Lenin’s tomb

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The cult of Lenin

Boris Groys
The Total Artwork
of Stalinism

The Lenin cult was very significant both in the political legitimization of Stalin and in the evolution of socialist realism, since even before Stalin came to power Lenin had been proclaimed the model of the “new man,” “the most human of all human beings.” Maiakovskii’s slogan “Lenin is more alive than the living” adorning the streets of Soviet cities does not contradict the cult of Lenin’s mummy in the mausoleum (perhaps one of the most mysterious in the history of world religion). Although I shall not attempt an exhaustive description of the cult here, it does deserve a few words. It has undeniably exerted a hidden formative influence on all subsequent Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet culture, if for no other reason than the central position it occupies in the invisible Soviet sacred hierarchy. Twice a year, “the entire Soviet land” submits its “report” in parades and demonstrations that pass by the mausoleum, and the leaders who accept this report stand on the roof of the structure, symbolically basing their power on the mummy of Lenin concealed within.

The construction of the mausoleum on Red Square and the founding of the Lenin cult were vigorously opposed by traditional Marxists and the representatives of left art [LEF]. The former spoke of “Asiatic barbarism” and “savage customs unworthy of Marxists. ” LEF also reacted to the first temporary variant of the mausoleum, which was later slightly simplified, describing it as “a verbatim translation from the ancient Persian” that resembled the grave of King Cyrus near Mugraba. Such criticism today, of course, is no longer possible — not only because the mausoleum was long ago pronounced “sacred to all Soviet citizens, ” but also because everyone got used to it long ago.

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The LEF critics, who perceived in Lenin’s mausoleum only an analogy with ancient Asian tombs, were as usual blind to the originality of the new Stalinist culture taking shape before their very eyes. The mummies of the pharaohs and other ancient rulers were walled up in pyramids and concealed from mortals — opening such graves was considered sacrilege. Lenin, in contrast, is on public display as a work of art, and his mausoleum, as is evident from the long lines that have formed before it every day for decades, is without a doubt the most frequented museum in the Soviet Union. If the “militant atheists” of the time exhumed the relics of saints and exhibited them in museum-like displays as antireligious propaganda, Lenin was from the outset simultaneously buried and displayed. The Lenin mausoleum is a synthesis between a pyramid and a museum that exhibits Lenin’s body, the mortal husk he shed to become the personification of the building of socialism, “inspiring the Soviet people to heroic deeds.”

Another significant fact is that whereas mummies are traditionally dressed in garments marking the transition of the mortal into the other world, Lenin’s external appearance has been “realistically” reconstructed down to the last detail as he was “in life. ” This is often done at funerals today before the body is consigned to the grave, which is further evidence of the universal character of the religiosity embodied in the mausoleum. It might be said that if earlier the body of the deceased was honored because of its absolute otherness, because it belonged to a world that was an alternative to the earthly one and — as in Judaism and Christianity — because it offered the hope of resurrection, Lenin’s body is revered precisely because the deceased has irrevocably parted from it. In other words, it no longer corresponds to any spiritual reality. In this sense, Lenin’s body is venerated and displayed as evidence of the fact that he has forever departed from the world, as a testimony that he has abandoned this embodiment of his without a trace and that therefore his spirit or “cause” is available for incarnation in subsequent Soviet leaders. Lenin’s corpse on display, which has not been and cannot be transfigured but remains “as it might have appeared on the day of his death,” is meant to offer eternal proof that he really and irrevocably died and will not be resurrected, and that the only appeal that can be made to him is through the heirs who now stand upon his tomb. In this sense the removal of Stalin’s body from the mausoleum and its burial indicate that the culture is unable to recognize the finality of his death and to free his spirit for further incarnations (it is no coincidence that Evtushenko’s poem “The Heirs of Stalin, ” written on the occasion of the removal, expresses apprehension that Stalin’s work will be continued).

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A question on Soviet life and morality

Leon Trotsky
“Is Soviet Russia fit to
recognize?” in Liberty

January 14, 1933

 Is it true that the Bolshevist state, while hostile to religion, nevertheless capitalizes on the prejudices of the ignorant masses? For instance, the Russians do not consider any saint truly acceptable to heaven unless his body defies decomposition. Is that the reason why the Bolshevists artificially preserve the mummy of Lenin?

Leon Trotsky: No; this is a wholly incorrect interpretation, dictated by prejudice and hostility. I can make this statement all the more freely because from the very beginning I have been a determined opponent of the embalming, mausoleum, and the rest, as was also Lenin’s widow, N.K. Krupskaia. I have no doubt whatever that if Lenin on his sickbed had thought for a moment that they would treat his corpse like that of a pharaoh, he would have appealed in advance, with indignation, to the party. I brought this objection forward as my main argument. The body of Lenin must not be used against the spirit of Lenin.

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I also pointed to the fact that the “incorruptibility” of the embalmed corpse of Lenin might nourish religious superstitions. Krasin, who defended and apparently initiated the idea of the embalming, objected:

On the contrary, what was a matter of miracle with the priests will become a matter of technology in our hands. Millions of people will have an idea of how the man looked who brought such great changes into the life of our country. With the help of science, we will satisfy this justifiable interest of the masses and at the same time explain to them the mystery of incorruptibility.

Undeniably the erection of the mausoleum had a political aim: to strengthen the authority of the disciples eternally through the authority of the teacher. Still, there is no ground to see in this a capitalization of religious superstition. The mausoleum visitors are told that all credit for the preservation of the body against decomposition is due to chemistry.

One thought on “Lenin’s tomb

  1. What? No mention of the architect?
    Aleksey Shchusev had an amazing career—and this was perhaps his finest work. Whatever one may think of the entombed, this is a Deco masterpiece.
    I’ve been wanting to find out more about Shchusev, but most all books I’ve seen referenced are in Russian. Anybody know any books/papers on him in English??
    Seth Joseph Weine

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