Inside a granite pyramid on Red Square, in front of the Kremlin wall, lies the mummy of a short bald man who died 90 years ago. Or so they say; although I’ve lived in Moscow for all of my 42 years, I’ve never been inside. Many people of my age went there as part of their induction into the Young Pioneer organisation, but thankfully I managed to avoid that ceremony, attended by thousands of 9-year-olds who were bussed in from schools across the city to take their 'oath of allegiance.' But I’ve never met a Muscovite who ever went there again.
Lenin’s mausoleum stands as a monument to the man’s irrelevance, a bizarre remnant of a bygone era. According to a poll conducted in April 2014, 61% of Russians want him buried – almost the same number as voted for Putin in the last election. But discussion on the issue is more dead than the corpse itself; Lenin’s legacy is nowhere on the political agenda in Russia. The fact that a bunch of super-rich ultra-nationalist capitalists still calls itself the Communist Party of Russia only underscores the deadness of the ideology he once preached.
However, statues of Lenin, equally irrelevant to the modern political agenda, continue to adorn squares in various industrial cities across the former USSR, providing useful material for travel guide writers like myself in places, which frankly have little else to boast of. But the toppling of Lenin statues across Ukraine has brought the ghost of the Bolshevik leader back on stage. Suddenly he is a potent idol again, possessing – as the desecraters seem to believe – a set of dark powers that can harden people against the statehood of Ukraine unless it is ritually dismantled, like a voodoo doll. This unprecedented campaign of demolition evokes the epoch of, well, Lenin – the man who wanted the symbols of the old regime annihilated and forgotten.
The infamous McLenin tshirt.
The toppling of Lenin statues across Ukraine has brought the ghost of the Bolshevik leader back on stage.
By and large, the West approves of these events, seeing them as Ukraine’s 1989 moment. But is it really? I personally took part in the demolition of Communist monuments in Moscow in 1991, but that was an anti-Communist revolution. Ukraine has been anything but Communist for the last 23 years. To me, what is happening now seems more like an act designed to summon Lenin’s spirit than to make it vanish.
Lenin and Putin
Although fully aware of the genocidal atrocities committed by Lenin and his henchmen during the Russian Civil War, I grew up believing that Lenin was a joke. In the 1980s he was one of the most popular comic figures in urban folklore. Naturally, most of the primary school jokes parodied sugary textbook stories about Lenin taking care of hungry orphaned children.
- Vladimir Ilyich, a delegation of fishermen is waiting for you.
- What have they brought?
- Some fish.
- How long have they taken to walk to Moscow?
- Two weeks.
- Give it all to the children!
In his great book about Stalin, Koba the Dread, Martin Amis asks why, despite the comparable scale of their atrocities, German Nazism is regarded as dreadful, while Soviet Communism comes across as laughable. The answer is simple – it lingered for much longer, grew frail and so ridiculous it seems to have been killed by laughter. Lenin statues are indeed a symbol of the sheer cretinism of the Soviet regime in its late years, when the vast majority of these often incongruous and cartoonish monuments were erected. It is thanks to this ridiculous cult that Lenin now appears utterly un-cool compared to other Communist icons – Trotsky, Mao, Che Guevara. Pop art turned these into modern icons, while Lenin became an object of constant ridicule; remember the McLenin’s t-shirts or Lenin the punk from the Leningrad Cowboys album cover.
Lenin now appears utterly un-cool compared to other Communist icons - Trotsky, Mao, Che Guevara.
Across the Kremlin wall from the mausoleum, another short bald man now occupies Russia’s highest office. He is very much alive and not a joke at all. Ideologically, the two men are worlds apart: Lenin was a revolutionary; Putin hates revolutions. As the crisis in Ukraine has unfolded, his fear of Orange revolutions has turned the Russian leader, once famous for his cynical pragmatism, into an unpredictable pariah threatening the world.
Lenin despised Russian nationalists, while Putin – especially in his latest re-incarnation – is a classic ultra-nationalist. Lenin openly wanted his country to be defeated in World War I and accepted funding from the enemy. In Putin’s Russia, such people are dubbed the ‘fifth column.’ Putin said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century; Lenin openly called for the destruction of the Russian Empire.
