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Russians undecided on what should happen to Lenin remains

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

When Russia’s communist members of parliament urged followers last summer to defend the mausoleum housing the body of Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924), it touched off the latest of many rows to engulf this controversial Moscow landmark.

Since Soviet rule collapsed, no communist emblem has been more argued over than the tinted-marble Red Square edifice, where the ghoulish remains of the Bolshevik revolution’s leader have been viewed by millions for over eight decades.

Pressure is strong to have Lenin moved.

“Of course, many people don’t really care whether he stays or not,” explained Sergei Filatov, a Russian religious sociologist. “Yet his presence has symbolic importance for democrats, who want him out, and for communists who say he must stay.”

Many believe communist rule will finally be laid to rest only when its mastermind is buried with it.

“The Catholic church has no official position,” western Russia’s vicar-general, Fr. Antoni Hej, told NCR.

“For communists who hold the parliamentary majority, Lenin is still the leader -- since his mausoleum is their temple, it’s obvious they’ll keep on defending it. But there are plenty of other Russians who believe today’s problems all arise from the fact that he still isn’t buried.”

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, even non-communists argued pragmatically in favor of keeping Lenin’s body in place, believing it was risky to remove the symbolic mainstays of the Soviet state too quickly.

However, Russia’s still-entrenched communists had deeper ideological reasons for defending the mausoleum.

In 1997, they forced through a Duma resolution forbidding the Red Square’s “architectural reconstruction.” In 1998, the head of Russia’s Communist Youth League, Igor Maliarov, even called for Lenin’s body to be cloned.

Despite this, the great helmsman faces tough opposition.

Before his Dec. 31, 1999, resignation, President Boris Yeltsin proposed burying Lenin alongside his mother, Maria Alexandrovna, in St. Petersburg’s Volvovsky Cemetery, and even hinted at a national referendum.

He also urged the removal of other communist figureheads buried in the nearby Kremlin Wall, including Soviet bosses Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, as well as U.S. journalist John Reed and Lenin’s lover Inessa Armand.

Press reports said plans were laid two years ago to have Lenin and the murdered Tsar Nicholas II interred in parallel St. Petersburg ceremonies as a mark of national reconciliation.

In the end, only Nicholas and his family were consigned to dust in the city’s Petropavlovsk Cathedral.

The head of Russia’s dominant Orthodox church also recommended Lenin’s burial last May, in the first such statement by a church leader.

“It’s immoral that rock concerts are taking place in Red Square next to a cemetery,” Patriarch Alexei II said during a procession from the Kremlin’s Virgin Mary Basilica. “Red Square is a beautiful place which was turned into a cemetery for revolutionary activists. I hope a pantheon can be set up instead or some other burial place for their remains.”

Lenin was embalmed two months after his death on Jan. 21, 1924, against the wishes of his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who outlived him by 15 years.

The Red Square mausoleum was opened the following August by an Immortalization Commission and replaced by the present building in 1930, from where Soviet leaders traditionally reviewed parades.

However, many Russians view the gray-and-black mausoleum as a cursed place.

Church leaders have traditionally urged visitors to pray before entering the building in recognition of the sufferings unleashed by Lenin’s theories, which historians say led to the deaths of up to 35 million people in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Jesuit Fr. Stanislaw Opiela, who became secretary of Russia’s newly formed Catholic Bishops’ Conference a year ago, is cautious about talk of curses.

“Evil spirits exist everywhere, so one shouldn’t attach importance to this,” the 61-year-old Polish priest said.

“Personally, I see no reason to move him, since he’s a part of Russian history. Though the mausoleum is important for communists as a place of pilgrimage, I don’t think it has great significance for most other people.”

Pressure looks certain to continue.

In his May 1999 speech, Patriarch Alexei urged politicians to tackle the issue carefully, “so as not to divide society at such a sensitive time.”

However, a communist Duma deputy, Yuri Nikiforenko, accused Yeltsin’s Kremlin recently of making new plans to have the body removed by underground tunnel in the dead of night.

In a Dec. 31, 1999, poll to identify the century’s greatest Russians, readers of the Izvestiya daily placed Lenin second behind former human rights dissident Andrei Sakharov and just ahead of writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Russia’s latest strongman, acting President Vladimir Putin, still hasn’t pronounced on Red Square’s famous horizontal inhabitant. Filatov doubts he’ll be in a hurry to do so.

“Putin is too busy trying to gather all parties, communists included, into one block for this March’s presidential election. He isn’t following Yeltsin’s confrontational politics,” Filatov told NCR.

“Meanwhile, even Patriarch Aleksi is now watching his words carefully. He’s merely said he hopes Lenin will be taken away sometime, when it won’t cause social tension.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000