Thursday, October 06, 2005

What to do with Comrade Lenin?

Okay, I'm much more of a capitalist than that last post would suggest, whatever my admiration for Socrates, but let's turn here to one of the giants of the last century, V.I. Lenin, revolutionary anti-capitalist and all-around nasty Bolshevik. Apparently, no one's quite sure what to do with him -- or, rather, no one's quite sure what to do with his body, which continues to lie in state long after his regime collapsed and his ideology fell into disrepute -- happily so, in both cases. Here's what's going on:

For eight decades he has been lying in state on public display, a cadaver in a succession of dark suits, encased in a glass box beside a walkway in the basement of his granite mausoleum. Many who revere him say he is at peace, the leader in repose beneath the lights. Others think he just looks macabre.

Time has been unkind to Lenin, whose remains here in Red Square are said to sprout occasional fungi, and whose ideology and party long ago fell to ruins. Now the inevitable question has returned. Should his body be moved?

Revisiting a proposal that thwarted Boris N. Yeltsin, who faced down tanks but in his time as president could not persuade Russians to remove the Soviet Union's founder from his place of honor, a senior aide to President Vladimir V. Putin raised the matter last week, saying it was time to bury the man.

"Our country has been shaken by strife, but only a few people were held accountable for that in our lifetime," said the aide, Georgi Poltavchenko. "I do not think it is fair that those who initiated the strife remain in the center of our state near the Kremlin."

In the unending debate about what exactly the new Russia is, the subject of Lenin resembles a Rorschach inkblot test. People project their views of their state onto him and see what they wish. And so as Mr. Poltavchenko's suggestion has ignited fresh public sparring over Lenin's place, both in history and in the grave, the dispute has been implicitly bizarre and a window into the state of civil society here.

Ah, the twist and turns and tensions of Russian history. Russia always seems to be wrestling with its past even as its past lives on in the present and threatens its future. It's hardly for me -- a non-Russian and an ardent opponent of everything Lenin stood for -- to say, but I wonder if it wouldn't be best to put Lenin to rest for good.

Best for Russia, that is.

Russia must surely continue to look to and learn from its past, but how can it renew itself, how can it move forward, when its past is so present? Lenin himself understood that a new regime needs to establish its own identity with its own symbols and mythologies. It would only be appropriate for him to be buried accordingly.

Remember, but move on: Let Lenin live on in the history books, not on display in Red Square.

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