Wild fires still raged around Moscow in mid-August and the smoke clouds above Red Square hung heavily over the brown marble block that sits below the ominous red walls of the Kremlin. This is the final resting place of the leader of the October revolution, the event that changed the world in 1917. Here lies Vladimir Ilyich Lenin looking as fresh as a daisy.
Lenin died in 1924 but his body has been kept intact ever since and on display in the polished Red Square crypt. The guide books tell us that his brain has been sliced into thousands of pieces and is preserved for scientific purposes. Was it perhaps to decode and bottle the revolutionary spirit? The rest of him is kept from deteriorating by various treatments and is, in effect, mummified.
Despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, visitors by the thousands flock to the revolutionary’s grave. There’s no charge to enter what has become a popular tourist attraction. The only price tag is a long wait and in this case a smoke-clogged one as well as $2 to store your bags. No cameras or bags are allowed inside this most solemn of Russian mausoleums kept pristine in reverence to the man who is arguably the greatest political activist of the 20th century.
Tourists follow the guards’ gruff orders and line up neatly outside the square if they want a glimpse of what’s inside that block of stone. Russians, notoriously bad at queuing, push their way through the long line. One old woman in a babushka shawl and waving a shopping bag above her head nonchalantly drags her grandson down the middle of a group of Asian tourists.
She is apparently anxious to pay her respects to the man who freed her people from the abuses and excesses of the country’s czars and czarinas throughout the centuries. She might even be among the increasing number of Russians said to be reviving their respect for Lenin’s replacement, Joseph Stalin. But it is doubtful that many in the growing line of tourists would know much about Comrade Lenin or share that respectful attitude toward ‘Uncle Joe’. They are mostly there so they can tell their friends back home that they were.
Younger Russians are probably even less interested. They want to hang out across the square at GUM, the giant shopping mall housed in a classic old building. Sitting opposite the Kremlin, with its golden-domed cathedrals and its red-starred spires, GUM is the epitome of what Lenin built a revolution to end. Yet teenagers ogle Gucci, Christian Dior and other internationally known brands of clothing, jewellery, perfume and other luxuries most of which they probably can’t afford.
Outside the square the trinket kiosks were lined up side by side, offering Russian fur hats, flags, and more types of honey than seemed possible. Old soldiers sat beside table cloths laden with Soviet-era pins and hammer and sickle badges for sale. Very bad “best in Moscow” hotdogs could be had with a draft beer for 100 roubles (about $3.50).
As I waited my turn to view Lenin, some tourists wore the face masks that had become familiar on front pages and home pages around the world as news media reported on the mounting death toll caused by wild fires outside the capital and the resulting clouds of smoke within it. But as the smoke began to lift slightly yet another couple posed maskless for wedding shots, giving them an original memory of this hot and deadly summer.
Off in the distance St. Basil’s Cathedral emerged from the smoke like a like a giant candy castle out of children’s story by 18th-century writer Alexandra Pushkin. Napoleon ordered the church destroyed during his brief victory in 1812 but it didn’t happen and the colourful onion domes continue to be a symbol of the endurance of the Russian people… and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Lenin would have agreed with Marx’s famous line about religion being the opiate of the masses, but the masses today seem everywhere to be worshipping their god in great cathedrals like St. Basil’s. They are also worshipping the almighty rouble (about 30 roubles to the U.S. dollar); the average wage rose about six per cent in 2009 and everyone seemed to be selling something from fruit and vegetables to matryoshka dolls.
With a history of serfdom, poverty, suffering and starvation that is almost beyond western comprehension, Russians might be forgiven for their religious indulgences. Lenin may have set them free almost 100 years ago, but for better or worse another Vladimir, current prime minister Vladimir Putin, has set them on the road to capitalism and rampant consumerism.
It was in August that the Second World War ended, though the horrors of the Nazi invasion of Russia still resonate in the memories of older Russians. It was also in August that Stalin finally managed to exterminate his arch rival Leon Trotsky by having him assassinated at his Mexico City home.
“Shsssh!” one of six guards shushed us as we entered the basement grave. Another guard motioned us to move quickly. There would be no stopping for long here in the presence of past greatness.
“Can you believe they pickled him like that?” said an American woman. “They say there might even be several of him in that same mummy state and they just reuse them as needed.”
“I heard that too,” said her friend. “Can you imagine keeping someone like that in moth balls all these years later?”
As I looked down at Lenin, he almost seemed to be smiling. True, things hadn’t gone quite as he had planned, but we were still talking about it… and him. He still had a better reputation than Stalin who is said to have starved or butchered Russians by the million. There are also who would argue that, given the chance, Trotsky would have done some serious damage as well.
“I guess it is pretty hard to imagine someone like Nixon or Reagan entombed like this and revered by millions every year,” I say after we resurface. “And would we even contemplate slicing and saving the brain of, say, George W. Bush?” The Americans giggled and we let it pass without further comment.
Another wedding party was posing in front of St. Basil’s when we re-entered the square. A young couple necked against the Kremlin wall. A flock of tourists headed for GUM to pump more currency into the oil-rich Russian economy. A beggar woman was on her knees praying with a wooden plate nearby. Behind her a man dressed in an army uniform held out a tin cup. A priest counselled a young man at the entrance to a cute little church. Soldiers in blue marched down a back street toward Red Square.
The fires would soon be slowed by a welcome summer rain storm and the extraordinary Moscow heat (30-35 degrees Celsius at times) would die down for a day. But by then we were off to St. Petersburg, the celebrated old capital and the stormy starting point of Lenin’s revolution.
Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer and historian. He visited Russia in August 2010.