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Debate Over Lenin's Place of Rest Lives On

Most Russians say that it's time to bury the long-dead Soviet leader, polls show. But others think he still warrants a display at the Kremlin.

April 30, 2006|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Nikita Muchnik, a student who sells cellphones 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 already 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," Muchnik, 18, said. "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 still 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 an icon 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 dramatically influenced the 20th century. But authorities know it won't be 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% of respondents favored burial, up from 43% in 1999, whereas 22% said Lenin should stay in the mausoleum.

Vladimir Panko, a security guard, counts himself among that minority. He recently joined the line of visitors that winds past somber guards in a quasi-religious atmosphere, down flights of stairs to the underground tomb where Lenin rests in spotlighted splendor. The guards hush up anyone who speaks and hurry along those who linger more than a few seconds to gaze at the spectacle.

"In the past, schools used to teach us to think Lenin's way. There were the ideals of socialism. Now there are no ideals like that. These days, people just think about earning money," Panko, 41, said. "People sense the direction the authorities are going in, but I don't think they'll manage to bury him in the near future.

"People are against it, especially in the provinces. It's our history. I believe he should be left there."

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 VILAR Scientific Research Center, 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 explained. "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, the statement 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 pleased.

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