Leninism — whatever this might be thought to entail, be it democratic centralism, vanguardism, totalitarianism — it is forced to confront such associations. This is to say nothing of those who seek to take up Lenin’s mantle, with all the competing interpretations and conflicting points of emphasis. Continue reading