Lenin was never short of caustic epithets aimed at the likes of Putin and his ‘patriotic’ supporters: ‘nobody is to be blamed for being born a slave; but a slave who not only eschews a striving for freedom but justifies and eulogises his slavery (e.g. calls the throttling of Poland and Ukraine, etc. a “Defence of the Fatherland” of the Great Russians) – such a slave is a lickspittle and a boor, who arouses a legitimate feeling of indignation, contempt, and loathing.’ There are strong echoes of Lenin’s rhetoric in the language of modern Ukrainian propaganda, which depicts Russians as a people historically, or even genetically, prone to slavery.
All in all, Lenin statues are a lousy symbol of Russia’s colonial domination. In their time, Lenin’s Bolsheviks were the equivalent of today’s Jihadists – a bunch of people hailing from pretty much everywhere in Europe and beyond, united by the idea of destroying the current elites and building an egalitarian society where ethnicity and nationality have no meaning. Russians never chose the Bolsheviks, who suffered a miserable defeat in the parliamentary elections in late 1917, and were only able to gain control through sheer terror. Russia offered a greater resistance to Communism than any other nation in Europe – millions of White Russians died fighting the Reds. Equating Russia with the USSR is both inaccurate and immoral. The whole of Europe was involved in creating this Frankenstein’s monster.
The Mafia state
But Putin is hardly a classic imperialist either. Even when he invades other countries, it is a very different empire that he is defending or expanding; the huge business empire he has built up over the years with a close-knit group of cronies who appeared out of nowhere and amassed huge fortunes during his presidential terms. These people keep their money in London and Zurich; send their children to private schools in Britain, and buy their wives and lovers mansions on the Côte d’Azur. Porsche showrooms and Louis Vuitton shops, not Lenin statues, are the real symbols of their rule.
Putin’s Russia resembles a South American slum presided over by a vicious but capable gang boss.
Putin’s Russia resembles a South American slum presided over by a vicious but capable gang boss. The system is clearly neither just nor democratic, but the ruler provides a level of safety and standard of living which people never hoped to achieve. Ideologically, anything goes if it ensures control; from austere Orthodox dogma to an apologia for Stalin's dictatorial rule. The key thing, though, is to be ‘one of us’ and not ‘one of them,’ no matter what you believe in.
The Mafia state is the predominant form of rule in virtually all the former Soviet countries, most prominently Ukraine, which is listed even below Russia on most transparency and corruption ratings. When Kyiv revolted against President Yanukovych, a classic Mafia state ruler, Putin intervened because the deposed Ukrainian leader was ‘one of us’ and because a European Ukraine would essentially become an alternative Russia – a place where, freed from Mafia rule, Russian-speakers could enjoy more political and economic freedoms than in Russia proper.
Protesters topple the last statue of Lenin in Kyiv. Photo: Vitalii Lazebnyk via demotix
Putin’s strategic goal is to maintain a level of destabilisation in Ukraine that will render such a prospect unfeasible. War is one way of achieving this. Encouraging radicalism and anti-Russian xenophobia, which puts off potential Ukraine sympathisers inside Russia, is certainly another. Anything that distracts Ukrainians from the real agenda of mobilising and uniting the nation against Russian aggression, or from conducting liberal economic and institutional reforms, is welcomed.
Toppling statues without canvassing public opinion, is a quintessentially Bolshevik act. In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, Lenin was brought down by a few hundred ‘ultra’ football hooligans, but without the rest of the million-strong population being asked. Ironically, in Lenin’s time, Kharkiv was the centre of a Ukrainian national revival, which was brutally ended by Stalin.
In a grotesque face-saving move, the governor of the Kharkiv Region made a post factum claim that it had been done on his orders, but very clearly the appearance of Kharkiv’s main square, the largest in Europe and featuring Unesco-protected early Soviet architecture, was altered without any semblance of public discussion. Knowing the city’s population, one can confidently assume that the proponents of demolition would have failed miserably in any referendum on the issue.
Kharkiv’s mayor, who represents the previous regime, has already pledged to restore the monument. Given Russia’s strong influence on the city’s politics, this issue will remain divisive and distractive for years, if not decades. Lenin the statue might be gone, but Lenin the political symbol is suddenly alive and kicking once more.